For over one hundred years, psychologists such as Freud and B.F. Skinner have claimed that parents exercise a great amount of influence over their children. Freud believed that how parents reacted to their child's sexual and aggressive urges determined whether the child grew into a well-adjusted adult; while Skinner believed that positive or negative reinforcement would shape a child's behavior. Parents and peers play essentials roles in the development of a child. A child's full development relies on the influence of both; without it, a child is at risk for emotional and mental issues later on in life (Sentse, Lindenberg, Omvlee, Ormel, & Veenstra, 2010) .
In 1998, Judith Rich Harris published The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Since then researchers and laypeople alike have debated whether parents actually have much influence over their children's behavior. Rich Harris theorized that in actuality, parents have very little, if any, influence over how their children behave and mature.
So how much influence do parents really have over their children? Barbour, Barbour, & Scully (2010) write that socioeconomic status, ethnic identity, and occupations affect how parents view themselves and socialize their children. As children progress from the home to child care and then school, their socialization skills and self-concept are influenced by how their peers view them. Peers are essential to a child's social development: they influence behavior (such as infants crying when others cry or offering comfort), and this influence only grows as the child ages.
While parents provide the foundation for a child's belief system, it is peers who help shape or re-define these concepts. As children age, they learn that there are people outside their home who may share their views, or hold completely different ones. The perceptions of others can affect how a child feels about their own family; when confronted with views that are different from their own, children will often reconsider their own viewpoints. Some children may be surprised at how a family can have completely different beliefs from their own, yet still be alike. Peers groups can serve as a gauge for children to examine how they feel about themselves and their families (Barbour, 2010).
In the aforementioned study by Sentse, et al. (2010), the researchers reported that when children are accepted by their parents, rather than rejected, they are more likely to have high self-esteem and positive social interactions, and less likely to suffer from depressive and behavioral problems. Peer relationships are attractive to adolescents, as these relationships help the child feel a sense of belonging. Peer relationships are also less judgmental and less controlling than relationships with adults. Positive influence from peers is also beneficial to children, as peers can help strengthen self-esteem, and enhance academic achievement; while negative influence from peers can increase a child's risk for antisocial or maladaptive behavior.
The big takeaway from all this is that no one influence is better for your child than the other. Influence from you as a parent and influence from peer groups is essential to a child's healthy development. A child learns from both forms of interaction, and it is vital that they have both. Of course, this development can only be achieved if the child has healthy interactions with both you and their peers. So how can you make sure your interaction is helping, and not harming, your child?
Children, and adolescents, need to feel love, warmth, care, and affection from their parents (this is what Sentse, et al. refers to as 'acceptance'). When children feel rejected, they are more likely to be aggressive, hostile, depressed, and have low self-esteem. Even when children move into adolescence, they still need to feel acceptance from their parents. Of course, this doesn't mean you need to be your child's best friend. Authoritative parenting has been shown to be the most effective and supportive form of parenting. This means that parents are warm, involved, responsive, and open to discussion (instead of shutting down their child's views), while also being strict and consistent in making rules and setting limits.
Setting limits may include talking to your child about potentially negative peer interactions. These peer interactions can be beneficial, as previously discussed, but it is important that your child know the difference between positive and negative interactions. This can include problems with your adolescents' peers, but it can also apply to toddlers and young children. Any negative interaction can have an impact on a child's future social growth and emotional or mental health.
It is important to remember that the question of influence isn't parents versus peers, but rather parents and peers.
Emily Taylor is a graduate of Western Carolina University. She intends to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and it is her goal to work with individuals who suffer from affective disorders. Emily has worked with children of all ages for over 10 years; she has also tutored college students and served as a mentor.