email page    print page

All Topic Reviews
"Intimate" Violence against Women3 NBS of Julian DrewA Little PregnantA Natural History of RapeA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA Stir of BonesAbout a BoyAdult Children of Emotionally Immature ParentsAgainst MarriageAgainst MarriageAlmost a PsychopathAlone TogetherAnatomy of LoveAngelsAnother CountryAnxious ParentsApples and OrangesBe Honest--You're Not That Into Him EitherBeing the Other OneBetrayed as BoysBeyond AddictionBipolar DisorderBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Breaking ApartBrief Adolescent Therapy Homework PlannerBringing Up ParentsBut I Love HimCaring for a Child with AutismCaring in Remembered WaysCherishmentChildren of the Aging Self-AbsorbedChildren of the Self-AbsorbedChildren, Families, and Health Care Decision MakingClawsCloserCold HitCoping With Difficult PeopleCouple SkillsCruddyDancing in My NuddypantsDivorce PoisonDoing ItDone With The CryingEcstasyEmotional ClaustrophobiaEmotional Fitness for IntimacyEmotional Intelligence at WorkEntwined LivesErotic PassionsEssentials of Premarital CounselingEvery Pot Has a CoverFacts About ADHD ChildrenFamilies Like MineFamilyFamily BoundFamily FirstFear of IntimacyFinal JeopardyFind MeFlashpointFor Lesbian ParentsForgive Your Parents, Heal YourselfGandhi's WayGeorgia Under WaterGetting over Getting MadGetting the Love You WantGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGirl in the MirrorGirl StuffGoing Home without Going CrazyHandbook of AttachmentHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHappiness Sold SeparatelyHard to GetHe's Just Not That Into YouHealing ConversationsHollow KidsHot ButtonsHot Chocolate for the Mystical LoverHow Families Still MatterHow to Create Chemistry with AnyoneHow to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Handle a Hard-To-Handle KidHow to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can'tI am Not Sick I Don't Need Help!I Don't Know How She Does ItI Hate You-Don't Leave MeI Only Say This Because I Love YouI'm OK, You're My ParentsIn the Mood, AgainInside the American CoupleIntrusive ParentingIt's Called a Breakup Because It's BrokenIt's Love We Don't UnderstandJakarta MissingKeeping Passion AliveKeeping Your Child in MindLet's Get This StraightLiberation's ChildrenLife's WorkLikely to DieLove JunkieLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLoving Someone With Bipolar DisorderLoving Someone with Borderline Personality DisorderLust in TranslationMaking the RunMaking the RunManic DepressionMars and Venus - Starting Over.Mating in CaptivityMom, Dad, I'm Gay.MotherstylesMurder in the InnMysterious CreaturesNecessary NoiseOdd Girl OutOpenOpening to Love 365 Days a YearOphelia's MomOrgasmsOur Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger SyndromeOut of the DustOvercoming Your Difficult FamilyParenting and the Child's WorldParenting on the GoParenting Your Out-Of-Control TeenagerParents and Digital TechnologyParents Do Make a DifferencePassionate MarriagePlanet JanetPreventing Misbehavior in ChildrenProblem Child or Quirky Kid?Raising AmericaRaising ElijahRaising Kids in an Age of TerrorRaising Kids in the 21st CenturyRaising Resilient ChildrenRay's a LaughRelationship RescueRelax, It's Just SexRespect-Me RulesRomantic IntelligenceRoom For JSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSelf-NurtureSelfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedSex Addiction: The Partner's PerspectiveShidduch CrisisSickenedSingleSlut!Socrates in LoveSomeone Like YouSong for EloiseSpecial SiblingsSpiritually Healing the Indigo Children (and Adult Indigos, Too!)Staying Connected to Your TeenagerStaying Sane When Your Family Comes to VisitStop Arguing with Your KidsStop SignsStop Walking on EggshellsStop Walking on EggshellsStrong, Smart, & BoldSummer of the SkunksSurviving a Borderline ParentTaking Charge of AngerTelling SecretsThank You for Being Such a PainThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe AwakeningThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Birth of PleasureThe Brief Couples Therapy Homework Planner with DiskThe Bully Action GuideThe Burden of SympathyThe Commercialization of Intimate LifeThe CorrectionsThe Couples Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe DisappearanceThe Dream BearerThe Educated ParentThe Emotional RevolutionThe Employee Assistance Treatment PlannerThe EpidemicThe Ethics of ParenthoodThe Ethics of the FamilyThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good DivorceThe Guide for International Intercultural Couples and Families Intercultural MarriageThe Healing Journey for CouplesThe Hostile HospitalThe Husbands and Wives ClubThe Inside Story on Teen GirlsThe Introvert AdvantageThe Little FriendThe Love HexagonThe Moral Intelligence of ChildrenThe Neuroscience of Human RelationshipsThe New I DoThe Normal OneThe Nurture AssumptionThe OASIS Guide to Asperger SyndromeThe Other ParentThe Philosophical ParentThe Psychology of Parental ControlThe Real Rules for GirlsThe Reflective ParentThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of WivesThe Spider and the BeeThe State of AffairsThe StepsThe Story of My FatherThe Velveteen FatherThe Virgin BlueThe Visitation HandbookThe Whole ChildTo Have and To Hurt:Two Is EnoughUnderstanding MarriageUnderstanding the Borderline MotherUnhitchedUntrue Up in FlamesWe've Got IssuesWhat about the KidsWhat Goes UpWhat Is Secular Humanism?What It Means to Love YouWhat Our Children Teach UsWhen a Parent is DepressedWhen Mars Women DateWhen Someone You Love Is BipolarWhen Someone You Love Is DepressedWhy Are You So Sad?Will You, Won't You?WomanWorking With Emotional IntelligenceWorried All the TimeYes, Your Teen Is Crazy!

Related Topics
The Psychology of Parental ControlReview - The Psychology of Parental Control
How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires
by Wendy S. Grolnick
Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D.
Mar 31st 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 13)

To my mind child rearing has three important goals, the protection of the child's right to experience a childhood, the enjoyment by the parent of the wonders of this unique human relationship and the protection of the child's natural development into an autonomous adult.  Each of these three requires that the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of the child be influenced in deliberate ways by parental actions.  Wendy Grolnick's book, the Psychology of Parental Control, provides a taxonomy of concepts within which to consider issues of parental influence, a review of the psychological literature, and a point of view concerning what is likely to work and what is not.  It is a clear, well-written and practical text that would be useful for academic courses in psychology and teacher education and to parents as well.

The first part of the book examines and clarifies a set of concepts necessary to discuss the wide-ranging and diverse research into parenting effectiveness.  Perhaps the best known of the concept sets in this area is Baumrind's tripartite division of parenting styles into authoritarian, permissive and authoritative (p. 5).  Grolnick borrows freely from this tradition to be sure but places her emphases elsewhere.  In a nutshell Grolnick wants to argue that attempting to control a child's behaviors, attitudes and beliefs will not produce as successful a set of results as the alternative approach, which she terms "autonomy support".  Baumrind's typology does not, in Grolnick's view, lend itself to making this point as clearly as it should be made.  But Grolnick's main thesis puts a heavy burden upon the ordinary term "control" and so requires a good deal of semantic housekeeping.  She addresses this task not by a series of precise definitions but through a process of differentiating her concept of control from other ideas with which it might become conflated.  Of course parents need to be "in control" of their children, for example, to protect them from obvious dangers, to assure civil behavior in others' homes and to get them their shots whether they like it or not.  In Grolnick's hands, then, "controlling behaviors" must become a technical term, narrower and more precise than its ordinary use counterpart. 

Grolnick begins with three basic needs that every person has, the needs to feel autonomous, competent and related to others.  Control oriented parenting interferes with the fulfillment of these needs.  Parents are either controlling or autonomy supportive through the environments that they create for their child.  An environment is controlling to the degree that children do not, "… feel that they initiate their actions …" (13) and do feel coerced, as if they have no choice, as if their behavior is initiated from without.  In an autonomy supportive environment a child can perceive himself or herself as the locus of causality (what some philosophers call "agent causality").  Grolnick does not attribute such characteristics to objective features of environments since different individuals may experience the same environment as either controlling or autonomy supportive.  It is, "… the 'functional significance' of the environment that makes it controlling or autonomous." (15).  While this fact is likely to be true, if it is taken to heart it will seriously complicate any attempts to give concrete practical advice concerning what to do and avoid as parents.  Fortunately Grolnick ignores the point except when discussing cultural differences.

Control should not be confused with structure, the latter being a system of clear rules, for example, explicitly stating times a child is expected to be home.  The controlling parent will convey these rules with threats whereas the autonomy supportive parent will convey them with an understanding of their burden and an explanation of their necessity.  This is similar of course to Baumrind's authoritarian vs. authoritative parent. 

Eschewing control should not be confused with disengagement.  Grolnick distinguishes involvement from the family therapy concept of "enmeshment", the latter referring to high levels of closeness with low levels of autonomy.  Involvement and autonomy are not opposing characteristics of relationships and both need to be optimized (25).  The philosophical reader will think here of the Sartrean rejection of this idea and of his world of "being for others" in which, "Hell is other people."

It would seem reasonable to say that some control is good for a child and that how much is good will depend upon the child's personality and his or her developmental level.  Grolnick rejects this idea, asserting instead that controlling behaviors are bad for children at all levels of control, for all personalities and for all ages of children, though she is willing to agree that such variations may be true of structure.  This sweeping rejection of control could be supported by semantic stipulation, that is by defining control as some form of error or excess, so that behaviors that are of benefit to children, and seem like forms of control, literally cannot be controlling.  If this is what is happening, Grolnick's main point against controlling behaviors by parents is in danger of being tautological.  One way that Grolnick wiggles out of this is by conceptualizing control as a relationship style or context rather than as a specific technique or practice.  "… when control refers to pressuring, intrusive behavior, and motivating children through bribes and other external inducements, the control undermines children's motivation …" (32).  On this view a good spanking, which is a favorite bėte noir of bad parenting, may not be an example of control if done within a certain type of parent-child relationship.  Although this dulls the bite of Grolnick's main point against control, it assures it of empirical content and brings it closer to the truth.

The book provides an extensive review of literature in favor of the idea that autonomy support is good and controlling behaviors are bad for children.  These results are presented clearly though largely without a critical eye.  Some examples:  "Children with warm, contingent relations in early life were more likely to comply with parental … directives …" (31); "… structural behaviors are more facilitative when they are combined with autonomy support. " (28); "… children who saw their parents as controlling tended to be more negative about their parents' involvement [in school matters]. " (25); " … parents who were rated as more autonomy supportive had children who reported more autonomous self-regulation…" (57); "Parents who were more supportive and who were less likely to interfere in their children's communications …[in moral discussions] … had children who were more advanced in their moral reasoning" (65). 

I have problems with relying so heavily upon results such as these, even if we tend from common sense alone to agree with them.  The reason is that Grolnick has largely ignored the critique of correlational studies such as these that has been developed by behavioral geneticists.  There are two prongs to that criticism.  The first is that such studies ignore the possibility that the correlations are explainable by genotypic relationships.  For example, why would children of more supportive parents have more advanced moral reasoning?  One answer could surely be a correlation between supportive parenting and the IQ of the parents coupled with a correlation between advanced moral reasoning and the (inherited) IQ of the child.  The second issue involves the general inability of behavioral genetics to detect significant parenting effects from within the admittedly important range of environmental effects that shape children.  Part of this critique has been the pervasive diagnosis of child-to-parent effects that have previously been read as parent-to-child effects.  For example, perhaps the reason why children who see their parents as controlling tend to be more negative about parental involvement is that the children were temperamentally negative to begin with in ways that prompted parents to be controlling.  Grolnick has a brief treatment of child-to-parent effects but only in the context of explaining what prompts parents to be controlling.  She does not use these results, or those detecting genetic influence, to cast doubt upon the leaps from correlation to cause that have been so prominent in the developmental literature.  (For a good review of the issue of parenting effects see Parenting and the Child's World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual, and Social-Emotional Development by John G. Borkowski, Sharon Landesman Ramey and Marie Bristol-Powers, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.)  In addition, I would expect a work that offers advice on what works and what does not work in parenting to give some consideration to Judith Rich Harris' group socialization theory, which provides a cogent critique of the parenting literature and an alternative explanation for how children develop the behaviors and other traits that they do (see Harris' The Nurture Assumption. Free Press, 1998.)

That having been said, there is much in this book to recommend.  The critique of rewards-based behavior control, in parenting and even more important in teaching, is very important.  As a teacher of ethics and general philosophy to student teachers I have found that behavior analysis is presented to students as a panacea for all the problems of motivating class work and controlling the room, with never a mention of the ways that it could inhibit learning.  The discussion of cultural and ethnic differences in the perceptions of parental behavior is an antidote to those who profess to own a surefire method.  The discussion of parental ego involvement, particularly as it relates to the child's intelligence and school success, could be enlarged into a book unto itself and should then be distributed without cost to every upwardly mobile parent who refuses to allow his or her child to have a childhood.  The discussion of informational vs. controlling praise as interesting as it is counter-intuitive.  

In summary, I recommend this book and hope that it gets a wide reading.


© 2005 John D. Mullen


John D. Mullen, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


Welcome to Metapsychology. We feature over 8200 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!

Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

Promote your Page too

Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716