Remembering who's the grown-up

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

By Wray Herbert

As a child, I used to drive my mother to distraction. It was my job. And my mother, for her part, would regularly threaten to wring my neck. It was kind of a family ritual. But as often as she threatened, she never actually did it. My neck is fine.

I had friends growing up whose necks didn’t fare so well. The difference between normal parenting and abusive parenting is the difference between wanting to throttle your children—and really doing it. All children can be maddening at times, but why do some parents react with harshness while others do not? Harsh parenting has been linked to everything from poverty to lack of education, but those explanations really beg the more intriguing question: What’s going on in the heads of harsh and abusive parents? What specific cognitive deficit makes it so difficult for some parents to regulate their frustration with their kids?

New research is suggesting a somewhat surprising answer to this question. Kirby Deater-Deckard, a professor of psychological science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, argues in a just-published study that inadequate working memory may be the culprit. Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind and manipulate it for a short period of time: For example, try doing this simple addition problem in your head: 888 + 333. It’s not complex, but it does require remembering the numbers you’re carrying for a few seconds, remembering the sum of each column, and so forth. Some people are better at this than others.

Here’s how Deater-Deckard and his colleagues demonstrated the link between memory and patience—or lack of it. They recruited more than 200 mothers with same-sex twins, all about six years old. They visited their homes, where they videotaped the mothers working with each of the twins separately on difficult cooperative tasks. On one task, for example, mother and child had to draw a picture on an Etch-A-Sketch, each manipulating one of the toy’s two handles. The task was meant to frustrate both child and mother, to test their patience and self-control.

And it did, to varying degrees. The researchers had independent judges score both the child’s and the mother’s behavior. The children were rated for overt anger and frustration, for disobedience, giving up on the Etch-A-Sketch task, and so forth. The mothers were similarly rated, but in their case for their negative reactions to their children’s challenging behavior—including annoyance and anger, taking over the game in frustration, criticizing the child’s errors.

The twins were necessary for statistical purposes. By observing each interaction separately and subtracting one score from the other, the scientists were able to zero in on a purer measure of each parent’s overall tendency to react negatively to their kids, rather than to a particular child's personality. Then they gave each mother a battery of standard tests, including measures of verbal skills, spatial reasoning and working memory. They crunched all the data together for analysis.

The results clearly implicated working memory deficits (and only working memory deficits) as a cause of harsh parenting. But why? The link between poor memory and harsh impatience may not be intuitively obvious, but the scientists have an explanation. In those few seconds between experiencing frustration and reacting, a mother must appraise the situation. That is, she must say to herself something like this: Remember now, you’re the grown-up here; children are a challenge, but they don’t mean to be. And so forth and so forth. This kind of appraisal happens again and again, and each time it requires the powers of working memory. It may not seem like the same skill as that needed to add 888 and 333, but essentially it is. One must keep the facts of a situation in mind in order to rapidly and accurately appraise one’s emotions and arrive at an appropriate reaction.

These findings, published on-line in the journal Psychological Science this week, almost certainly apply to fathers as well, and they offer some small good news for both parents and kids. It’s commonly said that harsh and abusive parents lack good parenting skills, but that’s both obvious and unhelpful. These findings implicate a much more specific cognitive skill, and what’s more, one that evidence suggests can be enhanced with practice. Working memory training will not solve the problem of child maltreatment, but it’s a concrete intervention that might help some parents and children at risk.

For more insights into human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:27 PM


At 1:09 PM , Blogger Tom said...

Wow, this study is quite eye opening. It seems almost illogical that memory would have an effect on parenting but the explanation makes sense. However, my thoughts are that poor memory might be the tip of the iceburg or a sympton of a deeper/larger problem. I hope they continue to research this subject.

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At 2:44 PM , Blogger L said...

First time on your blog... that was really interesting

At 9:10 AM , Blogger Edie said...

I agree that this is a fascinating study. However, the author's use of the word "cause" bothers me. Since this is a correlational study rather than an experiment, we cannot draw conclusions about cause and effect relationships. It would have been more accurate to say that the author found a significant relationship between working memory deficits and harsh parenting.


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