How affectionate parents are towards their children, and how they respond to their children’s distress are two distinct aspects of good parenting that each have a unique effect on a child’s development, psychologists at the University of Toronto have reported.
From studying 106 children aged between six and eight, and their parents, Maayan Davidov and Joan Grusec found that parents’ sensitivity to their children’s distress was associated with how well their children could manage being upset (with mothers, this association only held for sons) and how much empathy their children had. In contrast, a parent’s warmth and affection were not related to these factors.
On the other hand, unlike parental sensitivity to distress, parental warmth and affection were associated with how well children could manage positive emotions and how many friends they had (again, with mothers this association only held for sons).
“…[A] differentiated approach to positive parenting can further our understanding of child development, by uncovering the different paths through which parents can promote their children’s competencies by being sensitive and caring in different ways”, the researchers concluded.
Regarding the fact that for mothers, some of the associations only applied to sons, not daughters, the researchers said: “It is thus possible that boys are more susceptible than girls to variation in maternal interventions…this possibility is also consistent with findings indicating boys’ increased vulnerability to a variety of developmental and behavioural problems”.
The results were derived from a combination of measures including parental reports, teacher reports, some videoing of parents interacting with their children and also tests of the children’s empathy using dolls in mock scenarios. The cross-sectional nature of the research means the children’s behaviour could have affected their parent’s parenting style, rather than the other way around, a fact acknowledged by the researchers who called for longitudinal research to clarify the results.
Davidov, M. & Grusec, J.E. (2006). Untangling the links of parental responsiveness to distress and warmth to child outcomes. Child Development, 77, 44-58.