Who’s Minding the Children?


“I am” should be everyone’s answer—according to family researchers at a BYU conference.

Isolation has set in. Each family is alone in the neighborhood, peering over fences and hedges to see only strangers. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles live in distant cities and are rarely seen. Even within the family, children come home to empty houses, or worse, houses full of people who don’t care.

A science fiction story of the future? No, said Urie Bronfenbrenner at Brigham Young University’s recent Sixth Annual Family Research Conference. That is a pretty accurate picture of much of America and some other parts of the world today.

The theme of the conference was “Family Structure and Process in the Socialization of Children”—how the institution of the family guides (or fails to guide) children into active, productive roles in society. For two days psychologists and sociologists—both Mormons and non-Mormons—shared the results of their research into the family. Many of their ideas have direct and vital application for Latter-day Saint families. Some of the thought-provoking presentations are reported here.

Urie Bronfenbrenner: “The Ecology of Human Development”

Dr. Bronfenbrenner, professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and one of America’s most respected family researchers, has for years been involved in cross-cultural studies—traveling to Russia, China, and other nations to study the family and other institutions that try to raise children. He has had a chance to look at America’s family practices with a new perspective. What he has seen is not entirely bad, but there are serious problems.

“Who cares for America’s children?” he asked. Then he answered: “Too often there is no competent, responsible adult to care. The number of ‘latchkey’ children—children who come home to an empty house every day—is growing. Yet these are the children who contribute most heavily to delinquency or more mild misbehavior.”

What do children need?

A child’s most basic need, said Dr. Bronfenbrenner, is “the enduring and ‘irrational’ involvement of one or more adults in the child’s life who share in joint activity with the child.” Dr. Bronfenbrenner then explained that “irrational involvement” means to love without conditions.

But the adult’s “irrational involvement” must be a lasting, growing relationship as the shared activities become richer. Dr. Bronfenbrenner emphasized: “What we’re talking about is a love affair that doesn’t end—an adult who is totally committed to the child.”

But the child’s parent or caretaker can’t just wait for love to happen spontaneously before he gets involved. In fact, said Dr. Bronfenbrenner, love must involve action first. Love is the emotional outcome of mutual involvement: the more an adult does with a child, the more the adult will love the child.

How effectively are children’s needs being met?

Not very effectively, Dr. Bronfenbrenner believes. It’s getting worse. Even parents who want to do a good job of parenting simply can’t seem to find the time.

Dr. Bronfenbrenner pointed out that in our urban society, more and more parents live on the freeway. An 8-to-5 job often means leaving the house at 6:30 A.M. and getting home at 6:30 P.M. Not much of the day is left—and after the tension of commuting, there’s little desire for those precious hours of “joint activity” with the children.

More and more mothers are working, either by choice or because divorce, widowhood, or financial problems have forced them to be the breadwinner of the family. Naturally, there are fewer hours in the day for the children.

Just as dangerous, according to Bronfenbrenner, is an attitude that in the last fifteen years has caused terrible damage: the attitude of “Do your own thing,” which actually boils down to “Me first.” Broken families and “broken children” are symptoms of that selfishness.

A society of people who do their own thing is not a caring society. Such people do not make those desperately needed “irrational commitments” but look upon everything in life as disposable. Dr. Bronfenbrenner deplored the points of view that say, “Marriage isn’t working? Don’t fix it—just get a new one.” “Children too demanding? Get a sitter.”

There is no single “government intervention program that can solve all the problems” of America’s children. Any solution must strike at the roots—and we need not wait for the government. People without professional training are the people with the real power to make those needed changes in children’s lives, according to Dr. Bronfenbrenner: real help can come from the neighborhood and from the world of work.

The Neighborhood

In China, Dr. Bronfenbrenner found that there were problems in every single aspect of life that makes a difference in raising children: there are poverty, terrible crowding, poor parental education, absence of both parents from the home. Yet the family was functioning; the children were growing up to be moral, reasonably happy people. “Why?” asked Bronfenbrenner. “The neighborhood.” People dropped in all day, interacting with the children. Old people were actively involved in the little children’s lives. No one was a stranger. Everybody cared.

Western societies used to have that kind of caring, involved neighborhood, too, Dr. Bronfenbrenner reminded. Why not now? Perhaps because we are more transient, he suggested—we know we won’t be in the neighborhood very long. Perhaps because we just don’t have time to get involved with our own children, let alone somebody else’s. Perhaps because we’re so busy “doing our own thing” that we can’t be bothered to notice that the neighbors are alive.

But Dr. Bronfenbrenner urged that if we make it a point to get involved—to break down those compartments in our lives—the neighborhood could be reestablished, not as a substitute for the family, but in support of the family. The child who comes home to an empty house because his mother has to work could still know that next door is someone who cares for him.

For Latter-day Saints the concept can go even further. We already have programs that can foster a “neighborhood feeling” if we desire them to also work to that end: home teaching, visiting teaching, the auxiliaries. If we could carry that kind of involvement and caring not just to other Saints but also to nonmember neighbors—whether they are planning to join the Church or not—we could go a long way toward helping children feel the stability they must have.

The World of Work

“When children need you, they need you now. They can’t always wait until you get home from work.”

For many years America has been devoted to work, Dr. Bronfenbrenner pointed out. The twelve-hour workday that the laborer used to have to put in is now the prerogative of the executive. In the struggle to get ahead, families have often been left behind.

Nor is this strictly an American problem. Dr. Bronfenbrenner reported attempts of other countries to eliminate these corrosive influences on the family. For instance, the Swedish government, determined not to lose a generation of children, recently passed a law requiring employers to give sick leave to parents when their child is sick—provided that half the time is taken by the father.

Other, less drastic measures can help relieve those unfortunate situations where mothers are forced to become the family breadwinner. This is why there is an influence upon many employers to set up work schedules other than eight hours for full-time employees as well as appropriate adjustments in the hours of part-time employees. Bronfenbrenner suggested that if a working mother could arrive at her job after the children go to school and get home before they return—without having to give up the fringe benefits and hourly wage levels of full-time employment—it could go a long way toward easing the problems of “latchkey children.”

Businesses are already beginning a trend to transfer their employees less, allowing families to put down roots in a community. “And why not?” asked Dr. Bronfenbrenner. “The top business executives have families themselves: they are not blind to the terrible cost of those twelve-hour days they spent getting to the top” and the disruptions in family life caused by constantly moving.

America: Still Strong

Dr. Bronfenbrenner’s picture of America was not all problems; and one of America’s special strengths is pragmatism. “If something doesn’t work, we don’t cling to it for old times’ sake. It’s back to the drawing board.”

But now we need to apply ourselves to the problems, Dr. Bronfenbrenner said. We are often too isolated, too cut off from our neighbors, our neighborhoods cut off from each other, families cut off from the schools, from business, from government, and sadly, family members are often cut off from each other. In a sense we are the people in our lives, said Dr. Bronfenbrenner: If we are involved with few people, we become narrow ourselves.

And when we are asked, “Who cares for the children?” we should be able to answer, truthfully, “I do.”

Diana Baumrind: “Parental Discipline Patterns and Social Competence in Children”

“There is no way parents can evade having a determining effect upon their children’s personality, character, and competence,” said Dr. Diana Baumrind, a research psychologist from the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley. Children are not able to alter their own environment the way adults can—and so whether parents mean to or not, they have a profound controlling influence on their children’s lives.

Dr. Baumrind is working with a large group Of children and their parents, studying what kind of parenting is associated with different behavior patterns in the children. Her initial findings seem to indicate that there are three basic kinds of parents: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative.

Authoritarian parents value obedience as a virtue in itself. They work at keeping the child subordinate, preserving order as an end in itself, rather than as a means of accomplishing other purposes. Their method is rigorous discipline, either physical or emotional (shaming, for example).

Permissive parents, on the contrary, view themselves as a resource for the child. They do not try to control the child or get him to obey. Rather, they keep the child free from restraint and let him grow as he wants.

Dr. Baumrind explained that the type of parenting she has found most effective lies somewhere between these two extremes in what she calls authoritative parenting. To authoritative parents, obedience is a means of promoting learning. Authoritative parents reason with their children, explaining why a certain rule is necessary, why a certain punishment must be imposed. At the same time, the child’s wishes and desires are respected. Standards for behavior are set, but the child is free within those standards to choose what he wants, and the rules are never arbitrarily or whimsically chosen.

Children of parents in these categories tend to view the world differently from one another. Children of authoritarian parents (who demand obedience first) learn very young that they may be punished no matter what they do. They begin to believe, consciously or not, that they don’t have any control over their environment. Children of permissive parents, however, learn very early that they will be rewarded no matter what they do. They begin to believe that good things will be given them without reason, and they, too, feel they have no control over their environment.

Children of authoritative parents, however, realize very young that they do have control over their environment. Because the reasons for rules and punishments are explained to them, they begin to see their own actions as the cause of the good and bad things that happen to them.

What is the result of these different world views that children are unconsciously taught? According to Dr. Baumrind’s research, children of permissive parents, who get adult approval no matter how they behave, tend to be irresponsible. They depend on other people to make decisions. They learn no concept of right and wrong.

On the other hand, Dr. Baumrind’s research indicates that children of authoritarian parents, who are punished frequently without believing there is a reason for it, see the world as a hostile, unfair place, and they rebel—or give up in despair. In either case, they tend to be unable to adapt well to the adult world.

Authoritative parenting tends to produce children who are able to think independently, who can make their own decisions, who, because they believe their own actions will decide whether good or bad things happen to them, are resourceful and self-motivated. They feel like a part of the world around them, acting as well as reacting.

Of course, authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative are very broad terms, and there is no easy formula to follow. Furthermore, these studies show tendencies, not guarantees. Following the authoritative pattern of parenting does not guarantee that all your children will be more responsible, take more initiative, be more self-motivated—but it does improve the chances a great deal.

The attitude of the parents, not the rigid following of a set of rules, is more likely the basis of the three patterns of parenting. The authoritarians believe that children should take on adult responsibility as quickly as possible. Permissive parents instead focus on the children’s rights. Authoritative parents, however, believe that children and adults have reciprocal rights and responsibilities. They neither exploit the children nor allow the children to exploit them. According to Dr. Baumrind, they “were inclined to see the rights and duties of parents and young children as complementary rather than identical. They believed that as parents they should be receptive to and aware of the child’s needs and views before making any attempt to alter the child’s actions.”

The authoritative parents in Dr. Baumrind’s study also showed a strong tendency to be aware that they should expect different behavior and abilities from their children at different ages. For example, “good” behavior for its own sake, and not to avoid punishment or to get a reward, seems to begin in the early grade school years. To expect a child to know right from wrong before that without an adult present to instruct or control would be unreasonable. According to Dr. Baumrind, authoritative parents also seem to realize that although children pass through different stages of ability at different ages, those stages do not automatically unfold from birthday to birthday. Instead, they are modified by interaction between the child and his parents and other adults helping the child learn to cope with society.

An interesting finding of Dr. Baumrind’s research is that in the early school years, girls who are most competent are also the most self-assertive and argumentative; whereas the most competent boys are conformists who cooperate better than other boys. In fact, it seems that in the early school years the most competent children behave in ways not typical of the normal sex stereotype.

Dr. Baumrind pointed out that in these early years fathers have a particularly important role with their daughters. The most competent girls engage in spirited discourse with their fathers, assuming an adult role, while their mothers hold back. This does not hold true with particularly competent boys, however.

In general, said Dr. Baumrind, any “child’s ability to discuss, debate, and think logically is related to parental discussion” in the presence of the children. When parents appropriately work out differences of opinion with the children or with each other in the presence of the children, the children learn the skills of discussion and problem-solving. They also learn not to feel threatened by disagreement.

Other Researchers

Besides the keynote addresses, participants at the BYU Family Research Conference heard twenty-five scholarly papers, all based on research, either by laboratory observations or by questionnaires in a sample population. Some highlights:

Family Size

Early research seemed to say that large families had a negative effect on a child’s development—and that the later a child was born in a family, the less likely he was to be intelligent. But recent studies by Richard Galbraith and James Smith of BYU lay that notion to rest. Their findings show that there is no significant difference in intelligence depending on family size or birth order. What matters is the nature and quality of the relationships within the family unit.

John Zussman of the University of Utah reported the results of research on parental overload. He found that parents who were warm and supportive of their children on a one-to-one basis tended to become more punishing and interfering when two of their children were present. In one study where parents were assigned tasks to perform with two of their children present, researchers found that parents actually spent more time trying to control their children, while doing a less effective job of it. Zussman warned parents: Just the fact of having more children there while you’re trying to do something else may make you feel like the children are misbehaving more than they really are!

Norman Livson of the University of California at Berkeley studied the relationship between the personalities of teenagers and the size family they later had. In a study that spanned decades, information was collected on hundreds of young people, following them through to adulthood. What did he find? Teenage girls who in the 1930s were intelligent, decisive, self-insightful, and responsible—who did not fantasize or repress reality—tended to have more children. And the strongest correlation was between intelligence and family size: “So if girls are allowed and encouraged to grow and develop their abilities,” Dr. Livson half-seriously pointed out, “the U.S. population may increase.”

Dr. Livson also discovered that family size seems to be influenced more strongly by the wife’s personality. There was no significant relationship between family size and the personality that the father had shown in his teens.

Mormon Fathers

Genevieve and Arturo De Hoyos of BYU conducted a study among BYU students from stable, generally successful families to see what kind of involvement fathers have—or are believed to have—in the home. The results? Of concern to all Latter-day Saints, the students reported that fathers were much less involved than mothers in the lives of their children in matters ranging from chore assignments and the handling of children’s problems to school performance and—most surprising, since fathers are supposed to be the spiritual head of Latter-day Saint families—in the children’s Church activities and performance. Fathers had only half as much involvement with the children as mothers when it came to helping children with Church assignments. They were also much less involved with encouraging Church attendance, individual prayers, scripture reading, and seminary attendance! Almost half of the fathers never helped their children with a Church assignment, and a third had never helped their children offer a prayer or read the scriptures!

These young Latter-day Saints saw their mothers as the person who gives the orders and decides what the children should and should not do, whereas the father was the enforcer, the punisher if they did wrong. And “consistently and invariably, these young people reported that [in their own marriages] they wanted a more equitable sharing of responsibilities; that is, these young men and women wanted the man in the house to take more responsibility than they saw their fathers take.”

Conclusions from the Conference

The announced theme of the conference was “Family Structure and Process in the Socialization of Children”—how families help children mature into good, productive people. What emerged, deliberately or accidentally, from every report in the conference was not only that the family is the best method of raising children—indeed, perhaps the only good method—but also that the effects of the family on children can never be neutral. If the family is not a powerfully good influence on the children, it will be a powerfully negative one, or some mixture of good and bad. Children are profoundly influenced by their parents and by the spirit of their family life; and if parents don’t deliberately exert influence on their children, they will accidentally—but just as strongly—exert an influence anyway.

As Dr. Baumrind said at the conclusion of her keynote address: “There are many positive [styles of child rearing] and more than one route by which each can be reached. However, there are routes parents take that reliably lead in a direction opposite to the one that was intended.” She concluded that the scientists who are researching family life can make a meaningful contribution by assisting parents to understand what the results of their actions and their choice of child-rearing attitudes may be. Backed by such knowledge and by the promptings of the Spirit, parents can then more effectively help their children become the type of persons their parents—and the Lord—want them to be.

[photo] Photo by Jed Clark

[photo] The Authoritarian Parent: All control and no support.

[photo] The Permissive Parent: All support and no control.

[photo] The Authoritative Parent: A balance of discipline and understanding.