Carianne Bacon and Dr. David A. Nelson, Marriage, Family and Human Development
Over the past decade, one prominent area of child development research has focused on the relationship between parental perceptions, styles, and practices and children’s social adjustment. Parenting has consistently been shown to influence children’s peer group experiences. In turn, peer relations impact children’s social/psychological adjustment throughout their lives. However, more work is needed to further delineate these relationships, especially in cultures outside the United States.
Using data gathered from the U.S., China, and Russia, we sought to compare and contrast the correlations between parental perceptions of child behavior and the quality of children’s peer relations outside school. The magnitude of the project is significant, and given time constraints, I will only be reporting briefly on the findings thus far from the Russian sample. Analyses will continue long after this report is filed.
Two questionnaires were used in gathering this data. One questionnaire asked mothers to list their child’s non-school playmates and respond to a series of questions for each listed playmate. The questions focus on the extent and type of parental involvement in their children’s peer relations. These questions deal with such issues as history of the relationship (e.g., who initiated the peer relationship), frequency of contact, who usually initiates the contact and how the parent supervises when a playmate is present. The other questionnaire measured maternal perceptions of her child’s social behaviors rating (on a scale of one to five) to what degree her child exemplifies the specific behavior mentioned, the importance of the behavior for her child’s overall social development, and to what degree she feels the behavior is modifiable (a fourth question irrelevant to this study was also asked).
Though the maternal perceptions measure consisted of 12 items, we focused on just three— maternal perceptions of how characteristic physical aggression (harming through physical acts), relational aggression (harming through relationships), and disruptive behavior (inappropriate acts) are of her preschool child. We looked at responses to these three behaviors and their correlation to the responses concerning the child’s peer contacts in non-school settings. In doing so, we also considered the mother’s level of approval for each of the child’s peer relationships, as we expected that correlations would differ according to approval levels. For example, a mother who does not approve of one of her child’s peer relationships is not likely to admit that she helps the child to initiate contact.
Generally speaking, we believe that mothers who perceive their children to be more aggressive or disruptive would report differently regarding the child’s peer contacts in nonschool settings than mothers of less aggressive/disruptive children. This hypothesis has thus far been supported by several interesting correlations. From the data, it seems that, regardless of maternal approval of each child-playmate dyad, the less physically aggressive mothers perceived their children to be, the more the mothers claimed responsibility for initially fostering contact between the child and the playmate. This could mean that mothers of more physically aggressive children are less involved in fostering their children’s peer contacts or may perceive that the process is futile, given the child’s likely peer conflicts.
Interestingly, we found that, for child-playmates dyads that mothers disapprove, the more disruptive the child, the more mothers were likely to plan activities with playmates (e.g., what activities to do, where to play, and when). This suggests that mothers of more disruptive children are at least seeking to carefully monitor what their children are doing with disapproved playmates. Thus, it may serve as a protective function. However, they may also be supervising too much, which may be contributing to their child’s disruptive behavior problems and negative peer relations (as suggested by the fact that the child is playing with less desirable peers). It is also significant that we found, for peer contacts mothers disapprove, that mothers were more likely to focus on fostering contact for their child’s friendship making skills if they felt they could change their child’s relationally aggressive or disruptive behavior. This suggests that some mothers may be aware of the pitfalls of their child’s aggressive/disruptive behavior and they are seeking to improve the child’s social skills so they might have more positive peer relations (which they approve of).
It should be noted that this project, as described, is not the project originally contained in my ORCA proposal. My original proposal was to go to Russia and conduct hands-on research regarding changes in Russian parent, student, and teacher perceptions of childrearing since the fall of communism in 1991. However, I discovered, after receiving my ORCA funding, that there was a temporary University ban on all student travel to Russia. Accordingly, I was forced to seek another project and this was frustrating. With only three months to choose and execute our new project, much of my time was consumed by reviewing relevant literature, entering data, and restructuring previously recorded data.
The research we have accomplished so far has revealed that there is still so much to do. Many questions arose as we ran analyses. We realized that many more ways exist to explore this data as well as great possibilities of what it can teach us concerning the effect of parental perceptions and practices, as well as culture, on children’s peer relations. We anticipate that we will have ample opportunity to report our results in the professional literature. We already have one invitation to write a book chapter on this topic.
Though overwhelming, this experience made possible by ORCA gave me an invaluable learning experience. I learned first-hand the effort required to form a worthwhile research proposal and the work necessary to carry it out. I gained valuable statistical experience which is absolutely necessary for my Masters program and intended career in the Family Sciences. I also received further proof of the essential role quality research plays in educating and improving society. Becoming familiar with this data also lead to several questions and possibilities for my Master’s thesis.