What Makes a Good Parent: Hint, It's Not Breastmilk or Buying Organic

Know a good parent?  Forget the mom who makes the circus animal cupcakes or gladly drives her kid and 5 others or who just got another kid into a gifted and talented slot.  Think of the mom or dad with the children you'd welcome into your home any time with or without a chaperon or a runny nose.  You can thank our friend psychologist Barbara Boucher, Ph.D., for starting this discussion when she posed this most excellent question on my earlier post about hyper parenting:
What do you think would be the most accurate criteria for grouping parents to predict child outcome?


Educational achievement/level?

Church attendance?

Urban or rural?

Military service?
Oh that Barbara, so savvy, she knew I'd fall for the bait.  Hers is a fine list but she missed a few possibilities.  

A better parenting manual.
A better spouse.

A better kid.
Better breast milk.

Anyhow, it's a fascinating and dare I say relevant question that's been mulled around by many a parenting expert.  Take for instance, Robert Epstein Ph.D., a Harvard-trained psychologist and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies who conducted a study looking into this very question and wrote about the results a while back in Scientific American Mind, What Makes a Good Parent.*  Epstein and his collaborator Shannon Fox decided to try and wrestle the massive parenting literature into a more manageable lesson or two. Technically they hoped to achieve a more scientific approach to the wildly unscientific domain of child rearing (paging Dr. Sears). So they perused the diverse body of research and identified 10 areas of parenting competencies or skills that either routinely predicted child outcomes (health, happiness, success) or at least got a lot of attention:

1.Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

2.Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.

3.Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.

4.Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.

5.Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.

6.Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.

7.Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.

8.Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.

9.Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.

10.Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.“

Then Epstein surveying some 2,000 parents on their own competencies and their children's health, happiness, success and other related issues.  Afterwards he rated the parenting skills in order of importance for predicting child outcomes. In a twist sure to delight us at Momma Data, he also checked up on the experts too and asked a small group to rank which competencies they thought were most important.

Don't let the experts have all the fun. Go ahead. Pick the top parenting skills.

So what happened?

Love conquered all. 

Hugs, kisses and saying I love you most strongly predicted overall child well-being.  The experts agreed.  What's more, parents reported they were better at the touchy feely-warm fuzzy thang than anything else on the list.  What might surprise you, however, are the next two best competencies because they don't directly involve how parents treat their children.  That's right, it's not about the kids.  Not really.

Get out your yoga mats, download the guided imagery App. Stress management turned out to be the second most important factor, a development that surprised Epstein and the experts, the latter ranking it number 8 on the list.  As Epstein put it "keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting." Unfortunately keeping calm was at the bottom of parental skills. Note to self: take deep breaths, feel the ocean breeze, hear the gentle waves breaking...

The third biggest factor? How well parents or partners get along, a factor that surprised Epstein though his young son gave him reason to suspect its importance:
Getting along with the other parent is necessary because children inherently want their parents to get along. Many years ago, when my first marriage was failing, my six-year-old son once led me by the hand into the kitchen where his mom was standing and tried to tape our hands together. It was a desperate act that conveyed the message: “Please love each other. Please get along.” Children do not like conflict, especially when it involves the two people in the world they love most. Even in co-parenting situations where parents live apart, it is crucial to adhere to practices that do not hurt children: to resolve conflicts out of sight of the children, to apologize to one another and forgive each other (both can be done in front of the kids), to speak kindly about the other parent, and so on.
Fostering autonomy and independence came out as the fourth most critical and yes, the above list is in descending order.  Not quite unexpected but timely given the culture of hyper parenting, extended adolescence and strict driving laws (really, Jersey?, my daughter will go off to college before she can drive with friends? sounds like a recipe for undergrad disaster).  So as I write or try to write this my kids led by my 11 year-old are doing the laundry, an experiment fraught with risks but alas independence does not come without a price.  Closely related, life skill ranks #6 so this afternoon after all the clothes are folded and put away the kids and I will draw up a school supplies budget. 

So today remember to stay calm, hug your man or woman, hug your kids then hand them your machine-washables.   

As for the least important tasks on your parenting list, try not to focus on keeping them antibiotic- or pesticide-free or even skinned-knee-free. Don't worry if all the organic milk is gone. Let your tween ride in the front side.  Don't take the helmet to the roller rink (are any other kids wearing them, uh, no). I'd hate to see potential endocrine disruptors (#8) or head injuries (#10) tarnish your Zen composure (#2). Health ranked a mere #8 on the list, safety #10.  Oh and you can go prayer-free too for the day.  Religion ranked #9.  Not much help to the heavens among us. 

Before you invest in yoga pants not to mention marital therapy there are a few caveats.  Epstein's study is entirely based on self-reported behavior and competencies.  Take it with a grain of salt as parents rated themselves and their children on all the measures.

Moreover the Top Ten doesn't include some other potentially relevant parenting traits (confounding factors), ones that reflect not so much behavior (or things parents can do or change) but characteristics like gender or marital status.  Epstein measured some of these but didn't find much evidence for parental traits that people often associate with better parenting:
For example, women appear to be only a hair better than men at parenting these days—a huge change in our culture. Women scored 79.7 percent on our test, compared with 78.5 percent for men—a difference that was only marginally significant. Parents who were older or who had more children also did not produce significantly better parenting outcomes in our study. Parents seem to perform just as well whether or not they have ever been married, and divorced parents appear to be every bit as competent as those who are still married, although their children are somewhat less happy than the children of parents who were never divorced.
Nor did he find evidence of ethnic or racial differences in parenting abilities.  Nor differences between gay and straight parents.  Hello, you there Dan Cathy, aka Mr. Chick-fil-A?  He did, however, find evidence of a general parenting ability akin to the "g" factor of intelligence. In fact, the two might be very closely related. Very close. A parent's education level significantly predicted child outcomes so as education may be a proxy for intelligence it's possible intelligence predicts child rearing outcomes. 

Just as Barbara predicted.

I suspect she already knew the answer to her question as she picked intelligence. Now we can't say for sure if IQ is the best because this study wasn't designed to compare IQ to the rest of the lot. Other studies do support the significant role of intelligence though. In fact it's reasonable to argue intelligence in addition to other genetic factors, say personality, account at least in part for the Top Ten.  Genetics could explain why some parents, by virtue of in-born intelligence and personality, just seem to get kids and parenting.  Genetics also suggest how smart, calm and loving parents, through the transmission of genes wind up with smart, calm and loving children. 

Decades of empirical research support the significant role of genetics in determining one's fate. Studies of twins and non-twin siblings show that genetics (i.e. heredity) accounts for about 50% of the variance in child outcomes. As for intelligence, perhaps the most studied, heredity accounts for about 75% to 80% of variance in adult IQs.  Interestingly, the importance of heredity increases with age so that it accounts for about 45% of variance in children from 20% in babies and toddlers.  The home environment, by contrast, loses impact over the lifespan so it' near zero in adulthood.

So weep into your fruit juice-sweetened muffins and rethink the Kumon sessions.  You're really not going to make the kids any smarter (that's another post for later).  Not your kids anyhow. It's the parents with kids nearer the left tail of the Bell Curve who can actually make a difference in their kid's cognitive abilities hence the pressing need for Head Start and other early childhood intervention programs. 

Now I've focused on intelligence, but there's similar if not quite as strong evidence for the role of heredity in other traits, including ones related to parenting and child well-being especially personality traits.  Like IQ the role of heredity increases with age. It's also become quite fashionable to study and talk about the importance of peers too though I often wonder if the estimates are inflated as parents influence friendships to a certain extent through such factors as neighborhood, school, sports, extracurricular activities, clothing, social media use, lifestyle etc. 

There's another possible factor to consider in good parenting - the kids themselves, rather, their unique contribution to the mix, a possibility not unnoticed by two of my academic psychologist friends, a married couple, who half-joke "we'd be better parents if we had better kids." 

Personally I take this all as a refreshing challenge to the current hyper parenting climate.  It's license to relax, be kind and trust your child will turn out just as healthy, happy and successful if you drop the test prep, baby proofing and all the other questionable time-draining, money-sapping activities from your to-do list.

Not that parents or the home environment don't matter, they do but perhaps in more subtle and different avenues than imagined.  If you feel like some self-improvement, chances are you probably do need to work on #2 and possibly #3 or #4. It can't hurt and despite the possibility your genes largely have determined your parenting abilities, it might help your child. I bet Madeline Levine would agree. 

If you've distributed your daily quota of affection and respect, take the Epstein Parenting Competencies Inventory at myparentingkills.com.  Let's just say I have some room for improvement in a few areas.

As for one of my beloved parenting icons, she's one of the most articulate, wise and nurturing mothers to never have lived, Tami Taylor, Principal Taylor, wife of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights played by the brilliant Connie Britton. As Momlogic explained it she's patient, generous, tough and listens very well.  The advice she delivers to her teen daughter Julie and the kids under her care at school, priceless. She knows her boundaries too. After much ado and tears she realizes her dream for her daughter to go to Boston College is not her daughter's dream and she lets it go. That's a good mom. Here's what she says to a girl half-way to 16 and Pregnant who got wasted at a party, a bit snarkier than her usual:
Tami: It didn't look to me like you were having fun. It looked to me like you were passed out cold.

Maura [rolls eyes]: Have you ever been to a party?

Tami: I sure have. I usually try to stay awake, it's a lot more fun that way.
If anyone has assembled transcripts of Tami's conversations with Julie, please let me know.  I loved how she responded when Julie revealed she'd been sleeping with her married TA (Coach Taylor did not approve, near apoplectic,adorably red-faced). For now, I'll have to settle for watching the DVDs.  You can catch Tami's saucy twang on YouTube above. 

* Epstein and Fox presented this study at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego in 2010.  It has not yet to my knowledge been published but I am still trying to find out for sure.

PS Formatting and links not all working today for me in Blogger.  Actually several weird events in Blogger today so I apologize in advance for anything screwy.  Will try to remedy them ASAP.


Barbara Boucher said...

We think alike! Agreeing with you on all those things that do not significantly affect child outcomes. (Albeit, I sometimes think rigid control of a child's diet is an expression of the parent's need to control a part of parenting.)

Thanks so much for the affirmation, Polly! I would love to leave a more complete comment - maybe serial comments?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Barbara, why not a guest post? I know you have more to say!

As for the control, it's so hard to get and know the right balance but diet is certainly one of the simplest way to get some, unless of course you have a very picky eater but then that can lead to all sorts of interesting dynamics.

Did I mention self-less devotion as one of the more questionable approaches to children?

Okay, am off to buy a yoga mat for my 6 year-old (for school) and possibly one for the rest of us (it's never too late to learn, right?) in addition to imparting some life skills.

"See" you soon.

Barbara Boucher said...

You're on! Guest post a few days!