The role of parents and peers in childhood


The degree to which our parents and our peers influence our development has long been debated in scientific literature. Brofenbrenner’s (1974, 1976) ecological systems perspective holds that in order to truly understand human development, the entire ecological system in which it grows must be taken into account. For a child, this ecological system includes both the influence of their parents and their peers, which are considered to be microsystems within the child’senvironment. Both parents and peers may influence a child through exhibiting or reinforcing certain behaviours or attitudes or by disapproving or forbidding particular behaviours or attitudes. Parents and peers can also influencechild developmentin unique ways. For example, through different parenting styles or throughpeer pressure. This essay will discuss and compare parental and peer influence on child and adolescent development.

Parental Influence

One of the most influential studies that demonstrated the impact that adult behavior can have on the development of children was carried out by Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) at Stanford University. It was found that children who observed a adult role model acting physically and verbally violent to a ‘ Bobo’ doll were significantly more likely to also act violent toward the doll. Furthermore, it was found that boys were more likely to act violently after observing male adult models than female adult models and would engage in more violent acts that girls. This study demonstrated the strong social influence of adult models on young children and the gender differences that accompany this influence. This influence has come to be known as social learning theory (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1961) and has been very influential in understanding how children may learn certain behaviours. The theory postulates that children develop certain behaviours and attitudes throughobservationand by modelling these behaviours and attitudes on those they look up, such as parents (Bandura, 1977). Social learning theory has been repeatedly shown mediate parental influence on child development. For example, Scaglioni, Salvioni and Galimberti (2008) found that parental attitudes aboutfoodhad a significant impact on their children’s attitudes toward food. Furthermore, parental attitudes also had an impact on a child’s body satisfaction levels. In both cases, social learning theory can explain the strong parental influence on child behaviours such as a aggression, eating habits and self-esteem. However, the theory does not always stand true. For example, it cannot be used to explain why positive parent behaviour and role models can sometimes result in negative child behaviours.

In addition to the social learning theory, it has also been theorised that parenting styles may influence a child’s development. Parenting styles have been classified into four different categories (Maccoby and Martin, 1983; Baumrind, 1991): authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Authoritative parents are demanding, but not restrictive and are highly involved with their child. In contrast, authoritarian parents are both demanding and restrictive, being far more untrusting of their children. Permissive parents tend to be responsive but not demanding of their child. Although they are warm and child-centred in their approach, they also have a lack of parental control. Finally, neglectful parents are neither demanding nor responsive, typically demonstrating complete un-involvement. Parenting styles have been found to have an effect on adolescents’ achievement strategies (Aunola, Stattin and Nurmi, 2000), with adolescents with authoritative parents demonstrating the most positive strategies and adolescents with neglectful parents demonstrating the most maladaptive strategies. The negative impact of a neglectful parenting style has been replicated in later studies. For example, Hoeve et al. (2011) found that a neglectful parenting style was linked to a higher level of delinquency in males. It was also reported that a significant long term relationship existed between a father’s neglectful parenting approach and delinquency in male children. This gender-specific influential relationship can be compared to the strong gender-specific role model effect predicted by social learning theory. However, the parenting styles theory is very reductionist and does not take into account other influences onchildhooddevelopment and achievement, such as the socioeconomic status of the parents (Davis-Kean, 2005).

Peers Influence

Peer relationships also have the power to influence a child’s development for better or worse. For example, bullyingand victimisation during the school and adolescent years has been shown to have a negative impact upon several aspects of a child’s development. In a large scale questionnaire study, Rigby (2000) found that frequent bullying by one’s peers had a significantly negative effect on young people’s mentalhealth. It was also found that this negative effect was exacerbated by perceived low social support, demonstrating that elements outside of the bullying environment interact with this peer influence. This study used a large and representative sample meaning that the results are likely to be highly generalisable. Bowes et al. (2010) found that a warm and positivefamilyenvironment was able to reduce the negative effects of bullying by peers, suggesting that positive parental influences may have the power to overcome negative peer influences. In contrast, there is little evidence to suggest that negative peer influences have the power to overcome positive parental influences such as high levels of support and guidance through the tumultuous adolescent period.

An additional peer influence that has been shown to have an effect on child development is known as sociometric status. Sociometric status can be defined as how liked or disliked a child is by his or her classmates and peers (Asher and Dodge, 1986) and has been linked to numerous aspects of development. For example, Wentzel (2003) carried out a longitudinal study of the effect of sociometric status onacademicachievement and adjustment at school. It was found that sociometric status has a significant effect on such measures as irresponsibility and classroom grades. Nelson and Dishion (2004) found that socio-metric status was able to predict how well 9-10 year old male children adapted in later life, suggesting that peer influences can last well into adulthood. Longitudinal studies have strength in the richness of data they are able to provide during an extended time period. However, the un-controlled environment means that the results can be vulnerable to confounding variables. What is more, despite providing some useful data sociometric status is unlikely to give an accurate picture of peer influence. The status is based on the opinion of other children within a school environment and does not account for the opinions of peers a child may relate to outside of school, for example at extra-curricular clubs or friends who do not attend the same school as they do.

Theeffects of peerpressure on child development have also been investigated. For example, Gardner and Steinberg (2005) found that exposure to ones’ peers doubled the amount of risk taking behaviour exhibited by adolescents. However, these results were later refuted by Bot et al. (2007) who found that peer pressure had no significant effect on whether a young person would engage in underage drinking. In contrast, it was found that modelling peers’ drinking behavior did have a significant impact. Therefore, peer pressure may exert its influence on child development through modelling rather than by active encouragement by peers to take part in negative or risky behaviors. This suggests that peer pressure may be a more passive than active influence, as adolescents seek out other peers on which to model their own behavior, some of which may be negative or dangerous.


The literature pertaining to the influence of parental and peer influence on child development does reveal some replicable trends, which strongly suggest that a poor and neglectful parenting style has a negative effect on many different aspects of child development. Furthermore, when a child experiences isolation from their peer group either as a result of bullying or low sociometric status, they are also likely to suffer from negative outcomes. Therefore, the evidence appears to suggest that neglect and isolation from either peers or parents has a negative effect on child development, whereas a supportive environment will have a positive effect. Peer and parental influence also have a strong gender-bias in common, meaning that male peers and parents tend to have a stronger influence on the male child, whereas female peers and parents have a stronger influence over the female child. The most likely scenario is that both parent and peers have a strong influence on a child’s development, although these influences peak and trough during certain age periods. For example, peer relationships become increasingly more influential and important as children begin to enter adolescence (Brown, 2004) and as a result, elements such as sociometric status and bullying may exert more of an influence than parental behaviors or attitudes. However, the evidence suggesting that positive parental influences may reduce negative peer influences suggest that if parents are able to buffer children by providing a warm, encouraging and safe home environment, future negative peer influences may be less likely to have an impact on their development.


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