Monday, June 05, 2006

Parenting Styles and Child Health

Today I came across a news article reporting on a study performed by the Boston University School of Medicine. The article was published in the June issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I can't read the article, however, without a subscription, so I'm out of luck there.

Still, the summary is quite interesting. The researchers studied 872 children for a number years, starting at birth. They categorized the children based on the type of parenting style used by the parents: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or neglectful. The compared the weight of the children at age 6, based on the parenting style used.

According to the summary, authoritarian parents had the most overweight 6-year-olds. Permissive and neglectful parents raised similar children, overweight but not to the extreme of the disciplinarians. Authoritative parents are defined (by the Reuters summary) as "having high expectations for self control but respectful of a child's opinions and who set clear boundaries".

This isn't a greatly surprising study, I guess, but it does highlight how important parents are to the full well-being of their children, even at a very young age. Also, considering the drastic difference of results between authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles, that giving one's children respect and some degree of autonomy is a critical part of child-rearing.

I'm hoping that there will be further similar studies, possibly trying to clarify why weight gain in particular is affected so strongly, and also identifying other development traits in children that might be similarly affected.



purple_kangaroo said...

It seems that the study only looked at the parenting styles of MOTHERS. This seems like a huge oversight to me, because the parenting style of one parent is not necessarily the same.

In fact, I'll bet a lot of kids with permissive mothers have authoritarian fathers or vice versa. Obviously, the father's parenting style should have a significant effect on the child.

I wonder if they also looked at sleep styles and the quality/duration of a child's sleep, as well as exercise and eating habits. It seems that parenting style might have a huge impact on sleep issues, too, which could certainly have a residual effect on metabolism.

steviepinhead said...

This is an anecdote, not always the most useful contribution to the discussion, but nonetheless...

My three sons were, oh, 3, 5, and 7 (my memory could be off by a couple of years), old enough that the oldest could walk on his own, but not so old that I expected him to keep up independently for long. We were doing a fairly major shop at a Safeway. The boys were had, at least individually, been fairly well-behaved in that environment in the past--they were already aware of "limits," such as no whining for candies or other beguilingly-packaged items, no grabbing of same, no shrieking or screaming.

The shopping cart (or "bas-cart," as I think it's called in the trade) was getting fairly full, enough so that my youngest no longer fit comfortably in the (older-style) child-seat--which was then just a slightly-modified version of the small-items rack near the push-bar.

Though the older boys were able to walk alongside, I had been letting one ride on one side of the cart, feet on the lower, heavy-item carrier slung beneath the main basket, one on the other side, and I think the little guy was carefully riding in the "reverse figurehead" position at the very front, where I could keep an eye on him.

Among the items we had collected was one of the gallon (or larger) glass apple cider bottles--these larger juice and milk containers are often plastic now. We stopped in some discrete area, maybe the fruits and vegetables, for long enough that the boys all hopped off and were entertaining themselves--reasonably quietly--while I added several more selections to the mass in the cart.

As I headed off for another area, I called for them to accompany me and--in a spontaneous and entirely innocent "breakdown" of their behavior--the three raced each other back to the cart and all piled aboard on the same side, at the same time, instead of in the weight-distributed manner in which we had been proceeding.

My pinheaded brain was about a half-beat behind these fast-paced developments: Yikes! Ker-ash! Not only did the cart fall onto its over-loaded side, contents spilling and rolling everywhere, but the jug of cider smashed, creating an instant hazard in the aisles of slippery liquid and sharp, scattered glass fragments.

We were all aghast. I stood the shocked boys off to one side, out of harm's way, and quickly found an employee to deal with the mess. He, fortunately, was both level-headed and a quick thinker, rapidly coning off the area, dealing with the mess, and refusing my offers to pay for the destroyed inventory.

His attitude was a good example for me, probably preventing me from blowing up at the boys in one of those atrocious scenes of near-abusive behavior that we have all observed at one time or another.

Note that I certainly had some responsibility in this incident, since I'm the one who had "allowed" the boys to ride the cart in one manner, "luring" them into another type of cart-riding behavior which did not work nearly as well, the consequences of which none of us had been quick enough to predict or prevent.

Once back out into the (inevitable) mini-van, though, we did have a serious discussion, which included a reprise of appropriate store/public-place behavior: no whining, shrieking, grabbing, running, or racing. An acknowledgement that none of us had meant anything bad to happen, but that our actions had added up to unintended but disruptive and potentially-dangerous consequences...

All of which led to a consolidation and expansion of "The Rules," to include some additional specifics about tipsy, overloaded bas-carts. And, for several years thereafter, each trip to the grocery store, theater, mall, and so forth involved taking a moment, just before we all piled out of the vehicle, to refresh ourselves on "The Rules."

I don't know that I would have described myself as an "autoritative" parent, back when these kinds of events were playing out, but I sure knew that it was imperative to set and enforce limits. For my own sanity and survival, if nothing else!

Likewise, it's important to discuss--at first in simple, specific terms, and later, more broadly--the purpose behind the limits. And to allow for age- and personality-appropriate autonomy, feedback, and "buy-in" from the children within those limits.

It seems to me that's what this (summary of the) study is suggesting.

And, at least in our case, this episode definitely led to quicker, more-focused shopping expeditions, fewer "impulse" food purchases, and--ahem--slimmer children.