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Study Finds Children are Learning Persistence from Fathers

Study Finds Children are Learning Persistence from Fathers

Can your children stick with a task? Can they finish a project? Can they set a goal and complete it? Researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah, United States, asked parents about their children’s persistence and found that fathers who use an authoritative parenting style are more likely to raise teenagers with a persistent and motivated approach to persevering until they achieve their goals. Their research, published under the title ‘Keep on Keeping On Even When It’s Hard’ follows the lead of other authors and researchers such as Martin Seligman and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi who focus on the contribution that positive (preventative) psychology makes to people’s general wellbeing.

Persistence and Parenting Style

Parenting style has long been associated with children having stronger persistence skills; in fact, as the researchers point out Even infants as young as 6 months old who [have] mothers … sensitive to the child’s need and who foster social and emotional growth [have been ] found to have infants with higher levels of persistence.” And emerging research suggests that having warm and supportive parents who give their children appropriate levels of independence combined with boundaries, leads to children being more likely to develop persistence. The authors of the ‘Keeping On’ paper, explain the process like this: “In other words, it is important for parents to adequately structure their interactions so that adolescents learn that consistent behaviors are related to consistent outcomes (a key component of persistence), and that parents allow adequate autonomy so that adolescents feel their behavioural choices are self-generated”. However, until the publication of the ‘Keeping On’ research, few studies have specifically linked an authoritative parenting style with the development of persistence in children.

Authoritative Parenting Style, Fathers and Persistence 

The June 2012 study published in The Journal of Early Adolescence, defined persistence as being self-motivated to do something, even though there are barriers and discomfort, and having the tenacity to achieve a goal. Researchers followed 325 two-parent families and their children for over four years from a time when most of the children were aged 11; they measured persistence, parenting style, school engagement, pro-social behaviour and delinquency. 

About 52 percent of the fathers in the study showed above-average levels of authoritative parenting style; and the children of those fathers were found to be significantly more likely to develop persistence. Authoritative parents are tuned into their children’s feelings, but importantly, set clear and consistent boundaries. And as the children in the study with strong persistence skills were more engaged at school and had lower levels of delinquency, the ‘Keeping On’ researchers suggest that parents, and in particular fathers, who use an authoritative parenting style are making a valuable contribution to their child’s life success.

And the mothers? The data in this study did not show a conclusive link between mothers using this style and their child’s levels of persistence – one of the lead researchers, Professor Randal Day, Kimball Professor of Research at the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University,  says that while mothers and fathers seem to play different roles in how a child learns,  there is still insufficient data available to draw comparative conclusions about why there may be differences.  Other research has shown, for example, that mothering has a stronger influence on both boys’ and girls’ pro-social behaviour and hope, than does fathering. There is however, an increasing amount of evidence that fathers do make unique parenting contributions  and that parents who use an authoritative parenting style are likely to see the benefits in more connected and happy teenagers.

Benefits of an Authoritative Parenting Style

Professor Day, sums up the message of this research in saying  that“learning to stick with it sets a foundation for kids to flourish and to cope with the stress and pressures of life.” 

An authoritative parenting style (different to authoritarian) is a key ingredient in the transfer of the persistence skill from father to child.  When parenting with an authoritative style, the authors of the study note that:

-          children feel warmth and love from their father;
-          accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasised; and
-          children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy.

From his experience of talking with families in the study, Professor Day suggests that one of the key things dads can do is to help children pick reasonable goals;  goals that resonate with, or come from, the child's interests: “Where we do the most harm in this process is when we decide someone is going to become an Olympic swimmer because it would make us look good and then we try to ‘sell’ the child on the idea, but they don't care about it.”.  And Professor Day offers this further advice, “Teaching persistence is a good thing— building a strong relationship is even a better goal. Ruining a relationship to create a more persistent child (at whatever task) seems counter-productive.” 

The Benefits of Persistence

So why focus on the development of persistence in your children? The ‘Keeping On’ study provides a useful list of the upside of this important skill: