Okay parents, here’s another thing to worry about! As parents, are we too lenient and soft with our kids? Or are we too firm, to the point of being harsh?

Harsh Parenting Can Affect Kids School Success

A new study in the journal Child Development shows how being too firm, to the point of being harsh — which includes yelling, hitting and shoving and using other verbal and physical threats as punishment — could negatively impact our children’s ability to succeed in high school and college.

Now I don’t agree with hitting, shoving and using physical threats obviously. But yelling?

I mean come oooooon…. My kids don’t listen after 10 times, so naturally, I’m going to raise my voice by the 11th time. Will that make them fail in high school?

Harsh Parenting Can Impact Child’s Educational Achievement

Apparently harsh parenting can impact a child’s educational achievement in the long term based on how it affects relationships with peers, sexual behavior and delinquency, according to Rochelle Hentges, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.

The study involved following more than 1,500 students over a nine-year period, from seventh grade until three years after the students were expected to graduate high school. Students were asked whether their parents yelled at them, hit them and/or shoved them to get a sense of how much physical or verbal aggression they experienced. They were also asked about their own relationships with peers, sexual activity and delinquency such as shoplifting.

The children who said in grade 7 that they experienced harsh parenting were more likely to say in the grade 9 that their peers were more important to them than following their parents’ rules or doing homework. These kids were more likely to engage in risky behaviors by the 11th grade, which included more sexual activity for girls, and hitting and stealing for boys.  Also, these students were then more likely to drop out of high school or college.

“If you’re in this harsh or unstable environment, you’re kind of set up to look for immediate rewards instead of focusing on the long-term outcomes,” said Hentges, the lead author of the study. She believes there is an evolutionary response to verbally and physically aggressive parenting.

Evolutionary Response to Aggression?

“The premise of that is like in our ancestral environment, if you had this unstable or high-danger environment, it wouldn’t make sense for you to put a lot of time and resources toward something that might be in the future if you’re not going to live to see that future.”

Harsher parenting also leads children to have less attachment to their parents and come to overly rely on their peers, said Hentges.

“When you have this type of parenting, from a very early age you are basically kind of getting this message that you are not loved, and you’re getting this rejection message, so it would make sense to try and find that acceptance elsewhere,” she said.

“So that’s kind of why you go toward these peers and you’re trying to get validation from them, and if that means that you’re going to engage in behaviors that maybe you wouldn’t do normally just to get that validation, then you’re going to do that.”

Hentges and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh factored out other issues such as race, income level, test scores and GPA, parental education levels and how much students valued education to try to home in on the impact of harsh parenting on the student’s ultimate educational success or failure.

The research is based on reports only from students, not teachers or parents, and considered students from one geographic area, so the study is limited. But the study’s findings are enough to take note.

How can parents adjust their parenting?

Trying to eliminate or reduce any verbal or physical aggression would allow kids to grow up in a more supportive environment, which could then reduce their over-reliance on their peers and the chances or engaging in risky behaviors. Even if you can’t target the parenting, you can try to take steps to interrupt kids’ extreme dependence on peers and risky sexual behavior and delinquency, which can impact overall educational achievement, Hentges said.

She also suggests taking a step back to recognize why kids are doing what they are doing. If you understand that they are reacting to “high-danger situation” like a threat, they are going to focus on short-term gains as opposed to long-term outcomes. So the strategies should follow suit.

For example, telling kids that education is important for their long-term success will likely motivate them. But for students who are struggling in their day-to-day lives, simply telling them won’t work. For these kids, hands-on projects and experiences, and peer-to-peer learning may be more effective as it’ll make school appear rewarding and fulfilling.

“If you can make education rewarding in the short term and in the immediate, that might actually promote higher engagement, which would relate to higher educational attainment in terms of getting a high school degree and going to college,” Hentges said.

“For people who say that we’re not strict enough, I think that it’s very important to recognize there’s a difference between being harsh and being firm,” Hentges said. “Rules are great, but they need to followed up with in a warm and supportive environment. … Permissive parenting where there are no rules is bad as well.”


Maria Lianos-Carbone is the author of “Oh Baby! A Mom’s Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year”, and publisher of amotherworld.com, a leading lifestyle blog for women.

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