Consistency counts

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Is it better to be strict or permissive with children in your care? There are advantages to both methods. The important thing is to find a style that works and stick to it, writes Oliver James

Progressive ideas about child-rearing and education emerged during my childhood (the late 1950s and early 1960s). My mum believed in Dr Spock but also had a strict baby book, depending on what answer she wanted at the time. As an alumna of Dartington Hall (a progressive school), she was unenthusiastic about disciplinarianism and all for creative spontaneity, yet I was sent to some pretty conventional establishments. I was one confused unit.

Hardly any negative modern youth trend (violence, illiteracy, truanting) has not been blamed on liberal upbringing. But in the last decade, home and classroom routine has made a comeback. Strict regimes for babies, naughty chairs for toddlers and highly constrained teaching-for-exams have become widespread. But what is best?

The short answer is that neither strictness nor permissiveness is the problem: the main one is inconsistency. Gerry Patterson, for example, has shown how punitive currencies are devalued by it. Aggressive children are twice as likely as normal ones to continue misbehaving after punishment. Patterson's microanalysis of hundreds of families shows that this is because, in the ones with aggressive children, threats of punishment are inconsistently followed through. The parents end up "nattering", constantly moaning at the child to behave and threatening them, but only sometimes taking action.

What was punished last time may be rewarded this time. As the punitive currency becomes inflated, it buys less good behaviour, and, in "nattering" families, there is greater use of the coinage of last resort violence. Once that starts, still further inflation often results in abuse.

Of course, parental depression or other emotional distress is an important factor in all this. Depressed parents are more irritable, making them more prone to lash out erratically out of emotion rather than to instil a rule.

But a recent study demonstrates the additional role of disorganisation.

Defining household chaos as noisiness, overcrowding, irregularity and lack of rules, it investigated 118 working and middle-class British families, each containing a five-year-old and an eight-year-old.

Previous studies have shown that chaos predicts social maladjustment in children, regardless of social class. Parents in such households are more likely to be less emotionally involved, responsive or vocally stimulating and more liable to impede exploratory activities by the child.

However, these studies tend to focus on toddlers or small children and they do not disentangle the causal roles of parental quality from household chaos.

The new British study has first of all replicated the finding that parents in chaotic families are less warm and more angry and hostile. It also shows that the presence of chaos increases the likelihood of problems in the child, over and above what the parents are like, and regardless of the child's age or gender.

But most interesting of all, the most difficult children come from the families with the combination of both the most maltreating parents and the most chaos. What is more, although better quality parenting does help, it is not more effective in highly chaotic environments chaos does have an independent effect, over and above how cuddly the parents are. Equally, however, the presence of an ordered environment does not act as a buffer against severely maltreating parents. In other words, you can live in an unchaotic home but if your parents are cold and nasty, you tend to turn out troubled.

I know of what I write. It took me a decade of education and incredible forbearance on the part of some teachers (but not all there was still a good deal of caning in those days) before the savage was eventually civilized. The key was a boarding school housemaster who went to incredible lengths to provide the consistency that had been lacking in my often chaotic, if also intermittently loving, home.

The point is not that permissive or punitive homes (or classrooms) are necessarily good or bad. The keys are the way in which affection and consistency are folded into the mix. You can hug hoodies all you want, but it will do no good without consistency

Oliver James is a child clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza How to be successful and stay sane and They F*** You Up How to survive family life


Patterson's studies: Patterson, G.R., 1982, Coercive Family Processes, Eugene, OR: Castalia Publishing.

New British household chaos study: Coldwell, J. et al, 2006, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 1116-22.

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