If you believe everything you read, then kids are doomed. If both of their parents work outside the home, then it's hopeless. If one parent is a pastor, then forget about it. If one parent is missing, too bad. What if you skip on piano lessons, or soccer? What if you are in a bad school system? What if you home school? Or what if you don't? How is a parent to know?
Along with my colleagues, I surveyed teens and parents in order to address this question: What are the essentials of effective parenting?
First, we must define the positive results we are after. What are we looking for in our youth? Ultimately we want mature, independent, contributing members of society, who will, at the proper time, give us a few wonderful grandchildren, who will visit us for a few hours at a time. By independent, we mean adults who will be able to pay their own way without coming to us for financial help; we don't mean adults who no longer ask for our wise counsel. But in the short term, during the formative years, what are we looking for?
Psychology has begun to study the domains of character development and positive youth development. We measured contentment, altruism, forgiveness, resilience and gratitude. Combined, these provide a reliable measure of positive youth development.
Home school students scored significantly higher on positive youth development than students from other school settings. Perhaps home-schooled students benefit from spending more time than other children in the socialized family environment. However, the data do not indicate that home-schooling your child is an essential element of parenting. Families who home-school their children tend to have different values from other families. As a result, home-schooled teens are more religious than students from other school settings. Hence, the reason that home-schooling youth demonstrate more character might be due to their religious background rather than to their school setting.
Our data suggest two answers to the question, what are the essential elements of parenting? What should be my priorities if I want to raise sons and daughters who will exhibit positive youth development?
The first and largest predictor of positive youth development is healthy parent-teen relationships. The quality of parent-teen relationships predicted nearly half of the variance in positive youth development.
According to psychological theory and research, good parenting is not overly permissive, because permissive parenting fails to provide adequate training. Good parenting is not overly authoritarian, because authoritarian parenting does not teach self-control. Instead, good parenting sets limits that are reasonable and age appropriate and communicates these limits in a manner that conveys warmth and love. We measured these parent-teen vertical relationships with questions such as "My parent respects my feelings."
The establishment of such an environment is the first key to fostering character development in your teens. It may be that some children are harder to love than others. It may be that to a certain extent children play active roles in shaping the give-and-take of the family environment. Nevertheless, it is the parent's duty to establish a home in which children have a strong foundation in a healthy parent-child relationship. Such a positive vertical relationship between parent and teen is a very strong predictor of positive youth development.
There is a secondary component to essential parenting, and that is to foster religious faith and practice in your children. Religiosity was measured using three components: the frequency of attendance at formal religious services, the frequency of private religious activity such as meditation and prayer and the extent to which religiosity was a core part of one's being.
Healthy parent-teen relationships and a life of religious faith and practice were both important predictors of positive youth development. Other parts of our lives made little if any difference. Home-schooling our children was a choice we made because we thought it was best for our family. The data, however, did not show that home-schooling added to (or subtracted from) the prediction of positive youth development. Two parent families and the existence of strong romantic relationships between these two parents provide a great deal of stabilization to our society and our children, but these did not add substantially to the prediction of positive youth development.
What can I do to foster positive youth development in my children? More than half of the variance in positive youth development is predicted by two components. First, pursue and establish healthy parent-teen relationships. Second, model and support a life of religious faith and practice. These are the essentials of parenting. These should not be negotiated or compromised. Beyond these, decide what makes the most sense for your family.
Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.