Child psychology tells us that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial ones in shaping their life chances. The relationships and interactions they have with their parents, from pre-natal to middle childhood, will define to a large extent their healthy development, ability to form relationships and empathise with others, regulate their emotions and actions, and apply themselves to school and work.
Demos has been researching the development of these social and emotional capabilities in children’s early years.
We have found that such capabilities have become considerably more influential to life chances in the past 30 years. In addition, evidence shows that young people from deprived backgrounds are now less likely than their more affluent peers to develop these capabilities. Evidence also shows that the quality of parenting that children receive is a major factor in the development of these skills, and that good parenting is heavily influenced by and dependent on the wellbeing of parents themselves (the strength of their couple relationships, extended family, and wider support networks).
The lack of these increasingly important skills in already disadvantaged children is a serious issue for equality of opportunity and social justice agendas and one that must be addressed at the very beginning – through our parenting and relationship support services.
In The Home Front, Demos seeks to better understand the influences and pressures on today’s families and the interdependent relationships within them. Through giving a voice to both parents and children, we want to build a picture of strong, loving, 21st century families and shed light on the services, institutions, or conditions necessary to better support them.
Building Character by Jen Lexmond and Richard Reeves, showed for the first time the link between parental style and the development of character capabilities in children in Britain:
· Through analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study, Demos found that a ‘tough love’ approach, combining warmth and consistency when it comes to rules and discipline was associated with the best early outcomes for children.
· While the ‘love’ dimension of tough love parenting was evenly spread across socio-economic background, the ‘tough’ dimension, characterized by the ability to set and consistently enforce rules and boundaries, was not, with lower income families less likely to do so.
· While background factors such as income, parents’ educational qualifications, and family structure were also associated with early outcomes, it was parenting approach that ultimately carried the most weight.
· Parental effectiveness is mediated by parents’ perceptions of their ability, their self-confidence, and self-esteem. Demos’s quantitative analysis found that these factors could actually cancel out the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Demos wants to capture the voices of children to better understand parent-child interaction and how different parenting styles affect children’s early development. Through direct, ethnographic research in family homes using innovative techniques to work with young children (ages three to eleven) we will bring the feelings and perceptions of children to the fore. The goal is to develop a policy and social agenda that supports effective parenting and positive social and emotional development for all children.
· How do children perceive their parents’ approach to parenting?
· What does ‘family’ mean to children today?
· How does it square with models that they see elsewhere in society (eg friends, tv, etc)?
· What kind of parents do they want to be when they grow up?
· How do their parents impact on the way they feel about themselves?
· What are the biggest influences on parenting style and practice, and where do these influences come from (their parents, pop culture, professional advice)?
· What environmental factors in the home make good parenting more difficult for some families? (Particularly the strength of the couple relationship, the showing of warmth and affection to children, and the ability to set boundaries and enforce them consistently?)
· What effect do local community and environmental factors have on parenting? (ie. Extended kinship networks, schools, neighborhood, etc.)
· How has long-term social and economic change affected experiences of parenting today?
· How does confidence affect parent’s ability to parent effectively? Why is high parental confidence associated with better parenting and better social and emotional capability outcomes in children?
· Do parents think that social and emotional capabilities (empathy, application, and self-regulation) are important for their children’s life chances? How important do they think they are compared to more traditional measures like literacy, numeracy, academic qualifications? Do they perceive a relationship between the two?
· What do parents think makes ‘good’ parenting? Should it be guided by intuition and instinct or evidence and professional advice?
· How can parents be best supported to raise children with strong social and emotional capabilities?
· How can parenting programmes help to boost parents’ confidence rather than undermine parents by making parenting into an ‘expertise’ to be taught by professionals?
· What is the role of the state and society more broadly in supporting families in developing social and emotional capabilities in young people?
This project is generously supported by the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
 Lexmond, Jen & Reeves, Richard (Demos: 2009) Building Character
Character - empathy, application and self-regulation - counts. This report looks at the vital impact parents have on forming children's character in the pre-school years. It makes a case for greater focus on parental support during the early years and places character as the most important 'skill' a child can have.
This pamphlet explores the increasingly important role of parenting in policy and argues that economic and environmental circumstances can shape and influence parental approaches for better or worse.
Jen Lexmond writes on gender and work in The Guardian.
Jen Lexmond writes on marriage and politics in The Daily Telegraph
Jen Lexmond discusses 'tough love' parenting on Radio 4's Woman's Hour.
The Observer's Anushka Asthana writes on Demos' Building Character report.
Results from Demos' Building Character report covered by BBC online.
The Independent on Sunday covers Demos' new report Building Character.
Listen to the podcast of David Cameron's speech to Demos.
Demos was joined by Maria Miller MP, Stephen Scott and Jenni Russell for a panel debate on parenting and character.
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