The importance of parenting style in child development has been acknowledged for a long time, ever since prototypical concepts were developed to distinguish between certain styles, such as authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting styles [1
]. The authoritative parenting style for example, which is the combination of high warmth with high limit-setting, has been linked to children with improved psychosocial maturity, more academic competence, less internalized distress, and less externalizing problems [2
] including in samples of serious juvenile offenders [3
]. An overly punitive style on the other hand has been linked to increases in both internalizing and externalizing behavior [4
], a greater risk of juvenile delinquency [5
], and even a greater risk of obesity [6
]. Permissive or indulgent parenting style has been similarly linked to a range of undesirable outcomes, from sleep problems in preschool aged children [7
], to entitlement, narcissism, and lower work ethic in young adulthood [8
]. Yet despite all of this and more, most of the research on parenting style remains correlational. Nor is there very much to demonstrate a method by which it may be modified. If such a method were available though, it might enable a true experimental test of the effects of parenting style, via a direct manipulation, and a follow-up observation.
For now, the strongest evidence of a causal connection between parenting styles and the outcomes they are linked to comes from longitudinal studies that do their best to predict and control for other possible confounds. One such study examined parenting style in parents of preschool aged children, who were followed all the way to early adolescence [9
]. After controlling for initial child differences, the study found that certain authoritarian-distinctive power-assertive practices, such as verbal hostility and psychological control, were the most detrimental to children, while the most competent and well-adjusted children tended to have more democratic or authoritative parents [9
]. Another longitudinal study of adolescents looked at parenting style and school dropout rates, finding that students with authoritative parents were the most likely to have completed secondary school, and the least likely to have dropped out, after controlling for numerous other variables [10
]. This relationship was found to be partly mediated through adolescent’s school engagement, emphasizing the importance of quality parent–child relationships for student’s school engagement [11
]. There is therefore reasonable evidence to suggest that a more authoritative and less authoritarian style may be causally related to better outcomes in children—and at least some evidence of the specific mechanisms or mediating factors that drive this relationship. There is less evidence, however, on what interventions may be successful at modifying parenting style, or any of the identified components of it which seem to be harmful or helpful.
Among the very few intervention studies in which parenting style itself was a direct outcome variable and not just a predictor variable, two somewhat similar and yet distinct parenting training programs stand out. One is the widely known, family-centered Triple P program [12
], which is possibly the most researched parenting education program in existence [14
]. The Triple P program appears to be an effective program at reducing dysfunctional parenting strategies and increasing confidence in parents [12
], making it a worthy choice and a promising approach. Another program which is lesser-known but the subject of this study, is the Positive Discipline parenting program [15
]. Although much less researched, Positive Discipline is beginning to show similar evidence that it may modify parenting attitudes and behaviors [17
]. The first of these studies looked at 101 parents attending Positive Discipline parenting classes and found that parents experienced a decrease in authoritarian and permissive parenting style along with an increase in authoritative style, at 3-months after completion of the program [17
] A second study looked at 107 parents of more diverse ethnicity and lower SES and found a similar pattern of effects on parenting style, sustained to three months after attending the workshops [18
]. Thus, the Positive Discipline program seems like it may be a promising possibility in modifying parenting behavior—and may even be effective with low SES populations who could possibly benefit from the intervention the most. So, what exactly is Positive Discipline, and how does it differ from the many other existing parenting programs?
Positive Discipline is an approach to raising children that is based on the teachings of Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs, which emphasizes the need for belonging as a fundamental motivator of human beings [16
]. A basic premise of the approach is the understanding that “misbehaving children are discouraged children who have mistaken ideas (faulty private logic) about how to achieve their primary goal—to belong” [21
]. Thus, a major focus of Positive Discipline is to help parents and educators understand these mistaken ideas that children may hold, and to use a variety of specific strategies to help children feel a sense of belonging, which is their root goal. For example, there are several main concepts which are emphasized, such as the use of encouragement (not praise), and the use of family and class meetings to solve problems in a democratic manner, which helps children feel a sense of belonging and significance [15
]. What makes the Positive Discipline model unique though is the teaching of core concepts through the use of experiential techniques, which help a participant to not only practice a specific skill, but to “feel” what it is like to be on both sides of the approach, versus another approach [22
]. The goal of the approach is to achieve effective discipline, which is defined as that which helps children feel a sense of connection, is mutually respectful, is effective long-term, teaches important social skills, and builds a sense of personal capability in children [15
While the focus of Positive Discipline is mainly to help parents to achieve effective discipline, it is very possible that it may also be helping parents modify their parenting style towards an authoritative style, and away from a permissive or authoritarian style. Many of the specific tools and techniques that Positive Discipline advocates [15
] are very similar to or overlap completely with the dimensions of parenting style identified as authoritative by existing parenting dimensions scales, like the Parenting Dimensions Questionnaire [24
]. Many items which were empirically derived to characterize authoritativeness in four different sub-dimensions, are directly representative of techniques and virtues extolled by Positive Discipline. For instance, in the warmth/involvement factor, there are items such as “Gives praise when the child is good,” “gives comfort and understanding when the child is upset,” and “expresses affection by hugging, kissing, and holding the child.” These items are analogous to whole sections of techniques recommended in Positive Discipline, like “give encouragement freely,” and “give a hug,” [23
]. Each of the other sub-dimensions identified as belonging to authoritative parenting style also have clear analogous representations in Positive Discipline, including Reasoning Induction (“take time for training”), Democratic Participation (“hold weekly family meetings”), and Good Natured / Easy Going (“look for improvement, not perfection”) [23
]. Thus, Positive Discipline appears to be very well representative of the authoritative style, at least as it is intended. The question remaining though, is how effective a typical applied workshop is at modifying parent’s behaviors, and if so whether these modifications carry over into benefits in children.
So far, the existing research on Positive Discipline interventions is limited. Jane Nelsen’s 1979 dissertation provided the first trial of what would later form the foundation of Positive Discipline, although this 12-week intervention involved both parents and teachers, and many of the techniques that are taught today had not been developed yet [25
]. Other studies have focused on school-based applications of the program, such as implementing class meetings [26
], or democratic problem-solving [27
]. One study looked at Adlerian-based parenting classes broadly, of which Positive Discipline as a sub-type, but was not focused specifically on Positive Discipline [28
]. Only three studies have focused on Positive Discipline parenting trainings in their current and widely delivered format [17
], but the results so far are promising. A dissertation by Holliday found that Positive Discipline parenting workshops increased authoritative parenting style (and decreased authoritarian and permissive style), although in relatively affluent participants [17
]. A second study in a much lower SES population also found the workshops altered parenting attitudes and behaviors, although using different measures [18
]. The effects in either study did not appear to be limited or moderated by common factors such as SES, ethnicity, or being a single parent [18
]. Thus, the parenting workshops have the potential to not only improve the long-term prospects of many children, but potentially shrink socio-developmental disparities as well, if applied properly.
The purpose of this study was therefore to replicate and extend previous findings, in a population of mostly low-income parents and community controls, attending free Positive Discipline parenting training workshops (or community controls). One main addition of this study, relative to previous studies, was the recruitment of a non-randomized control group—making it a two group quasi-experimental design. This type of control cannot eliminate personal confounds, but it can protect against some threats to internal validity such as testing effects, maturation, and history threats. Another main addition was the use of new and extensive measures, including both extensive measures on parenting style and parent-report of their children’s adaptive behavior, broken into several domains. Theoretically, several of these domains correspond directly to parenting style, such as academic competence, and types of both internalizing and externalizing behavior [2
]. The study collected mail-in questionnaires at baseline, and after three months.
The primary hypotheses of this study were that authoritative parenting style would increase in the intervention group, but not in the control, while authoritarian style, permissive style, and parenting stress would decrease in the intervention group but not in the control. These findings would serve to replicate and extend previous results. Secondary hypotheses concerned outcomes in children—where it was hypothesized that academic and social competence would increase in the intervention group but not in the control, while internalizing and externalizing behavior would decrease in the intervention group, but not the control. These hypotheses are theoretically implicated but have not been examined. Beyond that, exploratory analyses would examine the many sub-domains within each dimension of parenting style, as well as the sub-domains within each major dimension of children’s adaptive behavior—without any specific hypotheses of effects. Of course, a major limitation that must be understood is that all the data are parent reported, as well as the comparison group being a non-randomized comparison. Nonetheless, the measurement of these outcomes is a step forward in connecting theoretical desirable endpoints, and a two group quasi-experiment is still an improvement over a one-group quasi-experiment. This study therefore serves the aim of a program of research, which is to seek to successfully modify parenting style to reduce negative influences on children, to observe the positive effects of this change in parenting style on children, and to understand and optimize the maximum benefit possible to render via this approach.
Taken together, the findings from this study indicate that parenting style did indeed change significantly over time in conjunction with Positive Discipline parenting workshops, including decreases authoritarianism and permissiveness—as well as decreases in parental stress, and increases in positive discipline style parenting. The changes do not appear to be a result of a possible testing effect, maturation, or other factors that would equally influence the comparison condition. Furthermore, the findings appear to indicate a reduction in externalizing—hyperactive behavior, and an increase in academic competence, in children of parents attending the Positive Discipline workshops. While some other hypotheses were not supported, overall these are promising results that may be of interest to both parents and educators.
These findings are consistent with previous research in their demonstration of an effect on parents [17
], but also extend those findings with the measurement of outcomes in children, and the use of a control group. The finding of increased academic competence and decreased hyperactive behavior are consistent with research that shows authoritative parenting style (and lower permissive or authoritarian style) predicts school readiness and achievement in the first grade [36
]. Although there was only a three-month follow up in this study, parenting style has also been shown to predict dropout rates in secondary school [10
], making these early childhood interventions of potentially far-reaching importance. More broadly speaking, this research adds to the base of support for implementing effective parenting programs in general, [12
]. Hopefully future research will continue to explore such programs with experimental studies, and extended follow-up observations.
Of course, the present study has some limitations. First, it used a nonrandomized control group rather than a randomized control, which introduces the possibility of selection bias into the intervention group—and cannot rule out the possibility of personal confounds contributing to the observed effects. It is possible that parents attending the parenting workshops were simply motivated to improve, and this may be responsible for some or even all their improvement. However, the lack of any
significant changes in any of the observed variables in the control group suggests that these traits are relatively stable, lacking a directed intervention. Another limitation was the use of entirely parent-reported measurements. Although the study used validated measures for all reported outcomes, they are nonetheless self-reported, and may be influenced by participant response bias. At the very least, the comparison group somewhat protects against this threat—as the parents in this condition might also be motivated to report socially desirable information about themselves or their children, and yet reported no changes. Another limitation was the relatively low prevalence of single-parents taking the workshops. It is not known how well these results would generalize to other demographic groups, such as single parents—although previous research has not found outcomes to be moderated by single-parent status [18
]. Some final notable limitations include the relatively small sample, high attrition, and a relatively short 3-month follow-up period. All of these limitations represent the challenges of doing field research with vulnerable, low-resource participants—and yet future research should attempt to do better in these areas if possible.
Despite the limitations, this study demonstrated several significant changes in parenting style for the participants who attended Positive Discipline parenting workshops—which is not something that many programs have been able to accomplish. It also appeared to show sizeable increases in children’s academic competence, as well as potential improvements in several types of adaptive behavior, which are all desirable outcomes. It is possible that there are unique features to Positive Discipline that help parents make a philosophical switch, such as the central concept that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child, and that their behavior will improve when they feel their need for belonging being met [15
]. Or perhaps it is possible that it is the way
that these concepts are taught, through activities like role-playing and experiential exercises, which have been invented and refined over the years by dozens of individual facilitators [34
]. Either way, there appears to be a high level of consumer satisfaction with parents who have attended a Positive Discipline workshop, and a relatively low cost per participant to implement [18
]. Hopefully future research can continue to explore this cost versus benefit, as well as the longer-term effectiveness, if any, of conducting Positive Discipline training workshops.
A few of the questions that remain to investigated include whether there is an optimum dose of the training, whether the effects are sustained, and whether there is any change in Authoritative parenting style specifically, which has seen inconsistent results in two different studies. It may be that the average effect on Authoritativeness lies somewhere between what was observed in this study and one previously [17
], or it’s possible that the greatest part of the effect is delayed, as was observed previously. Perhaps future research could explore if there is an optimum number of Positive Discipline workshops to expose participants to before they reach a point of diminishing interest or benefits, or if there is an optimum number of participants to have in each group setting? Information like this would greatly aid stakeholders who might wish to offer these classes to the population they serve, such as school-districts or human services agencies. The greatest need for future research is probably still for a well-conducted randomized controlled trial, with a longer-term follow-up, and multiple third-party observations. Such as study would ultimately offer the strongest validity to its conclusions and produce the best estimates of the program’s effectiveness.
There may ultimately be several different parenting programs that are effective, and each may be effective in different ways or with different populations. Hopefully this research contributes to the overall goal of finding out what programs exist that are effective at all—and isn’t seen as placing Positive Discipline in competition with any other particular program. Indeed, as some researchers have suggested, it is time to start treating investments in parenting style as investments in human development [37
] and when making such investments there is always room for different approaches.
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