Recognizing the Importance of Parental Influence in Social and Behavioral Development

Anna Sewell and Paxton Higgins

In this article, we will be exploring the various types of impacts that parents can have on their children and their children’s intellectual, social, and behavioral development.  Many parents believe that during pregnancy they are capable of influencing the child’s intellectual and social development later on in life through sensory stimulation.  Fetus’s sensory structures are undoubtedly present early on in prenatal development.  However, studies show that, despite the fact that some learned preferences in utero last for a small window of time after birth, these preferences are not enduring and will fade before making a lasting impact on the child.  Additionally, many mothers believe that that increased sensory stimulation, such as listening to music, during pregnancy will influence a child’s preferences and intellectual development later in life.  However, scientists have also concluded that this increased stimulation is unnecessary, and a normal amount of stimulation that a fetus will have just by having the mother live a normal life is more than enough.   In short, despite popular beliefs, various efforts from parents during pregnancy are deemed unnecessary and ineffective in manipulating a child’s intellectual or social development (aside from influence from teratogens, obviously).  However, after the birth of their child, parents have crucial roles in impacting different aspects of their child’s development in a variety of ways, especially regarding behavioral/social development.  Because of this, we would like to emphasize the influence parents can have on the behavioral/social development of their child and the importance or parents to utilize “authoritarian” parenting styles.

An Authoritative Parenting Style

As a parent, one of the greatest influences you can have on the development of your child is the parenting style that you employ when interacting with them.  Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind developed a classification of four parenting styles based on the behaviors and actions of parents and how they affect child development.  Many recognize the authoritative parenting style as the most suitable for proper parenting that generally yields positive results in behavioral development in children.

Authoritative parenting is defined by parents that are both demanding and supportive of their child.  Parents set known expectations for their child in a variety of arenas including academic achievement, social behavior, and familial relationships.  Along with these expectations, parents are also extremely supportive in the child’s various endeavors and express love and support regardless of a child’s success or failure.  Authoritative parents are responsive and accepting of their children, but also enforce a sense of control and authority over their children.

Enforcing control while still maintaining a sense of acceptance may seem like a difficult balance to sustain.  However, there are various methods you can use to do so.  First, it is important that your child maintains a consistently high sense of self-esteem throughout their lives, most importantly their childhood and adolescence.  Toddlers and little kids generally have few self-esteem issues, however, the beginning of school and adolescence brings about an onslaught of self-esteem issues stemming from the physical and social changes associated with puberty.  Kids begin to compare themselves to their peers in many aspects of life, which can lead to negative conceptions of the self.  Those with low self-esteem tend to dwell on their negative characteristics and failures, which can lead to larger issues of depression and anxiety.  To avoid this for your child during those tough teenage years, make sure to use a nurturing, democratic parenting style and constantly show affection and support.  While it may seem difficult at times, you want to avoid being too overprotective of your children and allow them to develop a sense of independence and accomplishment.

Psychologist Carol Dweck believes that an individual’s beliefs about their self will largely affect their motivation to achieve.  Parents who praise their children for working hard and expending solid effort will ultimately foster a growth mindset within their children.  This growth mindset is defined by an individual who believes that his or her outcomes are attributed to effort rather than innate abilities.  Additionally, these children enjoy challenges and persist despite failure.  Parents should avoid praising or criticizing children based on their individual traits, as this will encourage the development of a fixed mindset within children.  In this fixed mindset, children will base their sense of self worth on approval from others, and will ultimately seek out situations in which they cannot fail.  They believe that success or failure is attributed to aspects of the self, and that their intelligence is static and unable to develop further.  These ideas of growth and fixed mindset largely affect a child’s achievement motivation, and will ultimately either encourage or discourage them from high achievement later on in life.


Influencing Behavior and Social Development

As a parent, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the development of behaviors in children and how this can impact a child’s social development.  An important aspect of child behavior formation is operant conditioning, an idea popularized by B. F. Skinner.  Basically, operant conditioning focuses on the idea that learning certain behaviors involves learning the relationship between one’s own behavior and the reward or punishment that prevails.  As a parent, there are various ways one can influence the types of behaviors a child exhibits, such as reinforcement and punishment techniques.  In operant conditioning, learning depends on the temporal proximity of association.  Therefore, a response must occur soon after the action, especially in the case of infants, in order for the child to make the association between the consequence and action.

If a parent wants to increase the frequency of a certain behavior, they should respond with reinforcement.  One type of reinforcement is positive reinforcement, which is generally considered to be a physical or psychological reward that increases the likelihood that a behavior is repeated.  For example, if a child cleans their room one morning without being asked, a parent may praise the child and give the child a candy bar, ultimately increasing the probability that the behavior will manifest itself again.  Additionally, parent’s attention can also be a useful reinforcer.   However, parents must be careful to not reinforce negative behavior.  An example of this would be when a child throws a tantrum in a grocery store and a mother gives them a candy bar so they will be quiet.  This makes the child realize that he or she can still get rewards from bad behaviors and they will continue such behaviors.

All parents can agree that their children exhibit various behaviors that they would like to occur with less frequency, such as a child throwing a tantrum.  In these cases, punishment, both physical and psychological, can be effective in working to extinguish certain behaviors.  Punishment is a negative response or consequence that a parent can enforce as the result of a child’s action or behavior.  An example of a punishment may be grounding a child, putting them in time-out, or taking away certain privileges.

While punishment and reinforcement are effective tools in helping children to perform certain behaviors with greater or less frequency, they can ultimately only be effective if parents are consistent.  Therefore, parents must be sure to always reinforce positive behaviors and punish negative ones and must avoid intermittent reinforcement.  Intermittent reinforcement is defined as an inconsistent response to the behavior of another person, for example, oscillating between punishing an unacceptable behavior and rewarding it.  Intermittent reinforcement can be confusing for the child and is ultimately ineffective for the parents because it makes bad behaviors much harder to extinguish.  Furthermore, it is important for parents with multiple children to be consistent with all of them.  It is known that humans are imitators and will imitate the actions of others.  In Bandura’s “Bobo Doll” study, he found that imitation of observed actions depends upon observed consequences.  Therefore, if a sibling witnesses another sibling perform an unacceptable behavior that is not punished by the parent, that individual will be more likely to exhibit the same behavior because he did not see it punished.

In short, parents have an enormous influence over the behaviors that their child exhibits.  In fact, many learning theorists emphasize the role of external factors (such as reinforcement and punishment) in shaping personality and behavior.  Thus it is important for parents to always respond with either reinforcement or punishment, and to be consistent with these responses.

References

Saxon, Jill, and Robert S. Siegler. How Children Develop, 3rd Edition. New York: Worth, 2010. Print.

 

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