Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo Ph.D.

Momma Data


Got Good Parenting? It's Not Just about Breast Milk or Extracurricular Schedules

What does it take to be a successful parent?

Posted Aug 29, 2012

Know a good parent? Forget the mom who makes the circus animal cupcakes or gladly drives her kid and 5 others or who just got another kid into a gifted and talented slot. Think of the mom or dad with the children you'd welcome into your home any time with or without a chaperon or a runny nose. What makes this person so good with kids? Here's a hint. Good parenting has almost nothing to do with how much time you've spent painting backdrops for the school play or how many instruments your child plays or how much breast milk your kid sucked down. The answers may surprise you.

Many a parenting expert has pondered the qualities or skills that make some parents more successful. Robert Epstein Ph.D., a Harvard-trained psychologist and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies conducted a study looking into this very question and wrote about the results a while back in Scientific American Mind, What Makes a Good Parent.*

Epstein and his collaborator Shannon Fox decided to try and wrestle the massive parenting literature into a more manageable lesson or two. Technically they hoped to achieve a more scientific approach to the wildly unscientific domain of child rearing (paging Dr. Sears). So they perused the diverse body of research and identified 10 areas of parenting competencies or skills that either routinely predicted child outcomes (health, happiness, success) or at least got a lot of attention:

  1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
  2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
  3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
  4. Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
  5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
  6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
  7. Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
  8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
  9. Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
  10. Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.“

After Epstein surveying some 2,000 parents on their own competencies and their children's health, happiness, success and other related issues he rated the parenting skills in order of importance for predicting child outcomes. In a twist sure to delight us at Momma Data, he also checked up on the experts too and asked a small group to rank which competencies they thought were most important.

So what happened? Love conquered all.

Hugs, saying I love you and other warm fuzzies most strongly predicted overall child well-being. The experts agreed. What's more, parents reported they were better at the lovey-dovey thang than anything else on the list. What might surprise you, however, are the next two best competencies because they don't directly involve how parents treat their children. That's right, it's not about the kids. Not really.

Get out your scented candles and download the guided imagery App. Stress management turned out to be the second most important factor, a development that surprised Epstein and the experts, the latter ranking it number 8 on the list. As Epstein put it "keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting." Unfortunately keeping calm was at the bottom of parental skills.

The third biggest factor? How well parents or partners get along. As Epstein noted "children do not like conflict, especially when it involves the two people in the world they love most."

Fostering autonomy and independence came out as the fourth most critical and yes, the above list is in descending order. Not quite unexpected but timely given the culture of hyper parenting and extended adolescence. So as I write my kids led by my 11 year-old are doing the laundry, an experiment fraught with risks but alas independence does not come without a price. Closely related, life skill ranks #6 so this afternoon after all the clothes are folded and put away the kids and I will let the kids decide how to spend their allowance.

I will not worry if there are no organic grapes in the produce aisle. I won't worry if my kids drink milk that is not organic. I'll let my tween ride in the front side. I won't make her carry her helmet to the roller skating party because let's face it, no one else is wearing one. I'd hate to see potential endocrine disruptors (#8) or head injuries (#10) tarnish my Zen composure (#2). Health ranked a mere #8 on the list, safety #10. Religion ranked #9. Not much help to the heathens among us.

Before you invest in yoga pants not to mention marital therapy there are a few caveats. Epstein's study is entirely based on self-reported behavior and competencies. Take it with a grain of salt as parents rated themselves and their children on all the measures.

Moreover the Top Ten doesn't include some other potentially relevant parenting traits (confounding factors), ones that reflect not so much behavior (or things parents can do or change) but characteristics like gender or marital status. Epstein measured some of these but didn't find much evidence for parental traits that people often associate with better parenting. Women only slightly "better" than men. Older parents or those with more or less kids didn't have an edge. Divorced parents did just as well in the results though their kids were slightly less happy. Nor were there ethnic or racial differences in parenting abilities. Forget any talk of differences between gay and straight parents, none here.

However, Esptein found evidence of a general parenting ability akin to the "g" factor of intelligence. In fact, the two might be very closely related. Very close. A parent's education level significantly predicted child outcomes so as education may be a proxy for intelligence it's possible intelligence predicts child rearing outcomes.

Other studies do support the significant role of parental smarts in child outcomes. In fact it's reasonable to argue parental intelligence in addition to other genetic factors, say personality, account at least in part for the Top Ten. Genetics could explain why some parents, by virtue of in-born intelligence and personality, just seem to get kids and parenting. Genetics also suggest how smart, calm and loving parents, through the transmission of genes wind up with smart, calm and loving children.

Decades of empirical research support the significant role of genetics in determining one's fate. Studies of twins and non-twin siblings show that genetics (i.e. heredity) accounts for about 50% of the variance in child outcomes. As for intelligence, perhaps the most studied, heredity accounts for about 75% to 80% of variance in adult IQs. Interestingly, the importance of heredity increases with age so that it accounts for about 45% of variance in children from 20% in babies and toddlers. The home environment, by contrast, loses impact over the lifespan so it' near zero in adulthood.

So weep into your fruit juice-sweetened muffins and rethink the Kumon sessions. You're really not going to make the kids any smarter (that's another post for later). Not your kids anyhow. It's the parents with kids nearer the left tail of the Bell Curve who can actually make a difference in their kid's cognitive abilities hence the pressing need for Head Start and other early childhood intervention programs.

Now I've focused on intelligence, but there's similar if not quite as strong evidence for the role of heredity in other traits, including ones related to parenting and child well-being especially personality traits. Like IQ the role of heredity increases with age. It's also become quite fashionable to study and talk about the importance of peers too though I often wonder if the estimates are inflated as parents influence friendships to a certain extent through such factors as neighborhood, school, sports, extracurricular activities, clothing, social media use, lifestyle etc.

There's another possible factor to consider in good parenting - the kids themselves, rather, their unique contribution to the mix, a possibility not unnoticed by two of my academic psychologist friends, a married couple, who half-joke "we'd be better parents if we had better kids."

Personally I take this all as a refreshing challenge to the current hyper parenting climate. It's license to relax, be kind and trust your child will turn out just as healthy, happy and successful if you drop the test prep, baby proofing and all the other questionable time-draining, money-sapping activities from your to-do list.

Not that parents or the home environment don't matter, they do but perhaps in more subtle and different avenues than imagined. If you feel like some self-improvement, chances are you probably do need to work on #2 and possibly #3 or #4. It can't hurt and despite the possibility your genes largely have determined your parenting abilities, it might help your child.

If you've distributed your daily quota of affection and honed your Downward Dog/Sun Salutation, take the Epstein Parenting Competencies Inventory at myparentingskills.com. Let's just say I have some room for improvement and will be visualizing cool ocean breezes.

* Epstein and Fox presented this study at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego in 2010. Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.