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A nine-year study that followed 1,482 young people has found a sequence of links between harsh parenting at 12 years of age and lower educational attainment by the age of 21. Such associations between harsh parenting and educational attainment have been observed before, but this study looked a bit more closely at the mechanisms at work through adolescence.
Twelve-year-olds who reported harsh parenting, such as frequent physical punishment, were more likely at the age of 14 to prioritise peer group demands over following their parent’s rules or doing homework.
In turn, 14-year-olds who reported greater peer orientation were more likely at the age of 17 to report delinquent behaviour, such as violence or stealing, especially boys. Girls reported more early sexual activity at 17.
At the age of 21, lower attainment in education was linked to early sexual behaviour in 17-year-old girls and delinquent behaviour in 17-year-old boys.
The researchers present a “life history” explanation of these links. Children who experience harsh parenting are more likely to seek validation and closeness from their peers and detach from their parents. Young female adolescents who are more concerned with peer popularity are more likely to have early sexual relations. Likewise, risky and aggressive behaviour in these adolescents is more likely to be seen as a signal of bravery and toughness, particularly among boys. And, as other research has shown, early sexual behaviour in girls and delinquent behaviour in boys both compete with their studies, particularly if they lead to pregnancy or exclusion from school.
Life history theory describes “slow” and “fast” strategies. In stable environments with good resources, energy tends to be directed towards longer-term rewards. Meanwhile harsh, unpredictable and risky environments tend to nurture a “fast” strategy, with more immediate demands for gratification, leading to greater susceptibility to risk taking and impulsiveness.
The researchers argue that “fast” strategies are not necessarily simply negative, but an understandable adaptation to an unstable environment. Pursuing this idea further, they recommend that support to young people in these circumstances should be adapted to how they approach life. For example, educational approaches with these young people could build on their need for quicker feedback and peer affirmation, through experiential learning and group learning. And if social dominance is more important in this group, education could highlight high-status role models, such as athletes, movie stars and musicians, who value education and academic achievement.
Hentges RF & Wang M-T (2017), Gender differences in the developmental cascade from harsh parenting to educational attainment: An evolutionary perspective, Child Development