The best parents balance discipline with love: study

A major study has concluded that children who receive ‘tough love’– a combination of warmth and discipline – from their parents have the best chance of doing well in life.

The study found that parenting style, not economic background, is the most important factor determining a child’s development of positive qualities such as self-control, empathy and determination.

It also discovered that children with married parents were twice as likely to show these key traits than children living with step-families or single parents.

The left-leaning think-tank Demos analysed data from 9,000 households for the study, entitled Building Character.

The researchers identified the three most important traits determining a child’s chances of becoming a well-rounded adult.

These were application (the ability to concentrate and stick with tasks), self-regulation (control of emotions and ability to cope with disappointment) and empathy (sensitivity to other people).

The type of parenting most likely to instil these characteristics was defined by the authors as ‘tough love’, combining affection with discipline.

Positive traits learned from tough love were already ingrained in children’s character by the time they reached infant school age.

Children experiencing tough love parenting in low-income households were just as likely to develop positive characteristics as those in wealthier families.

Tough love parenting proved far more beneficial to children than the alternatives, described by Demos as laissez-faire parenting, authoritarian parenting and disengaged (hands off) parenting.

One of the authors, Demos director Richard Reeves, said that tough love was successful because it built up the child’s self-esteem while teaching them restraint and respect for others.

“The ‘tough’ bit of the equation is about children realising ‘we can’t have exactly what we want immediately when we want it’,” he said.

He added that “the recognition that there are other people in the world who you have to treat with a certain amount of respect” is “a crucial life skill”.

His co-author Jen Lexmond said that the life chances of children receiving tough love were “significantly improved”, with “early tough love more likely to pay off in terms of financial and social benefits as an adult”.

Earlier this year a top psychologist warned that parents who fail to exert authority have bred a “spoilt generation” of children who believe adults must earn their respect.

Dr Aric Sigman’s research concluded that many social problems, including teenage pregnancy and anti-social behaviour, are due to a lack of discipline.

Misguided attempts to “empower” children with more control over their lives are exacerbating the problem, he said.

Dr Sigman’s book The Spoilt Generation analyses 150 studies and reports, including official crime statistics and data on parenting strategies.

In August the Shadow Home Secretary blamed the devaluing of marriage for producing a generation of children who do not know right from wrong.

Chris Grayling said: “Family breakdown has reached a scale where many young people grow up with no vestige of stability in their lives, and no concept of a family-focused upbringing.”

He said some children “have no-one to tell them right from wrong”.

“So it’s hardly surprising that all too often they grow up as the antithesis of model citizens”, he added.

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