Being a good parent: What we know so far

I was having a long conversation with a friend this week on parenting techniques and in between discussions of time outs, time ins and natural consequences I was particularly struck by something she said
"We don't know the outcome of what we're doing yet."
I've heard this many times before and its not completely wrong. We don't know for example what the best discipline technique is for enforcing limits while protecting our child's psychological health but that is probably because the effect sizes of such things are minute and lost amongst all the other factors that exist in children's lives.  But when it comes to things that really matter we do know a lot.

What we know works
1. Responding quickly and appropriately to your children's needs: This is necessary for a secure attachment. A lot of behaviour problems in children are considered to be due to the absence of a secure attachment with their primary caregivers 1. Additionally, a lot of research indicates that adults who hold secure attachment as children do better in relationships both romantic and otherwise for the rest of their lives 2. Children benefit from a parent who recognises their physical and emotional needs and responds appropriately, not from being forced to 'toughen up' or 'be independent'.
2. Be warm: Linked to number one, providing your child with affection and being sensitive to them.  Children whose parents are warm tend to do better socially 3 and academically 4 and have less chance of developing behavioural and emotional problems 5. Psychological benefits from maternal warmth are known to extend into at least early adulthood 6 7.
3. Use reasonable behavioural control: Setting reasonable limits and enforcing those limits is necessary for children's healthy psychological development. Children whose parents do not control their behaviour have higher rates of aggression 8 and other externalising problems 9. There is also a suggestion that these children do not do as well academically 10.
4. Be consistent: Being inconsistent in the enforcement of parenting limits has been shown to be related to behavioural problems in children 11 and psychological disorders in teenagers 12.
5: Be a good role model: Being a good parent often means being better in yourself. Parental modelling has been shown to be important for many aspects of a child's life from eating a healthy diet 13 through to living a meaningful life 14. Adults whose parents engage in vices such as drinking 15 , gambling 16 or drug use 17 have a much greater chance of engaging in this behaviour themselves.

What we know doesn't work
1. Physical discipline: The use of physical discipline such as spanking is associated with child behaviour problems, aggression and anxiety 18.
2. Use of psychological control: This involves trying to control what children think or feel by the use of techniques such as guilt trips. It is linked to depression, anxiety, aggression and lower levels of academic achievement 19.
3. Helicopter parenting: Also referred to as over-parenting, this involves being over-involved in your child's life and taking responsibility for tasks that they are developmentally able to do. Adult children of helicopter parents have increased levels of entitlement 20 to the point of narcissism and ineffective coping skills which are linked to anxiety and depression 21.


  1. We know a good bit about outcomes and the effect sizes are not that small.


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