All parents want to give their children the best chance in life. But new research suggests that overly aggressive and harsh parenting can backfire, making kids more susceptible to peer pressure, and ultimately more likely to drop out of school.
The research followed almost 1,500 adolescents growing up in Maryland, and showed that kids whose parents regularly yelled at them or threatened them with aggressive punishments were more likely to drop out of high school or college than their peers - regardless of the grades they were getting.
Those children were also more likely to engage in risky behaviours by the time they were in the eleventh grade, such as early sexual behaviour, and more fighting and stealing.
Previous studies have also shown that children growing up in harsh environments have higher drop-out rates, and this research aimed to get some insight into why that happens by looking at longitudinal data taken across the same children over nine years, starting when they were in year seven.
The results suggest that it's not so much an issue with school itself, but the fact that kids with aggressive parents are more likely to put their friends first and undertake in behaviours that make them feel good in the short term, rather than focussing on the big picture - such as avoiding homework or breaking their parents' rules to hang out with a friend.
"In our study, harsh parenting was related to lower educational attainment through a set of complex cascading processes that emphasised present-oriented behaviours at the cost of future-oriented educational goals," said lead researcher Rochelle F. Hentges from the University of Pittsburgh.
"We believe our study is the first to use children's life histories as a framework to examine how parenting affects children's educational outcomes via relationships with peers, sexual behaviour, and delinquency."
This study doesn't mean we can say for sure that harsh parenting is directly causing kids to drop out of school - correlation does not equal causation, after all.
But the research begins to fill in the bigger picture of how overly aggressive parents can affect children's decision making. The researchers were careful to control for factors that could influence educational outcomes, such as socioeconomic background, standardised test scores, and grade point average.
To get this insight, the team used data from the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study, which followed 1,482 students living near Washington DC from seventh grade - when they were around 12 years old - to three years after their expected graduation, when they were roughly 21.
The study asked students to regularly report on their parents' physical and verbal aggression towards them, their interactions with peers, whether they'd been in fights or taken part in sexual behaviour, and how reliant they were on their peers.
At the end of the study, the participants reported on their highest level of educational attainment.
Looking for patterns in the data, the team found that harsh parenting - defined as yelling, hitting, and engaging in coercive behaviours such as verbal or physical threats - in seventh grade was associated with kids being more reliant on their peer group two years later.
This meant that the students were more likely to say that their friends were more important than any of their other responsibilities, including their parents' rules or school work.
And by eleventh grade, females with aggressive parents were more frequently undertaking early sexual behaviour, while males reported more delinquency.
In turn, all of these behaviours were associated with low educational achievement, meaning the kids went on to become more likely to drop out after high school or college, regardless of how smart they were, or how educated their parents were.
"Youth whose needs aren't met by their primary attachment figures may seek validation from peers," explained Hentges.
"This may include turning to peers in unhealthy ways, which may lead to increased aggression and delinquency, as well as early sexual behaviour at the expense of long-term goals such as education."
Hentges says these results mirror evolutionary theories that suggest that harsh environments make survival uncertain, so children growing up in them will focus on immediate rewards rather than long-term goals.
"For example, research has found that children growing up in harsh or unstable environments are more likely to take a smaller, but immediate reward (two M&Ms) instead of waiting to get a larger reward (five M&Ms)," she told Maarten Rikken over at ResearchGate.
Now that we have more insight into how harsh parenting can affect educational outcomes, the team hopes it can lead to better intervention programs, and also encourage teachers to make school more engaging from a short-term perspective, rather than just focussing on the bigger picture of one day graduating and getting a job.
The research has been published in Child Development.