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How Different Parenting Approaches Can Influence Brain Development

written by: AngelicaMD • edited by: BStone • updated: 8/2/2012

A baby’s brain is a rapidly developing organ from the time he is implanted as an embryo in the uterus to the time he is born and grows into a child. Find out what studies show about how different parenting styles can affect a child’s cognitive development.

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    Brain Development in Children

    Mother and Child Interaction 

    A baby's brain, spinal cord, heart and other organs begin to form by the fifth week of pregnancy. By the eighteenth week the nerve endings of a baby's brain "hook up" to the ears, and she may hear the mother’s heart beating, and may even be startled by loud noises. Although the mother may not yet perceive the baby moving, she has actually started to do so. From then on, the baby’s motor and sensory functions progressively develop.

    This early the baby in the womb can already recognize her mother’s voice. The mother, by reading, singing or talking to her unborn child, can begin their bonding experience early. From birth learning becomes a daily process that can be influenced largely by a child's parents.

    According to a neuroscientist from the University of California-Los Angeles, parent-child interaction can affect not only a child’s psychological development but her physical brain development as well. The human brain has a remarkable capacity to change (plasticity), and timing may be crucial, when the brain at a young age is particularly efficient at specific types of learning.

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    Four Parenting Approaches

    According to Maccoby & Martin, 1983, parents can be classified according to their level of parental demand and responsiveness which reflects different patterns of parental values, practices, and behaviors (Baumrind, 1991).

    Indulgent or permissive parents are more responsive than demanding. They are nontraditional, lenient, do not require mature behavior, allow considerable self-regulation, and avoid confrontation.

    Authoritarian parents are highly demanding and directive, not responsive, obedience- and status-oriented, expect their orders to be obeyed and provide well-ordered and structured environments with clearly stated rules.

    Authoritative parents are demanding and responsive, assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. They use disciplinary methods that are supportive, rather than punitive. They teach their children to be assertive, socially responsible, self-regulated and cooperative.

    Uninvolved or neglectful parents are low in both responsiveness and level of demand. These parents are emotionally detached and indifferent and keep their children at a distance, responding to their child’s demands only to make them cease bothering them.

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    Effects of Parenting Styles

    Most of the existing studies that investigate the connection between parenting styles and children’s cognitive development are comprised of families with adolescents. Parenting approaches include the authoritarian, permissive, authoritative and neglectful styles, which are compared in relation to different child outcomes, such as academic achievement, self-confidence, aggression, delinquent behavior and substance abuse.

    In the different studies conducted among young adolescents in 1987 to 1998, similar results showed that authoritarian and permissive parenting styles were not associated with higher grades, while the authoritative parenting approach was more likely to be associated with higher grades. Little is known about the neglectful parenting style, and research on this is lacking because such parents are typically not very responsive or do not volunteer to be studied.

    Another group of researchers (Tiller, et al) investigated the influence of authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting styles on elementary school-aged children’s cognitive ability, with the addition of socioeconomic demographic variables. Their findings indicated, however, that parenting styles are not better predictors of children’s cognitive ability than family socioeconomic-demographic characteristics.

    The authors suggested that perhaps there are other factors that may affect cognitive development in young children such as the marital status of the parents, the child’s personal characteristics and the parents’ personalities. Furthermore, they proposed that parenting has a greater and more direct influence on other aspects of children’s development such as social and emotional development rather than on cognitive development.

    These findings are supported by other observations that brain development may be affected by factors such as poverty, economic deprivation that affects their nutrition, access to medical care, the safety and predictability of their physical environment, the level of family stress experienced and the quality and continuity of their day-to-day care.

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    What Does This All Mean?

    A child’s brain development, including his intelligence, information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning and skills may be influenced by many factors. It may take more than just parenting skills to form a child’s abilities to process information, develop his skills in decision making and so on. Many other important aspects in a child’s life can influence his brain development, such as:

    • His state of health or disease
    • The adequacy of his nutrition
    • His social environment
    • His physical environment
    • His family’s socio-economic status
    • His family’s dynamics
    • His genetic make-up

    Although parenting skills are important in raising motivated children, learning may be enhanced by many other factors that play a dynamic role in mental development. More research needs to be done.

    Furthermore, in doing such research, parameters indicating a child’s cognitive development should be more specific or measurable, rather than just based on their grades in school. School performance may not be an accurate indicator of brain development since it can be influenced by personal and social factors.

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    References

    Amy E. Tiller, B.S, et al, “The Influence of Parenting Styles on Children’s Cognitive Development”, http://www.kon.org/urc/tiller.pdf

    Families and Work Institute, Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development, http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content4/brain.development.html#credits

    Amber Lewis, “Every Parent-Child Interaction Shapes the Brain”, http://theattachedfamily.com/membersonly/?p=1405

    Athealth.com, http://www.athealth.com/Practitioner/ceduc/parentingstyles.html

    Photo by Robert Whitehead, Wikimedia Commons