How Are Parents Important?

The answer to this question has to be “in multiple ways,” ways that are often hard to disentangle, for various contributors overlap and often work together. In what follows I return briefly to four of the general categories discussed in earlier chapters.

General Aspects of Parenting

In the general parenting literature, the most influential work under this heading is that directed to the Baumrind styles of parenting. Two general conclusions emerge from the Baumrind studies along with related research by others. A first is that there are in fact identifiable differences among parents in their overall approach to the task of parenting. The second is that some approaches to parenting work out better than do others. In particular, the superiority of the authoritative style is a well-established finding across a range of ages, samples, and developmental outcomes. Although most of this research has concerned the control domain of socialization (Table 3.5), evidence suggests that aspects of cognitive development are also best supported by authoritative parenting.

Evidence also suggests that theory of mind is among the aspects of cognitive development for which authoritative parenting is optimal. This was the conclusion reached in the review of the relevant evidence in Chapter 4. As we saw there, however, at present the support for such a conclusion is limited in two respects. The first concerns measurement. A full, Baumrind-style assessment is rare in this literature; rather, most studies have settled for abbreviated versions of the original approach (thus the “definitional drift” referred to in Chapter 4). The second limitation (which may well be related to the first) is that positive results are often accompanied by numerous exceptions and qualifications.

More clearly established than the importance of overall style of parenting is the importance of some of the dimensions or aspects of parenting that are components of each of the styles. Results for the control dimension, to be sure, are not totally consistent. The benefits of certain forms of firm control that are found when behavioral compliance is the issue are at present less clear for theory of mind. The detrimental effects of other forms of control, however, do appear in at least most studies that have looked for them. In particular, strong control in the absence of warmth and reasoning—which, of course, is the definition of the authoritarian style—is associated with relatively poor theory-of-mind development.

More positively, three aspects of parenting are associated with relatively good theory-of-mind development. One is parental warmth. The value of a warm, supportive relationship may be the most clearly established finding in the general parenting literature; thus the work on theory of mind simply adds to the breadth of this conclusion. The benefits of warmth are almost certainly multiply determined. Among other bases, a warm relationship increases the likelihood that parent and child will spend time together, it makes it more likely that the child will be attentive to messages from the parent, it enhances the parent’s effectiveness as a model from whom the child can take on behaviors, and it increases the likelihood that the child will be motivated to comply with and learn from the parent.

A second aspect of parenting that relates positively to theory of mind is reasoning. Again, the findings from theory-of-mind research mirror those from the more general parenting literature, in which reasoning of a variety of forms has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of parenting with respect to a variety of developmental outcomes. In the case of theory of mind, some of the effects of a relatively high use of reasoning may be direct, in that parents who favor reasoning with the child may be especially likely to offer explanations for the causes and effects of mental states. Some of the effects may be indirect, in that children who have become accustomed to receiving reasons may be especially likely to seek out explanations when faced with something they do not understand. As we saw in Chapter 9, theory of mind is a common context for young children’s question asking. And if the child’s parents value reasoning, then helpful answers are likely to be forthcoming.

A third aspect of parenting that relates positively to theory of mind is sensitivity. Sensitivity, it should be noted, can be a hard notion to pin down in the literature; the concept has been operationally defined in various ways, and in some uses it can be difficult to distinguish from warmth. Warmth is undoubtedly part of what is necessary for sensitivity, but it is not sufficient (if it were, every permissive parent would also be sensitive). What need to be added are both the willingness and the ability to read signals from the child and to respond in ways that are appropriate to the child’s needs. This is the form of sensitivity, or sensitive responsiveness, originally identified by Ainsworth and colleagues (Ainsworth et al., 1978), and it is the aspect of parenting that it is the best predictor of a secure attachment relationship. Sensitivity in this sense is also a predictor of relatively good theory of mind. As we saw in Chapter 5, part of the basis for this relation, although probably not all, may stem from the fact that sensitivity promotes secure attachment, and secure attachment enhances the likelihood of experiences from which the child can learn about the mental world.

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