Parental and home influences on the development of aggression in children
By Norma and Seymour Feshbach

Excerpt from The Young Child: Reviews of Research, Edited by Willard W. Hartup, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. Published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C. (1972). Volume 2, pp. 290-292.

During the early years of a child's life, parents control the child's experiences of frustration and gratification, determine whether he is reinforced for aggressive or nonaggressive behavior, and serve as models for the child to imitate. For these reasons, there has been considerable interest in exploring the relations between various aspects of a child's home environment and the development of aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, this research area presents several problems. First one cannot manipulate and control child-rearing practices but must study their effects in the context of a large number of correlated influences. Particular parental behaviors, such as maternal rejection or severe punishment, do not operate in isolation but occur in conjunction with other aspects of the home environment. In addition, the child's behavior may well affect his parent's reactions to him so that it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a particular parental method of handling a child is a cause or is a result of the child's actions. Second, a variety of methods, all subject to varying degrees of distortion and other sources of error, have been used to assess parental attitudes and behaviors.

In spite of these methodological reservations, the research literature suggests several conclusions. Children who are unwanted by their parents, and who are given little affection and attention, are likely to develop hostile behavior patterns (Banister & Ravden, 1944; Goldfarb, 1945; Lowrey, Zilboorg, Bender, Brickner, Reeve, Lippman, Slavson & Slawson, 1943; Glueck & Glueck, 1950). A striking instance of this relation is reported by McCord, McCord and Howard (1961), who studied longitudinally a sample of nondelinquent, lower-class boys, beginning at nine years of age. They divided these boys into three groups: aggressive, normally assertive, and nonaggressive. A thorough analysis of the home experiences of these children yielded a very strong relation between exposure to a rejecting parent and aggressive behavior. Ninety-five percent of the aggressive boys were raised in homes where one or both parents was considered rejecting, whereas the majority of children classified as assertive and nonaggressive had parents who were warm and affectionate.

One controversial issue has been the relation between parental permissiveness and children's aggressive behavior. When evaluating the effects of parental discipline, the parent's basic attitude toward the child as well as the type of discipline employed must be taken into account. For example, permissiveness in a household with a rejecting parent appears to be associated with delinquency and other forms of aggressive, anti-social behavior (Bandura & Walters, 1959; Glueck & Glueck, 1950; McCord, McCord & Howard, 1961). Evidence from several of these studies strongly suggests that the critical factor is not the parental permissiveness but the lack of parental demands for conformity to social conventions. The parents of an aggressive boy may impose restrictions and punish deviant behavior while still failing to foster socially desirable behavior. Under these circumstances the child may know what he should not do, but have a poor conception of the kind of behaviors that his parents and society will approve.

Although parental punishment is intended to inhibit aggression, research has provided surprisingly little evidence of inhibitory effects. Theoretically, the use of strong punishment, especially physical punishment, can facilitate as well as discourage aggressive behavior. Since punishment is a source of frustration and pain, it may stimulate anger and aggressive tendencies. The parent who uses physical aggression in punishing his child is also serving as an aggressive model. The child, through imitation, may be acquiring aggressive response patterns although ostensibly being taught that aggression is bad. It is perhaps not surprising then that several investigators have found that severity of parental punishment for aggression is associated with the child's aggression in doll play (Hollenberg & Sperry, 1951; Sears et al., 1953) and in other forms of fantasy (Allinsmith, 1954; Whiting & Child, 1953; Wright, 1954).

The positive association between aggression and the severity with which aggressive behavior has been punished is not restricted to fantasy expressions of aggression. Greater use of physical punishment by parents of delinquent boys as compared to nondelinquent boys has been reported by the Gluecks (1950) and by Bandura and Walters (1959), and by mothers of aggressive as compared to nonaggressive boys by the McCords (1961) and Eron, Walder, Toigo and Lefkowitz (1963). In the latter study, the investigators asked a large sample of third graders to complete a form in which each child indicated members of his class who displayed various types of aggressive behavior. On the basis of these "peer-nominations," they were able to derive a reliable and useful measure of aggressiveness for every child in their sample. They also systematically interviewed the parents and obtained a measure of the severity of punishment used in disciplining aggression. Their results indicated that both boys and girls of highly punitive fathers or mothers had higher aggression scores than children of low punitive parents. While it is difficult to establish precisely what is "cause" and what is "effect" in this finding, the data nevertheless offer very little support for the old adage "spare the rod and spoil the child."


Allinsmith, B.B. Parental discipline and children's aggression in two social classes. Dissertation Abstracts, 1954, 14, 708.
Bandura, A. & Walters, R.H. Adolescent Aggression. New York: Ronald Press, 1959.
Banister, H. & Ravden, M. The problem child and his environment. British J. Psychol. 1944, 34, 60-65.
Eron, L.D., Walder, L.O., Toigo, L., Lefkowitz, M.M. Social class, parental punishment for aggression, Child Development, 1963, 34, 849-867.
Glueck, S. & Glueck, E. Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.
Goldfarb, W. Psychological privation in infancy and subsequent adjustment. Am. J. Orthopsychiat., 1945, 15, 247-255.
Hollenberg, E.H. & Sperry, M.S. Some antecedents of aggression and effects of frustration in doll play. Personality, 1951, 1, 32-43.
Lowrey, L.G., Zilboorg, G., Bender, L., Brickner, R.M., Reeve, G.H., Lippman, H.S., Slavson, S.R., & Slawson, J., The treatment of aggression. Round Table. Am. J. Orthopsychiat. 1943, 13, 384-441.
McCord, W., McCord, J. & Howard, A. Familial correlates of aggression in non-delinquent male children. J. abnorm. soc. Psychol., 1961, 62, 461-464.
Sears, R.R. et al. Some child rearing antecedents of aggression and dependency in young children. Genet. Psychol. Monogr. 1953, 47, 135-236.
Whiting, J.W.M. & Child, I.L. Child Training and Personality. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953.
Wright, G.O. Projection and displacement: a cross-cultural study of folk-tale aggression. J. abnorm. soc. Psychol. 1954, 49, 523-528.


Return to:
Research and informed expert opinion
Front Page