I remember reading somewhere that a doctor said that he never worried about parents who were reading all the books on parenting out there, that so long as they were actively seeking sources, he knew they cared enough that the children would turn out fine. As much as I want to agree with the sentiment, it’s something I’ve struggled with. For example, I have met parents who have only read books on sleep training in hopes of finding the way to force a child to sleep 12 hours (yes, 12, not fewer night waking, not a 3-4 hour stretch, but 12 uninterrupted hours) even if it’s clearly not what the child is comfortable with (as demonstrated by multiple failures in said methods). I will be honest that I don’t find this to be a positive sign of parenting, but rather the sign of a parent who wants things one particular way and is failing to acknowledge the child. Others may disagree, but that’s my take. Yet I think it’s fair to assume that thoughts and actions of devoted and caring parents do count, regardless of what they end up actually doing. But is this anything more than wishful thinking?
Luckily, research out of Notre Dame by Dr. Darcia Narvaez and colleagues may shed some light on this phenomenon. Dr. Narvaez and colleagues examined parent beliefs about responsive parenting and child outcomes; well, actually it was maternal beliefs as there were no fathers who took part in the study. The beliefs focused on four domains: Responsiveness (i.e., the importance or responding quickly and sensitively to infants’ distress), physical closeness and touch (i.e., the importance of providing gentle and sensitive touch to children), play (i.e., the importance of allowing children free play time alone and with others), and attitudes towards alloparents (i.e., the parents’ priorities about nonparental care; how they value the treatment their child receives and the importance of that person in their child’s life).
Child outcomes were also assessed via maternal report and examined different elements of a child’s sociomoral orientation, child flourishing (including happiness, consideration of others, attunement to others, imagination, and empathy), child mental health problems (including depression, anxiety, being a “wallflower”, and neuroticism), and child antisocial behaviours (including oppositional defiance behaviours, generalized misbehaviour, and distrust of others). For all analyses family SES was included as a covariate for its known relationship to many of these child outcomes. [Note: The dependent and independent variables both being maternal report add an element of expected overlap just by shared method variance. Shared method variance doesn’t always appear in analyses, but it is safer to assume it will occur as the authors didn’t include a method factor in their analyses and thus we would expect results to be positively inflated.]
What did they find? Well, using structural equation modeling (SEM), they found that endorsing beliefs about nurturing parenting negatively predicted antisocial behaviours, positively predicted child flourishing, and negatively predicted mental health problems. The relationships to sociomoral orientation were analyzed using correlation and with the exception of an alloparenting-distrust dyad, they were all highly significant (i.e., statistically and practically) in the directions I hope you’d expect. They also ran correlational analyses (in addition to the SEM analyses) with the elements of child flourishing, mental health problems, and antisocial behaviour and they too were highly significant.
What does this mean? Well, obviously we know that people do practice what they preach to a certain degree so one could argue this reflects actual practices. Except it doesn’t. There are many reasons people fall short of their idealized behaviours, especially in parenting. For example, not all parents get to let their children run free to play, depending on where they live, even if they believe in it in theory; not all parents get to respond immediately to their child, even if they believe it to be best. Although the correlation between behaviour and belief is high, it’s far from perfect with plenty of variance left over to account for. This means there does seem to be something to the idea that the thought counts, although it’s also possible that the high correlations reflect the relationships for people who do ‘practice what they preach’.
I, however, believe that the thought does count and here is why: If the thought is based on love, respect, empathy, and responsiveness, you often strive to make sure your behaviour matches those goals, but you may not have the chance to employ the methods you’d like or you may even just fall short sometimes. However, I think people with these beliefs in their head seek out windows of opportunity to fulfill these behaviours. You may not have the opportunity to often practice what you preach, but when you do, you take it. Furthermore, if you fall short, you are not only aware of how your behaviour fell short and strive to change (and hopefully treat yourself with the same empathy, responsiveness, respect, and love during this time), but you also work to mend any tear – no matter how small – in your relationship with your children. Mending our relationships and admitting mistakes are critical to responsive parenting; having a set of beliefs that may not address those elements directly, but that elicit these secondary behaviours is bound to help both us as parents and our children.
So… does the thought count in parenting? If you never follow through, obviously not. If you only focus on yourself and not your children, I can’t see how it could possibly count as a positive. However, if your thoughts are based on respecting, loving, empathizing with, and being responsive to your child and you take advantage of the opportunities to align your behaviour with those beliefs or apologize when you fall short, I believe you are setting the stage for a happy childhood indeed.
[Image Credit: allouteffort.com]
 Narvaez N, Gleeson T, Cheng A, Lefever JB, Wang P. How do nurturing parent attitudes influence moral character development and flourishing? Poster presented at the 2013 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Seattle, WA.