Parent: Friend or Parent?

I am tired of an all-too-popular piece of (for want of a better phrase) parental crap: The idea that parents and children are “friends.” In truth, I want to slap the stupidity of parents who tell me “My child is my best friend” or “I’m my child’s best friend.” It’s bogus, easy, cheap, and bovine digestive byproduct.

Years before my father was even in ill health, I had mentally written the opening lines to the sermon I would one day deliver at his funeral: “I don’t remember when; I don’t remember where; I don’t remember to whom he was speaking; but, one day I heard my father say, ‘I will never be a friend to my children. I will always be their father.’ And it was true. ‘Til his death, our father was always our father.”

Now, new evidence of the importance of fathers – especially those who encourage their children to live physically and intellectually healthy lives.  

             Even as the nation’s most exclusive universities are moving away from the privileged status of “legacy” applicants – students who get a leg up on their competition for admissions because their parents or grandparents attended the school, it appears that sons of fathers with high incomes tend to end up with higher than average incomes themselves.

But (and it’s a big BUT), new research shows that it’s not just dad’s money that helps a son on his way to personal success: “Human capital” endowments passed from fathers to sons –“smarts,” advice, a work ethic, or some other intangible – may be more important to the next generation’s success than the size of dad’s paycheck. If money is the only thing that matters in the intergenerational transfer of income, then the son of the lucky father would end up with a higher income than the son of the unlucky father.

However, if human capital matters, the two sons may end up with more similar incomes. Among the clues for fathers’ “human capital”:  educational levels and the nature of their occupations. Fathers with more education or those who work in jobs that require specialized skills are considered to have higher human capital endowments that could be passed to sons.

Reporting in the June 8, 2012 edition of the Journal of Political Economy, researchers Lars Lefgren, Matthew J. Lindquist and David Sims explored the relationship between the incomes of fathers in differing labor market conditions. They theorized that if the income correlation weakens for fathers and sons in various situations, they could conclude that money isn’t the only thing that matters.

And that was exactly what their study found. Income differences not related to a father’s human capital were weaker predictors of the son’s income. In other words, human capital does matter.

“We conclude that, for the men in our dataset, differing human capital endowments passed from father to son account for about two-thirds of the overall intergenerational income,” reports Sims, an economics professor at Brigham Young University and one of the study’s authors.

And, when it comes to children’s health, researchers at Oregon State University have demonstrated that parents are a major factor in whether young children are active or couch potatoes.

Reporting in the journal Early Child Development and Care (available online June 21, 2012), researchers at Oregon State University found that children who had “neglectful” parents, or whose parents weren’t home often and who self-reported spending less time with their kids, were getting half-an-hour more television and computer game time- “screen time” on average each weekday.

And, in an age when childhood obesity is skyrocketing, all of the children ages 2 to 4 were sitting more than several hours per day.

“Across all parenting styles, we saw anywhere from four to five hours a day of sedentary activity,” noted lead author David Schary. “This is waking hours not including naps or feeding. Some parents counted quiet play – sitting and coloring, working on a puzzle, etc., – as a positive activity, but this is an age where movement is essential.

The researchers – Schary, a doctoral student in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, Bradley Cardinal, a professor of social psychology of physical activity, and Paul Loprinizi, who completed his doctorate at OSU and is now at Bellamine University (Kentucky) – considered four parenting styles: authoritative (high warmth and control), authoritarian (controlling, less warm), permissive (warm, low control) and neglectful (low control and warmth).

In the sample of almost 200 families, all of the children were sitting four to five hours in a typical day; however, children in the more neglectful category were spending up to 30 additional minutes a day watching television, playing video games or being engaged in some other form of “screen time.”

“A half hour each day may not seem like much, but add that up over a week, then a month, and then a year and you have a big impact,” observed Schary. “One child may be getting up to four hours more active play every week, and this sets the stage for the rest of their lives.”

And, to complicate matters even more, parents who were less participatory during the week did not make up for it on weekends. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sedentary time increased nearly one hour each weekend day. And, as Cardinal noted, sedentary behavior goes against the natural tendencies of most preschool-age children. “Toddlers and pre-school age children are spontaneous movers, so it is natural for them to have bursts of activity many minutes per hour. We find that when kids enter school, their levels of physical activity decrease and overall, it continues to decline throughout their life. Early life movement is imperative for establishing healthy, active lifestyle patterns, self-awareness, social acceptance, and even brain and cognitive development.”

In addition, Schary and Cardinal examined the same group of students and asked about the ways parents support and promote active play. They found that parents who actively played with their children had the most impact, but that any level of encouragement, even just watching their child play or driving them to an activity  – made a difference.

“When children are very young, playing is the main thing they do during waking hours, so parental support and encouragement is crucial,” said Schary. “So when we see preschool children not going outside much and sitting while playing with a cell phone or watching TV, we need to help parents counteract that behavior.”

In the end, part of the lesson of these studies is that it is the role of parents to model the need for intellectual inquiry and the importance of active, physical runnin’ around, tree climbin’ real play. If you’re a parent, be a parent: Get off the couch and away from the flat screen and video game controllers and go out walking, running, swimming or biking with your kids. Take them to the games and other physical activities that encourage mental and physical growth and fight the epidemic of childhood obesity. Your kids are kids. They should be playing like kids. They aren’t Idaho, red or sweet potatoes. Don’t allow or encourage them to act like couch potatoes.

 Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy. D.


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