Don’t leave out fathers in parenting programs

Don’t leave out fathers in parenting programs
13 February 2012

Effective prevention relies on understanding the chains of effects that produce the problem to be solved. It is now clear from a plethora of studies that certain findings are sufficiently authoritative to justify robust preventive action. One of these concerns the effects of poor parenting on children’s development and behavior.

But simple iteration that “it’s all the parents’ fault” is too simple and raises deeper questions. Why do some children in the same family react differently to adversity? Family structures and parenting arrangements are complex and varied, so which aspect of parenting matters most and by which parent? As most research studies focus on mothers, can it be assumed that fathers don’t matter?

A group of Dutch researchers have sought to explore these questions by analyzing a follow-up study of nearly 800 children aged 9-16 in 1990, in order to examine the relationship between parenting arrangements, parenting styles and later criminal behavior, whether in adolescence or adulthood.

Taking, as a starting point, the fact that the quality of parenting has been continuously found to be among the strongest predictors of children’s later criminal behaviour, they sought to unravel what “quality of parenting” means. This raises several questions. Is it, as many studies have assumed, a style, such as authoritarian or permissive? Is it a matter of competence, shown in how children are supervised and disciplined? Is it a question of relationships, the chemistry of children’s relationships with parents and siblings? Or is it an amalgam of all these factors?

This line of inquiry led to a series of further questions about both parenting and offending. For example, what if the mother adopts one style and the father another? What if the style changes with family breakdown and the creation of a new family? Are girls affected differently from boys? Is the contribution of mothers or fathers more significant for some problems than others? Does adolescent delinquency die out or continue throughout adulthood, and is parenting still significant for those who start their criminal careers when young adults?

The authors argue that much research stressing the importance of parenting fails to consider these refinements, yet if prevention is to be effective, the right problems have to be tackled, and “poor parenting” is too wide a category to be useful.

So what were the findings? The first was hardly surprising: neglectful parenting by mothers and fathers is linked to high levels of delinquency in the children. Similarly, authoritative parenting was associated with the lowest rates.

But further investigation on the contribution of each parent revealed that fathers’ parenting styles were far more closely linked to delinquency among boys and, to a lesser extent, girls than that of mothers. This correlation held when other factors like age group and family income were taken into account.

It was also found that the risk of delinquency is reduced when one of the parents adopts an effective style, regardless of what the other is like. So a father’s competent parenting might compensate for a neglectful mother and a caring mother might reduce the influence of an authoritarian father.

Finally, an especially important finding was that the negative effects of father’s parenting on offending endured throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Several messages for prevention emerge from this study. The first is that to understand the effects of parenting, researchers need to move beyond studies of single parenting behavior to a multi-dimensional approach that considers the contribution of each parent to different aspects of child development.

The second lesson is that in designing parenting education and support services, attention should be paid to the involvement of fathers, particularly with regard to the anti-social behavior of their sons.

But also, as most young offenders are male, preventive services tend to reflect their needs, but more consideration needs to be paid to what works for girls.

Last, it is often assumed that, in adolescence, peers and romantic partners become more significant influences on behavior than parents, but the effects of parenting on the criminal behavior of adolescents and emerging adults should not be underestimated.

Reference:
Machteld Hoeve, Judith Semon Dubas, Jan R. M. Gerris, Peter H. van der Laan and Wilma Smeenk. (2011). Maternal and paternal parenting styles: Unique and combined links to adolescent and early adult delinquency. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 813-827.

Other references:
J Gerris et al., (1993). Parenting in Dutch families: A representative description of Dutch family life in terms of validated concepts representing characteristics of parents, children, the family as a system and parental socio-cultural value orientations. Nijmegen: Institute of family Studies.

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