Category Archives: older than 4 years

Parenting styles

Developmental psychologists have been studying parenting for around a century. It's a general topic that's received lots and lots of attention. One of the most popular and productive approaches to research on parenting has been the studies and theories around the idea of "parenting style." We've been talking a lot about parenting "techniques" or "methods" — those ideas are supposed to be much more specific than parenting style. Many methods or techniques may fall under the same parenting style umbrella. Parenting styles are supposed to describe the complex pattern of parenting; they are more approaches than specific parenting behaviours per se.

The research on parenting style is largely based on Diana Baumrind's seminal work in the area, starting in the 1960's. The styles that she identified are meant to describe variations among all sort of "normal" families — in other words, this classification system was not a way to identify clinical or seriously distressed families. The categories capture two main components of parenting: Parental warmth (or "responsiveness") and parental demandingness (or "control"). BOTH aspects are considered to be important dimensions of parenting that predict children's well-being later in life.

Most people talk about 3 styles, but there are actually 4, if you take all the possible combinations of the two dimensions:

1. Permissive Parenting: Also referred to as "indulgent" (because child psychologists can sometimes be mean with their labels). This parenting style is characterized by HIGH warmth and LOW demandingness. So, there's lots of affection and love that's expressed in the family, but there are very few rules and boundaries that are set. Limit-setting is minimal and discipline is often either unenforced or very lax.

2. Authoritarian Parenting: These parents are LOW in warmth or responsiveness (it's usually the latter — they aren't focused on responding to the child's emotional states, basically) and HIGH on demandingness. These are families who place a great deal of value on children being obedient. They set firm rules, have firm disciplinary consequences and they provide highly structured, organized and predictable home environments.

3. Authoritative Parenting: These parents are HIGH on both dimensions. They are warm and responsive to their children's emotional needs at the same time as they set clear standards for behaviour and enforce those standards with predictable discipline strategies. They are assertive with their children, but they also place high value on raising responsible, cooperative, but also self-regulated children.

4. Uninvolved Parenting: Most parents reading this blog will not fall into this category, given you're reading about PARENTING and are searching for information about your child and his or her well-being. The uninvolved parent is low on both dimensions: there is little warmth and little demandingness.

You can probably find yourself in one of these categories quite easily. The tricky part is that they're not "pure" categories in that each category can be further divided according to a third dimension: PSYCHOLOGOCIAL control. This is a really important aspect to consider, I think. It refers to control attempts that CAN BE intrusive and disruptive to the child's emotional and cognitive well-being (they aren't always, let's keep in mind). The prime parenting strategies to psychologically control children include: guilt induction, shaming and strategically withdrawing parental love. So, within each of the parenting styles, you can be high or low on psychological control as well, and that makes for a very different type of parent in each case. Classically, the big difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian parents is that the latter is much higher on psychological control — both types of parents set out clear limits and follow up with predictable consequences/discpline if those rules are not followed, but Authoritarian parents do so through strategies that induce shame and guilt while Authoritative parents more often use problem-solving, explanations and negotiation.  

It's probably going to come as no surprise to hear that Authoritative Parenting has been empirically linked to better outcomes for children than the other types of parenting styles. Children and adolescents of Authoritative parents turn out more socially skilled and more skilled at the pragmatics of everyday life than kids from the other types of parents.

Also not surprising, the Uninvolved parents produced children with the most troubled outcomes; compared to the other types, these children were more socially, emotionally and academically impaired. 

There are some interesting variations in these results when you consider ethnicity and cultural background differences, but in general, the Authoritative parenting style usually wins out on almost all outcomes we would care about for our children. Of course, WITHIN each category, there are lots of parenting BEHAVIOURS that are more or less effective for children's well-being. And you can probably predict by now that I will say that temperament will play some role — some children will be able to flourish under Authoritarian parents, if they're less sensitive to shame or guilt and/or if they simply were "born with" a sense of their own efficacy in the world or a less rebellious spirit. Another child in the same family may not fare as well. Also, surely parents' own personalities will have a large impact on how these parenting styles are actually manifest in day-to-day interactions with their children.

I think it's interesting to consider these dimensions of parenting as a first step, but I'm much more interested in the boundaries between the typologies and how various parenting behaviours can feel really wrong in some parenting contexts, but just right in others. For example, I think guilt can be a very effective, useful and PROSOCIAL way to influence our children's behaviour, especially as they get older than 5 or so. Too much is no doubt detrimental, but perhaps a little may be necessary to promote empathic, ethical behaviour from our children. How high would I rate myself in psychological control?  Does its detrimental impact depend on the larger parenting context (the love, warmth, connection, openness in a family)? Does that control work differently at different ages? You won't be surprised to know that I think the developmental age of the child is critical to consider: As children get older, it may be optimal to move from being relatively high on demandingness/control to relatively low, ending at the end of adolescence/early 20s with an ALMOST equal balance of power. In terms of warmth, I suspect high levels of it would be important throughout development, but perhaps the way we express this warmth will be less overt as children grow up and get creeped out about us wanting to rock them to sleep just one more time… (Yes, THAT book comes to mind).

Do you think these dimensions are useful when you consider your own parenting style? What were your parents' style of parenting and do you think that influences yours? What's missing in these dimensions for you?

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


Get back to play and learn some self-control, Johnny!

Pretend play
Thanks to one of our readers, Bonnie, for suggesting the topic of today's post, this New York Times article. It would be silly for me to review the whole article here, given it's the NYTs and their writers are kinda good. So… go read it first and then we can talk a bit about some of the issues it raises.

Back?  Excellent!  So, the article presents a program that is attempting to teach children the kinds of self-control skills that we've been talking about this week — not just delaying gratification, but also being able to shift attention when you have to, being able to SUSTAIN attention when you have to, being able to wait patiently for your turn, being able to persevere without being distracted until you've solved a problem, and so on. Unlike other school programs, this particular one (called Tools of the Mind) doesn't try to teach kids with explicit directions to control themselves, nor does it advocate using behavioural principles like negative feedback for "bad" behaviour and positive reinforcement for "good" behaviour. Instead, the program is designed to foster self-control by creating a learning environment that is steeped with opportunities to USE and practice these skills. A large part of the day is spent encouraging (and even "teaching") children how to engage in "productive" pretend play. Yes, they're TEACHING children how to pretend to be princes, princesses, mommy with baby, batman and robin, and so on, all with the idea that this helps children practice and get better at sustained attention and self-control. Here's the most interesting quote out of the the whole article for me:

"Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s
followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can
control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations.
In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still
for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a
minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were
guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than
four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were
asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery
store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time,
though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the
children were able to remember twice as many words. Bodrova and Leong
say they see the same effect in Tools of the Mind classrooms: when
their students spend more time on dramatic play, not only does their
level of self-control improve, but so do their language skills."

Interesting, huh? So, at least for the 3-6 year olds, making playdates (how I loathe that word) during which we encourage kids to dress up and play house, doctor, superheros and restaurant (and hope they leave us alone to eat our cake and gossip) is just what they need to acquire those self-control skills. MAAAAAAAAAAAAYBE.

The truth is, the jury is out on the science part of this claim. The crux of the article, if you read it all the way through, is
that they're not quite sure IF this whole pretend-play focus and Tools of the Mind in particular works. Equally important, even if it does turn out that it works, they have
no idea WHY. The current studies aren't even looking at the various elements in the program (and there are many) that may be facilitating greater cognitive and emotional control. And there are no other well-designed, replicated studies that have established effective strategies to teach children cognitive control. 

My guess is that there are some things we can do to help (provide lots of practice with waiting for a reward, teach self-distraction strategies, play games that require turn-taking, enforce rules about listening to others at the dinner table, etc.), but that the vast majority of children are in environments that already naturally foster these skills at develomentally appropriate ages. Executive function or cognitive control or whatever you want to call it has been shown to increase steadily over the ages of 2 and 5-ish (and it keeps going, just at a slower rate). For a fabulous paper (Carlson, 2005) that reviews the neuropsychological and cognitive studies, click on the first link in this Google Scholar search (I keep trying different ways to post original scientific papers through links on this blog). 

And in answer to the orginal question on Monday about what to do with a 1-year old that can't delay gratification: I'd say apart from Tracy's recommendations to just keep the enticing stuff out of sight, there's not much you can do… and that's TOTALLY fine. One-year olds don't have the mental capacity yet to control their impulses, thoughts, or emotions (nor will they until about the age of 2 and then, just barely).

So, at this point, your guess is as good as any scientist's: What do you do with your children that may be helping them to develop better self-control? Do you think there are some things we do that may delay these acquisitions?

– Isabela

Step Away from the Chocolate Cake: Strategies to Help Delay Gratification


 I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth.
When confronted with oh say, a 
slice of good quality chocolate cake, I’d have a hard time waiting to
eat it, such as after eating all of my green vegetables. So all this talk about
waiting to eat marshmallows got me thinking about how I would have fared with
the marshmallow task as a child. Probably terribly (but can I just point out
here that I’ve done okay…I’m just saying…). And naturally, I’m wondering what
my son would do (read: what are his future prospects in life and other enormous
parenting questions that I should know better than to worry about). So how do
young children cope when they have to delay gratification?  What are those future Bill Gates doing
to help themselves keep their little fingies off of those marshmallows? And
yes, can parents influence this emerging development of self-control?

If you watched the video at the end of Isabel’s post on
Monday (if not then try here), you were probably amused, as I was, at some of
the strategies children attempted to keep from eating that sweet, seductive
cloud of confection. They covered the gamut from the girl who just stuffed it
into her mouth, unapologetically (even remembering to clear her plate from the
table after wards – nice!), to the boy who pushed it up against his nose, to
those who just studied it carefully. But it was the boy who turned his head to
the side and just did not look at it, that really got me. Hmm… that seemed like
it might help.

Turns out that in Mischel’s early work he gave children
choices about what they could and could not look at while they were waiting
such as the real reward vs. a colour photograph of it. He also asked them what
they preferred to look at. Get this, preschool children actually looked at, and
preferred, the actual reward over the picture! In other words, they seemed
unable to anticipate that this would only drive them into a frenzy of
frustration and effectively sabotage their efforts to wait for the bigger
reward. Oh, the agony.

Children start to see the light around their 6th
birthday. So e.g. they start to prefer to cover the reward rather than to leave
it out in the open. By grade 3, their prefer to think more about the waiting
than on the eating of the marshmallows. And by grade 6, they’ve moved on to
prefer thinking of marshmallow properties e.g. that they are puffy like clouds.
So don’t worry, it’s not a write off if your preschooler is having trouble
waiting now.

The good news is: you can probably help your little one
along the way. For one thing,  out
of sight is out of mind baby!  So
whatever you do, take the tempting item away. Put it on a high shelf, in the
other room or cover it up. When you have dessert planned for after dinner,
leave the pie in the fridge until you are ready to serve it. You’ll have a
better shot at getting your little one to focus on the task at hand – dinner. You
can also help by distracting your child. Get them to focus on things other than EATING that ice cream.

Here’s one last thing to chew on…As you become more aware
that it is actually quite hard for young children to control their natural
impulses, wait, delay gratification etc., you may become tempted to be more
lenient. “It’s so hard for them, this insistence on getting that Halloween
candy now is part of normal development etc., it will come in time", so you reason. But perhaps when
parents insist that children wait for that treat for after dinner, they are
effectively training them to get used to waiting and to find ways to make it
work. Maybe those kids who managed to “step away from” the marshmallow in
Mischel’s studies came from homes where this was more the case (too bad they
didn’t interview or give questionnaires to the parents). Since, according to the
research, they would go on to fare better on a host of measures including
academic achievement, you could be doing your child a huge favour by saving the
chocolate cake for after they’ve eaten their brussels sprouts (well okay, maybe
not brussels sprouts). Just a thought.

–by Tracy


Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child

Halloween is a great week to talk about fears!  Just leaving home this
morning revealed a spookier neighbourhood than I remember seeing the
last time I looked up to take it all in on the way to work.

So why do we fear? Makes sense that one explanation appeals to evolution. The idea is that we have evolved a tendency to notice quickly potentially scary things. The sooner you can pick up on that snake in the grass, ferocious lion coming at you, or huge brown bear within swiping reach, the faster you can act to avoid it, flee, get help, make some noise etc. In other words, it's essential for your survival.

Some very cool recent research has shown that children as young as 3 years of age will notice potentially scary things more quickly than non-scary things (think snakes vs. flowers). Since we find the same pattern in adults, this suggests that the rapid response to potentially scary stuff kicks in rather early. Good thing, if you want to make it past early childhood!  Rather than summarize how the researchers came to these conclusions, take a look at the video and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that since they didn't actually measure fear (which you could do by say, looking at heart rate or other biological markers), the study is really getting at PAYING ATTENTION to fearful stimuli rather than being afraid of it. Still, it makes the point quite nicely that we may be equipped to pick up on that thing that just might be about to pounce fairly early on. Check it out.

My point here is to say that fear serves an important purpose. You want your child to notice potentially harmful things and to act accordingly. Thing is, not everything is a predator about to leap. So children need time to sort out what they should be afraid of and what they don't need to fear. Think of the differences between a cartoon snake on television vs. in a 3-D movie vs. a real snake in the zoo or in your back yard.

As with everything in development, there are also individual differences in fear responses. Children vary in how sensitive they are to scary things, in how strongly they react and in what they find scary. They may also cycle through times of being scared and times when they are not. My advise?  First of all, acknowledge the fear. I hate snakes, but have no problem with heights. Others may not be the same. But telling me to just forget about it, or how so and so doesn't fear snakes will not help. So even if it's hard to understand what's scary about a Disney character, the fact is, your child finds it scary. It can be very reassuring to hear someone say, "it's okay to be afraid" or "I can understand how you feel, sometimes I feel scared too". Second, don't force the issue. There's no timetable for getting over your fears. I like to use a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy or talking my son through his fears. In other words, I try to get him to think differently about what he is afraid of in the hopes that it will affect his behaviour e.g. "That's something in your book, it's not here in your room. It can't come out of the page to hurt you.". We revisit the fearful thing every once in a while but I don't push it. Eventually, he moves on.

My little guy helped me pick out a witch's hat for Halloween, then made sure to stress that I should be a good and friendly witch. It's a small thing to ask for while we work through our fears. And hey, I kinda like to think of myself of as a good and friendly witch anyway.

Please share your stories on dealing with fears. I"m particularly interested in the first time you noticed a fear response in your child or children, the context, how old they were etc. On my next post, I'll talk a bit more about what might contribute to those early fear responses.

– Tracy

Please, not that same book/game/song again! I can recite it in my sleep!


Okay, here's my first blogging challenge. I cannot get the author to change from Bella to Tracy. The post below is by me – Tracy. Anyone want to pitch in and help me get this sorted out? You can't say I did not warn you.

Every parent has heard the repeated request “Again!” to read
a favourite book, play a favourite game or sing a favourite song at one time or
another from their young child. How is it, we all wonder, that they can not
only stand, but insist upon, this incessant repetition when most parents are
driven to distraction by it? Turns out, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, that
some of the answer lies in what we know about the developing brain.

Children may like repetition, in part, because they have
trouble stopping it. Cognitive and neuro- scientists talk about a phenomenon
known as perseveration, or the
uncontrollable repetition of a particular
response such as a word or a behaviour. Although perseveration is often
associated with some type of brain trauma in later life (injury, serious
illness etc.), it is also characteristic of the developing brain, especially in
the preschool years. In fact, an important achievement of early childhood is
being able to control, or inhibit, your own behaviour (think: Simon Says).

Developmental psychologists have devised
several tasks for use with young children that provide a glimpse into their
developing capacity for inhibition. In one task, children are shown cards with say,
red and blue flowers and cars. They are asked to sort the cards into two piles,
either according to colour (red here, blue there), or according to shape
(flowers here, cars there). After several sorting trials, children are asked to
switch to sorting to the other dimension (so if they first sorted by colour,
now they have to sort by shape – BTW, it doesn’t matter which one you ask them
to do first). The results of numerous studies show that until about 4 years of
age, children continue to sort the cards according to the first dimension or
the first set of rules. In other words, they PERSEVERATE! What’s striking is
that younger children will perseverate with the first set of rules even when
they are reminded of the new sorting rules and even when they can produce the
new rules every time they are about to sort a card! The argument goes that the
young brain is not yet able to control itself, or to INHIBIT the first
behaviour (sort by the first set of rules) and switch to new a new behaviour
(use the other set of rules).

 Just in case you’re thinking that we have it
all licked by the time we’re 5, think again. It turns out that inhibition takes
some time to develop. And though it becomes easier and easier with age it still
requires effort. So you can inhibit answering that cell phone when you are
driving the car (especially if that might cost you a fine), but if you have a
lot on your mind or get distracted, the effort it takes to inhibit just might
be too much for the already taxed brain and you may find yourself reaching for
it. Sorry officer, it was a failure to inhibit.

The take home message? It’s actually harder TO
STOP doing things than it is to DO them, especially for the really young. So
what does this mean for parenting? Let me give you a couple of things to think
about. My son is 5 and I’m still relying on some of them (it takes time

Since it’s harder to curb behaviour, try to
provide instructions that emphasize what TO DO as
opposed to what NOT TO DO. So easy on the use of “No”, “Don’t” and “Stop”,
especially at the start of a sentence. E.g. When your little one seems bent on
pressing the power button on your computer on and off (I can hear the hard
drive crying now, or is that you crying…), instead of “No! Stop pressing that
button.” try “Look it’s like the buttons your toy laptop computer/cash
register/cell phone etc. See? Now you try.”. Or instead of insisting “Don’t
throw your coat on the floor” when you come in the door try, “Can you put your
coat on your special hook?”.

2.  2. Even when children know the rule or what they
should do, keep in mind that it is still very hard to stop a habitual behaviour
and in a sense, redirect the brain toward acting according to some other
knowledge. So try not to see the repetitive behaviour (e.g. always throwing his
or her coat down every time he or she comes in the door) as defiant. Be
patient. Repeat the rule. Eventually he or she will get it. No really, they
will. And you’ll probably have a better relationship that if you just persisted
with the “No!”s.

As for the pleas for “Again!” in very young
children, it could just be that repeating the same thing again and again feels
good. It’s as though it’s the brain’s natural inclination. It’s what it wants
to do. Keep that in mind the next time you feel lured into the “Wheels On the