Parents base self-worth on kids' deeds, prof finds

She is gathering data now on middle-school children from the Shenango Valley.
SHARON, Pa. -- Everyone has seen the stereotypical Little League dad or stage mom in the movies, on television or, in some cases, real life: It appears that the parent is judging his or her own self-worth based on the accomplishments of the child.
But just how prevalent is that parental attitude really?
Dr. Missa Murry Eaton, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Shenango, thinks it may be as high as 20 percent, at least in middle-class families.
People really do live vicariously through their children, she said, citing evidence she's uncovered in more than a decade of research into parent-child interactions.
Specifically, a study she did of middle-class freshmen attending the University of Illinois showed that about 20 percent of their parents took their relationship with their child to the extreme, Eaton said.
The parents were basing their self-worth on their child's successes, she said.
Those kids were stellar students, yet their successes didn't lessen their parents' worries about academic success, nor did those successes stop parental efforts to control their children.
"They were enmeshed in their children's accomplishments," Eaton said.
She calls it "parental contingent self-worth," a case of basing their own self-evaluation on the successes and failures of their children.
Extreme effects
When carried to extremes, it can have detrimental effects on both child and parent, she said, pointing out that children tend to have less internal motivation and often perform just for their parents.
They also have more conflict with their parents and show less parental attachment, often refusing to go to them for help in solving personal problems, Eaton said.
For parents, those with parental contingent self-worth issues experience a lot of negative emotions such as anxiety and depression and put themselves more at risk for stress-related ailments, she said.
Our children's success or failure is a society reflection on ourselves and our parenting skills, Eaton said.
When parents micromanage a child's life at home, they become more worried about that child's ability to perform on their own, and the children may be frightened of that prospect as well, she said.
"I think we're breeding a sense of perfectionism in our kids," Eaton said, suggesting that children should be allowed to make some of their own decisions at an early age and gradually be able to expand that freedom.
They should be allowed to live with the consequences of those decisions, he said, explaining that "a little bit of hard knocks" can be a good thing.
Children do a better job when they have some control over what they are doing, she added.
Eaton is gathering data now on middle-school children from the Shenango Valley and neighboring Crawford County and will expand that to include local high school seniors to see if that attitude persists across a wider socioeconomic backdrop.
She also wants to see how parental contingent self-worth is affected as children transition through their lives.
Middle school is one of those key transition periods as children begin to develop their own identities separate from their families, she said, and high school is another major transition point for children as they prepare to go to college or into the working world.
Eaton's work has been limited to looking at academic performance, but one of her undergraduate students has devised a study to also look at sports.
Eaton said she expects parental contingent self-worth in that context to extend beyond any socioeconomic backgrounds.

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