Assessing Parenting Practices in Studies

Interpersonal influence is something that defies being quantified for research.

Posted Mar 26, 2019

 Scream and Shout by Mindaugas Danys, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr: Scream and Shout by Mindaugas Danys, CC by 2.0

A "scientific" journal article entitled, “Which dimension of parenting predicts the change of callous-unemotional traits in children with disruptive behavior disorder?” by Muratori and others in the August 2016 issue of Comprehensive Psychiatry attempted to determine whether parenting practices influenced the development of so-called callous and unemotional (CU) character traits (a persistent pattern of behavior that reflects a disregard for others, and a lack of empathy) in their children. Alternatively, are those traits – which are common in children with disruptive behavior –more genetic in origin? 

In the study, the authors concluded that in their study no significant relationship had been found between "negative" parenting and CU traits; these two variables were also unrelated when "positive" parenting was considered in the same model. However, using a slightly different model, higher levels of positive parenting in the study sample predicted lower levels of CU traits.

Although I would like to believe and tend to agree that “positivity” in parent-child relationships helps decrease acting out behavior in children, a huge problem with this type of study is how on earth can you precisely measure the nature of the relationship between parents and children? The biggest problems with that include the fact that these relationships are not constants but vary across time and situational contexts. Furthermore, the disciplinary practices certainly change over time as the children get older.

Second, parental discipline can be very inconsistent even over short periods of time. The parents might disagree about discipline and work at cross purposes. Or the parents might be good disciplinarians when it comes to providing children with adequate curfews, for example, but also allow them to stay up all hours of the night. Inconsistent parenting is a well-known risk factor for acting out by children.

Third, how does a study even attempt to measure the tone of parenting practices? The way something is said is often more important in interpersonal relationships that the actual words used.

Last, parents who are either overtly abusive or neglectful are very unlikely to volunteer to be subjects in a study of this nature.

This study used a measure called “The Alabama Parenting Questionnaire (APQ) – Mother Report.” This parent report measure has five subscales: parental involvement, positive parenting, poor monitoring/supervision, inconsistent discipline, and corporal punishment. Items are rated on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always).

They used the mother’s own report of her own disciplinary practices! If a mother were harsh or inconsistent, how likely do these authors think she would admit to it, even if she were very self-aware, which obviously many people are not. There is no way to be sure, of course, but the odds are very good that the amount of “negative” parenting is considerably higher than their study results would indicate, while the amount of “positive” parenting could possibly be overestimated. 

And which particular types of those parental behaviors listed in the instrument were the most relevant to the question at hand? There is no way to know!

When it comes to assessing the effects of family interactions, details make a huge difference. And as I have maintained over and over again, in order to get these details completely accurately, you would need a camera on both the parents and the children 24 hours a day over a significant time period. This type of study using absolutely no direct observation of what is purportedly being measured is a complete waste of time.