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Destined For Greatness, You Little Scamp

• October 30, 2009 • 5:05 PM

With the right parenting, the mischievous — but not the outright evil — may be on the fast track to a leadership role.

So, your daughter has been reported late to school, played hooky from class two days already this year and scammed her younger brother out of the front seat in the car on a recent weekend outing. Is she on the road to a low-level career and possible social ostracism?

Not likely — if you practice a style of parenting termed authoritative. In fact, if you play your cards right, she may be on a career track for a leadership position.

Recent research shows that modest rule breaking is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can offer rich “teaching moments” between child and parent.

A paper that draws data from a 20-year study of twins shows that authoritative parents are less likely to raise either modest or serious rule-breakers, but the modest rule-breakers they do rear are more likely to assume leadership positions later in life than those raised through a different parenting style.

First, some definitions: Researchers identify authoritative parents as “being demanding (challenging), responsive, rational, considerate, consistent and assertive yet not restrictive.”

Maria Rotundo, one of the authors of the study, said there are many parenting styles, but one contrast to authoritative parents is found in the authoritarian parenting style, which the authors described as “controlling, lacking in warmth, support and consistency.”

Rotundo is an associate professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

She described modest rule-breakers as typical boundary pushers. They may deliberately break a school window or skip school without a parent’s permission. Serious rule-breakers experience official contact with the police for infractions such as theft or drug use; the study shows there is a negative correlation for them assuming leadership roles later in life, even when raised by authoritative parents.

The paper, which appeared last spring in Elsevier’s The Leadership Quarterly, drew from an ongoing longitudinal study that included regular contact with 109 pairs of identical twins and 87 pairs of fraternal twins — all boys, all born from 1961 to 1964 — and their parents over a period of 20 years. That data was collected through questionnaires, assessments and interviews beginning in 1989 within the framework of the Minnesota Twin Family Study at the University of Minnesota.

“The really interesting finding is that authoritative parenting is a more favorable parenting style,” Rotundo said.

“It has a negative relationship with any kind of rule-breaking — either modest or serious. If people [raised by an authoritative parent] engage in modest rule breaking, they tend to have more positive chances of serving in leadership roles later in life. But serious rule breaking has the opposite effect — you’re actually less likely to take roles of leadership later in life. The idea behind that is that when it’s modest rule breaking, you haven’t devoid yourself of chances or opportunity; you’ve pushed the boundaries, tested them a little bit, but not so much that you’ve given yourself no chance later on.”

So, you have a modest rule-breaker on your hands. What does an authoritative parent do?

“If you see that your children do test the rules in modest rule-breaking, you guide them through [what they did], you try to figure out their motivation and what they wanted to achieve and you work through it with them,” Rotundo said. “Potentially, you generate strategies with them – how they could have achieved their outcomes or managed themselves so that they ended up achieving what they wanted without breaking the rules.”

Rotundo, who has authored two papers using the Minnesota twins data, said this study is important because it assesses the likelihood of adults who were modest rule-breakers assuming leadership roles later in life; earlier studies have focused on the link between parenting styles and rule-breaking in children and adolescents but didn’t assess results of parenting in adulthood. The twins, first assessed in 1989 in the ongoing Minnesota study, are now in their mid-40s.

She said she was quite pleased to find a link between parenting styles and leadership roles: “That’s valuable data.

“It’s really hard for parents, because when you’re raising kids, you react to every little thing they do and are fearful and think, ‘does this mean they’re on the wrong track?’ It’s good for people to realize that if you guide kids through these things, they learn from it, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The authors of the study note in their abstract that research suggests that approximately 30 percent of the variation in leadership style and emergence is accounted for by genetic factors and the remaining variation can be attributed to environmental influences, which would include parenting styles. (Rotundo said while she is not a parent herself, “I would aspire to use the authoritative parenting style. My parents used elements of authoritative parenting when they parented my sister and me.”)

Rotundo co-authored the study with Bruce Avolio of Seattle’s Michael G. Foster School of Business and Fred Walumbwa from Arizona State University.

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Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

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