Do your children think you work too much and don’t spend enough time with them? If so, their perception could lead to bullying behavior, according to research by sociologist Andre Christie-Mizell.
“Our behavior is driven by our perception of our world, so if children feel they are not getting enough time and attention from parents, then those feelings have to go somewhere and it appears in interaction with their peers,” says Christie-Mizell, associate professor of sociology and a licensed psychologist specializing in family therapy and the treatment of children with mood and behavior disorders.
His study, published in the journal Youth & Society, looked at two questions: “What is the relationship between the number of hours parents work and adolescent bullying behavior?” and “What is the relationship between bullying behavior and youth’s perceptions of the amount of time their parents spend with them?”
Christie-Mizell studied the behavior and perceptions of 687 children who were 10 to 14 years old and living in two-parent homes. He measured their bullying behavior using a scale based on the Behavior Problem Index (BPI), a 28-item scale designed to assess typical childhood behavior syndromes. He also looked at their parents’ work hours; about 40 percent of the mothers and 47 percent of their spouses/partners worked full time, and 15 percent of mothers and 50 percent of their spouses/partners worked overtime (more than 40 hours per week).
Christie-Mizell was surprised to find that children’s perception of how much time they spent with their fathers had the most impact on bullying behavior. Because mothers overwhelmingly are the ones to care for and monitor children, he began his research thinking that moms’ work hours would be more likely to have an impact on whether children exhibited bullying behavior such as cruelty to others, disobedience at school, hanging around kids who get in trouble, displaying a very strong temper, and not being sorry for their misbehaving.
Instead, it was when fathers worked full time or overtime, and when children perceived they did not spend enough time with their fathers, that bullying behavior increased. Mothers’ work hours showed modest to no effect on bullying behavior. Christie-Mizell believes this is because children perceive mothers as being more accessible, as they still handle most of the responsibilities at home as caregivers and family managers.
“The findings about fathers and mothers are important because it turns what most of us think is conventional wisdom—that mothers have the most influence on children—on its ear. What this research shows is that while it’s equally important for kids to spend time with both parents, fathers need to make an extra effort.”
That might mean setting up a schedule for parent–child interaction in order to guide children’s perceptions—for example, a child knows that every Saturday morning he or she is going to have breakfast or play ball with Dad. The interaction must be purposeful so children know they can expect this time, rather than a random, last-minute trip with Dad to the grocery store, Christie-Mizell says.
“Children need to know they have this scheduled time, and it’s important for fathers to try to keep to the schedule as much as possible. If fathers have to miss, then it’s also important that they explain to the child why they have to miss their scheduled time and how what they are doing instead affects their family.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Daniel Dubois | Illustrations: Jose Ortega/Stock Illustration Source
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