Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Parents, children and discipline - why the environment in which families live is still important

When CRFR launched a new research briefing this week - focussing on various aspects of parenting amongst families two and four year olds- the part that was picked up particularly by the press concerned smacking. The briefing was based on the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study, conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research, which involves annual interviews with parents of young children. (see .

The study showed that the majority of parents don’t believe that smacking does much good but by the time their child approached four, a third of them had been smacked. An earlier piece of Scottish government commissioned research explored parents attitudes to smacking in more detail demonstrating parents in Scotland often hold a range of views. (See Disciplining children: Research with parents in Scotland).

Smacking is sometimes seen as a necessary ‘last resort’, and many parents acknowledge that this reflects their weakness and need in the moment of anger, rather than a genuine attempt to discipline their child. Also those who think of smacking as sometimes useful, qualify this by referring to a very narrow age group, typically aged 3 to 8 years old. (See Brownlie and Anderson, writing in the journal Childhood vol 13, 2006, pages 479-498).

So it seems that most parents are either against or ambivalent about smacking. Might this ambivalence actually extend to other forms of disciplining – such as raising your voice and the now popular ‘naughty step’? Do these also sometimes reflect parents’ reactions to their child’s behaviour as much as the actual ‘naughty’ behaviour itself?
If disciplining children becomes simply expressing dominance – ‘do as I say or else’ - then that seems to be a more limited message than many parents would wish to be giving when bringing up their children.

Other research shows clearly that we have to acknowledge differences between families, particularly in terms of relative advantage and disadvantage. Although it seems that all parents say they have the same aim of wanting their children to become responsible for themselves and to behave decently towards others, the ways this might be achieved might differ. Parents’ views about children’s obedience to authority might mean that for some, getting children to ‘do as you’re told’ remains a fact of life – but in a context of disadvantage or even danger, this might be an understandable attempt to keep children safe. For others, particularly parents who are relatively privileged, the resources to help a child to ‘realise their potential’ might obviate the need for immediate obedience to a parental demand. (see Gillies, V. 2005 'Raising the "Meritocracy" Parenting and the Individualization of Social Class'. Sociology 39: 835-853)

Certainly parents will have different views about the need for children’s obedience to authority, with some being more authoritarian than others, but these have to be understood in the context of the very different lives and resources that families have.

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