Harsh parenting strategies undermine learning

August 13, 2015

ANN ARBOR—Before the new school year begins, here’s a pop quiz for parents of middle-school children: What do you do when your child brings home a bad report card?

A. Lecture the child.
B. Restrict her activities, such as participating in sports or clubs.
C. Create a home environment that stimulates learning.

Parents who want their middle school kids to succeed should opt for “C” because it could result in higher literacy and math achievement in high school, according to University of Michigan researchers.

Mother Telling Daughter Off For Bad School Report

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Taking a punitive approach such as giving a child a lecture, doling out punishment or restricting activities leads to lower achievement—a finding that challenges the widely held belief that harsh parental actions lead to higher academic achievement.

“Punitive parenting strategies are likely ineffective in promoting achievement when it does not directly address the underlying problem that is causing academic underperformance,” said study lead author Sandra Tang, a research fellow in the U-M Department of Psychology.

When homes have environments that stimulate learning, as well as warm parent-child interactions, the kids perform better, the study shows. These homes have parents who regularly talk to their kids, provide books and toys, and offer more resources and opportunities for learning.

Tang and study co-author Pamela Davis-Kean, a professor of psychology and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research and Center for Human Growth and Development, examined how parents responded to their child’s academic progress and how it affected their school work five years later.

Data for the study came from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study of socioeconomic and health outcomes from U.S. families. The study includes results from nearly 500 children ages 11-13 and 16-18.

Parents described their home environment and answered questions about how they would react if the child brought home a report card with grades or progress lower than their expectations. The answers were separated into two categories: punitive and proactive.

Limiting nonschool related activities is helpful if academic underperformance is a result of the child not spending enough time on school work, but less so if the child does not understand how to solve a math problem, the researchers say.

“Punishing and lecturing also does not provide the child with concrete skills or strategies for improving their grades,” Davis-Kean said.

Punitive disciplinary actions are reflective of controlling and power-assertive strategies that may be problematic for pre-adolescents trying to become autonomous, the researchers say. In addition, this strategy can invoke negative feelings about school.

Tang and Davis-Kean suggest that parents must assess if the underperformance at school is a result of a learning issue rather than a behavioral issue before deciding on what parenting strategy to use in response to the child’s academic underperformance.

In addition, they say, teachers can provide comments with grades so that parents can understand the reasons behind the child’s performance, such as lack of comprehension of the concepts versus not submitting homework on time.

The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

Contact: Jared Wadley, 734-936-7819, [email protected]

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