Personality Development (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Parents’ Influences

Through the many things they do—and don’t do—each day, parents can have a significant impact on children’s personalities. Here we’ll focus on three aspects of parent–child relationships that seem to be especially influential: attachment, parenting styles, and child maltreatment.

Attachment  Many parents and other important family members (e.g., grandparents, older siblings) lovingly interact with a new infant and consistently and dependably provide for the infant’s physical and psychological needs. When they do such things, a strong, affectionate caregiver–child bond known as attachment typically forms (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, Wall, 1978).

Infants who become closely attached to parents or other caregivers early in life are apt to develop into amiable, independent, self-confident children who adjust easily to the classroom environment, establish productive relationships with teachers and peers, and have an inner conscience that guides their behavior. In contrast, youngsters who do not become closely attached to a parent or some other individual early in life can be immature, dependent, unpopular, and prone to disruptive and aggressive behaviors later on (Hartup, 1989; Kochanska, Aksan, Knaack, & Rhines, 2004; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005; S. Shulman, Elicker, & Sroufe, 1994; Sroufe, Carlson, & Shulman, 1993).

Attachment to a parent or other adult caregiver remains important even in adolescence. Most adolescents continue to see their relationships with parents and other family members as important and valuable throughout the secondary school grades (J. P. Allen, McElhaney, Kuperminc, & Jodl, 2004; R. M. Lerner, 2002; Nestemann & Hurrelmann, 1994). Although teenagers often disagree with their parents, those who are well-adjusted tend to do so within the context of an affectionate, supportive parent–child relationship (J. P. Allen et al., 2003).

Parenting Styles Researchers have discovered that many parents exhibit somewhat consistent patterns of behavior in rearing their children. Differing parenting styles are associated with different behaviors and personality traits in children (Baumrind, 1971, 1989, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983).

The ideal situation for most children is authoritative parenting.   Parents using this style provide a loving and supportive home, hold high expectations and standards for performance, explain why behaviors are or are not acceptable, enforce household rules consistently, include children in decision making, and provide age-appropriate opportunities for independence. Children from authoritative homes are happy, energetic, confident, and self-reliant. They make friends easily, have good social skills, and show concern for others’ rights and needs. They are motivated to do well in school and, as a result, are often high achievers. Authoritative parenting provides a good model for how, as teachers, we should generally run our classrooms (J. M. T. Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2006).

It is important to note here that most research on parenting involves correlational studies that reveal associations between parents’ behaviors and children’s characteristics but do not necessarily demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships. A few experimental studies have documented that specific parenting styles probably do influence children’s personalities to some degree (W. A. Collins et al., 2000). In other cases, however, parents’ disciplinary strategies seem to be the result, rather than the cause, of how children behave. For instance, temperamentally lively or adventuresome children typically require more parental control than quieter, restrained ones (J. R. Harris, 1998; Jaffee et al., 2004; Stice & Barrera, 1995).

Children of authoritative parents appear well-adjusted, in part because their behaviors are considered ideal by many people in Western cultures: They listen respectfully to others, can follow rules by the time they reach school age, try to be independent, and strive for academic achievement. But authoritative parenting is not universally best; other parenting styles may be better suited to particular cultures. For example, children of very controlling (and so apparently authoritarian) Asian American parents often do quite well in school. In many Asian American families high demands for obedience are made within the context of a loving, supportive mother–child relationship. Furthermore, principles of Confucianism teach children that parents are always right and that obedience and emotional restraint are essential for family harmony (Chao, 1994, 2001; Lin & Fu, 1990).

Impoverished economic conditions, too, may require authoritarian parenting. In low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where danger may lurk around every corner, parents may better serve their children by being very strict and directive about activities (Hale-Benson, 1986; McLoyd, 1998). In addition, the stresses of impoverished financial resources can become so overwhelming that they limit parents’ ability to solicit children’s ideas about family rules (Bronfenbrenner, Alvarez, & Henderson, 1984). Communicating high standards for behavior and negotiating with children about seemingly unfair rules can take considerable time and energy—perhaps more time and energy than very stressful circumstances allow.

As teachers, we must take care not to point accusatory fingers or in other ways be judgmental about how parents are bringing up their children. Some parents may have learned ineffective parenting strategies from their own parents. Others may have challenges in their lives—perhaps mental illness, marital conflict, or serious financial problems—that hamper their ability to nurture and support their children. And of course, nonauthoritative styles may sometimes be culturally adaptive. Although we can certainly serve as valuable sources of information about effective disciplinary techniques, we must be careful that we don’t give total credit to or place total blame on parents for how they interact with their children.

In any event, parenting styles seem to have only a moderate (rather than a strong) influence on children’s personalities (W. A. Collins et al., 2000; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996). Many children thrive despite their parents’ less-than-optimal parenting styles, provided that their homes aren’t severely neglectful or abusive (J. R. Harris, 1995, 1998; Lykken, 1997; Scarr, 1992). Children with certain temperaments—for instance, those who tend to be adaptable, persistent, and outgoing—seem to be especially resilient in the face of difficult family circumstances (D. Hart, Atkins, & Fegley, 2003; Keogh, 2003).

Child Maltreatment In a few unfortunate instances, parents’ behaviors toward their children constitute child maltreatment. In some cases parents neglect children: They fail to provide nutritious meals, adequate clothing, and other basic necessities of life. In other cases parents (or possibly other family members) abuse children physically, sexually, or emotionally. Possible indicators of neglect or abuse are chronic hunger, lack of warm clothing in cold weather, untreated medical needs, frequent or serious physical injuries (e.g., bruises, burns, broken bones), and exceptional knowledge about sexual matters (Turnbull et al., 2007).

Parental neglect and abuse have significant adverse effects on children’s personal and social development. On average, children who have been routinely neglected or abused have low self-esteem, poorly developed social skills, and low school achievement. Many are angry, aggressive, and defiant. Others can be depressed, anxious, socially withdrawn, and possibly suicidal (Dodge, Pettit, Bates, & Valente, 1995; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002; Nix et al., 1999; R. A. Thompson & Wyatt, 1999).

Teachers are both morally and legally obligated to report any cases of suspected child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities (e.g., the school principal or child protective services). Two helpful resources are the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) and the Web site for Childhelp USA at

Common Parenting Styles

When Parents Exhibit This Parenting Style... Children tend to be...


  • Providing a loving, supportive home environment
  • Holding high expectations and standards for children’s behavior
  • Explaining why some behaviors are acceptable and others are not
  • Enforcing household rules consistently
  • Including children in family decision making
  • Gradually loosening restrictions as children become capable of greater responsibility and independence
  • Happy
  • Self-confident
  • Curious
  • Independent and self-reliant
  • Capable of considerable self-control
  • Likable, with effective social skills
  • Respectful of others' needs
  • Motivated and successful in school


  • Conveying less emotional warmth than authoritative parents
  • Holding high expectations and standards for children’s behavior
  • Establishing rules of behavior without regard for children’s needs
  • Expecting rules to be obeyed without question
  • Allowing little give-and-take in parent–child discussions
  • Unhappy
  • Anxious
  • Low in self-confidence
  • Lacking initiative
  • Dependent on others
  • Lacking in social skills and prosocial behaviors
  • Coercive in dealing with others
  • Defiant


  • Providing a loving, supportive home environment
  • Holding few expectations or standards for children’s behavior
  • Rarely punishing inappropriate behavior
  • Allowing children to make many of their own decisions (e.g., about eating, bedtime)
  •  Selfish
  • Unmotivated
  • Dependent on others
  • Demanding of attention
  • Disobedient
  • Impulsive


  • Providing little, if any, emotional support for children
  • Holding few expectations or standards for children’s behavior
  • Showing little interest in children’s lives
  • Seeming to be overwhelmed by self-focused personal problems
  • Disobedient
  • Demanding
  • Low in self-control
  • Difficulty handling frustration
  • Lacking long-term goals

Sources: Baumrind, 1971, 1989; W. A. Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000; Dekovic & Janssens, 1992; Gonzalez & Wolters, 2005; Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; L. S. Miller, 1995; Paris, Morrison, & Miller, 2006; Rohner, 1998; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Conger, 1991; L. Steinberg, 1993; L. Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989; J. M. T. Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2006.

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