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The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires

Lancaster, Duniya R. M.D.; Howard, Barbara M.D.

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: February 2004 - Volume 25 - Issue 1 - p 69-70
Book Reviews

Division of General Pediatrics

Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine

Baltimore, MD

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires by Wendy S. Grolnick Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Mahwah, NJ, 2003; 182 pp$19.95.

This book is an excellent, insightful, and comprehensive review and discussion of parental control and its effects on children. Grolnick captures the audience with case examples and a well-written narrative style. Also, she presents relevant studies and references to support her assertions.

The first chapter presents a historical overview of the concept of control and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of theories of parental authority and style. The next section discusses the child’s needs including the innate needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and the importance of fulfilling these needs to promote self-motivation and wellbeing. Further discussion of the parent-child interaction includes differentiating involvement from control and introducing the concept of levels of autonomy support. Overt versus covert control, theories of internalization, self-regulation, compliance, and moral development are discussed. The external and internal pressures that affect the controlling parent are reviewed. Also, the parent’s own ego involvement as a contribution towards parental control is explained.

Lastly, Grolnick delves into the negative effect that a controlling parental style can have on children’s learning and academic motivation as well as desire to participate and succeed in athletic activities. In this chapter, studies by McGraw and McCullers, 1 Amabile, 2,3 Koestner, 4 and Grolnick and her colleagues Gurland, DeCourcey, and Jacob 5 are cited to provide evidence of her assertions. However, all but her own recent study, in 2002, were produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Grolnick, Gurland, DeCourcey, and Jacob’s study 5 in 2002 is an evaluation of the mother-child interaction and the third grader’s performance in writing a poem and a map task under either high- or low-pressure conditions. This study showed that children demonstrated poorer performance in the presence of higher maternal controlling behavior. In her concluding chapter, Grolnick states, “Controlling parenting has been associated with lower levels of intrinsic motivation, less internalization of values and morals, poorer self-regulation, and higher levels of negative self-related affects.” She ends her book with the statement that reflects the purpose of the book: “This book is dedicated to helping parents become people who can help children grow. The message we should give our children is that just the way they are is indeed good enough.”

This book will be a valuable addition to the library of pediatricians, health care professionals, psychologists, teachers, and social workers that deal with parents with a spectrum of controlling styles. It is also at a level making it appropriate for parents. The weaknesses are that a number of the cited studies are from previous decades and fewer from the last several years. Thus, this book represents more of a description useful for clinicians that could inspire further research. Social scientists would find this book to be a good historical overview of parental control. The book spends a preponderant time on the negative effects of parental control and delves less into the effects on children who may be exposed to a lack of parental control and involvement. In spite of this, it makes a uniquely accessible and thought provoking contribution in an area of constant clinical interest to clinicians working with young children and their families. Also, Grolnick’s writing style flows well and makes this book enjoyable to read.

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1. McGraw KO, McCullers JC. Evidence of a detrimental effect of extrinsic incentives on breaking a mental set. J Exp Soc Psychol. 1979; 15:285–294.
2. Amabile TM. Effects of external evaluation on artistic creativity. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1979; 37:221–233.
3. Amabile T. The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag; 1983.
4. Koestner R, Ryan RM, Bernieri F, Holt K. Setting limits on children’s behavior: the differential effects of controlling versus informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity. Journal of Personality. 1984; 52:244–248.
5. Grolnick WS, Gurland ST, DeCourcey W, Jacob K. Antecedents and consequences of mother’s autonomy support: an experimental investigation. Dev Psychol. 2002; 38:143–155.
© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.