Beyond Nature Vs. Nurture: Parental Guidance Boosts Child's Strengths, Shapes Development

Why does a child grow up to become a lawyer, a politician, a professional athlete, an environmentalist or a churchgoer?

It's determined by our inherited genes, say some researchers. Still others say the driving force is our upbringing and the nurturing we get from our parents.
But a new child-development theory bridges those two models, says psychologist George W. Holden at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Holden's theory holds that the way a child turns out can be determined in large part by the day-to-day decisions made by the parents who guide that child's growth.
"This model helps to resolve the nature-nurture debate," Holden says. "Effective parents are taking nature into account in their nurturing. It's a slightly different twist."
Parental guidance is key Child development researchers largely have ignored the importance of parental "guidance," Holden says. In his model, effective parents observe, recognize and assess their child's individual genetic characteristics, then cultivate their child's strengths.
"It's been said that parents are the 'architect' or the 'conductor' of a child's development. There are lots of different synonyms, but the terms don't capture the essence that parents are trying to 'guide,'" Holden says. "Some parents have more refined goals -- like wanting their child to be an athlete or to have a particular career. Some have more general goals -- such as not wanting their child to become a criminal. But all are positive goals."
Holden describes and explains his theory and research in the article "Childrearing and Developmental Trajectories: Positive Pathways, Off-ramps, and Dynamic Processes" in the current issue of the journal Child Development Perspectives. The theory is also detailed in his child psychology textbook, "Parenting, A Dynamic Perspective," published by Sage Publications Inc., 2010.
Parents help or hinder progress
In decades past, researchers have studied many aspects of parenting that Holden describes as "unidimensional" and easier to quantify than guidance. Examples include: how parents reinforce their children's behavior, punish their children or show them love and warmth.
Only in the last decade have researchers studied the role parents play in helping or hindering their child's progress toward -- or abandonment of -- a particular course of development, he says.
"It's not an easy set of behaviors to observe and quantify because it's more complex in that it relates to parental goals that they have for their children," he says. "It's also multi-faceted. It's not a simple unitary behavior that can be easily and reliably counted up. So there are methodological reasons it hasn't been studied, and there are also biases and theoretical orientations that have neglected this."
The time has come, however, to understand the impact of parental guidance, Holden says. Sophisticated statistical procedures now allow new research techniques such as growth-curve modeling and group-based trajectory analysis. Other child development experts have ventured into the interaction between child and parent trajectories, says Holden. He hopes many more will join in advancing the concept, which he considers critical to understanding child development.

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