Tough love: The good parents' guide

Firm rules and clear bounds are better for honing children's life skills than a more relaxed approach, says a liberal think tank

A generation of liberal parents has striven towards a utopian ideal: raising their children in a non-confrontational household, unfettered by strict rules. But a new study of 9,000 households found that children whose parents favoured this laissez-faire style of parenting were less likely to develop vital life skills – such as empathy, self-control and application – by the age of five than those whose parents took a traditional "tough love" approach.

While the "tough love" approach to parenting – defined as combining warmth with firm rules and clear boundaries – was thought to have gone out of fashion in the 1950s, researchers found that children with this upbringing were a third more likely to have well-developed "soft" skills than those with more relaxed parents.

In a blow to the huge numbers of parents who are divorced or remarried, the study also found that children with married parents were twice as likely to develop good skills as those living with stepfamilies or single parents. More time is now being devoted to cultivating soft skills in schools, with employers complaining in recent years that graduates and school leavers might have good exam grades but are lacking in social skills such as teamwork.

The Building Character report, produced by the Demos think tank using data collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), found that parenting style is the most important factor in determining child character development, cancelling any differences in development between children from richer and poorer families.

"This report is right that parenting ability outstrips every single other factor in increasing social mobility and attainment – more than class, ethnicity or disability," said Iain Wright, Minster for Children, Schools and Families. "This provides a strong rationale for all of Government to do everything it can to help families to achieve their goals and aspirations."

Some point out that reports such as these merely add to the pressure many feel to be perfect parents, rather than providing useful advice. Justine Roberts, founder of the Mumsnet website, said: "Our members will hear of another piece of research telling us how to do it with a heavy heart. Mums are always told what to do, often with contradictory suggestions."

The study, which compared parenting styles with child character development, found that 13 per cent of parents take a tough-love approach; 10 per cent are authoritarian – favouring rule-based parenting with little regard for children's feelings; 8 per cent take a laissez-faire approach, while 10 per cent were disengaged, and described as lacking in warmth and discipline. It is important to note that 59 per cent of parents did not fall squarely within any of these categories, a fact reflected across the country, and with the couples interviewed for this piece.

Researchers found that tough-love parenting is less frequent in low-income households, with only 9.8 per cent of the poorest parents subscribing to it. Twelve per cent of parents in the lowest-income quintile were found to be disengaged. "The factors that get in the way of more effective parenting are found more frequently in families living in disadvantaged conditions," said Professor Stephen Scott, director for research for the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners. "These include a stressful lifestyle interrupted by events such as serious physical illness, domestic violence, poor housing and medical disorders such as depression and drug misuse."

The report recommended that the early years programme Sure Start should focus less on childcare and more on parent-child interaction, that health visitors should be given an early years role, and that parenting programmes and support should be focused on disadvantaged children, rather than be universally available.

These suggestions were welcomed by David Willetts, the Conservative Party's spokesman for families, who said: "We want to re-focus Sure Start. With so many pulls on public resources, it makes sense to focus on families that really need it."

However, these suggestions have been criticised by parenting professionals, who fear that focusing services would discourage parents from seeking help.

"We would caution against having a standardised check by health visitors to identify failing parents who need extra support," said Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Parentline Plus. "All parents should have access to family support and policy-makers must endeavour to foster a culture where support for parents and seeking help is not stigmatised, but is mainstream, accessible and affordable."

The case for: 'There are times when we have to say no'

Juliet Bellagambi, 38, a charity worker, and her husband Filippo Bellagambi, an administrator, have a son José, aged seven. They live in London

"We have things that are set, like having dinner together every night. José goes to school and Scouts and we are out at work so it is an opportunity to smile at each other, and see how our days have gone. It is more like a conversation than an interrogation.

"José is well behaved, but there are times when he wants to stay up or something, and we have to say no. The school said he should do half an hour of homework every day. Because I'm a working mother I don't get in until 5pm, so we don't make him do it straight away. But after he's had tea and a rest he will do it. You do need a balance."

The case against: 'I don't worry about how strict I am'

Alison Gurney, 31, a childminder, and Chris Gurney, 29, a lettings agent, are parents of Sam, three, and Lewis, one. They live in Cambridge

Chris says: "I don't worry about how strict I am, or my style of parenting, because they seem to be turning out OK. From when they are born, everybody has advice, and you take it on board but by the same token you know what works for your own child. Most parents muddle through; there is no right way to bring up children.

"I think parenting classes and advice should be targeted, as there are some people that are more in need of them than others. Treats occasionally are fine, but we don't give in to them all the time. No means no. I'm probably weaker than my wife, though, and more prone to giving in, because she goes shopping with them more often."

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