PROVO — Laura Padilla-Walker remembers wanting to dump her newspaper route as a child before she'd fulfilled her year-long commitment. Her dad wouldn't let her. It was one of the ways she learned the value of persisting.
New research by Padilla-Walker and colleagues in the BYU School of Family Life shows that her dad was right — and that fathers are, in fact, key to teaching children to hang in and complete projects, reach goals and overcome challenges. Their findings, which link persistence to higher engagement in school and less delinquency, among other things, are being published Friday in the Journal of Early Adolescence.
The findings apply to dads who are "authoritative," not those who are authoritarian, said Randal Day, co-author and fellow professor with Padilla-Walker.
Authoritarian fathers are demanding, "because I said so," Day said. Authoritative dads have close, loving relationships with their children, set boundaries and rules and explain why they are important and what consequences for breaking them will be. They also give their children an appropriate level of freedom. An authoritative father gets to know his child's world and is famliar with the kinds of things the child is immersed in, he said.
Children whose fathers are authoritative are much more likely, over time, to develop persistence and reap its benefits, said Day. Earlier research showed fathers who are authoritarian, he noted, "may get results but they also get a lot of unintended effects with it." He speculated that "later in life, when the threat is removed, children may not persist when the going gets tough. They may not have been exposed to how to work together, if they've been doing things out of fear."
For their study, the Brigham Young University researchers over the course of six years worked with 500 families in Seattle as part of the Flourishing Families Project. When they started, the families each had an 11-year-old; and the researchers have periodically reinterviewed them at points in time along the way, collecting five waves of data. It's a rolling project by BYU students and the plan is to follow those children into their emerging adult years. It is a long-term study, but it was not designed to be representative of all families across America. The families in the study are not disadvantaged or targeted because they face certain challenges. It is designed, said Day, to look at families that are flourishing and see what can be determined about why they do well. "What is it about these families that makes a difference in the lives of children?"
Both Padilla-Walker and Day emphasized that the findings don't say moms have no role in helping a child develop persistence. "It may be true of both parents it they are authoritative," Day said. Padilla-Walker noted that mothers can choose to emphasize persistence, "which is a very important trait. I teach persistence pointedly," she said. Neither are single mothers barred from having children who acquire that trait.
But the trait of persistence is most naturally "socialized by fathers," she said. "We don't know why."
Connecting with a child and interacting doesn't translate to solving all of a child's problems, but rather fostering the kind of conversations and offering the encouragement that helps children become competent. And persistent.
Other co-authors are BYU professor Justin Dyer and graduate student Brent Black.
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