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In Parenting, Love Wins

New research finds that parents’ love matters more than how they parent.

There are few things parents defend more passionately than the parenting style and practices we’ve chosen. But does it really matter precisely how we parent our children? Does parenting affect child development? Is it true that particular parenting practices are better than others? These are the questions the research team from Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program have been asking themselves.

"As a foreigner who has stayed in the U.S. for almost a decade, I still experience shocks every now and then when seeing parenting behaviors that are vastly different from the culture where I was reared. I wonder, is there an ingredient in parenting that is universally desired?” the teams’ research scientist, Ying Chen, ScD shared with me.

Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash
Is love enough in parenting?
Source: Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash

In a paper from earlier this year, the Harvard team concluded that people who recall their parents as warm and loving are flourishing at much higher rates in adulthood. That finding alone was very exciting.

But that study was limited by its data source. The adults they studied had been children in a time before the onset of intensive parenting. Their study left me with questions: was a stricter parenting culture a confounder in the findings? How might changes in child-rearing practices alter these findings?

Now the team has answered those questions with their latest paper published yesterday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

This study looked at a generation raised during the height of permissive parenting. They used longitudinal data from the Growing Up Today Studies, which first surveyed participants while they were ages 9-17 for GUTS1 in 1996 and ages 10-17 for GUTS2 in 2004, and then followed them later to assess outcomes. These studies ran from 1997 to 2013.

While prior studies have looked at parenting practices and specific outcomes like drugs use, the Harvard researchers felt it would be more accurate to look at the overall impact on all aspects of adult well-being by positive parenting. For this purpose, they defined three aspects of positive parenting: whether the child is satisfied with the parent-child relationship, whether parents provide family routines, and the parenting style.

As they expected, the team found these aspects all produced better outcomes in adulthood, but when they looked at parenting styles, they noticed something that surprised them.

Loving, warm parents predict positive adult outcomes.

The most compelling finding of the paper was that when people were satisfied with their relationship with their parents (when they felt loved) they did much better in adulthood. This was no surprise to the Harvard team; it was consistent with their prior research.

To assess this question, they used the GUTS 2008 questionnaire, in which respondents rated statements like “I am satisfied with the love and affection my mother/father shows me.” The questions looked at how satisfied they were with their parents’ love and attachment, communication, conflict resolution, and their feeling of emotional connection with their parents.

When compared with the least satisfied 33%, the 33% who were most satisfied with their relationship with their parents had substantially greater emotional well- being and lower risk of depression, anxiety, overweight or obesity, overeating, eating disorders and marijuana use. This held across age groups in the study, except that the youngest were even less likely to use marijuana or smoke cigarettes than the older cohort.

"I believe the results point to the centrality of love within parenting. We call this 'relationship satisfaction' in the paper because the questions that are asked concern satisfaction with different aspects of the parent-child relationship, but those aspects really are about love, about the parent desiring and seeking the good of the child. That love profoundly shapes childhood outcomes later in life. I think we perhaps need to re-introduce the notion of love back into public health discourse. It is clearly important,” commented Tyler Vanderweele, Ph.D., Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard and Director of the Human Flourishing Program.

So far, the findings were consistent with what the team expected. The surprise came when they looked at parenting styles.

Parenting Styles may matter less than we thought.

When researchers look at parenting, they ask how demanding parents are, and how responsive they are to their children. When we leave out parents who engage in a pattern of abuse or neglect, the three main parenting styles have been described as the authoritative, the authoritarian and the permissive styles.

Widely considered the best style based on research evidence, Authoritative Parents show high levels of both behaviors: showing love and setting boundaries. Such parents expect the best of their children, and also are very engaged with them. They show high levels of nurturing, involvement, and sensitivity while encouraging autonomy and reasoning in the child.

In contrast, Authoritarian Parents demand everything and show little affection. They show “highly directive behaviors, high levels of restriction, and power-asserting behaviors.” It’s what I often refer to as old-school: the message the child gets is “Do what I say. What you want, your need for independence and your feelings are not important.”

On the other end of the spectrum are the Permissive Parents, who just want their kids to be happy. They demand and expect very little of their children, but are highly responsive to their child’s needs and feelings. Their behavior is non-controlling, and they use little punishment. (link to PT article)

In the past research has shown that both authoritarian and permissive parenting styles have more negative outcomes for children, so the team expected their study would show this too. And they did indeed find that greater parental authoritativeness was associated with greater emotional processing and emotional expression, fewer depressive symptoms and lower risk of over-eating in offspring (when comparing the top 33% to the bottom 33%).

But here is where the team was surprised. In previous studies, the association between permissive parenting styles and the offspring’s risk of mental illness or certain behaviors of concern was strong. But in this study, the association was significantly weaker than expected. The research team thought this had to do with the way they looked at the data, “this study considered parenting styles as continuous variables,” while prior studies used either/or definitions.

So, when parents were more authoritarian, offspring had more depressive symptoms. But when they were more permissive, but still showing love, those negative outcomes were mild. When the researchers analyzed the data on parenting style combined with the data on parent-child relationship satisfaction, the positive outcomes from feeling loved remained, and “the effects of parenting styles were mostly attenuated.” In other words, when people felt loved, other aspects of their parents’ style mattered a lot less.

Is Love Enough?

I asked Dr. Vanderweele what he thought about these results. "I do not think that the results indicate that rules and discipline are irrelevant for children. The 'authoritative style' of high warmth and high control is associated here, and elsewhere, associated with better outcomes. What the results do make clear though is that love or warmth is the dominant element.”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife, like all parents, debate their decisions about parenting. After this study, while those decisions still matter to him, he finds that “it is also good to know, at the end of the day, that simply trying to love our children well will go a long way. The results can be reassuring to parents: love your child well, seek what is good for them, do your best, and this will have powerful effects.”

Dr. Ying Chen summed it up this way when wondering about that key ingredient in parenting, “One answer may be love. There are perhaps various avenues to convey love in parenting, be it expressing warmth, teaching about life, or providing family routines. The preferable outlets and styles of expressing love may vary across traditions, but the almighty power of love in shaping children’s future health and well-being may be universal.”