Throughout this site, in my articles about rewards, punishments, being kind to your children, and being the parent you want your children to be, I have emphasized the importance of thinking intentionally about the way you were raised, and then to make the decision to be a better parent than your own parents were. This doesn’t have to be an insult; rather, it can be a testimony to the efforts your parents made to bring you up properly, which you are now trying to pay forward to your own children.
However, it’s also possible that your own upbringing was not the best, and you have made the decision to be a better parent in order to protect your children from those same parenting practices. In the introductory article to this site, I talk about my own parents, and the abusive upbringing that they experienced. I am grateful to both of them for the effort they put into parenting my brother and I in a more positive way. How about you? Where are you in the process of trying to be a better parent? Let’s discuss some research, including a short study that I did of my own, about how typical it is to just repeat your own parents’ behaviors, what kinds of situations make this lack of intentionality most likely, and how it is that some people decide to be a better parent than their own parents were to them.
A growing body of research says that people are likely to take on the strategies of their parents with their own children (e.g., Hiramura, Kitamura, Shikai, Shono, Tanaka, & Uji, 2009). What you saw your parents do and how they disciplined you is most likely how you will treat your children. However, not everyone merely follows in their parents’ footsteps. For some parents, there is a conscious decision to use different parenting techniques with their own children. The purpose of this paper is to explore these people who decide to do things differently. How and why do some parents decide to be a better parent than their own parents?
There are four factors that will be discussed in particular: education, experience, socioeconomic status and relationships. These will each be discussed by interchangeably reviewing some relevant research and then augmenting that research with stories and examples from personal interviews with parents who reflect the decision to break the cycle of harsh parenting. The intention here is to also gain perspective, an understanding of those individuals who choose to break the cycle; what causes the decision to be a better parent, and to choose more positive parenting practices?
The times in which our parents and even our grandparents were raised were very different than those experienced by the current generation. There were fewer child abuse laws in previous generations than there are today. In previous generations, parents were allowed to use any form of discipline they preferred without legal consequences, compared to today’s society where there are laws and consequences set in place for certain child disciplinary actions. (Belsky, Capaldi, & Conger, 2009).
There are many factors that contribute to someone continuing the same type of parenting as their parents. One study by Pears and Capaldi (2001) says that if a person grew up in an abusive environment, then that person is more likely to be an abuser themselves. This study examined the effects of a history of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and dual forms of abuse on parenting outcomes in adulthood. After studying a cycle of three generations, the authors hypothesized that a history of abuse would predict lower mean levels of positive parenting and higher mean levels of maladaptive parenting. Experiences of dual forms of abuse are associated with both lower availability, as well as lower levels of discipline, perhaps suggesting that these parents experience avoidance of setting limits and the hierarchical structured roles of parents.
The results of this study provide evidence of a link between childhood abuse and abusive practices in later parenting. Children of young, adolescent mothers are particularly subject to parental continuities if there is evidence of childhood abuse in the previous generation. According to Bartlett and Easterbrooks (2012, p. 2165), “Crockenberg found that parents between the ages of 17 and 21 years who experienced childhood rejection by caregivers displayed angry and punitive parenting with their children.” C.S. Widom (1989) postulated that antisocial and delinquent behavior is consistent with childhood maltreatment; ingrained behaviors from parents’ own childhoods have been related to the etiology of child abuse (Pears & Capaldi, 2001). Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by aggressiveness and impulsivity, both of which are factors that increase the likelihood of transmission in maltreatment practices (Pears & Capaldi, 2001).
In earlier accounts of studying transmission of parenting, researchers studied women who grew up inside of an institution. They noticed that these women were less likely to be sensitive and nurturing when raising their children. They were also more likely to use spanking as a form of punishment. A longitudinal study by Kaufman & Zigler (1987) found that 49 parents out of 282 people who were surveyed reported a childhood history of abuse or neglect. At a one year follow-up, ten babies were reportedly maltreated. 9 of them had parents with a history of abuse or neglect; however 40 parents with comparable childhood histories were not identified as maltreating parents (Kaufman & Zigler 1987).
Mothers who did not repeat the cycle of abuse differed from those parents who did in several ways. These parents had more extensive social support, they were more openly angry about their earlier abuse and were better able to give detailed accounts of those experiences. The were more motivated to look back and make an intentional decision to be a better parent than their own parents.
These findings help explain some of the numerous factors that account for the cause of continuities in disciplinary action across generations.
In another study, using three generations of males, researchers wanted to see how behaviors were transmitted over the generations. The study found that harsh parenting in generation one predicted aggressive behavior in generation two; which, in turn, was “linked to higher levels of harsh parenting 30 years later with their own children” (Conger, Neppl, Ontai, Scaramella, 2009. Also, harsh behavior in generation two predicted the third generation’s harsh parenting.
To summarize, evidence from prospective and longitudinal research suggests that aggressive practices across generations may be indicative of harsh parental continuities (Conger, Neppl, Ontai, Scaramella, 2009). In a follow-up interview, participants were asked what makes a person that was abused decide to not become an abuser themselves? Participant one said, “A person has to gain the knowledge and the understanding that they are not that person’s child anymore. They have to self-reflect and gain control.” Participant two stated, “In order to gain the ability to stop the generational chain, the person needs to have the power within themselves and the education in order to change them.” Lastly, participant three pointed out “Would you want your child to experience the same thing you did as a child?”
Three people were interviewed and asked about three generations in their family. They were asked to think about their grandparents’ parenting practices, their parents’ parenting practices, and then their own parenting practices. The goal was to determine if the parenting practices improved over the three generations. Each participant was given a series of ten questions. The questions were about how they were raised, their family education and economic status, questions on their opinions concerning abuse, as well as spousal relationships. They were asked these questions in order to see whether they agree with other studies on generational discontinuities.
Participant one agreed that parenting practices have improved over the generations. Participant one grew up in a two-parent home where physical disciplining was preferred. Both the mother and the father grew up being physically and mentally abused. Even though the parents hit with about a quarter of their strength, this upbringing influenced how they raised participant one. Given this was the only method, they were taught this is what you do to your children. However, as participant one became older, the parents started to refrain from physical discipline. His parents did give him the opportunity to talk about things, discuss issues, and self-express.
Participant one decided to totally dismiss physical discipline from his practices. He decided that his parents tried to be a better parent than what they had experienced, and he wanted to continue to effort. He believes that he has become a successful parent without having to spank his children. Instead of hitting, the children can be given “a look” in order to understand that what they are doing is wrong. Also, items that give the children pleasure are taken away from them, and participant one uses communication with the children to help them in the future. He realized that the fear of disappointing him served as a better method of consequence rather than physically hitting the children.
Participant two also agreed that parenting practices improved throughout the generations. Her grandmother married at fourteen years old to a man that was twelve years older than her. She had children back to back and eventually left that family completely, getting remarried later on only to have more children.
Participant two’s mother also had children very young and close in age. Having children right out of high school, she ended up being a single mother. Participant two’s mother did not leave altogether like the grandmother; however, she would leave for days leaving participant two to be the mother of her siblings.
Similarly, participant two had children very young as well. Raising her own siblings, she believed she was old enough and ready to take care of her own children. She stated that she is more available to her children compared to the previous generations in her family. Through trial and error she realized and learned what to do and what not to do when it comes to her children, and she is determined to be a better parent into the future. She wants to always improve.
The participants above demonstrated the importance of experiencing harsh parenting, however, reflecting on one’s educational practices regarding these parenting practices is important as well. A study stated that if a child grows up with pride in his education and has ambition in furthering his education, whether he actually goes on to further it or not, this ambition can translate into a pride in how that person raises her children (Belsky, Capaldi, & Conger, 2009). Positive education practices influence positive parenting practices. Modeling the desire to be a better parent encourages your own children to be a better parent as well. Parents who have attained a higher level of education exhibit “greater levels of warmth and emotional supportiveness,” which subsequently results in lower levels of more extreme measures of discipline (Duckworth, 2005).
Participant four experienced harsh parenting, so we asked her questions to reflect on her experience with education pertaining to our research. She was asked about the role of education in parenting. She said that neither of her parents finished high school. Her father was drafted into the Vietnam war and never graduated, and neither he nor his mother went to college; nevertheless, her parents had high expectations of her regarding her education. Since her parents expected her to do well in school, she met the standards that were made for her, which influenced her own ambition to further her education to college even though it was not required of her. Furthermore, she said that positive education practices and positive parenting practices go hand in hand. Participant four also said that her parents’ expectations of her influenced her to hold her children to even higher standards. “You always want your children to be better and to be more successful. If you were raised that way, it is only natural for the same principles to be taught (S. Magagnotti, personal communication, February, 19, 2015).
Participant five from our interviews was also asked about the role of education in parenting. Coming from a home where both parents never graduated high school and a mother who only made it to the eighth grade before dropping out, played a huge role in her success. Because of the lack of motivation from her parents to go to school and get a good education, she used them as an example of what not to do.
She explained that times were extremely hard on her own, but she continued to push through so that she could be the positive example that her kids could emulate. Commenting on how education may play a role in parenting, she said it can depend on the person. For example, in her situation, because of her parents’ lack of education, she chose to do the opposite, which was to go after her education. On the other hand, this participant then explained that one can also become complacent with the lack of education and continue to mimic what they have been exposed to as a child and how their parents raised them. Now with three kids, she says that she pushes her children hard in school to do better than what she did with raising them. In closing she states “a parent should always want the best for their child, push them to do great and to go above and beyond what you as the parent did.” (J. Myers, personal communication, February 22, 2015).
Participant three agreed that over the generations in her family, parenting practices had improved. Participant three is of a different culture. In her culture, children learn from a young age to cook and clean; they are expected to tend to everything in the house. By the time the children are old enough to go to school, they have many responsibilities. Physical discipline is used frequently. In their culture, parents do not talk, nor do they communicate with their children. If you do something wrong, “you should expect to get hit for it. Period.”
Her grandparents were born and raised in Haiti. They raised their children in the strict practices of Haitian culture. Her parents are “stern, emotionless people who do not show much nurturing.” She was raised in the same type of practices that her parents were. She quoted saying “sometimes I felt like I was a slave.” She had a child at the age of sixteen and it almost felt as if she was kicked out of her family. Her parents would not talk to her, nor would they help her with anything. They even threatened to kick her out of the house. She knew that her parents loved her, but they just had difficulty communicating and transferring their emotions.
Participant three does not use any type of physical punishment. She wanted to be a better parent than what she saw growing up. When disciplining her child, she usually takes an item away when he misbehaves. She works hard to show her child that he is loved. She communicates with him and helps him understand when he is wrong, even at such a young age. (he is five years old as of the date of this writing) She does not allow him to take on responsibilities at a young age like she had to. She lets him be the child that he is. She was asked about what she would do if her child were to have a child at a young age like she did. She said, “I would not shun him. Instead, I would talk to and work with him. I would help him understand that he has a lot of responsibility now. I would still love him.”
Participant one commented on the importance of waiting to have children until you are able to focus on your parenting. He stated that “a person’s brain does not fully develop until about age 25, so when a person has a child at a young age 16, 17, 18, etc., they are not yet mature.” (J. Rich, personal communication, November, 2014) Bringing a child into the equation, now they have to figure out life for themselves as well as life for their child. A young person has fewer resources at their disposal, less education to have the knowledge to raise a child, and a harder time trying to gain all these things. “What do you do? You are too young to get a job. Your parent has to work to take care of you and also carry out their responsibilities.” This leaves so much stress on everyone and ultimately it gets passed onto the child.
Socioeconomic status (SES) is commonly defined as the social standing or class of an individual or group. (American Psychological Association, 2015) The extant literature on the transmission of parenting across generations relies primarily on retrospective reports of child rearing history and has focused on abusive and/or harsh parenting practices (Trickett, P.K, Aber. J.L., Carlson. V., & Cicchetti. D. 1991.)
An early and long-lasting controversy in the child abuse field has been whether differences in SES affect the etiology and prevalence of abuse and if so, why or how. There is currently a moderate consensus about whether the prevalence of abuse is higher in lower SES families. Recent studies have indicated that although there may be a reporting bias, such that lower SES abusive families are proportionately more likely to be reported to the authorities than are middle class families, it is likely that abuse in fact occurs more frequently among lower SES families (Trickett, P.K, Aber. J.L., Carlson. V., & Cicchetti. D. 1991.)
One recent study has demonstrated a relationship between lower SES and greater use of authoritarian punishment, lower parental involvement and nurturance, and lower emphasis on independence (Trickett, P.K, Aber. J.L., Carlson. V., & Cicchetti. D. 1991.) The American Psychological Association (2015) states that there is increasing evidence indicating that socioeconomic status affects family stability including parenting practices and resulting developmental outcomes for their children. Poverty is a reliable predictor of child abuse and neglect. As opposed to families with a low SES, (Robert, H., Bradley & Corlyn, R.,F, 2002) there is a belief that high SES families afford their children an array of services, goods, parental actions, and social connections that potentially rebound to the benefit of children and a concern that many low SES children lack access to the same resources and experiences, thus putting them at risk for development problems (Brooks, Gunn & Duncan 1997.)
Among low-income families, those with family exposure to substance use exhibit the highest rates of child abuse and neglect (American Psychological Association, 2015). Lower SES has been linked to domestic crowding, a condition which has negative consequences for adults and children, including higher psychological stress and poorer health outcomes. Some research (Conger, R., Neppl, T., Ontai, L. & Scaramella, L. 2009) also says that SES influences these continuities: If a person is raised in a low socio-economic status they are more likely to display harsh parenting styles. One reason comes from the stress of raising a child which further causes parents to display these harsh parenting practices. Environmental contributions to parenting also emerged as important, including both shared and non-shared environmental effects (Klahr & Burt, 2014.).
The environment associated with a low SES can also play a role in the continuities of harsh parenting. For example, children raised in a low SES environment may become exposed to gang related activity along with a higher rate of crime. The environment of the child’s upbringing may not necessarily be the way the parent is raising them but how the environment influences the child’s actions.
Several studies have demonstrated a significant association between low socioeconomic status and child maltreatment. Growing up in a lower class family may influence people’s approach to child rearing values regardless of the socioeconomic level that they are able to achieve. Low SES families experience more threatening and uncontrollable life events, are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards and violence, and are at risk of experiencing destabilizing events such as family dissolution and household moves (Robert, H., Bradley & Corlyn, R.,F, 2002). Another study mentions that harsh punishment and physical discipline is more likely to be used in families of lower socioeconomic status (Robert, H., Bradley & Corlyn, R.,F, 2002). This may be a parent’s way of releasing stress and frustration, or instead reflect the lack of emotional resources to use a more positive disciplinary approach.
The chronic strain associated with unstable employment and persistent economic hardship can lead to diminished self-esteem, a diminished sense of control over one’s life, anger and depression. It also increases the likelihood of partner and child abuse(Robert, H., Bradley & Corlyn, R.,F, 2002) .
Participant two was asked several questions about socioeconomic status and parenting practices and how this influence might be broken. She grew up in the south during the early 1960’s. Times were very difficult especially for her parents. Being raised by both parents, her family was still unable to fully provide for the family. This then took a huge toll on the family as a whole, and her parents did use harsh parenting. Because of the stress her parents were experiencing, they may have taken the stress out on the children, forcing them to get a job, and verbally abusing them.
Participant one wanted to financially help her parents but was unable to really do much because of the hard times. So as a young child she vowed to be financially stable enough so that when she had children there would be little to no stress about her finances. Now that she has children of her own she has taught them to do their best to provide for their children when they become parents.
Participant one was then asked how she thinks parental continuities can be broken. She replied saying that a person needs to be willing to break the negative parental continuities that they have once experience as a child, and to secondly ask themselves if they would put their children through the same harsh parenting practices that they were exposed to. She also commented and said instead of continuing the negative parenting practices, you can be a better parent by teaching as well as modeling positive behavior. This will make them more likely to properly raise their own children in the future. If you can be a better parent, your children will be an even better parent than you, and you will be instrumental in preventing the continuation of the harsh parenting practices you received. (S. Wiggins, personal communication 2015)
Conger (2013) posits that the dynamics within social relationships alleviate the stressors that life presents by “compensating” for negative outcomes, particularly as those stressors may influence children. Despite being a product of harsh parenting when he or she was a child, with the accompaniment of a romantic and nurturing cohabitant, a parent can be less inclined to participate in the continuity of harsh behavior with his or her own children. Two parent households are likely to influence one another in their parenting practices and emulate positive interactions even if one partner has experienced harsh parenting (Conger, 2013).
If a person chooses a nurturing spouse, then studies show s/he is more likely to be a good parent (Conger, R., Neppl, T., Ontai, L. & Scaramella, L. 2009). This is because there will be less stress put on the parent as far as caring and providing for the children by him/herself. There will be less stress and worries on just one parent alone to handle all by themselves. By choosing a good mate, one is choosing someone who shares and displays the same qualities, similar personalities and similar lifestyle goals.
The support that comes from a solid relationship between two parents can allow for more reflective parenting practices (Conger, R., Neppl, T., Ontai, L. & Scaramella, L. 2009). For example, when disciplining a child, one parent may already be too stressed to deal with the child’s behavior. Rather than doing or saying something that contributes to harsh parenting, the other parent can delegate the punishment. This would be next to impossible in a single-parent home.
The way you were raised, whether you have a history of being abused or have suffered from harsh parenting practices, this research shows that these experiences can shape how you choose to raise your children. Several topics were discussed throughout this article, including four main factors that can predict whether a parent will discontinue the harsh parenting practices from their own childhood: education, experience, relationships, and socioeconomic status.
The research I reviewed here suggests that if someone has experienced harsh parenting as a child, in order to discontinue these same practices, that individual must be open about the experience, have a positive social group, and be open and willing to discuss past experiences. The value of education is extremely important in the discussion of parental continuities. One must value their education, and teach their children to do the same as well. A child who grows up with pride in their education is more likely to attempt to put an end to the continuities.
Socioeconomic status was a third factor that was discussed. A lack of money can put stress on the family or single parent and increase the likelihood of harsh parenting practices. In this article, I suggest the controversial idea that the more money a family or parent has, the less likely child maltreatment will occur.
Lastly, I posited that the dynamics within social relationships alleviate the stressors that life presents by “compensating” for negative outcomes, particularly as those stressors may influence children. A healthy relationship can relieve the stress on one parent alone thus create a healthy positive environment for the children, while modeling healthy parenting practices and helping to eliminate negative parenting continuities.
I know that’s a lot, but positive parenting is hard work, and understanding what makes most of us tick can often give us the incentive to be a better parent – and a better person – than we might be without being purposeful and intentional about our decisions.
Happy parenting! You’ll be so proud of yourself when you’re done!
Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.