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Review of "The Psychology of Parental Control"

By Wendy S. Grolnick
Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D. on Mar 31st 2005
The Psychology of Parental Control

To my mind child rearing has three important goals, the protection of the child's right to experience a childhood, the enjoyment by the parent of the wonders of this unique human relationship and the protection of the child's natural development into an autonomous adult.  Each of these three requires that the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of the child be influenced in deliberate ways by parental actions.  Wendy Grolnick's book, the Psychology of Parental Control, provides a taxonomy of concepts within which to consider issues of parental influence, a review of the psychological literature, and a point of view concerning what is likely to work and what is not.  It is a clear, well-written and practical text that would be useful for academic courses in psychology and teacher education and to parents as well.

The first part of the book examines and clarifies a set of concepts necessary to discuss the wide-ranging and diverse research into parenting effectiveness.  Perhaps the best known of the concept sets in this area is Baumrind's tripartite division of parenting styles into authoritarian, permissive and authoritative (p. 5).  Grolnick borrows freely from this tradition to be sure but places her emphases elsewhere.  In a nutshell Grolnick wants to argue that attempting to control a child's behaviors, attitudes and beliefs will not produce as successful a set of results as the alternative approach, which she terms "autonomy support".  Baumrind's typology does not, in Grolnick's view, lend itself to making this point as clearly as it should be made.  But Grolnick's main thesis puts a heavy burden upon the ordinary term "control" and so requires a good deal of semantic housekeeping.  She addresses this task not by a series of precise definitions but through a process of differentiating her concept of control from other ideas with which it might become conflated.  Of course parents need to be "in control" of their children, for example, to protect them from obvious dangers, to assure civil behavior in others' homes and to get them their shots whether they like it or not.  In Grolnick's hands, then, "controlling behaviors" must become a technical term, narrower and more precise than its ordinary use counterpart. 

Grolnick begins with three basic needs that every person has, the needs to feel autonomous, competent and related to others.  Control oriented parenting interferes with the fulfillment of these needs.  Parents are either controlling or autonomy supportive through the environments that they create for their child.  An environment is controlling to the degree that children do not, "… feel that they initiate their actions …" (13) and do feel coerced, as if they have no choice, as if their behavior is initiated from without.  In an autonomy supportive environment a child can perceive himself or herself as the locus of causality (what some philosophers call "agent causality").  Grolnick does not attribute such characteristics to objective features of environments since different individuals may experience the same environment as either controlling or autonomy supportive.  It is, "… the 'functional significance' of the environment that makes it controlling or autonomous." (15).  While this fact is likely to be true, if it is taken to heart it will seriously complicate any attempts to give concrete practical advice concerning what to do and avoid as parents.  Fortunately Grolnick ignores the point except when discussing cultural differences.

Control should not be confused with structure, the latter being a system of clear rules, for example, explicitly stating times a child is expected to be home.  The controlling parent will convey these rules with threats whereas the autonomy supportive parent will convey them with an understanding of their burden and an explanation of their necessity.  This is similar of course to Baumrind's authoritarian vs. authoritative parent. 

Eschewing control should not be confused with disengagement.  Grolnick distinguishes involvement from the family therapy concept of "enmeshment", the latter referring to high levels of closeness with low levels of autonomy.  Involvement and autonomy are not opposing characteristics of relationships and both need to be optimized (25).  The philosophical reader will think here of the Sartrean rejection of this idea and of his world of "being for others" in which, "Hell is other people."

It would seem reasonable to say that some control is good for a child and that how much is good will depend upon the child's personality and his or her developmental level.  Grolnick rejects this idea, asserting instead that controlling behaviors are bad for children at all levels of control, for all personalities and for all ages of children, though she is willing to agree that such variations may be true of structure.  This sweeping rejection of control could be supported by semantic stipulation, that is by defining control as some form of error or excess, so that behaviors that are of benefit to children, and seem like forms of control, literally cannot be controlling.  If this is what is happening, Grolnick's main point against controlling behaviors by parents is in danger of being tautological.  One way that Grolnick wiggles out of this is by conceptualizing control as a relationship style or context rather than as a specific technique or practice.  "… when control refers to pressuring, intrusive behavior, and motivating children through bribes and other external inducements, the control undermines children's motivation …" (32).  On this view a good spanking, which is a favorite bėte noir of bad parenting, may not be an example of control if done within a certain type of parent-child relationship.  Although this dulls the bite of Grolnick's main point against control, it assures it of empirical content and brings it closer to the truth.

The book provides an extensive review of literature in favor of the idea that autonomy support is good and controlling behaviors are bad for children.  These results are presented clearly though largely without a critical eye.  Some examples:  "Children with warm, contingent relations in early life were more likely to comply with parental … directives …" (31); "… structural behaviors are more facilitative when they are combined with autonomy support. " (28); "… children who saw their parents as controlling tended to be more negative about their parents' involvement [in school matters]. " (25); " … parents who were rated as more autonomy supportive had children who reported more autonomous self-regulation…" (57); "Parents who were more supportive and who were less likely to interfere in their children's communications …[in moral discussions] … had children who were more advanced in their moral reasoning" (65). 

I have problems with relying so heavily upon results such as these, even if we tend from common sense alone to agree with them.  The reason is that Grolnick has largely ignored the critique of correlational studies such as these that has been developed by behavioral geneticists.  There are two prongs to that criticism.  The first is that such studies ignore the possibility that the correlations are explainable by genotypic relationships.  For example, why would children of more supportive parents have more advanced moral reasoning?  One answer could surely be a correlation between supportive parenting and the IQ of the parents coupled with a correlation between advanced moral reasoning and the (inherited) IQ of the child.  The second issue involves the general inability of behavioral genetics to detect significant parenting effects from within the admittedly important range of environmental effects that shape children.  Part of this critique has been the pervasive diagnosis of child-to-parent effects that have previously been read as parent-to-child effects.  For example, perhaps the reason why children who see their parents as controlling tend to be more negative about parental involvement is that the children were temperamentally negative to begin with in ways that prompted parents to be controlling.  Grolnick has a brief treatment of child-to-parent effects but only in the context of explaining what prompts parents to be controlling.  She does not use these results, or those detecting genetic influence, to cast doubt upon the leaps from correlation to cause that have been so prominent in the developmental literature.  (For a good review of the issue of parenting effects see Parenting and the Child's World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual, and Social-Emotional Development by John G. Borkowski, Sharon Landesman Ramey and Marie Bristol-Powers, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.)  In addition, I would expect a work that offers advice on what works and what does not work in parenting to give some consideration to Judith Rich Harris' group socialization theory, which provides a cogent critique of the parenting literature and an alternative explanation for how children develop the behaviors and other traits that they do (see Harris' The Nurture Assumption. Free Press, 1998.)

That having been said, there is much in this book to recommend.  The critique of rewards-based behavior control, in parenting and even more important in teaching, is very important.  As a teacher of ethics and general philosophy to student teachers I have found that behavior analysis is presented to students as a panacea for all the problems of motivating class work and controlling the room, with never a mention of the ways that it could inhibit learning.  The discussion of cultural and ethnic differences in the perceptions of parental behavior is an antidote to those who profess to own a surefire method.  The discussion of parental ego involvement, particularly as it relates to the child's intelligence and school success, could be enlarged into a book unto itself and should then be distributed without cost to every upwardly mobile parent who refuses to allow his or her child to have a childhood.  The discussion of informational vs. controlling praise as interesting as it is counter-intuitive.  

In summary, I recommend this book and hope that it gets a wide reading.


© 2005 John D. Mullen


John D. Mullen, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.