Academic journal article Family Relations

The Role of Empathy in Parenting Strategy Choices

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Role of Empathy in Parenting Strategy Choices

Article excerpt

Empathy is a personality construct that has received an enormous amount of attention in the psychological literature (cf., Brems, 1989; Dymond, 1950; Rogers, 1957). Its presence or absence has been tied to numerous positive behaviors, such as altruism and helpfulness (Davis, 1983), as well as to the development of psychopathology (e.g., Kohut, 1984). Empathy has been theorized and experimentally shown to have a profound impact on interpersonal relationships. One such interpersonal relationship is that of the parent and child (Bavolek, 1984). Clinicians have argued that the absence of empathy in the parent-child dyad can have deleterious effects on the child's self-development and psychological health (Kohut, 1984; Leahy, 1991; Martin, 1976). Similarly, many theorists have postulated that the presence of empathy is central to the healthy growth-promoting relationship between child and caretaker (Kohut, 1984; Offerman-Zuckerberg, 1992; Stern, 1989). Consequently, it is not surprising that the teaching of empathy has been at the center of many parent education programs (Brems, Baldwin, & Baxter, 1993; Kissman, 1992; Webster-Stratton & Herbert, 1993).

Interestingly, despite all of the discussion about the positive effect of parental empathy on children's psychological growth and health and despite the finding that there is a clear relationship between a lack of empathy and abusive parental behavior (Minor, Karr, & Jain, 1987), we did not find a single project that has investigated the relationship between parental empathy and parental choice of parenting strategies. Such a link has been assumed in the literature (Brems, 1993; Brooks, 1981), but not experimentally documented. It is important to document such a link, especially as longitudinal research has demonstrated that the development of children's own level of empathy is closely tied to parental strategy choice (Koestner, Franz, & Weinberger, 1990). Given that Koestner et al. found that certain parenting strategies more than others were linked to the development of children's empathy, and the assumption that the perpetuation of empathy from generation to generation is desirable, it is important to investigate whether parental empathy translates into positive parental strategy choices.

Given the definition of empathy, assumed for the purposes of this study and representative of the literature so far, as "awareness of a child's needs [that] entails the ability of the parent to understand the condition or state of mind of the child without actually experiencing the feelings of the child" (Bavolek, 1984, p. 6), one can assume that empathy would be a skill that reduces the likelihood of parenting being guided by stereotypes or biased by attributions parents make about their children. Specifically, it appears that parents will respond to children in a stereotypic fashion if they are uncertain about what their child is feeling or what an appropriate parental response would be in a given situation (Fagot & Hagan, 1991). Further, parents appear to respond both to the gender and temperament of their children when interacting and disciplining them with little regard to the child's actual state of mind or emotional condition (Fagot & Kavanagh, 1993). Such parental responses can reflect not only stereotypic assumptions about the child because of the child's membership in a group (e.g., gender), but also attributions imposed upon the child based on knowledge gained about the child in previous interactions (e.g., temperament). Unfortunately, parental responses and interactions based on previously formed assumptions about the child can serve to perpetuate rather than decrease negative behavior patterns (Vuchinich, Bank, & Patterson, 1992). Stereotypic and attributionally biased response styles have been reported to be more common among abusive than nonabusive parents (Reid, Kavanagh, & Baldwin, 1987). We posit that empathy, a trait often lacking in abusive parents (Bavolek, 1984), should be related to reduced stereotypic or attributionally biased responding among parents. …

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