SALT LAKE CITY — The toddler holds a toy cow, swooping it into the barn through the side window. The mother chides her gently, "No, it goes through the door." Later, that same mom may direct her child not to touch the fake burners on a toy stove.
She likely thinks she's providing her child cues on how to behave in real life, but in reality, she's being what's called a "highly directive mom." And when moms are bossy at playtime, directing how a child plays, children are less engaged and display more negative emotion, according to a new study that says it doesn't help the overall parent-child relationship or aid a child's development.
"Many parents do not know that even children, even very small children, have a need to feel autonomous," said Jean Ispa, lead author of the study and a professor of human development at the University of Missouri. "There is thinking now that this is kind of a basic part of human nature, and it begins very early in infancy."
That doesn't mean being hands-off, she said. Parents need to guide children and it's important to give them ideas. But when play becomes a parent's agenda, and not that of the child, "it's not good. And it's not good for future development, even for academic performance. Other outcomes besides the parent-child relationship can suffer," Ispa said.
For this study, which is part of a large evaluation of the Head Start program, researchers went to parents' homes and watched them play with their kids for about 10 minutes. They had three bags of items to play with, but were not told how long they'd be observed, what to do with the items or how long to spend with each bag. The researchers just watched.
The first bag held a book, the second a toy kitchen set with stove and pots and pans, the third a Noah's ark toy. Some of the parents didn't get to the third bag at all.
The sessions were videotaped and analyzed when the children were 1, 2, 3 and 5 years old.
Ispa said that parents may have played a bit differently because they were being observed, but it would have, if anything, elicited behavior they thought would put them in the best light as parents. And the fact that the parents were all Head Start parents may have mattered slightly, as well, because that's a program for lower-income families. But researchers controlled for income because it's already been shown in other studies that low-income families are more likely to be "highly directive" with their children than parents in higher-income households.
The researchers found some mothers, the "highly directive" ones, decided how to play, what to play and how fast to play.
They were not surprised, she noted, to find that African-American parents were more likely to direct a child's play than were Hispanic parents, who in turn were more directive than Euro-American families, because other studies have shown the same thing. While there are differences in how controlling parents are of child's play based on ethnicity, there also appear to be some differences in how children react, she noted. Other studies have found that African-American children are not as bothered by high directiveness as are Euro-American children. She'd like to know why and may study that in the future, Ispa said.
The researchers would also like to know how long-term the effects are. They did note that the older the children got, the less directive mothers were, regardless of ethnicity.
The nonprofit group Helpguide, which collects ad-free resources to help families handle various health challenges, believes play is important for both kids and adults, both stimulating and relaxing body and mind. It's as important, it says, as sleep or eating well or exercise.
"Play teaches us how to manage and transform our negative emotions and experiences," it says on a helpguide.org creativity and lifelong learning fact sheet. "It supercharges learning, helps us relieve stress, and connects us to others and the world around us. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable."
It is in play that young children may first learn flexibility, perseverance, cooperation and social skills.
The researchers found that even when moms were quite directive, guiding kids in how to play, those who were very warm had children who appeared less bothered by it. If, on the other hand, a mom was more negative, it intensified the negative response from the child.
Studies repeatedly show that correcting a small child's play limits creativity, although the goal was probably simply to help the child. It might also make children not enjoy being with a directive mom, the researchers said.
They suggested that moms should show affection while playing, but limit how much they direct or control how the playtime unfolds.
"We know that children, regardless of culture, need to feel loved," Ispa said in a statement accompanying the study. "Children take in the meaning of what their mothers are trying to do, so if a mom is being very directive and is generally a very warm person, I think the child feels, 'My mom is doing this because she cares about me, and she's trying to do the best for me.' If the warmth is missing, then the child might feel, 'My mom is trying to control me and I don't like it.'"
A father's influence
Research suggests that interactions with fathers and mothers may contribute different things to a child's development. For instance, a study pubished last summer in the Journal of Early Adolescence by researchers from Brigham Young University found that fathers are key to helping children develop persistence.
The study looked at parenting style and, like the current research, found that the relationship's dynamics have a bit impact on how a child develops certain traits. Unlike the low-income Head Start families that Ispa studied, though, BYU researcher Laura Padilla-Walker and her colleagues focused on families that were not disadvantaged, but rather those that were flourishing to see if they could determine why some families fare particularly well.
They found those dads who do best are the ones with close, loving relationshios with their children, but who set clear boundaries. Also important — and in line with a key finding in Ispa's study — is the need to give children an appropriate amount of freedom.
The results of the new study were published in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice. Ispa's co-authors included Duane Rudy, associate professor of human development and family studies at MU, and researchers from Arizona State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Connecticut, the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
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