Overly strict parenting does not a rule-abiding child make, according to a long-term study. Children whose parents severely punish them perform more poorly in the classroom - if they're there at all.
Yelling, corporal punishment or verbal threats of physical consequences, or "harsh parenting," as it was defined in a new long-term study, causes children to perform poorly in school and to behave badly outside of it.
According to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the US state of Pennsylvania, children raised in a severe parental environment are more likely to skip homework to play with friends and more willing to break rules in order to maintain those friendships - at the consequence of academic performance.
The researchers derived their conclusions from a longitudinal study on more than 1,500 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 21, collected as part of the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context study.
That study had measured the extent to which parents' verbal or physical attacks grew over time, as well as the adolescents' interactions with peers, their criminal activities and sexual behavior. Students self-reported those answers via questionnaire and were asked questions such as the following:
"During the past month, how often did you parents hit, push, grab or shove you?"
"How often did your parent yell at you?"
"When you break one of your parents' rules, how often did they physically punish you?"
One finding was that 7th graders who'd been raised very strictly were, two years later, more likely to consider peers and friends more important than following their parents' own rules.
Later, by 11th grade, these individuals were then involved in even riskier behaviors: Young women tended to engage earlier in sexual activity, while males were more likely to be involved in criminal activities.
Both genders were also more likely to drop out of high school or college.
Risks of underreporting
Co-author Rochelle Hentges told DW that, in spite of the inherent risks in self-reporting, allowing kids to provide the information was the best option.
"One of the reasons for child reporting is that parents are biased and tend to underreport their own behavior," she said. "Maybe they don't remember the times they yelled at their kids. But from the kids' perspective, it's clear." She added that adolescents, however, might underreport things like delinquencies or early sexual behavior.
Of the participants in the study, 56 percent were African-American - not necessarily representative of the entire US, but representative of some suburban, urban and rural environments.
When asked about the moral and ethical difficulty in measuring corporal punishment amongst adolescents - and whether researchers are obliged to report certain kinds of abuse (potentially changing study results) - Hentges said that longitudinal research is able to avoid such conflicts.
"The way long-term studies are usually done is that the responses are de-identified. They're all anonymous, you can't match a response to an individual. So you couldn't follow up."
As for the conclusion parents could or should draw from the new report, Hentges said it isn't exactly a plea for overly soft parenting, either.
"A lot of time people tend to view parenting as one of two extremes. You're either too permissive or lenient, or you spank your child and be firm and harsh," she said.
"That's not really how it has to be. You can have warm, supportive, but firm, boundaries - with clear consequences that are not physical punishment."
The report was published in the US journal "Child Development."