Often times, science conducts studies that test theories that most of us pretty much take for granted. A few recent examples include the fact that too many meetings cause stress and unproductive employees (Group Dynamics, March 2005), objects are harder to see when they’re farther away (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Feb. 2005) and it’s harder to remember stuff and concentrate when you’re older (Journal of Experimental Psychology, May 2005). [From PopSci’s Science Confirms the Obvious.] I’ve always referred to such studies as “d’uh” studies, because the results are often so head-smackingly obvious. But they do have value since they do confirm and quantify things we take for granted and even occasionally disprove cherished beliefs.
A new d’uh study has just been published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. The study, entitled Parenting Style, Religiosity, Peers, and Adolescent Heavy Drinking, was conducted by two sociology professors, Steve Bahr and John Hoffmann, at Brigham Young University.
Here’s part of the press release they sent out:
Parents may be surprised, even disappointed, to find out they don’t influence whether their teen tries alcohol.
But now for some good news: Parenting style strongly and directly affects teens when it comes to heavy drinking — defined as having five or more drinks in a row — according to a new Brigham Young University study.
The researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. Specifically, they examined parents’ levels of accountability — knowing where they spend their time and with whom — and the warmth they share with their kids. Here’s what they found:
- The teens least prone to heavy drinking had parents who scored high on both accountability and warmth.
- So-called “indulgent” parents, those low on accountability and high on warmth, nearly tripled the risk of their teen participating in heavy drinking.
- “Strict” parents – high on account ability and low on warmth — more than doubled their teen’s risk of heavy drinking.
About.com’s Alcoholism page added the handy chart below.
Researchers at Brigham Young University asked 4,983 adolescents between age 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. As a result, the researchers identified four parenting styles:
- Authoritative Parents: Rank high in discipline and monitoring (accountability) and high in support and warmth.
- Authoritarian Parents: Rank high in control, but low in warmth and support.
- Indulgent Parents: Rank high in warmth and support, but low in accountability.
- Neglectful Parents: Rank low in support, warmth, and accountability.
It’s apparently only the first parenting type — Authoritative — that is effective in reducing binge drinking in teens. And that’s where the d’uh comes in. I’m going to guess that the authoritative style of parenting is more effective in a wide range of behaviors, because we’ve all seen or experienced the effects of other kinds of parents. Extremes are rarely a good idea. Too strict is bad, and so is too lenient. What a revelation! Goldilocks had it right after all.
But I would also suggest that such parents would teach their children about alcohol, possibly sampling them on it it a controlled environment, such as at dinner, teaching them about it, and modeling the behavior of moderate and responsible alcohol use. And these are exactly the kinds of steps that so many anti-alcohol groups are dead set against and have even made illegal in some states.
Anti-alcohol groups instead use fear and scare tactics to keep kids from drinking, a notoriously ineffective method. They preach abstinence and just saying “no.” MADD runs a program, with local law enforcement, where schools pretend a popular kid has been killed by a drunk driver and then use the grief (which is real to the kids) to scare them into pledging not to drink, causing all manner of emotional harm. These are not the actions of parents who are “supportive” and show “warmth” toward their children.
Curiously, while most news sources that picked up the press release titled their piece something along the lines of Parenting Style Influences Teen Binge Drinking, Parenting Style Can Prevent Teen Binge Drinking , Parenting style can prevent heavy drinking or Teens and Alcohol Study: After a Few Drinks, Parenting Style Kicks in, anti-alcohol groups ran a very different headline. For example the Mormon Times used the headline BYU study finds indulgent parents may aid binge drinking, ignoring entirely the fact that the study also showed that strict parents were similarly ineffective. In fact, not once in the entire article does the author ever even mention that “strict” parents — high on accountability and low on warmth — more than doubled their teen’s risk of heavy drinking.” Draw your own conclusions.
Likewise, the neo-prohibitionist organization Join Together titled their take on the study Being a Strict Parent Doesn’t Protect Against Youth Drinking, Study Says. As one commenter on their website points out, “shouldn’t the headline of this article REALLY read: ‘Kids with loving, engaged parents less likely to drink’? In other words, the STRICT-NESS of parents is not where fault lies. The headline is a bit misleading.”
But it makes sense in terms of such anti-alcohol policy and rhetoric, where the emphasis is always on the negative. Their whole focus was on what parenting styles didn’t work in keeping kids from binge drinking, ignoring entirely what was effective, at least according to the study. Why does that matter? I think it matters because it shows where the priorities lie with such organizations. They’re not interested in kids becoming responsible adult drinkers of alcoholic beverages. They want everyone to stop drinking, by force, coercion and whatever means necessary.
In the study’s abstract, the authors conclude as follows:
Authoritative parenting appears to have both direct and indirect associations with the risk of heavy drinking among adolescents. Authoritative parenting, where monitoring and support are above average, might help deter adolescents from heavy alcohol use, even when adolescents have friends who drink. In addition, the data suggest that the adolescent’s choice of friends may be an intervening variable that helps explain the negative association between authoritative parenting and adolescent heavy drinking.
In other words, it’s an upbeat attempt to figure out how to stop kids from binge drinking, suggesting what parental behaviors might be employed effectively. But having known my fair share of authoritarian parents (as well as overly indulgent), this is not something such people would respond to and it’s unlikely that many could change their behavior accordingly. As George Lasker explored in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant?, such parenting styles are fundamental to the values of various political groups and he believes a majority of conservatives follow the “strict father model,” which often (though no always) includes a lack of warmth — essentially what Bahr and Hoffmann describe as the authoritarian parent. Is there a connection? I would say “yes,” though I hasten to add that it’s probably not cut and dried. But in my own experience I would argue that many people who are politically and especially socially conservative are often the same people who are against drinking and are most likely to belong to a neo-prohibitionist group or at least be susceptible to their rhetoric, and that such group members disproportionately fall into that category.
So perhaps the real takeaway from all of this is that we should all be nicer to our kids, while not ignoring the obvious firm disciplines that are often necessary to teach important life lessons. If the findings in the ground-breaking NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, teach us anything, it’s that many of our cherished beliefs about how kids develop and learn are wrong. So it’s not a stretch to suggest that the conventional wisdom being used to stop kids from drinking is not working either. Kids are drinking and, if anything, are drinking more because they’re drinking underground and unsupervised. What we need to do is both model responsible drinking behavior and proactively teach our kids about alcohol in a warm and loving environment. D’uh.