Challenging, negotiating part of parenting today, profs say
When it comes to raising children today, especially getting kids to comply with parental requests, University of Guelph professors have this advice: forget the parenting guidebooks and old-fashioned notions about obedience.
"The problem is, the guidebooks for parents don't give advice that reflects average family life," said family relations professor Susan Lollis, who along with her colleague Leon Kuczynski recently completed a study on how parents shape children's development and vice versa. "Guidebooks simply tell parents what to do. They don't take into consideration that parenting is very complex. For example, in normal everyday families, there are a lot of conflicts. Four- and six-year-old siblings fight five to12 times every hour, so parents are dealing with those conflicts every few minutes."
Kuczynski added that parents are still led to believe that their primary goal is to get their children to obey them, but it's not that simple. "Children go beyond simply complying or not complying, they put creativity into the parents' request." In taking ownership of simple tasks, children are building assertiveness, negotiating strategies, skillful actions and their imaginations, he said.
For their study, Lollis and Kuczynski observed 40 families made up of two parents and two children, ages four and six, to determine how children comply with parental requests. They observed every family for nine hours at 90-minute intervals, focusing on children's verbal and non-verbal responses to parental requests. They found that when parents make simple requests of their children such as "put away your toys," they are challenged 66 per cent of the time. Parents get the results they want half the time, but in 17 per cent of these positive responses, children act only on their own terms. That means parents are getting exactly what they ask for only 33 per cent of the time.
"The fact that parents and their children engage in negotiation is probably good for their relationship," said Kuczynski. In observing the 40 families from the Kitchener/Waterloo area, they recorded children's responses to parental requests and parental responses to children's requests. They found that children and parents make about the same number of demands of each other.
"It's a two-way street, like any other relationship," added Lollis. "Twenty-two per cent of the time, the parent agrees to a spin the child puts on the original request. Some of these were reluctant compromises on the mother's part, while others were novel resolutions achieved through creative action on the child's part and easily accepted by the mother." The children will agree to put away their toys, for example, but only after they get to play their favourite game a few more times.
Their study results are helping to redefine the meaning of obedience. Instead of thinking that children comply to their parents' requests, Lollis and Kuczynski now prefer to think that children simply accommodate the requests. "In parent/child relationships, unlike relationships with other adult authorities like teachers, the child is allowed to express his or her will," said Kuczynski. "And most parents seem to be ok with this. You might even say the parents encourage this."
Observing dynamics between siblings also helped to understand the complexities of normal family life, said Lollis. "Siblings bring in other issues, like the fact that each has his or her own set of preferences, needs and goals that parents sometimes need to address simultaneously."
Kuczynski added that parents react differently to each child. "The child's in-born temperament actually feeds into the way the parent treats the child. In other words, children shape the strategies and the techniques the parent uses with the child."
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