In Defense of Permissive Parenting: Why Talking Back May Lead to Smarter Kids

Inside a convenience store, Xenia is battling her 4-year-old son, Paulino, over buying a soft drink. She wants him to try a small size, he wants a larger one. "That one does not work," she says, referring to the rack of big cups. "These [smaller] ones do."

Xenia eventually won the battle over beverages, but she may have lost the parenting war, according to a pair of new studies, highlighting how small differences in communication style can have a large impact on kids. And in many cases, it's minority families like this one (Xenia and Paulino are Mexican-American) that suffer the most.

Moms, dads, or caregivers who mainly talk to their offspring using commands, like Xenia, who was cited in the study, rather than reasoning may get their kids to do what they want, but they also fail to develop their children's minds, the research out of the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA suggests.

The findings have particular significance for minority communities where do-as-I-say exchanges have long predominated over more nuanced argument. But they may also resonant with policy wonks, as Washington debates whether to expand publicly funded preschool programs. Reading, singing, dancing and other activities at the heart of the government's multi-billion-dollar Head Start program may help low-income kids aged zero to 5. But a crucial link, these studies suggest, is coaching parents to explain decisions with their children─and letting them talk back, at least just a little bit.

In one of the studies due out early next year in the journal of Developmental Psychology, researchers spent more than a year studying two dozen Mexican-American families, observing real-world mother-child interactions like those between Xenia and Paulino. Mexican-American kids were found to spend around twice as much time watching television than reading. But the study's most striking results had to do with parenting techniques. Of the more than 1,400 exchanges that researchers documented of a mother wanting her child to do something, a mere 8 percent included "reasoning," while just 9 percent included clarification of what the child should be doing instead. By far the biggest category was "direct verbal commands," which accounted for 42 percent of parenting efforts. (Incidentally, the overall success rate with these strategies was almost 75 percent.) Other studies have found that white parents deploy reasoning techniques more than a third of the time—"inviting more complex thought and language development" as they do so, according to Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy, who coauthored the research.

In a second article, Fuller and colleagues found that parenting by declaration rather then explanation could undermine early childhood advantages within minority cultures. The work, due to be published this week in Maternal and Child Health Journal, tracked cognitive development among 8,000 children born in 2001, and found that Latino babies start life with significant benefits over other groups—including higher birth weights and lower mortality rates (two key factors in predicting brain performance). They also have mothers who eat better, and smoke and drink less than white or black peers, regardless of socioeconomic status. And they enter school with strong social skills and emotional stability. But despite being primed for success at birth, they soon lose ground when it comes to intellectual development: Latino kids fall up to six months behind their white counterparts in basic language and thinking skills by the time they are 2 or 3 years old, the study reports.

The results, say researchers, hold true even taking into account the poverty and scarce educational opportunities that many Latina mothers face relative to other populations. Among Mexican-American mothers, almost three fifths live in households that earn less than $25,000 a year (compared to one fifth of white mothers), and less than a third have completed college (compared with almost two thirds of white mothers). Similarly, Mexican-American mothers, and mothers of Hispanic descent in general, have higher birth rates than their white counterparts, meaning they care for more children at any one time. But even when compared to white children whose mothers share the same obstacles, Latino children still develop more slowly.

"Certain practices in Latino families are driving down cognitive growth," says Fuller, who led a third study due out this winter in the journal Pediatrics that ruled out inborn intelligence as an explanation for developmental differences. "The challenge now for policy makers is to find a way to respect what parents are doing while encouraging better practices. That means combining the stern discipline─which many Latino parents equate with good parenting─and open debate between parents and kids."

Last month, the House passed an initiative that would shovel $8 billion to states trying to raise the quality of early-learning programs, while back in the spring Congress approved $4 billion for expanding Head Start, the program that already serves 900,000 preschoolers. It's unclear whether either effort will include home visits that coach parents engage their kids in debate. But at Baby College at the Harlem Chilren's Zone, a New York-based nonprofit that helps minority parents boost their kids' brains, director Marilyn Joseph is already encouraging parents to favor explanation over declaration. "We want the scenario that you see on the Upper West Side to happen in Harlem as well."