Big Questions

Perhaps no question weighs more heavily on the minds of parents, teachers, and camp staff than "Will this child do what I ask?" Sadly, there is no magic formula for obedience. So, this question is perennial; its answer elusive. Sure, we try to manage children's behavior. A keyword search for books on parenting yields 23,096 titles. There is no shortage of advice. But as any parent will tell you, there is a chasm between child behavior theory and practice. As Bill Cosby said, "Parenting can be learned only by people who have no children."

The three studies reviewed in this article revolutionized our understanding of how parenting and socialization influence children's behavior. Previous articles in this series have highlighted children's own influence on their caregivers and the reciprocal interactions that promote healthy development. Now we shift our focus to how caregivers shape children's development through their own example and through the environments they select for children.

Coastal Perspectives

During the 1950s and 1960s, parenting research was dominated by the behaviorist concept that rewards and punishments shape behavior. Harvard University psychologistB. F. Skinner championed the notion that the proper contingencies could teach a normally developing human to do almost anything, from gymnastics to brain surgery.

On the other side of the country, Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura made a keen observation — unless a particular behavior happens, it cannot be shaped by rewards and punishments. In other words, you cannot reward or punish a behavior that a child has not yet performed. So, how can you teach a new child new tricks? Bandura's answer to the limitations of behavioral learning theory was "social learning theory." Children learn by imitating others.

Sock Him in the Nose

In his brilliant 1961 study, Bandura and his colleagues exposed seventy-two boys and girls aged three to five to three situations. In the first, each child sat in a playroom with an adult who either played peacefully in the corner or who aggressively beat a five-foot inflatable clown doll named Bobo. In the aggressive condition, the adult model who beat Bobo struck him with a mallet, sat on him and punched him, and yelled things like, "Sock him in the nose!" Next, each child followed the experimenter to a second playroom where he or she was intentionally frustrated. The child was allowed to play with some attractive toys for two minutes, and then was told, "These are my very best toys. I don't let just anyone play with them. I'm saving them for the other children. However, you can play with any of the toys I have in the next room." The child was then escorted to a third room and left to play alone for twenty minutes. Each child's behavior was carefully recorded in five-second intervals. Among the toys in this experimental room was a three-foot inflatable Bobo doll.

Children who had been exposed to the nonaggressive situation generally played peacefully. They were rarely aggressive toward Bobo. However, those who had witnessed aggression often imitated that aggression. Like the adult models, boys and girls in the aggressive condition beat and yelled at Bobo. Compared to the children in the nonaggressive condition, these children also spent 50 percent less time sitting and playing quietly.

Covert Operations and Sex Differences

Bandura's conclusion was that learning had occurred covertly. No particular behavior had been reinforced or punished. However, after some delay, children imitated the behavior they had witnessed. Because all the children had been frustrated, Bandura also concluded that most children in the nonaggressive condition had been able to inhibit aggressive urges and play peacefully. Thus, both aggressive and nonaggressive adult models had influenced children's behavior.

Bandura and his colleagues also noted some interesting sex differences. Whereas boys in the aggressive condition imitated more physical aggression than girls, boys and girls in this group did not differ in the amount of verbal aggression they directed at Bobo. There was also some evidence that the gender of the adult model made a difference. The most physically aggressive boys were those who had observed an aggressive male role model; the most verbally aggressive girls were those who had observed a female role model. Overall, both boys and girls imitated more of the aggressive male's behavior than the aggressive female's behavior.

All in the Family

Ten years after Bandura's study was published, University of California psychologist Diana Baumrind published the results of her extensive field research. Unlike Bandura's experimental setting, Baumrind sought answers to questions about how adults influence children's behavior in natural settings, such as schools and homes. Over a period of several months, Baumrind and her team studied 150 mostly white, middle-class families with five-year-olds who attended Berkeley-area preschools.

Baumrind's goal was to categorize parenting styles, categorize children's behavior, and then see which style of parenting was associated with which behaviors. Her team studied children's behavior at school and at home, and measured parenting style with self-report questionnaires and home observations from dinner time until after each child's bed time. Mealtime and bedtime were judged to be good opportunities to observe parenting style.

Control and Warmth

Baumrind's analysis of parents' behavior suggested that 75 percent fit one of three patterns. She dubbed these parenting patterns authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.

These styles vary in amounts of control and warmth.

Authoritarian parents try to shape and evaluate the behavior and attitudes of their children according to an absolute standard. They stress the importance of obedience to authority and favor punitive measures to bring about their children's compliance. They tend not to consider their child's point of view. (Control is high; warmth is low.)

Authoritative parents understand that they have more skill, control, and physical power than their children. They try to control them by explaining rules or decisions and by reasoning with them. They consider their child's point of view and set high standards for their children's behavior. (Control is high; warmth is high.)

Permissive parents exercise little control over their children's behavior and make relatively few demands on them. They give their children a lot of leeway to determine their own schedules and activities and often consult with them about family problems. They do not demand the same levels of achievement and mature behavior that other parents do. (Control is low; warmth is high.)

Other researchers have since found evidence of a fourth style — neglecting — where control and warmth levels are both low. Such parents ignore their children, are indifferent to achievement and behavior, and are uninvolved. (Given that Baumrind's sample included intact, middle-class families, she was unlikely to find this neglecting style in her initial research.)

Reap What You Sow

Baumrind found that, on average, each of the three parenting styles she studied was associated with a certain pattern of children's behavior in school.

Children of authoritarian parents lacked social skills with their peers. This was especially true for boys. They often withdrew from playful interactions and rarely initiated contact with other children. In situations of moral conflict, such as telling the truth, they tended to look to teachers and other outside authorities to decide what was right. These children seemed to lack spontaneity and intellectual curiosity.

Children of authoritative parents could do more for themselves, were more self-controlled, more willing to explore, and more content, compared to children of authoritarian or permissive parents. Girls in this group were especially independent. Boys in this group were especially socially responsible. Probably as a result of having parents who explain things like rewards and punishments, children in this group understood and accepted social rules.

Children of permissive parents tended to be relatively immature. They had difficulty controlling their impulses, accepting responsibility for social actions, and acting independently.

What's Not There

Subsequent research with adolescents has generally confirmed Baumrind's findings. For example, Sanford Dornbusch and his colleagues found that authoritative parenting is associated with better school performance and better social adjustment than authoritarian parenting among high school students.

One of the most interesting results of Baumrind's research is that 25 percent of the parents she studied did not fit one of her three style categories. Their parenting was a blend of different styles, and the resulting child behaviors were mixed. Moreover, most of the parents who did not fit one of her categories were African-American, which begs the question "How does parenting style vary from one ethnic group to another?"

Research conducted since Baumrind's revolutionary studies has found that parenting styles and children's behavior do vary a great deal from one culture to another. For example, anthropologists Beatrice and John Whiting found that children in the Gusii tribe in Nyansongo, Kenya, exhibited more authoritarian and aggressive behavior than did children in a small New England town. The Whitings guessed this was partly because older Gusii children were left at home to serve as substitute parents to the Gusii toddlers, while the mothers and fathers tended the fields. Perhaps Gusii children's cultural role as surrogate parents engendered more bossy behavior. On the other hand, Gusii children also tended to be more nurturing and responsible than their U.S. peers.

Clearly, children's behavior is influenced not only by their parents, but also by their culture. How are these myriad influences best understood?

Living in Circles

In the lead article for the July 1977 issue of American Psychologist, Russian-born Cornell University professor Urie Bronfenbrenner wrote, ". . . it can be said that much of contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time."

Bronfenbrenner had two objections: (1) In an effort to construct scientifically rigorous studies, psychologists were fabricating artificial, experimental environments. Hence, the validity of their conclusions about child development was questionable. (2) Psychologists were looking at specific behaviors in isolation, without regard to the cultural context. Hence, it was hard to generalize results to other, different groups of children.

Bronfenbrenner's revolutionary idea was to conceptualize human development as a nested series of influential factors. A diagram of his theory — called the ecology of human development — looks like an archery target. In the center are what Bronfenbrenner calls microsystems. Microsystems are relations between the person and the environment in the immediate setting, such as home, school, or workplace.

The next ring out from the bull's-eye is called the mesosystem. Mesosystems are relations among the major settings in which a person spends time, such as interactions between the family and the school or the church and the camp.

The next circle of influence on the developing person is the exosystem. These are not direct influences on the person, but on the settings in which the person exists. Exosystems like the neighborhood, the mass media, and government agencies influence mesosystems like a family or a school which in turn influence children directly.

Finally, there are macrosystems, which are the overarching, influential institutional patterns of the culture. Ideologies, such as democracy, or religions, such as Christianity or Judaism, are examples of macrosystems.

Thinking Inside the Box . . . er, Target

Let's take an everyday behavior and try to understand it the way Bronfenbrenner suggested. Let's say that Jack comes home from school and punches Jill in the nose. On a microsystem level, this is simply an aggressive behavior. We could stop there — as some researchers might — but we wouldn't understand how this behavior developed or how best to intervene.

On a mesosystem level, perhaps Jack's parents had been talking with his teachers and agreed that he needed to be working harder in math. Perhaps Jack's teacher gave him extra math homework that day, but he really wanted to play baseball, so he came home frustrated. This gives us more insight into his aggressive behavior. But there's even more to learn.

On an exosystem level, perhaps federal budget cuts had reduced state funding for public school special education. Had there been enough money at Jack's school, he would have received remedial math help. But, Jack's teacher has thirty-five other pupils and no help, so her solution was to give Jack more math homework and ask his parents to help. Now we're beginning to put Jack's behavior in context, but there are even broader circles of influence.

On a macrosystem level, perhaps the federal budget cuts were influenced by a prevailing ideology that less government is better. Perhaps lawmakers voted in favor of budget cuts in order to increase the autonomy of local school systems.

So, Jack punched his sister because of a Republican majority in the Senate? Yes and no. According to Bronfenbrenner, we cannot fully understand Jack's aggression without examining the layers of context and culture — but the relation between those layers and what happens in the microsystem is, as you can see, indirect. Such is the ecology of human development.

Bronfenbrenner also pointed out that researchers spend a lot of time looking at two-person interactions, but lots of interesting behavior happens in webs of three or more people. For example, if I rewind the imaginary video tape I have of Jack punching Jill, I notice that just before he did that, Jill's friend Mary stuck her tongue out at Jack and sang, "Ja-ckie's a re-tard! He got extra math work!" Now we understand even more about Jack's behavior.

What to Pack for Camp

The studies discussed in this article have revolutionized child psychology by suggesting the following:

  1. Although behavior can be shaped by rewards and punishments, children also learn through imitation of adult role models;
  2. When parents combine control and warmth, children are more independent, responsible, and content than when either control or warmth is present alone, or absent altogether; and
  3. Understanding human behavior requires studying layers of context and culture.

How can you use these findings at camp?

  • Recognize that a leader's most powerful tool is his or her example. Leadership-by-example — or LBE — is elegant, persuasive, profound, and long-lasting. Compared to LBE, techniques such as yelling, punishing, lecturing, and making lists of rules are blunt instruments in your leadership toolbox. Behave as you would have others behave.
  • Give yourself and your staff room to make mistakes and permission to own those mistakes. Reinforce the practice of apologizing for and improving any behavior that set a poor example. There is no statute of limitations on apologies.
  • See your camp in an "ecological" framework. Each interaction between a camper and a staff member or between you and a parent or between two staff members happens in a layered context. There are many spheres of influence, like the layers of an onion.
  • To adequately understand a single behavior, one must consider all the people involved, the groups of which they are part, the institutions that shape those groups, the cultural setting, and the prevailing attitudes and sustaining beliefs that impinge upon that setting.
  • Once staff understand camp in an ecological framework, give them practice responding thoughtfully to camper behavior. One temptation we all have when we see something amiss at camp is to react impulsively, perhaps with a reprimand. When we consider the ecology of the misbehavior, our solutions are more creative and effective.
  • Educate your staff about the relation between their style and their campers' behavior. Only the exceptional camp experience could undo years of bad parenting. No matter what style of parenting campers are used to, all staff should strive to expose their campers to unconditional kindness (warmth) within appropriate limits (control).
  • Prepare your staff to show campers kindness and to set fair and consistent limits. The happiest, most socially skilled, most independent children are those whose caregivers uphold high standards, explain consequences for misbehavior, invite children to problem-solve with them, and never withhold love.
  • Understand that permissive leadership — where campers are allowed to do almost whatever they want—is driven by fear. Leaders fear that setting strict limits will either cause rebellious behavior or make them unpopular. Research demonstrates that both fears are unfounded.
  • Create a camp culture where kindness is not a commodity to be earned, but a foundation for healthy relationships that every single camper is given unconditionally. No misbehavior can be effectively redirected or unlearned without kindness.

I sometimes hear staff complain about their campers' misbehavior. "I can't punish my campers," they say. "First of all, they came here to have fun. Second, I'm not their parents, so I have no authority. Third, we aren't allowed to discipline them. There's nothing I can do. These kids are driving me crazy."

In response to this helpless lament, I remind staff of three things: First, disciplining their campers begins with kindness. As long as they stay angry with their campers, little will change. Second, all behavior contains a message. Until they hear that message and empathize with their campers, little will change. And third, the word discipline (which comes from the Latin disciplina) means teaching and learning. In that sense, disciplining their campers is exactly what they were hired to do.

Bandura, A., Ross, D, & Ross, S. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582.
Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs, 4 (1, part 2).
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513-531.
Dornbusch, S. M., Ritter, P. L., Leiderman, P. H., Roberts, D. F., & Fraleigh, M. J. (1987). The relation of parenting style to adolescent school performance. Child Development, 58, 1244-1257. *
Cole, M. & Cole, S. R. (1996). The development of children. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co.*
Whiting, B. B., & Whiting, J. W. M. (1975). Children of six cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. *
*Not part of the list "The 20 Most Revolutionary Studies in Child Development"

Originally published in the 2003 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.