• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 14th August, 2009

It's not bad parenting – just look around!

A research report from from a major UK charitable trust has come to the conclusion that despite a decline in the behavior of young people in the UK over the past 30 years, the quality of parenting has actually improved.Research undertaken by a team led by Professor Frances Gardner from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Oxford found little evidence to support claims about any generally declining standards, but more to suggest the job is getting more difficult.“Today’s parents have had to develop skills that are significantly different and arguably more complex than 25 years ago, and this could be increasing the stress involved,” Professor Gardner says.According to parents themselves, problem behavior in teenagers - including lying, stealing and disobedience - all worsened through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, before leveling out and improving at the start of this century. At the same time, the complexion of family has changed. Couples are marrying and having children later. Divorce is widespread; family restructuring in the aftermath of parental separation is a common experience. But is the increase in antisocial behavior the result of these disturbances in family life? The Nuffield summary of the Oxford work claims not. On the contrary, says Ann Hagell’s briefing paper. Parents now spend more time caring for their children; they monitor them more carefully and have higher expectations for their behavior. [To download a copy of the summary, see Parents of teenagers are doing a good job.]Even taking into account losses in social equality and declining social mobility, the data shows that parenting has not deteriorated even among disadvantaged subgroups. It is nevertheless well established that parenting has a huge influence on a host of children’s outcomes, including the development of antisocial behavior. So how to explain the paradox?The key, say the researchers, is in the relationship between population trends and individual developmental factors. The Nuffield briefing paper uses the example of average height, which rose by around 12cm in the first half of the last century. At the individual level, genetics remains the best predictor of height, but at a population level over that period, better nutrition and changes in children’s eating habits had the bigger impact. So parenting quality has been improving but in a climate in which other powerful influences have conspired make the lives of parents more challenging. The collapse of the youth labor market, changes in neighborhood contexts and increased financial dependence of children on parents are all cited as possible factors. Parents of teenagers are increasingly likely to experience depression and anxiety, particularly one-parent families and those on low incomes. The proportion of parents from the most economically disadvantaged group reporting such difficulties increased by more than 50% between 1986 and 2006.The findings open up a number of avenues for research to investigate the links between parenting and behavior. The report suggests studies of the neighborhood context of parenting could be particularly productive. On a wider note, social norms may also play a key role. What is considered appropriate behavior has a huge influence on the way we act. The Nuffield report asks whether the norms laid down by parents might be more readily taken up, if they were confirmed in other contexts by neighbors, school and employers.See: Nuffield Foundation (2009), Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people, London, Nuffield Foundation

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