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The good parenting ideal and active free play

By Nicholas L. Holt, PhD, Shannon Pynn, BPE, Kurtis Pankow, BSc, Kacey C. Neely, PhD, Valerie Carson, PhD, Meghan Ingstrup, MA

This is an excerpt from Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fourth Edition, edited by Thelma S. Horn, PhD, and Alan L. Smith, PhD.

As children age beyond the early years and begin to gain a limited amount of independence, parents and other caregivers are actually the most frequently reported barriers to children’s engagement in AFP, primarily because of parents’ perceptions of traffic safety and "stranger danger" concerns (Carver et al., 2008; Holt, Cunningham, Sehn, Spence, Newton, & Ball, 2009). The concept of the good parenting ideal provides one way of understanding these parental anxieties and the subsequent restrictions they place on their children. The good parenting ideal refers to how parents understand societal expectations for their parenting (cf. Lee et al., 2015; Valentine & McKendrick, 1997). Essentially, the good parenting ideal is what parents perceive to be considered good parenting by other parents in their community and society, and it is therefore subject to evolving social and cultural norms.

The good parenting ideal changes over time and between generations. For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s, the family home was a place for adults and strict control, whereas outdoors was a place for children. Allowing their children to spend time outdoors unsupervised was not only socially acceptable for parents but also an expectation of good parenting (Karsten, 2003, 2005). Studies from the 1990s and early 2000s, however, demonstrated that "good parents" perceived the need to monitor their children at all times; allowing children to roam free was generally considered a feature of poor parenting (Blakely, 1994; Tranter & Pawson, 2001; Valentine & McKendrick, 1997). Consequently, outdoor spaces have become adults’ areas, and private spaces, such as the family home, have become children’s areas.

We suspect that the good parenting ideal has further changed and evolved in the past decade or so. An increased number of mothers in the workforce and both parents working (in two-parent households) means that parents spend less time in the family home. Good parenting may involve, for some, working long hours to provide financially for their families rather than spending unstructured free time together (Kinoshita, 2009; Witten et al., 2013). Simultaneously, given the increased number of working parents, grandparents have become more involved in child rearing than in past decades (Dunifon, 2013). Sixty-seven percent of Canadians aged 65 years and older have grandchildren, and most of these grandparents have regular contact with their grandchildren (Rosenthal & Gladstone, 2000). Grandparents likely have different perceptions of the good parenting ideal than parents, but these factors and their implications for the provision of AFP have not been adequately examined to date.

Other broader social issues are implicated in the good parenting ideal. For example, some studies have shown that the good parenting ideal is related to social class; parents from lower social classes are more likely to allow their children to roam free than are parents from higher social classes (Pinkster & Fortuijn, 2009; Tranter & Pawson, 2001; Valentine & McKendrick, 1997). Furthermore, good parenting may vary depending on the child’s gender and age; older children and boys are given more freedom to play unsupervised than are younger children and girls (Lee et al., 2015). But more research is required to understand how socioeconomic status and gender (both parents’ gender and children’s gender) shape parents’ influences on AFP.

Interestingly, in contrast to parenting-styles research in youth sport (discussed later), some evidence suggests that permissive parenting may be beneficial for children’s engagement in unstructured physical activity. For instance, studies from the United States and the United Kingdom have shown that permissive parenting was associated with higher mean physical activity levels among children compared with authoritative parenting (Hennessy, Hughes, Goldberg, Hyatt, & Economos, 2010; Jago et al., 2011). Yet even permissive parents must provide logistical support for their children to engage in various types of physical activity. Nonetheless, findings from these studies suggest that effects of parenting styles may vary depending on the specific context and child behaviors under investigation.

In recent years a variety of hyperparenting styles have received attention in the popular media and research circles. Janssen (2015) highlighted four types of hyperparenting:

  • "Helicopter parents" who try to solve all of their children’s problems and protect them from all dangers
  • "Little emperor" parents who strive to give their children all the material goods they crave
  • "Tiger moms" who push for and accept nothing less than exceptional achievement from their children
  • Parents who practice "concerted cultivation" by scheduling their children into many extracurricular activities.

Results of Janssen’s (2015) study showed that little emperor, tiger mom, and concerted cultivation parenting styles were associated with lower physical activity among 7- to 12-year-olds from Canada and the United States.

Although childhood is a critical period for engaging children in AFP, it is also when children commence their involvement in organized sport programs (Smoll & Smith, 2002). Parental restrictions arising mainly from safety concerns and hyperparenting styles such as concerted cultivation have limited children’s AFP (Veitch, Bagley, Ball, & Salmon, 2006) and to some extent have replaced it with organized sport. Organized sport programs presumably offer a supervised and safe environment in which children can engage in physical activity.

Learn more about Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fourth Edition.

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