The role of parenting in shaping child development and societal wellbeing

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Mother and child (photo: courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio)

Parents ultimately determine children’s life choices, dispositions, and overall personality through their influence and parental authority. The parent-child relationship is a heavily researched topic in psychology, with studies aiming to explain and predict developmental outcomes in children. Research suggests that parents’ socialization shapes their understanding and responsibility of parenthood, and these practices vary by culture. Parents are inclined to act in ways that are culturally meaningful, guided by an intuitive sense of right and wrong. Many parents rely on these criteria to guide their children to become competent, responsible, and fully functioning members of society. However, certain parental behaviours may inadvertently inhibit the development of children, producing adverse effects instead.

Exploring the psychology of parenting is crucial due to its significant implications for the development of antisocial behaviors that can hinder a child’s growth. Children who struggle with verbal expression or learn early to express themselves through violence often externalize their frustrations, resorting to aggression as a means of managing difficult relationships, difficulties in relationships, and personal challenges. When children are not allowed to express themselves honestly and openly and are raised in dysfunctional settings, their experience of negative emotions is significantly more likely to lead to maladaptive behaviours. Pioneering criminologists Gottfredson and Hirschi attribute poor parenting to the lack of interpersonal skills necessary for conflict resolution. However, it is important to recognize that societal influences and systemic factors also play substantial roles in shaping behavior.

Understanding the intersectionality and nuances of these situations is vital to effectively addressing the root causes of antisocial behaviour in childhood and adolescence. The urgency of this issue is underscored by the alarming global trend of children being implicated in serious crimes. In the United States, statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicate that juveniles were involved in approximately 15 per cent of violent crime arrests in recent years. In the United Kingdom, the number of knife crime offences committed by children has risen sharply, with over 4,500 incidents recorded in 2019 alone. Similarly, in Brazil, a country grappling with high crime rates, children are frequently recruited by gangs to partake in violent activities. These grim statistics highlight a pervasive issue: the failure to address the root causes of juvenile delinquency effectively. It is by examining and improving the role of parenting that we can make a foundational step in this endeavour.

Parenting styles vary widely across regions, and what parents believe is best for their child can sometimes have unintended negative consequences. Some studies, including that by Elizabeth Gershoff, Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, have examined physical punishment through a normative lens, suggesting that such practices may be less psychologically harmful in certain culture. However, the absence of emotional nurturing is the most influential factor in distinguishing between children who are prosocial and those who exhibit antisocial tendencies, regardless of the presence of physical punishment. Therefore, it is crucial for parental training to emphasize the development of warm, supportive relationships to protect children from developing antisocial behaviours and help them become more productive members of society.

The complexity of the situation is evident, as parents who are struggling with emotional immaturity, are emotionally unavailable to their children, or are overwhelmed by multiple competing obligations may fail to form secure bonds with their children. The pressures of survival and making ends meet can erode the warmth, nurture, and support essential for healthy parent-child relationships. This strain affects both parent and child, diminishing resilience and self-agency. Addressing these challenges requires comprehensive support systems that cater to the needs of both parents and children, fostering healthier family dynamics and promoting positive developmental outcomes.

Our lands are stained by the blood of children caught in cycles of violence and crime. The emotional wounds carried by those left behind often linger and spread like a contagion. Are we unwittingly cultivating a generation of criminals? As these scars deepen, we must ask ourselves: What kind of society are we building for our children? Together, we can foster a community where children are nurtured and guided towards positive futures. The call for compassion is not just a moral imperative; it is a necessity for the survival and prosperity of our global community. Only through collective effort and understanding can we break these cycles and ensure a brighter future for the next generation.

Dr. Regan Reid specializes in youth, mental health and criminal justice.

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