When babies are born in hospital delivery rooms, they come without an instruction manual. Although there are parenting courses and lots of advice from experts and amateurs in the press and social media, many mothers and fathers grope in the dark and in the end use the parenting technique that seems natural – or practical – for their children as they grow up.
One method is psychological control in which parents try to improve their children’s behavior by making them feel shame or guilt about their actions. Another is the “silent treatment,” in which parents ignore their kids following bad behavior so as to discourage future undesirable conduct. These methods may sound overly strict, and it’s often assumed that they will have a negative impact on a child’s social behavior – for example, making them less willing to help or to care for other people.
In general, it is known that parental culture differs in various countries and ethnic groups. Past studies among conservative Protestant groups in the US found that religiosity can moderate the effects of psychological control, rendering it less detrimental to children. The fathers’ observed authoritarian parenting was not directly related to children’s behavior problems among conservative Protestant families, but it significantly predicted behavior problems in other families.
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) have disclosed a complex picture in Israel. Studies led by Prof Maayan Davidov at the university’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare have shown that a child’s response to such stern discipline can depend on the religious commitment of the parent.
Her research, in collaboration with Maya Oren-Gabai and Dr. Islam Abu-Asaad, assessed the social behavior of children aged between six and 12 years old in 315 secular and religious Israeli Jewish and Muslim families. The findings were published in Child Development under the title “Religiosity as a moderator of the links between parental psychological control and children’s prosociality.”
The results showed that in secular Jewish families, mothers’ use of psychological control did appear to have a negative effect on their kids, making them less likely to help others. However, in religious Jewish families, there was no such “cost” to this parenting style. In religious Muslim families, this style of parenting actually appeared to have a positive effect; it was associated with more helpful behavior on the part of the child, while among secular Muslims there was no discernible effect either way.
The Torah tells parents to teach their children about Judaism and their duties as Jews. Most Jewish parents want to raise their children to be kind, responsible, and honorable people. Parents are expected to feed, clothe and educate their children and encourage them to support themselves.
Parents participating in the study answered a detailed questionnaire to assess their religiosity level, parenting style and use of psychological control in everyday situations. Their children were then given tests to assess their social behavior, especially their willingness to help a stranger with the simple task of picking up paperclips that had been “accidentally dropped” by a lab assistant.
“It is important to bear this mind when providing parenting programs and guidance to parents – parenting behavior doesn’t work in the same way in different cultural and religious context,” Davidov said “For example, what is detrimental in one context may not be harmful in another context.”
These findings are consistent with the theory that in religious families, parents’ psychological control of their children is driven by a system of values,” she continued. “These values are understood by parent and child. It’s accepted that parents know what is best for their child’s development and that children are obligated to respect their parents and the religious values they bestow.”
In contrast, however, when parents exert psychological control in a secular context, they are acting in a way that is inconsistent with larger secular cultural values of autonomy and self-direction. In such cases, shaming and guilt-tripping on the part of the parents will probably be regarded by the child in a negative light and as expressions of hostility or rejection that may undermine kids’ positive social development.
Davidov is planning follow-up research to investigate parental behavior that promotes empathic behavior in their children. “I want to connect the dots,” concluded Davidov, “so that we can better understand why parental behavior can have different consequences in different families.”