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Parental involvement is an essential ingredient of child well being. Comment on the Demos Report

Sally Goddard Blythe examines the implications of the findings of a recent study in the context of child development

The results of a study carried out by the UK think tank Demos has found that the most important influence on children is the quality of parenting they receive.

The findings are a reminder that whatever the developments of the modern world, parental involvement, love and consistent discipline are essential to provide a secure framework for children’s development.

The findings based on more than 9000 households in the UK found that although children from the richest backgrounds were more than twice as likely to develop qualities such as application, self-regulation and empathy which make, “a vital contribution to life chances, mobility and opportunity”, parental style and confidence, warmth and discipline were the key factors in developing social skills and in narrowing the divide between rich and poor.   This study follows on the heels of the UK Millennium Cohort Study published in September the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health which showed that  children whose mothers go out to work have poorer dietary habits, are more sedentary and are more likely to be driven to work than children’s whose mothers are not in paid employment.

These two studies each examining different aspects of child well being raise the question, in what ways do parents act as the primary mediators of child well being?

Why Parents Matter:

Human babies are born at an immature stage of development compared with other mammals and remain physically dependent on their parents for an extended period of time.  In the first year of life the mother (or primary care-giver) acts as an “auxiliary cortex” to the infant’s developing brain.  The quality of care-giving (reciprocal interaction) a child receives in the early years  develop neurological pathways involved in emotional regulation and helps to form the basis for self-regulation and self control later on.  Children who are neglected or who receive inconsistent care and attention tend to have difficulty with self-regulation.

The human brain develops through dual processes of maturation and interaction with the environment.  A child’s earliest experience of the world is a physical one with information about the environment being derived primarily from sensory experience, movement opportunity and social engagement with the primary source of love.  One-to-one interaction is a vital ingredient for the development of language and socialization particularly in the early years.

Parental education and breast feeding were mentioned in the study as positive influences.  The positive effects of breast feeding are not surprising when we remind ourselves what breastfeeding actually does.  The word “mammal” means “breast” and as one of the species of mammal, humans were designed to suckle their young.  Whilst there are 4000 species of mammal that produce milk, the only source of milk specifically designed to provide all the nutrients a human baby needs is human breast milk. Human breast milk also adapts to the environment of the baby during each and every day changing its composition to meet the specific needs of mother and child.   It stimulates the production of hormones involved in maternal bonding and infant attachment and requires both commitment and self-discipline from the mother to establish and maintain.    It has also been shown to have many other physical health benefits including containing the optimum ratio of essential fatty acids needed for brain development, development of binocular vision and some protection from the development of familial allergic tendencies and the of onset childhood obesity.

Time is a crucial factor in parental involvement. Parents who  have too many external demands on the their time, or mothers suffering from stress, depression, illness or drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to resort to use convenience foods, equipment and forms of entertainment,  which act as surrogates for direct interactive parenting. Modern conveniences do not provide the same amount, quality or flexibility of care as interaction with another human being.  As the study on working mothers pointed out, this can affect the amount of physical exercise children experience, time spent in conversation – necessary for developing social skills and social awareness – and can be linked to a tendency to seek comfort from biochemical sources such as sweets, snacks and soft drinks. Nutrition is the source of many of the chemical messengers through which the nervous system communicates.  Nutritional status affects not only weight and physical health but also attention, mood and behaviour.

The nature of entertainment provided by the electronic media is different from activities shared with another person.  Before the invention of radio, television or computers, leisure time was filled with outdoor pursuits, reading, drawing, imaginative games, making things, socializing and discussion.  The negative face of leisure technology is not what it does provide – there are many benefits – it is what it does not provide.  This includes, arousal without integration; inflexible response; talking without listening to what a child has to say, and encouraging rapid shifts of attention.    Electronic media does not teach children to read and adapt to the non-verbal aspects of language in the same way that direct communication with another human being does.  Non-verbal language contributes up to 90% of effective communication including the understanding of empathy.

The word “discipline” is derived from “disciple” or “pupil”, meaning one who is taught.  The original meaning of discipline is therefore associated with teaching through example.  Parents act as sounding boards for negative emotions and inappropriate behaviour.  The goal of discipline is to help children become responsible for the consequences of their behaviour by teaching them how to modify behaviour within developmentally appropriate parameters. Inconsistent, disengaged  and authoritarian parenting are less effective than a firm and consistent approach (authoratitive). A child who cries in the night and is picked up one night and then left to cry the next, simply learns that it has cry longer on the third night to receive attention.  Authoratitive parenting involves paying attention to children’s needs and a firm and consistent approach, which above all else requires parental time and involvement.

Children learn by example (modeling).  In less technologically advanced societies this is one of the chief ways in which the wisdom and skills of one generation is passed on to the next. Learning by example involves time spent together observing and learning through practice (doing) simple activities such as eating a meal together, cooking, reading, washing the car etc.   This type of learning takes place over many years, cannot be taught in short “bytes” and is rooted in the self-discipline and consistency provided by parents and other adults such as teachers and grandparents. 

Richard Reeves, co-author of The Building Character report said that, “The Right is obsessed with family structure and the institution of marriage rather than the actual job of parenting, while the Left is more comfortable with economic explanations and is terrified of appearing judgmental.  The result is to deepen disadvantage for already deprived children”.  If we are to make a lasting difference in the future, we need to pay attention to what children really need, emotionally, developmentally and socially. Children need stable, loving and consistent parents.  The rest is politics.

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