The Age

Popularity begins at home, study finds

January 14 2003
By Carol Nader
The Age

Children who are popular and able to cultivate strong friendships have their parents to thank, research suggests.

Professor Candida Peterson and Dr Virginia Slaughter, from the University of Queensland's psychology department, have spent two years analysing the behaviour of children aged two-and-a-half to six and their parents' child-rearing strategies.

They found that parents who talk to their children about feelings and ideas are more likely to produce sensitive offspring.

"We're finding that where the mother is more open about her feelings and her mistakes and ideas, the children seem to have an understanding of other people's mental states and other people's feelings," Professor Peterson said.

The children underwent a series of standardised tasks that included looking at pictures and guessing what that person was thinking or feeling while their mothers completed questionnaires about their philosophies on child-raising. The researchers also observed the kind of language the mothers used in their story-telling.

"Some mothers tended to be very oriented towards just the physical situation, the straight facts of the story, like what somebody saw or what a character was doing," Professor Peterson said. "Other mothers tried to get into the heads of characters, a more psychological analysis of the story book."

The mothers who took the more psychological approach were more open with their children about their feelings and encouraged their children to follow suit. "These children tend to be more popular with their peers," Professor Peterson said.

Parenting commentator Michael Grose said "emotional literacy" did not come naturally for many children. "The very first step of that notion of emotional literacy is to encourage children to recognise what they're about, whether they're sad, mad, angry or happy, and being aware of it in others."

The researchers have just been granted $127,000 from the Australian Research Council.

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.