We all want the best for our children, and parents happily and eagerly adopt the latest, greatest advice. Even governments enact legislation that promotes one approach or another, like Utah did recently in passing legislation enabling parents to legally leave their children unsupervised to play outdoors or walk to school.
But do any of these parenting styles have ample evidence to support effectiveness as a parenting approach?
Most people might be surprised to find that the answer is: Not really.
Social scientists who study parenting rarely, if ever, use these buzzword concepts to categorize or characterize parenting approaches. When these scientists, like myself, want to predict what kind of parenting affects children’s development, we consider very different variables.
So what really matters in parenting according to the evidence?
There are well-known risk factors that undermine children’s health and development, and there are protective factors that promote children’s health and development.
Risk factors include traumatic childhood experiences that parents themselves may have experienced in their own families, such as mental illness or addictions, family violence and low family income. These factors may prevent parents from engaging in consistent sensitive and responsive interactions with their children, which promotes children’s optimal brain, cognitive and social-emotional development.
According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, parental mental illness, addictions, family violence, child abuse and neglect are all considered to be “toxic” to children’s development. This toxicity is observable at the cellular level – when children are exposed to these chronic stressors, in an attempt to cope, their bodies produce the stress hormone cortisol at persistently high levels.
In normal situations, cortisol levels would come down as the stressor passes and the child’s body would recover. However, in chronically stressed children, the high cortisol levels remain over time, negatively impact a range of body and brain systems, and contribute to ill health over their lifetime.
But there’s good news in the evidence, too. Research shows that these stressors are only toxic in the context of low levels of protective factors. In other words, kids may be able to weather trauma if they have the right environment and supports to thrive.
So what provides protective factors to children for healthy development?
Abundant research shows that healthy serve-and-return relationships – parent-child bonds characterized by high sensitivity and appropriate responsiveness – can buffer the impacts of trauma on children’s health and development. When a child serves up a cue to indicate a need and their parent reliably responds, this builds trust and a healthy parent-child attachment. It also contributes to children’s greater success and ease in peer and school relationships.
Also important are parental social supports – the networks that parents can depend on to help them out and support them emotionally. Supportive people can include friends or family or even professionals like health-care providers. These people are reliably there for the parent who needs information, advice, reassurance, caring and even help with household tasks, like chores or child care.
Over and over, it’s been shown that social supports can buffer the impacts between toxic stressors, like maternal depression, on children’s health and development. Social support is best thought of as reciprocal – a back and forth between people who care about each other and show it in tangible ways.
‘Reflective function’ is also a protective factor and describes both the ability to have insight into your own thoughts and feelings and the ability to envision what another person thinks and feels. It helps a parent understand what might underpin their child’s behaviour – so valuable when parenting young children who may not be able to communicate their needs and wants clearly. Fortunately for parents, this important protective factor can be learned with practice.
These three protective factors are what most scientists study if they want to know or predict how children will develop.
Experts who study parenting and child development don’t waste time with popular culture conceptions of best or worst parenting approaches. You can throw the buzzwords away, in other words.
Nicole Letourneau is the Alberta Children’s Hospital chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary. She recently published What Kind of Parent Am I? Self-Surveys that Reveal the Impact of Toxic Stress and More (Dundurn) and is a contributor to EvidenceNetwork.ca, which is based at the University of Winnipeg.