Parents, be strong: tough love equals happy (and successful) kids
Published 07/12/2009 | 05:00
If you want your children to succeed in life, take a 'tough love' approach to disciplining them. That is the message to parents from a new study by UK think tank Demos.
Its 'Building Character' report examined the lives of almost 9,500 families and came to the conclusion that the children of parents who are warm but undemanding when it comes to discipline do less well in life than the offspring of parents who combine love with firm rules and clear boundaries.
The character traits that will determine a child's life chances are developed, according to the report, at a very young age. And it finds that the children of easy-going, liberal parents are less likely to develop vital social skills, such as self-control, personal application and empathy, than youngsters from more traditional 'tough love' backgrounds.
The children of authoritarian (high control, low love), and disengaged, (low love, low control) parents, fare worst of all.
Money and marriage are also important, with children from wealthy homes and married parents more than twice as likely to develop these key skills than those from poorer origins.
Youngsters from divorced, lone or step-parent families also fare badly. But according to the report, the differences between rich and poor, married or single parents disappears when parenting style and confidence are factored in. It seems that when it comes to increasing a child's social mobility and attainment, it is parenting ability that matters most.
Mother of seven Valerie McGeough subscribes to the 'tough love' school of parenting.
A primary school teacher from Rathgar, Dublin 6, Valerie and her husband Brian have plenty of experience, with four daughters and three sons aged 26 to 12.
"Children need firm ground rules and stability. Even though teenagers, in particular, will try and go against the rules, they like to know where the boundaries are."
Parents, she says, can sometimes have a "false, sentimental idea of love" and they are also "almost bullied by society" into regularly giving in to childish demands.
"Love is where you ask what is in the best interest of this child. Sometimes that means being tough, setting rules and saying no."
Keen to stress that she doesn't have "all the answers," Valerie says her lively brood of Laura (26), Naomi (25), Breffini (23), Grace (22), Daniel (18), Christian (14) and Isobel (12), ensures she "continues to learn about being a parent".
One of those lessons is that the way that rules and sanctions are imposed has to change as children grow.
"You can and should tell young children what to do, such as setting times for bed and doing homework. Their sanctions have to be simple and immediate. Perhaps not getting dessert if they were cheeky to mammy."
Teenagers, on the other hand, need to learn about reasonable behaviour in order to become self-reliant, self-disciplined adults.
"Teenagers can't dictate the rules but they do need to be consulted and listened to. You use questions to get them to consider if what they are doing is reasonable. Sanctions have to be appropriate and effective. There is no point in grounding a teenager for three months. Better to stop them attending two parties or outings they wanted to go to. Also, you can't always keep saying no.
"If, say, a 13-year-old is demanding to go to a disco, suggest an alternative, such as a trip to the cinema with their friends," Valerie advises.
Parents should "trust their instincts" and while it is good to consider and talk about different ideas, they shouldn't be 'bamboozled by authorities'. In your heart you know what's best for your child," says Valerie.
When it comes to love and discipline, our society has got the balance wrong, according to the head of the Dublin-based School of Philosophy and Economic Science, Shane Mulhall.
"Stunned" by the number of questions people attending the school's philosophy lectures asked about parenting, Shane decided to add a parenting course to its curriculum.
The course devised by Shane, a grandfather and father of four grown-up and highly successful children, has proved "hugely popular."
He believes that parenting has to start early "to establish good habits" and it is important to "restore the sense of parental authority."
The Demos report lists the skills that are best learned from parents as self-control, the ability to regulate emotions and bounce back from disappointment, empathy and personal application -- the ability to focus attention and see tasks through. It adds that childhood ability in these fields "is a powerful predictor of subsequent earning levels, occupational and educational attainment".
Shane concurs, saying "children need to learn that sometimes you have to apply yourself in order to get rewarded and parents are the best teachers of that".
If he has a quibble it is that when it comes to tough love there is no "one size fits all" route to being a good parent.
"Each child has a different nature," says Shane. "Some children are very sensitive; they need more love and less discipline. Children with tougher, more resilient natures need a different measure of affection and control. The nature of the child reveals itself and parents must be sensitive to that. Instead of 'tough love', perhaps it would be better to call it intelligent parenting."