Embargoed until 00:01 Sunday 8 November 2009
‘Tough love’ parents who combine warmth and discipline are better at building good character capabilities in their children ,finds a major new report from the think tank Demos.
Character capabilities – application, self-regulation and empathy – make a vital contribution to life chances, mobility and opportunity. For those who turned 30 in 1988, character capabilities barely impacted on their economic success. But in just over a decade, these skills became central to life chances: for those who turned 30 in 2000, character capabilities had become 33 times more important in determining earnings.
The development of these character capabilities is profoundly shaped by the experience of a child in the pre-school years. Children with ‘tough love’ parents were twice as likely to develop good character capabilities by age 5 as children with ‘disengaged’ parents, and did significantly better than children with ‘laissez faire’ or ‘authoritarian’ parents. The Building Character report, which analysed longitudinal data from over 9,000 households in the UK, found that eight per cent of families have parents that are ‘disengaged’, which is approximately 600,000 families.
Parental confidence is also vital to developing character capabilities. Children of parents who rank themselves poorly in terms of their own parenting ability are less likely to develop key character skills.
Building Character looked at the effect the following factors had on infant character development:
• Children from the richest income quintile are more than twice as likely to develop strong character capabilities than children from the poorest quintile.
• Children from the poorest income quintile are three times less likely to develop strong character capabilities than children from the richest quintile.
• While ‘tough love’ parenting is less frequent in low-income backgrounds, the ‘love’ element was consistently distributed throughout economic groups. Consistent rule-setting and authoritative parenting was associated with wealthier families, indicating a need for parents to set more consistent discipline and boundaries in lower income groups.
• When parental style and confidence are factored in, the difference in child character development between richer and poorer families disappears, showing that parenting is the most important factor influencing character development.
• Children with married parents, both of whom are a biological parent, are twice as likely to develop good character capabilities than children from lone parent or step-parented families.
• Children with cohabiting parents fair slightly worse than those with married parents, but better than those with lone parents or step-parents.
• When parental style and confidence is factored in, the relationship between family structure and child character development disappears almost entirely, showing that parenting is the most important factor influencing character development.
• The primary carer’s level of education has a positive effect on developing character capabilities.
• Breast-feeding to six months has a positive effect on developing character capabilities.
• Girls are more likely to develop character capabilities by the age of five.
• There is no connection between paid employment on behalf of either parent and the development of character capabilities.
The report found that while there are links between income and family structure, and the development of character, parental ability significantly diminishes these factors, making parental style and confidence the most important tools in improving social mobility.
Based on the research conducted for this report, the goals for policy should be to:
• Strengthen provision of support and information to parents to help them incubate character capabilities in their children.
• Focus support on disadvantaged children – those with ‘disengaged’ parents and those from low income groups – which have greater susceptibility to the quality of their care and poorly performing parents.
• Ensure quality control and value for money in early years intervention.
An ambitious agenda for equality of opportunity will need to take the development of character capabilities seriously. Building Character includes the following policy recommendations:
Refocus Sure Start as a tool for early intervention: Sure Start should be less focused on childcare and more focused on child development, particularly parent-child interaction. Sure Start could also act as a more effective hub for creating peer relationships and local networks that can be central to parental support.
Improve pilots for the Family Nurse Partnership: While a promising model to follow from the US, before the pilots are rolled out nationally, there must be more evidence for how a FNP should work in a UK context.
Give health visitors an early years role: More emphasis should be placed on health visitors’ role in identifying and supporting positive parenting. Health visitors should carry out a ‘Half-Birthday Check-up’ to monitor progress and identify families that need extra support.
Set up a ‘NICE’ for evidence-based parenting interventions: A national body to ‘kitemark’ successful, evidence-based parenting programmes would aid local commissioners to invest in programmes that are proven to work.
Jen Lexmond, principle author of the report said:
“Character, something we tend to think of as a ‘soft skill’, has the most profound effect on a person’s life. Far from a ‘soft’ skill, character is integral to our future success and wellbeing.
“The foundations for our character are laid before the age of five. This puts a huge emphasis on parenting, but whatever the parental background, it is confidence, warmth and consistent discipline that matter most.”
Notes to editors:
Character is identified as:
Application is about sticking with things. It describes one’s ability to concentrate, discipline and motivate oneself to persist with and complete a task. Strong application is underpinned by a sense of self-direction or free will, what psychologists often term agency or ‘locus of control’. It is an executive function, the impetus itself which pushes you to apply yourself to an activity, task or project. Locus of control is understood as a spectrum from an internal locus of control to an external locus of control – the former implying that an individual feels a sense of control over their environment, that they are setting the course for their life, the latter implying an individual’s attitude toward external factors as largely determining his or her life course.
Self-regulation represents an ability to regulate emotion. It is about emotional control and also emotional resiliency – an ability to bounce back from disappointment, conflict and distress. Children who have effective strategies for dealing with these losses are much more likely to overcome adversity than those whose reactions overtake them, push them to overreactions, tantrums or violence. Individuals acting in a social world will respond with propensities (individual traits) to triggers (outward stimuli). Self-regulation determines an individual’s propensity towards overreaction or violence when triggered by an upsetting or conflict-laden situation.
Empathy is an ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – and to act in a way that is sensitive to other people’s perspectives. Empathy develops as a direct result of attachment between a child and their primary carer. From birth to age three, the number of synapses (neural connections) in the brain multiplies by 20 – and most are formed as the result of experience in their new environment. Synapse pathways are reinforced by repeated early experience; the effect is that this early learning becomes extremely resistant to change. The more nurturing and responsive an infant’s environment is and the more attuned carers are to the infant’s needs, the stronger the infant’s sense of empathy will become. Empathy leads to pro-social behaviour. It is ultimately a relational capability and underpins a set of social skills that allows individuals to interact and communicate with each other effectively.
This group of parents combine a warm and responsive approach to child rearing with firm rules and clear boundaries. They are assertive without being aggressive or restrictive and the aim of their disciplinary methods is to reason with and support their child rather than to be punitive. Children from ‘tough loving’ families are characterised as co-operative, self-regulating and socially responsible.
Highly responsive parents who are undemanding in their approach to discipline and generally non-confrontational make up a second parenting style. They are non-traditional and engaged in their approach, opting for a lenient and democratic household that allows children considerable opportunity to develop at their own pace. Laissez-faire parents are permissive of behaviour and do not impose many rules.
This group’s approach is characterised by firm discipline and rule-based parenting practices but without much regard for children’s feelings or perspective. These parents typically value obedience and structured environments over freedom and exploration.
Disengaged (and, at the extreme, neglectful)
These parents are generally hands off in their approach to parenting. They are low in warmth and discipline. Extreme cases, at the lower end of both axes, make up a further group of poor parents whose children are ‘at risk’: a level of disengagement of a small minority of parents that would be considered neglectful. The lack of engagement that characterises this approach can result in the development of what some psychologists call ‘callousness’ in children. ‘Callous’ children grow up lacking a sense of empathy and guilt, and learn to see others in a purely instrumental way. The influence of parent and peer factors on callousness trajectories during adolescence plays a crucial role in the formation of these traits. Most crucial of all are parents’ warmth, affection and responsiveness in caring for their baby in the early years.
The data for this study come from information collected in the first three waves of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). The MCS is a large scale, longitudinal survey of children born during the same week in April across the constituent countries of the UK (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England). Sweep 1 (MCS1) was executed during 2001–02 and included information on 18,819 babies in 18,533 families, which was collected from parents when the babies were between nine and 11 months of age. The design of the sample allowed for over-representation of those families living across England in areas with high deprivation, child poverty or ethnic minorities, as well as the three smaller countries in the UK. The first follow-up study (MCS2) took place when those same children were three years old (between 35 and 39 months of age at interview). The achieved response rate at this wave was 79 per cent of the target sample. The second follow-up study (MCS3) took place when the children were five years old and achieved a response rate of 79.2 per cent of the cohort (15,246 families). Comprehensive information on the individual cohort sweeps – objectives, origins, sampling and content of surveys – as well as documentation attached to the data can be found at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies website.
Building Character by Jen Lexmond and Richard Reeves is launched at an event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Wednesday 11 November 2009. Richard Reeves (Director, Demos), Prof. Stephen Scott (National Academy for Parenting Practitioners) and Maria Miller MP (Conservative Shadow Minister for the Family) will take part in a debate chaired by Jenni Russell (Writer and Commentator). For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen Lexmond, Richard Reeves and Sonia Sodha are available for interview. For broadcast inquiries or to request an interview please contact:
Beatrice Karol Burks, Press Officer
020 7367 6325
Peter Harrington, Head of Communications
020 7367 6338