Parenting styles among parents in Ireland

11 August 2016  |  Admin

LEARNING ON THE JOB: PARENTING IN MODERN IRELAND / Colm O'Doherty & Ashling JacksonRelatively little research on parenting from a psychological perspective has been conducted within an Irish context. One of the earliest psychological studies of parenting in Ireland, the Dublin Child Development Study initiated in 1985, was concerned with exploring the quality of parenting and its relationship to measures of the child’s functioning within families defined as ‘working class’ (Wieczorek-Deering et al, 1991). Over three-quarters of the children were classified as securely attached at 18 months, which arises from high levels of parental warmth and responsiveness to the baby’s distress. However, these mothers also engaged in higher levels of physical punishment, in comparison with levels found in other Western cultures at that time. Thus, Irish childrearing, within this sample at least, incorporated elements of authoritarian parenting (evidenced by the use of physical punishment) and authoritative parenting (reflected in the secure attachment of the babies). Greene (1994) suggested that inherent contradictions in parents’ styles may indicate that parents were suspended between the certainties of a harsher traditional approach to childrearing and the uncertainties of newer more democratic approaches.

Substantial cultural and demographic changes have occurred since then and shifts in how children are thought about have been reflected at policy and legislative levels. Noteworthy among developments include: Ireland’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992; the establishment of a Family Support Agency in 2003; the establishment of an Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2005; followed by the creation of a full ministerial position of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2011; and the publication of policy and strategy documents pertaining to understanding and improving the lives of children and families in Ireland (such as the National Children’s Strategy, 2000-2010 and Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, 2014-2020). More recently, the 31st amendment to the Irish Constitution gave more explicit expression to the rights of children, by identifying children as individuals who require child-specific rights that take into account that children are largely dependent upon adults for their care, and are sometimes powerless to vindicate their own rights (Children’s Rights Alliance, 2012). Thus, at a national level, attention increasingly was given to what services and resources parents and families need in order for children to flourish and achieve their full potential as human beings.

However, the extent to which broader societal discourses about the nature of childhood and children has seeped into the psyche of parents and affected their practices remains somewhat unknown, although existing Irish research suggests that the nature of parenting has changed. For example, Halpenny et al (2010) telephone-surveyed a random sample of 1,343 parents (946 mothers, 417 fathers) across Ireland. The responses showed that 70% of parents were of the view that parenting was ‘very different’ when compared with 20 years ago; almost three-quarters of parents believed that they had ‘less control’ over their children than parents in the past; and 84% indicated that they experienced greater pressure in their parenting role when compared with parents 20 years ago. These findings suggest that parents in contemporary Ireland perceive the task of parenting to be distinct from previous generations.

Further evidence for how parenting in Ireland may have changed emerged from the aforementioned telephone survey in which parents’ parenting styles and use of physical punishment with their children also were examined (Halpenny et al, 2010). Findings from the survey revealed that the use of physical punishment was low among the parents – 20% reported having used physical punishment on their child in the past year. Younger children more likely to have been physically punished in the past year than older children, with 26% of 0 to 4 year olds, 31.8% of 5 to 9 year olds, 12.1% of 10 to 14 year olds and 4.1% of 15 to 17 year olds having been physically punished in the past year. In contrast, a large majority (81%) of the parents in the study (average age 41 years) reported ever having experienced physical punishment as a child. While these rates are not directly comparable, they do point to generational shifts in approaches to childrearing. Interestingly, parents in the study did not view physical punishment as a particularly effective method of controlling children’s behaviour – 40% of parents indicated that physical punishment was not effective in deterring the child’s misbehaviour at the time, and a further 60% of parents believed that it was ineffective at preventing later misbehaviour. Almost two-thirds of parents believed that physical punishment was not necessary to bring up a well-behaved child, 28% believed that it was wrong and should never be used, and 43% believed that it could damage the parent-child relationship. Notwithstanding these attitudes, over half of the parents believed that parents should have the right to use physical punishment if they wish, and two-thirds were of the view that an occasional smack does not do a child any harm. Although some of these attitudes were patterned according to parents’ actual use of physical punishment, the findings do reflect considerable ambiguity in how parents in Ireland today view the use of physical punishment. Indeed, the rates of physical punishment in the study were relatively low, when compared with other similar studies from Scotland and the United Kingdom (Anderson et al, 2002; Ghate et al, 2003).

Inductive responses to child discipline, which involve actions such as using reasoning with the child, or requesting the child take time out, predominated current discipline practices. Inductive approaches to discipline are consistent with an authoritative style of parenting, and focus upon teaching the child about right and wrong and avoiding power battles between parents and children. The survey with parents in Ireland revealed that mothers and parents of older children were more likely to use inductive responses to discipline than fathers and parents of younger children, respectively. There also appeared to be an association between parenting behaviours and children’s behavioural outcomes. Parental use of physical punishment was highest in families where children were classified as having conduct or hyperactivity problems, but not emotional problems, while verbal hostility was highest in families where children were classified as having conduct or emotional problems, but not hyperactivity difficulties. Parents of children with conduct problems also scored higher on authoritarian parenting (Halpenny et al, 2010). Of course, the direction of effects is difficult to disentangle here – is it that children have conduct problems because their parents use physical punishment or adopt an authoritarian parenting style, or is it that parents are more likely to resort to harsher forms of control when their children are exhibiting behaviour problems? The likely answer lies somewhere in between: that harsh discipline and behaviour problems give rise to each other, and parent and child become entrenched in a cycle of negative interactions (Patterson and Fisher, 2002).

Perhaps the most significant effort to understand parenting and its relation to children’s development within the Irish context arises from work of Growing Up in Ireland, which was initiated in 2006. This government-funded study, the first of its kind in Ireland, is a national longitudinal study of almost 20,000 Irish children and their families. A sample of 11,100 babies and their parents has been studied at 9 months (Wave 1), 3 years (Wave 2) and 5 years (Wave 3). A second sample of 8,568 children, along with their parents and teachers, has been studied when the children were 9 years (Wave 1) and followed up at 13 years (Wave 2) (Williams et al, 2009, 2010, 2013).

Information on parenting collected at Wave 1 from the 9 year old sample has yielded new and comprehensive insights into the nature of parenting in modern Ireland. Because Growing Up in Ireland is based upon a large and representative sample of families in Ireland, we can be reasonably confident that the picture that emerges reflects what is happening within the broader population of families. Both mothers and fathers reported upon the quality of their relationship with their children, while children themselves answered a series of questions tapping into parents’ warmth and responsiveness, and use of control and discipline, from which parents could be classified into one of the four parenting styles. Mothers and teachers also reported upon children’s emotional, social and behavioural functioning (Nixon, 2012).

The majority of both mothers (77%) and fathers (68%) engaged in an authoritative style of parenting, with mothers adopting this style more often than fathers. Following this, the most commonly used style was permissive/indulgent parenting, adopted by 16% of mothers and 20% of fathers. A minority of parents was classified as uninvolved/neglectful (3% mothers, 6% fathers) and as authoritarian (4% mothers, 6% fathers) (Williams et al, 2010). For the majority of children, these findings are encouraging because they suggest that most children in Ireland perceive their parents to be warm and responsive, and to exert control over them in a manner that is constructive and enables them to learn about right and wrong. However, it is also worrying that a sizeable minority of parents in Ireland are engaging with their children in a less than optimal fashion. The data also suggest that girls were more likely than boys to experience a permissive parenting style by both mothers and fathers, while boys were more likely than girls to experience authoritarian parenting by both mothers and fathers (Nixon, 2012).

The question about how parenting style relates to children’s developmental outcomes also has been addressed using this data. The analysis suggests a relationship between style of parenting and children’s levels of social and emotional and behaviour problems. Relative to children with authoritative mothers, children with authoritarian and neglectful mothers had higher levels of social and emotional difficulties, and the same pattern of findings emerged for fathers. Permissive parenting by either mothers or fathers was not associated with higher levels of difficulties for children (Nixon, 2012).

These findings suggest that both authoritarian parenting and neglectful parenting can be harmful for children’s development, although the effects seem to operate slightly differently for boys and girls. Specifically, with respect to mothers’ parenting style, there were no differences in girls’ outcomes (such as levels of emotional or conduct problems or hyperactivity) when mothers are authoritative, authoritarian or permissive, but girls had worse outcomes when mothers are neglectful. For boys, there were no differences in their outcomes when mothers are authoritative or permissive, but boys had worse outcomes when mothers are authoritarian or neglectful. The parenting style that fathers adopt with their daughters did not seem to be related to their outcomes. For boys, however, this was not the case and boys seemed to fare poorly when their fathers adopt an authoritarian or neglectful style of parenting with them (Nixon, 2012).

Together these findings point to important pathways linking mothers’ and fathers’ styles of parenting to boys’ and girls’ development and well-being. It appears that authoritarian parenting seems to carry particularly negative consequences for boys, in ways that it does not for girls. Perhaps the control inherent in authoritarian parenting is difficult for boys to deal with, as it runs counter to their gender-typed expectations that boys should be dominant and assertive, rather than being dependent and submissive, which are known outcomes of authoritarian parenting. Boys also appear to be vulnerable to the impact of neglectful fathering, in ways that girls are not, suggesting that involvement by fathers is particularly important for boys. 

Extracted from Chapter 6: Parenting & Children's Development in Ireland: Lessons from Psychology by Elizabeth Nixon in LEARNING ON THE JOB: PARENTING IN MODERN IRELAND, edited by Colm O'Doherty and Ashling Jackson.