Helicopter parenting. Tiger parenting. Free-range parenting. These are buzz-words we hear all the time that are supposed to describe the “best” approaches for parents to take raising their children. We all want the best for our children and parents happily and eagerly adopt the latest, greatest advice. Even governments enact legislation that promotes one approach or another, just like Utah did recently in passing legislation enabling parents to legally leave their children unsupervised to play outdoors or walk to school.
But do any of these parenting styles have ample evidence to support effectiveness as a parenting approach? Most people might be surprised to find that the answer is “not really.”
Social scientists who study parenting rarely, if ever, use these buzz-word concepts to categorize or characterize parenting approaches. When these scientists, like myself, want to predict what kind of parenting affects children’s development, we consider very different variables.
So what really matters in parenting according to the evidence?
There are well-known risk factors that undermine children’s health and development and there are protective factors that promote children’s health and development.
Risk factors include traumatic childhood experiences that parents themselves may have experienced in their own families, such as mental illness or addictions, family violence and low family income. These factors may prevent parents from engaging in consistent sensitive and responsive interactions with their children, which promotes children’s optimal brain, cognitive and social-emotional development.
According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, parental mental illness, addictions, family violence, child abuse and neglect are all considered to be “toxic” to children’s development. This toxicity is observable at the cellular level — when children are exposed to these chronic stressors, in an attempt to cope, their bodies produce the stress hormone cortisol at persistently high levels.
In normal situations, cortisol levels would come down as the stressor passes and the child’s body would recover. However, in chronically stressed children, the high cortisol levels remain over time, negatively impact…
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