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Bad Parenting? Blame bin Laden

New research links fears of terrorism with authoritarian parenting practices.
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With the recent discovery of explosives hidden in cargo airplanes, fears of a terrorist attack have returned to the front of many people's minds. If the past is any indication, this sense of apprehension is likely to make us less trusting of outsiders, and less tolerant of those who violate social norms.

What's more, it may also make us bad parents.

That’s the implication of research published in the November issue of the journal Social Psychology. A team of scholars led by Peter Fischer of the University of Graz in Austria reports thoughts of terrorism seem to inspire authoritarian parenting practices.

Parents who are exposed to terrorist threats "are reminded about the dangers existing out in the world, which makes them more motivated to ensure their children's safety,” the researchers write. Unfortunately, the way they respond to this natural impulse may have long-term negative implications for their kids.

According to Fischer and his colleagues, examples of authoritarian parenting include "corporal and psychological punishment, taking exaggerated control of children, asserting power, or reducing warmth and nurturance” in an attempt to influence the child's behavior.

Such practices "seem to have considerable negative effects on children's development,” they write, "such as problems with goal-setting and reduced academic performance, psychological and physical health issues, smoking and sexual risk-taking.”

While such harsh parenting patterns are often passed down from one generation to another, relatively little is known about the emotions that trigger them. That’s the focus of this newly published paper, which describes three studies.

The first featured 80 University of Munich undergraduates, half of whom either looked at photos of a terrorist attack, or read a newspaper article stating such incidents are highly likely to occur in the near future. The other half saw images of flowers and trees, or read an article suggesting the likelihood of terrorist attacks on German soil was low.

They then read a series of statements on childrearing, and reported the degree to which they agreed with them. The sentences included, "In my opinion, kids should be raised in a very discipline-oriented manner,” and "Children should obey older people."

The researchers found those who had been exposed to terrorism-related images or ideas "were more positively inclined toward more authoritarian parenting practices” than the others. They duplicated this finding with a study of 80 people in the English city of Exeter.

The third and final study, which also took place in Exeter, featured 16 mothers and six fathers. They were told they would be participating in two separate experiments: One dealing with their perception of terrorism, and another that focused on how they play with their children.

First, the parents were shown four photos of either the 9/11 attacks or non-terror-related images such as flowers. They were then surveyed regarding their fears of terrorism.

Finally, the parents were then instructed to spend 10 minutes playing a game called "Downfall” with their 5- to 12-year-old child. At the beginning, the parents had to explain the game to their youngster, which gave the researchers a chance to observe instructional interaction between the two.

Afterward, videotapes of the exercise were viewed by two independent raters. They found parents exposed to the threat of terrorism "were more impatient with their child” and "showed more negative facial expressions” during their time together.

As the researchers concede, these experiments aren't proof that thoughts of terrorism have a uniquely negative effect on parenting. Exposure to images of an attack might simply have increased the parents' stress level, "which could then translate into harsher and more controlling social interactions with their children.”

But they note previous research has found a link between terror threats and authoritarian political beliefs. The notion that this mindset could slop over into domestic decision-making seems entirely plausible.

Either way, it's one more example of how fear can inspire behavior one may later regret. So in turbulent times, perhaps it’s wise to avoid reading the newspaper before heading to the nursery. It's never a beautiful day in Mr. bin Laden’s Neighborhood, but that doesn't mean you and your children need to live there.