John Borkowski candidly admits that he and his wife never sat down to talk about what they could do to offer their children the role models they wanted them to emulate.
And if these parents didn't do this as part of an organized method of raising responsible, moral children, it's a safe bet that few of the rest of us have.
Borkowski, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, is one of the country's leading experts on child development. He co-chaired the conference on "Parenting and the Child's World" that was held the past two days by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Both he and co-chair Sharon Landesman Ramey, a developmental psychologist at the University of Alabama, say the conference comes at a time of unprecedented thirst among parents for information on how to influence their children's lives in important ways. "There is a general feeling of growing helplessness," Borkowski says. The conference gathered some of the country's leading behavioral, social and genetic researchers to set out what is well-established about the influence of parents in raising children and what is controversial and to develop an agenda for further research.
"Most parents don't have a very organized and complex model of parenting," Borkowski says. "Parenting is never thought about in a very detailed way before marriage or even during pregnancy and after a child is born. We only talk about parenting as a crisis unfolds. Rarely do we talk about what we can do to make sure the child is ready for school, how to make the child socially competent. I think the biggest gap in American culture is the failure of parents to develop their own model for how to parent their child and how to combat the negative forces in society."
While we pay attention to intellectual and social development, we neglect emotional development, he says. When a child is angry or sad, our first thought is to get rid of those emotions and make the child feel better. But he cites research that has found that when parents use these moments to foster emotional health in their children, it can lead to strong attachment between parent and child. "It's an important finding the public is not aware of," Borkowski says. "These are important moments for the child to come to grips . . . for the child to learn to live with it and soothe themselves."
Say an 8-year-old is feeling sad because his best friend has moved away. "The parent should let the child experience the emotion and help the child change the emotion," he says. Be with your child and give the child time to figure out that he can remain in contact with his friend through e-mail, for example. "You want the child to come up with these ideas."
He and other experts are now giving very poor marks to both the permissive and the authoritarian modes of parenting, both of which contribute to aggressive behavior, he says. What works best, Borkowski says, is the "authoritative" model in which parents are loving, set limits and change them as the child matures, establish goals and expectations and move toward them. "The key job of parents is to give emotional, cognitive and social regulation," he says. "When children don't have those, they are more likely to be antisocial and aggressive."
The understanding of how parents can affect children is being tremendously enriched by very large long-term studies that are now coming to fruition, Ramey says. This new brand of research looks at children from birth through adulthood and measures a whole range of outcomes in the child -- not just how smart he is, for example. She and her husband, Craig, are co-authors of a new book, "Going to School," in which they studied 12,000 children to determine how parents can help children between ages 3 and 8 succeed in school.
"Parent involvement in children's school, reading to children, makes a huge difference," Ramey says. "Parents actively encouraging their children to explore and to be curious are actively promoting that inquisitiveness. The child carries it forth into new situations where parents aren't there, ultimately leading to children being better informed and making better judgments about their behavior.
"That's very different from an authoritarian parent who says do what I say, don't think on your own," Ramey says. "Some people think a child asking too many questions is not polite or respectful." Parents whose children are intimidated by authority don't do well in school, she says. "Teachers see them as not as bright and not as eager to learn."
Among the programs that have now been extensively studied is one called "Fast Track." "It is a multi-pronged strategy that helps teachers better cope with aggression and anti-social behavior in the classroom, works directly with parents and children to improve parenting practices and works with peers in the classroom," she says. "This is a multi-year program with fairly high-risk children who without this are likely to not do very well and to cause trouble. The results look very encouraging that this kind of coordinated effort can be effective.
"For a long time we've known that children in very high-quality preschool education become more skilled socially and intellectually and bring out better parenting behavior," she says. A follow-up study of very high-risk children done in 1999 found that "there are benefits all the way into adulthood. They have been having lower rates of pregnancy, higher rates of graduation, higher employment, more going on to college."
One outcome of the conference will be a book for professionals. Another will be a brochure for parents on what Borkowski calls "active and responsible parenting."
We know a lot more than we used to about how parents can raise children who will be an asset to society, whether they are born to poverty or to affluence. And it is time to get that information into the hands of parents who are so hungry for it.