By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD
I always find it amusing when people talk nostalgically about the good old days when arguing that todays generation is out of control. Todays kids are so violent When I was a kid I would have never gotten away with that!, I hear often. The argument is that todays youth are out of control because parents do not parent anymore and parental expectations have declined. But is this really true?
Let us for a moment bypass the important question of whether kids today are worse than previous kids, because it is actually a complicated issue. For example, although there is some evidence of increasing parental-perceived conduct problems and youth incarceration during the last 50 years, there are many possible explanations that suggest that actual conduct may not be that different. For example, increasing parenting expectations may result in todays parents reporting their kids as worse than they were themselves even though the actual behavior is similar. Likewise, increased policing and stronger drug enforcement can result in greater incarcerations, which makes it look like todays kids are getting in trouble more often when it fact they are just simply getting caught more often.
But again, lets assume that todays kids are truly getting in trouble more often than previous kids. Is this the result of worse parenting? Has parenting really changed during the last decades?
The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology just published a study that examined parenting changes among thousands of parents of 16-year-old teens in 1986 and fairly similar parents in 2006.
I will focus here on two specific questions. First, have parenting practices changed from 1986 to 2006? Second, are the perceived increases in conduct problems the result of changes in parenting?
Lets tackle the first question. Below are the scores of parental expectations and behaviors in the two years of the study.
As you can see when comparing the 1986 to the 2006 columns, the study suggests that as compared to the 1986 parents, 2006 parents have greater expectations in relation to going to school, doing homework, being polite, telling parents where they will be going, etc. In addition, 2006 parents are more likely to monitor their teens as compared to 1986 parents.
These results do not suggest that todays parents are more permissive or relaxed than parents in 1986. In fact, they seem to report having higher expectations and monitoring their kids more than parents did 25 years ago.
The authors of the study also examined whether any changes in conduct problems between the 1986 and the 2006 teens could be due to parenting changes. The results were actually surprising. The answer was yes, but not in the way you think. The authors found that changes in parenting practices from 1986 to 2006 actually made an impact on teens behavior: they seemed to have decreased the amount of conduct problems.
But how could parenting changes in the last 30 years have reduced the conduct problems among kids if conduct problems among kids apparently got worse? That is, if teens got worse, how is it that parenting made it better? The authors argue that parenting changes made the problem less worse: Yes, kids appear to be having more conduct problems, but these problems would be even worse if parents had not changed since 1986.
The authors conclude:
The findings of this study do not support the view that a population-wide ‘decline’ in quality of parenting has led to an increase in youth antisocial behavior. As anticipated, lower levels of parental control and responsiveness were strongly associated with risk for conduct problems; longitudinal analyses for the first cohort also showed that they predicted future risk of adult crime (supplementary Table 3). However, as noted, quality of parenting appears if anything to have improved and these changes may have been protective. Models suggested that increases over time in conduct problems might have been greater had it not been for observed changes in parental control and responsiveness.
So this study seems to conclude that parenting is not responsible for the high levels of conduct problems observed in todays youth.
Collishaw, S., Gardner, F., Maughan, B., Scott, J., & Pickles, A. (2011). Do Historical Changes in Parent–Child Relationships Explain Increases in Youth Conduct Problems? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-011-9543-1