Parenting Styles and Childhood Social Development

By Dr. Matthew Bennett; Copyright 1997

The permanent impact that parents have upon the children they rear is one of the most pressing issues within developmental psychology. Common sense, and the most immediately observable evidence, suggest that the choices adults make as parents shape the lives of their children forever. Yet beyond this obvious certainty, describing the course and intensity of these profoundly important vectors of influence is a prodigious task involving complex methods of observation and statistical analysis.

For the past quarter-century, psychological literature concerned with parenting styles and their effects on child development has shown great consistency in its theoretical underpinnings; Baumrind’s typology, as modified since 1966, remains as a secure basis for a broad variety of research into the mysteries of the parent-child world. However, despite this theoretical consistency, current literature related to parenting styles covers a broad range of research questions and varies in its usage of “orthodox” typology theory. Although there is some work in the field with the aim of validating and replicating parent style theoretical constructs and their direct measurement, most of the current research uses typology theory as an instrument for investigating specific developmental issues across the early life span. The result has been a rather haphazard array of well-lit corners in what is still to a great extent a darkened room. Most research has accumulated at the earliest and latest extremes of childhood and young adulthood: there is a wealth of information regarding parenting style influence during infancy and also during adolescence (including, of course, the ubiquitous college student), although the relative intensity of parental influence has been shown to decrease starting between 8 and 11 years of age, at which point peers, siblings, and other family members begin to assume roles of greater importance to the young person (Bowers, Smith, & Binney, 1994). The result has been a rather spotty, problem-specific range of investigation for school aged pre-adolescents during the last five years. However, it is possible to review this range methodically by considering the general avenues of inquiry which have been followed during this time period.For many decades, the evidence accumulated within developmental psychology was largely anecdotal, concerning itself with discrete observations concerning the goals that adults set for themselves as parents on one hand and the methods employed in reaching those goals on the other. Diana Baumrind’s (1966) model of parenting served to synthesize these two elements in the creation of a typology which effectively described the parameters of the parent’s field of possible interactions with their children. An empirically valid model of parenting styles allowed research to continue in the investigation of the relative effects of different styles: a parenting style designated as authoritative was found to correlate well with successful socialization of children. The paradigm shift marked by Baumrind’s work included a new realization of the bidirectionality of the child-parent relationship: children themselves can contribute to their own development through their relative influence on their parents (Darling & Steinberg, 1993). Lewis (1981) challenged Baumrind’s interpretations of exactly how the authoritative style encourages effective socialization in children, emphasizing a continued scientific ignorance of the specific pathways of even well-established parenting styles. Maccoby and Martin (1983) added a new dimension to Baumrind’s model by describing dimensions of responsiveness and demandingness as tangible ways in which parenting styles vary in their actual manifestation. These two dimensions are sometimes termed differently, often referred to as warmth and control, but remain as a useful way of understanding the dynamics of parent-child influence.
Darling and Steinberg (1993) describe a theoretical dichotomy in current research between researchers focusing on the developmental consequences of specific parenting behaviors and those focusing on parenting style as a more general, global phenomenon. Although this analysis of the recent research scene indeed accounts for much of the current activity, it is possible to enumerate more specific approaches appearing in psychological journals of the past five years or so, with special emphasis in relating parenting styles to child and adolescent behavior in the peer milieu. These approaches include research which is concerned with the psychobehavioral antecedents to adult behavior constituting particular parenting styles, research which is designed to investigate particular psychological problems in terms of parenting style, research which attempts to correlate specific parenting styles with specific child developmental outcomes, research which includes consideration of parenting styles among other factors such as attachment style , and research which correlates parenting style with specific instances of psychopathy or maladaptive behavior. Of course, these prescriptions involve some overlap of research intent, yet they may serve as a general framework for a brief analysis of activity in the field.

Research concerned with psychobehavioral antecedents to parenting styles

Maccoby and Martin (1983) effected a significant transformation of Baumrind’s typology by introducing a specific value dimension which is theorized to result in the global phenomenon known as parenting styles. Often referred to as parental warmth and control, these variables represent one relatively successful attempt to “tease apart” the specific ingredients which make up the various parenting styles. Studies of such variables are concerned with establishing and measuring the elemental psychological factors present in the parent which may contribute to global parenting style and thus influence child development. A good example of this kind of research is presented by Miller et al (1993), who investigated various psychological and behavioral characteristics in the parents of 3-year-olds, with a follow-up replication study involving 9- to 13-year-olds. These researchers attempted to establish correlations among parental depression, marital quality, global parenting style, and children’s “acting out” (externalizing) behavior. Instead of finding direct links, the group found correlational pathways between parental depression and externalizing behavior in the child which were mediated by intervening factors of positive marital affection and parental warmth. The study concludes that individual parent characteristics can affect child development through the parental styles which result from those characteristics, and that from this path model it can be deduced that dysfunction in the parent is clearly correlated with child dysfunction, specifically in terms of externalizing behavior such as aggression among peers, disobedience, delinquency, et cetera. Thus, it can be established that low positive affect between parents results in less warmth in the parent-child relationship, which in turn results in greater externalizing behavior in the child. Similar observations were made by Cowan, Cowan, & Kerig (1992), who found that individual and marital data obtained from parents during late pregnancy of the mother predicted authoritarian parenting (as well as marital warmth and conflict) ate age 3 of the child.

Another study including considerations of the antecedents of parenting style was published by Harralson and Lawler (1992). These investigators pursued the relationships among Type A characteristics in parents, parenting styles, and social competence in children. This study, as in Miller et al (1993) above, found parenting style to act as an interface between intrinsic characteristics of the parents (here, Type A behavior) and social problems in the child. Type A behavior in parents were found to result in parenting styles of high pressure and high control, which was itself correlated with impatient and aggressive behavior in 50 1st-6th grade children in social situations among peers. Parenting styles as associated with parent’s psychological adjustment and martial quality was found to correlate with children’s social competence in Cowan, Cowan, Heming, & Miller (1991) and in Heatherington and Clingempeel (1992). Olweus (1993) found that negativism and “weak temperament” in the father was associated with victim-prone behavior in peer social situations for the child….presumably through the medium of a parenting style marred by the father’s own dysfunctions.

Research investigating developmental issues in terms of parenting style

Another general research approach has been to illuminate problems associated with developmental psychology with the knowledge available from studies of parenting style typology. This arena of research has yielded a plethora of problem-specific studies of all kinds, and is made possible by the robustness of the theoretical constructs fundamental to typology. This avenue of inquiry has yielded research findings correlating parenting styles with phenomena as diverse as intercultural and interracial studies of self-concept (Mboya, 1995), adolescent suicide (Martin & Waite, 1994), and moral reasoning in children (Boyes & Allen, 1993).

Within the more narrowly defined area of childhood peer interactions, Bowers, Mith, & Binney (1994) have investigated the perennial problem of schoolyard bullies and the victims of bullies. From a sample of 20 bullies, 20 victims of bullies, and 20 bully/victims selected by peer nomination from three English middle schools, these researchers identified elements of family background in order to reveal predisposing factors to membership in one of the above groups. Distinct profiles on each group were yielded by the Family Relations Test, the Parenting Style Questionnaire, and the Family Systems Test: bully/victims showed a perceived inconsistent discipline/control behavior on the part of the parent coupled with lack of warmth. Bullies showed ambivalent feelings towards family members and a lack of familial cohesion, as well as an overriding concern for power within the family. Both bullies and bully/victims showed lack of paternal presence in their childhoods, whether the father was actually resident with the family or not. Habitual victims, on the other hand, showed an enmeshment with the family bordering on over-involvement as compared with the “normal” control group, who showed family cohesion without overdependence on parents, in the context of a warm, secure home environment.

Other studies have continued to investigate the parent style factor in many other developmental questions. In Parish & McCluskey (1992), self-concept in adolescents was found to correlate with perceived level of parental warmth, but not with level of restrictiveness (control). Steingberg et al (1994) investigated social competence in school contexts as a function of the four parenting styles, finding that while beneficial authoritative parenting serves to maintain high level of functioning in the adolescent, the harmful consequences of neglectful parenting styles tend to accumulate and worsen over time. Dishion (1990) showed that lack of parental discipline contributes to antisocial behavior in children. C. Patterson et al (1990) found that children rejected by their peers and who exhibited aggressive behavior reported unsatisfactory relationships with the father, and G. Patterson at al (1989) similarly attributed peer rejection and conduct disorders to poor parental discipline and monitoring.

Research correlating specific developmental problems with specific parenting styles

Another productive trend in recent research has been to determine the relationships between specific parenting styles and specific developmental outcomes in the child. Durbin et al (1993) surveyed over 3,000 9th-12th graders concerning their placement in peer groups and school and also concerning the parenting style of their caretaker(s). Those students raised under authoritative parenting styles were most usually associated with various peer-supported social groups such as “jocks,” “brains,” “populars,” etc.. Uninvolved (neglectful) styles were associated with peer groups who rejected adult social mores (“druggies” and “partyers”), and indulgent styles were found to encourage membership in “fun culture” groups. Hein and Lewko (1994) found that high performing science students aged 12-22 most likely experienced an authoritative upbringing typified by high levels of familial cohesion and interaction, and also high achievement motivation and encouragement. Bayer and Cegala (1992) examined trait verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness among peers in children from kindergarten to 6th grade, finding positive argumentativeness and negative aggressiveness associated with the authoritative style, and negative argumentativeness with positive aggressiveness with authoritarian style.

Research combining attachment security and parental styles

The connections among attachment security, parental style, and child developmental outcome has been shown to be complex and bi-directional. Attachment security, and the “internal working models” derived therefrom, is a field unto itself with a rich research tradition. It is not accurate to assert that a given parental style will engender a certain level of attachment in childhood and beyond; social contexts and even the child him- or herself have been shown to influence the parent and the parent’s behavior and parenting styles (see Rubin et al, 1990). Therefore many studies attempt to consider the effects of parenting style and attachment security side-by-side, without inferring causal connections between them.

One example of such a study is to be found in Booth et al (1994), who measured indexes of social adjustment among peers in middle childhood and correlated them with attachment security, parenting style, and environmental conditions. The study concluded that attachment security was the best predictor of internalizing difficulties at age 4 and of social engagement/acceptance problems at age 8. Maternal parental style emerged as the best predictor of externalizing difficulties (see also Miller et al, 1993). Other studies have studied peer interaction effects purely as a function of attachment security (ie, Main, 1991; Turner, 1991; and Kavanagh, 1990).

Research concerned with psychopathology and parental style

A final category includes studies which examine the relationship between psychological dysfunction and parental style, both for parents and for children. Clinical research has indicated that when one or both parents suffers from a serious mental disorder, the children of such parents are at greater risk for cognitive, emotional, and social problems (Field, Healy, Goldstein, & Guthertz, 1990), and that these dysfunctions in the parent have their deleterious effect on children through the compromised parental styles which result (Belsky, Rovine, & Fish, 1989). “Pathway” theories have showed that symptoms of depression can encourage “acting out” in children through the intermediary factors of marital affect and parental warmth, in that alleged order (Miller et al, 1993). In general, parent-child problems have been associated with almost every major childhood psychological disorder (Rutter & Garmezy, 1984).

Conclusion and future directions

Theoretically sound foundations in the area of parenting style paradigms have allowed for a rich and varied array of research directions in developmental psychology, and this diverse research trend seems likely to continue. However, there remain some conceptual blindspots in this field which call for further study: questions involving how the same parenting styles may effect children differently, and at different stages of development (Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989).
While theorists continue to perfect the construct validity of parental style typology (ie, Darling & Steinberg, 1993), the present state of the art has proven a powerful instrument in revealing various aspects of the child’s developing world.