If your parents were negative and harsh with you growing up, that’s the way you will be with your kids. And if they were positive and affectionate, well, lucky for your kids. That’s the assumption behind a popular theory of parenting, but researchers who have done long-term studies say it’s wrong.
Parenting styles have their effect much earlier, says David Kerr of Oregon State University, by allowing good or bad behaviour to take hold in adolescence. And this happens in two ways: by modelling good/bad ways of dealing with people, and by monitoring/not monitoring what they learn from other people.
"For instance, if you try to control your child with anger and threats, he learns to deal in this way with peers, teachers, and eventually his own children.
“If you do not track where your child is, others will take over your job of teaching him about the world. But those lessons may involve delinquency and a lifestyle that is not compatible with becoming a positive parent," Kerr pointed out.
So, the “pathway” from one generation to another is not a matter of remembering back to how your parents did it, but through the habits you have already formed. The good news is that it works in a positive sense as well.
"We knew that these negative pathways can be very strong," Kerr said. "What surprised us is how strong positive parenting pathways are as well. Positive parenting is not just the absence of negative influences, but involves taking an active role in a child's life."
The researchers found that children who had parents who monitored their behavior, were consistent with rules and were warm and affectionate were more likely to have close relationships with their peers, be more engaged in school, and have better self-esteem.
"So part of what good parenting does is not only protect you against negative behaviors but instill positive connections with others during adolescence that then impact how you relate with your partner and your own child as an adult," Kerr said
The study, by the way, was done with 206 boys considered at risk for delinquency, from the age of 9 to 33. Whatever those risks were (and the full study is to be published in the journal Developmental Psychology this month) they were clearly less critical than what the parents actually did. And that seems to be another argument for parent education.