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Parent and sport socialization: views from the achievement literature.

In spite of the rapidly growing literature on children's motivation and achievement in sport (e.g., Duda, 1987; Gould & Horn, 1984), the origins of individual differences in sport orientation are poorly understood. Although researchers have examined the influence of coaching style on children's experiences (e.g., Carron & Bennett, 1978; McPherson & Brown, 1988; Smith, Zane, Smoll, & Coppel, 1983), research on parental influences is limited. This is unfortunate, because, as has been documented in a variety of areas (e.g., academic achievement, intellectual competence, socio-moral development), parents play a major role in how their children come to view the world and respond to a wide range of situations and activities (e.g., Clarke-Stewart, 1977; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Power & Manire, 1992).

Given the potentially important role of parents as sports socializers and the current lack of a conceptual framework for this area, the purpose of the present paper is to present a framework for understanding parental influences based upon the literature on academic achievement motivation.

Despite the obvious differences between the academic and sports contexts (e.g., nature of the skills requiring mastery, primary contexts in which the activities occur, role of the self and others), a striking number of similarities exist. For example, both contexts involve: a) learning, practicing, mastering, and hierarchically organizing basic skills in the development of expertise; b) developing, implementing, and evaluating short-term plans in the pursuit of long-term goals; c) learning to cope with and learn from failures and successes; d) learning to benefit from the evaluative feedback of others; and e) appreciating the value of motivation, drive, and persistence. Moreover, both contexts involve evaluation and social comparison, and often the results of one's efforts are made public to both peers and significant adults. In both the academic and sports contexts, parents often initially assume an instructive role, which is gradually taken over by peers and/or adult experts as the child improves. Parents may continue, however, to play an active role in motivating their children's performance throughout childhood.

Thus, independent of the specific skills or contexts in which learning and performance occur, the sports and academic contexts are similar regarding many of the basic psychological processes involved--goals, plans, skill acquisition, mastery, social comparison, evaluation, attributions, expectations, and so on. Because these are some the same processes through which parental influences in the academic area are presumed to operate (see below), it is likely that the same aspects of parent behavior that affect academic performance and motivation may be important for the sports context as well.

Because parents undoubtedly influence their children's sports achievement and motivation in a variety of ways, our goal is to be broad. Specifically, after a brief review of the current literature on parental influences in sport, we will identify five specific aspects of parental behavior from the achievement literature that likely have an impact on children's motivation and achievement in sport: acceptance, modeling, expectations, rewards/punishments, and directiveness. We will review the existing sport and academic achievement literatures with these dimensions in mind, and outline some specific directions and methods for future inquiry and research.

Parental Influences In Sports: A Review of the Current Literature

Examination of Table 1 shows that previous studies of sport socialization in the family context usually take one of two approaches: 1) college age or adult athletes provide retrospective reports of their parent's behavior during childhood (e.g., Greendorfer, 1977; Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, 1991; Synder & Spreitzer, 1973); or 2) primary or secondary school students provide reports about their parents' current childrearing practices (e.g., Greendorfer & Lewko, 1978; McElroy, 1982; Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1984). Studies where parents provide self-reports of their own attitudes or behavior are rare (e.g., Averill, 1987; Melcher & Sage, 1978; Woolger & Power, 1988), and observational studies of parent-child interactions are apparently nonexistent. The reliance on self-reports from single sources is problematic, in that the associations identified may be due to shared method variance rather than to actual relationships between the constructs involved (Wiggins, 1973). This is especially problematic in retrospective self-reports where problems of forgetting, constructive memory, and social desirability response sets also come into play (e.g., Haggard, Brekstak, & Skard, 1960; Mednick & Shaffer, 1963).

Another problem with many of the studies in this area is that data from children who are engaged in a variety of sports activities are combined. This may work against finding patterns of parenting correlates, because the parenting styles that encourage competence in some sports may differ from those that are most beneficial for success in others. For example, a child may be removed from a basketball playing squad if his parents have stressed individual achievement so much that he is unable to work with his teammates and utilize their strengths on the court.

Despite these limitations, a review of the existing literature makes it possible to draw some tentative conclusions about parental influences. Specifically, adult athletes attribute many of their attitudes and behaviors in sport to the behavior of their parents (e.g., Snyder & Spreitzer, 1973). When discussing parental influences, adult athletes tend to report that parental behavior during their childhood (ages 5-12) was more influential than parental behavior during their adolescence (e.g., Greendorfer, 1977; Higginson, 1985; Weiss & Knoppers, 1982). Finally, studies show positive correlations between athletes' perceptions of the amount of parental encouragement, interest, or involvement and current levels of sport participation (e.g., Butcher, 1963; Higginson, 1985; Melcher & Sage, 1978). Parental encouragement or involvement appears to be particularly important for same-sexed children (e.g., Greendorfer & Ewing, 1981; McElroy & Kirkendall, 1980; Smith, 1979; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1973).

Although these studies point to the potential importance of parental influences, they do little to identify the specific parental behaviors that have an impact on children's sport experiences. Instead, in order to compare parental influences to those of peers, teachers, coaches, and others, researchers have generally obtained TABULAR DATA OMITTED undifferentiated measures of the overall level of mother and father "encouragement" or "involvement" (e.g. Butcher, 1983; Greendorfer & Ewing, 1981; Higginson, 1985; Kenyon, 1970; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1973). This is unfortunate, because research on achievement in other contexts has demonstrated that the nature of parental involvement is much more important than undifferentiated measures of the overall amount (e.g., Clarke-Stewart, 1977). Though a few researchers have begun to explore specific parental behaviors (e.g., Averill, 1987; Brustad, 1988; Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1986; Woolger & Power, 1988), it is probably most instructive to review these studies in the context of the organizational framework provided below.

Specific Dimensions of Parental Behavior: Contributions from the Academic Achievement Literature

In contrast to the rather small number of studies of parental influences in sport, the literature on parenting and achievement in the academic area is voluminous. Achievement researchers from a variety of perspectives including drive (e.g., McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell, 1953), learning (e.g., Crandall, 1963), and attribution (e.g., Parsons, Adler, & Kaczala, 1982) theories have argued that parents play an important role in the socialization of achievement attitudes, motivation, and behavior. Research on parental influences helps identify five dimensions of parental behavior that appear to be important: acceptance, modeling, performance expectations, rewards/punishment, and directiveness. Given the similarities of the academic achievement and sports contexts discussed above, the utility of each of these dimensions for understanding children's sport motivation and behavior will be considered below.


In widely varying theoretical perspectives (e.g., Baldwin, 1948; Benjamin, 1974; Bowlby, 1958) parental acceptance of, or warmth towards, their children is believed to be one of the essential elements underlying the structure of the parent-child relationship. Empirical evidence showing the importance of acceptance/warmth as a general dimension in parenting is based upon early factor analytic studies (Becker, 1964; Schaefer, 1959). Within the literature, there has been extensive research relating parental acceptance/warmth to children's self-esteem (Coopersmith, 1967; Loeb, Horst, & Horton, 1980) and to their social (Baldwin, 1955; Baumrind, 1967) and cognitive competence (Baldwin, 1955; Hurley, 1965; Radin, 1973). Porter's (1954) definition of acceptance still captures its major qualities: "feelings and behavior on the part of the parents which are characterized by unconditional love for the child; a recognition of the child as a person with feelings who has a right and a need to express those feelings; a value for the unique make-up of the child; and a recognition of the child's need to differentiate and separate himself from the parents in order that he may become an autonomous individual".

Early studies demonstrated the relationship between parental acceptance and achievement (e.g., Morrow & Wilson, 1961; Rosen & D'Andrade, 1959; Winterbottom, 1958). Later studies (e.g., Bradley, Caldwell & Rock, 1988; Hess, Holloway, Dickson, & Price, 1984) have demonstrated that maternal acceptance and positive affective tone in the preschool years are strongly related to children's later achievement in school.

The importance of parental acceptance for children's sport experience was recently demonstrated in two studies at the University of Houston. In a study of 6- to 8-year-old boys in beginning soccer (Averill, 1987) and a study of advanced 8- to 14-year-old boys and girls in competitive swimming (Woolger & Power, 1988), parent ratings of support were positively correlated with parent ratings of child enjoyment and enthusiasm for the sport. In these studies, support was defined as: "(1) providing opportunities for practice and involvement in sport, and (2) providing unconditional emotional support for the child's performance" (Woolger & Power, 1988, Table 1). Example support items were: "After a meet, no matter how poorly my child performed, I try to point out something positive he/she did" and "I have been involved in supporting my child's swim team, either financially or as a volunteer."

In spite of the general consensus that parental acceptance is positively related to children's self-esteem, competence, and achievement, important distinctions relevant to the sport domain have yet to be investigated. Because the definition of acceptance is quite broad, covering a wide variety of parental behaviors and attitudes, it is not clear exactly which behaviors are most important or are the best indicators of acceptance. For example, some parents may express their acceptance through overt affection and praise, while others may be less overt, providing an environment where children know they can openly express themselves and communicate with a parent who will listen with empathy and understanding. Finally, supportive statements and behaviors need to be considered in the context of the individual parent-child relationship -- what is supportive to one child (e.g., parent attending practices) may be aversive to another.


Another dimension that has been argued to be associated with achievement behavior is identification with the parents, or modeling (e.g., Crandall, 1963). Although modeling is often cited theoretically as important for a child's acquisition of values, attitudes, and behavior (e.g., Bandura, 1965; Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957), empirical studies relating parental modeling to achievement are rare. Although some achievement theorists have interpreted their results in terms of modeling theory (e.g., Solomon, Houlihan, Busse, & Parelius, 1971), direct investigations of modeling have usually focused on respondents' perceived identification with their parents, with high achievers tending to report greater identification with their parents than under-achievers (e.g., Bell, 1969; Crites, 1962; Morrow & Wilson, 1961; Shaw & White, 1965). Other studies have emphasized parents' occupation and education in relation to their children's aspirations. In general these studies have found that children often have educational and occupational aspirations that are similar to those of their parents (e.g., Hoffman, 1974; Viernstein & Hogan, 1975).

In one of the few direct investigations of the role of parents as achievement models, Parsons and associates (1982) compared two ways in which parents might influence child achievement in math: parents as role models and parents as expectancy socializers. They found that, as compared to parental expectations, parental role modeling of mathematical skills had very little relationship with children's math-related perceptions and performance.

Research in the sport area also shows inconsistent patterns. For example, Gregson and Colley (1986) examined the associations between parental sport involvement and sport participation of male and female adolescents, ages 15 to 16. Adolescents were questioned about their own, their mother's, and their father's sport participation and achievement in sport. Significant correlations were found between adolescent sport participation, mother and father participation, and maternal achievement in sport for females but not for males. These authors suggested that parents may serve as role models for the sport participation of females, and that parental role models may not be as relevant to the sport participation of adolescent males. Woolger and Power (1988), in the study of 8- to 14-year-olds cited earlier, defined modeling in terms of parental participation in competitive swimming. In contrast to Gregson and Colley (1986), they found that maternal modeling was positively related to both girls and boys ratings of enthusiasm for swimming, whereas father modeling was negatively correlated with child enthusiasm ratings, but only for boys.

Besides gender differences, several issues confuse the topic when exploring modeling in the sport context. Parents, as models, can engage in a variety of achievement behaviors which the child can imitate. Such behaviors include past and present achievement in school, work, home, recreational activities, and sports. This complicates the issue when one tries to specify the types of behaviors that are modeled. For example, a father may have been achievement-oriented in the classroom when he was in school, but lacks an achievement orientation in his current approach to occupation, recreational activities, and everyday issues. Confusion occurs when trying to assess whether modeling in this situation has occurred. That is, what child behaviors constitute modeling - achievement in the classroom, achievement in sports, both, or neither? Although modeling likely plays a role in the sports context, considerable additional research is needed before its role can be clarified.


Unlike the other parenting dimensions which apply to socialization in a wide variety of domains, parental expectations are the most specific to achievement settings. Most early achievement theorizing and research, however, focused on the individual's versus another's expectations. Almost all of the major achievement theorists (e.g., Atkinson, 1964; Crandall, 1967; Dweck, 1978;

Nicholls, 1984; Weiner, 1974) have emphasized the important role of expectancies in predicting achievement behavior. Expectancies influence how individuals perform when faced with an achievement task and are partly based on attributions for past successes and failures. In making the link to adult expectations and their effects on children's behavior, research has shown that a teacher's expectations can have a powerful impact on student achievement (e.g., Jussim, 1990; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). Research has also demonstrated the role that parents play in shaping their children's own expectancies and behaviors, with numerous studies showing parental expectations to be associated with children's achievement (Parsons et al., 1982; Phillips, 1987; Seginer, 1986). Findings suggest that parents exert a strong, and perhaps causal, influence on their children's achievement attitudes and behavior, often influencing children's achievement attitudes more than the child's own past history of successes and failures.

In the sports area, several studies find a positive relationship between parental expectations and children's success/enjoyment. Scanlan and Lewthwaite (1985, 1986) found that 9- to 14-year-old male wrestlers' expectations for success were positively correlated with their perceptions of significant adults' (including parents) satisfaction with their overall performance. Similarly, McElroy & Kirkendall (1980), in a study of 10- to 18-year-olds in a summer sports program, found that boys who reported their parents placed importance on their success in sports had more "professionalized" sport attitudes than boys whose parents had lower expectations. In the study of beginning soccer players cited earlier, Averill (1987), found a positive relationship between mothers' reported performance expectations and children's reported enjoyment.

Other studies, however, suggest that the relationship is more complex. In both the Scanlan & Lewthwaite (1986) study, and in a child-report study of 9- to 13-year-old basketball players (Brustad, 1988), children's reported enjoyment of sports was negatively associated with perceived parental pressure. Moreover, Woolger and Power (1988) found a curvilinear relationship between mothers' and fathers' reported performance expectations and child reports of enthusiasm for swimming. Parents with intermediate levels of performance expectations had children who reported the greatest enthusiasm; high and low expectations were associated with lower levels of enthusiasm.

Although the findings of these studies vary considerably, each is consistent with a curvilinear model. Clearly, however, the relationship between parent expectations and child attitudes/behavior is complex, and much more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Rewards and Punishments

The next aspect of parenting to be discussed, rewards and punishments, differs from the previous dimensions in that it refers to some of the specific techniques that parents use to promote and encourage achievement in their children.

An activity that is valued for its own sake and does not require external prompts or rewards in order to continue is said to be intrinsically motivated (Shaffer, 1998). However, achievement behaviors are often not intrinsically motivating for some children. Rewards and punishments are techniques that parents use to intentionally increase or decrease the likelihood of the child engaging in a particular behavior through providing positive (reward) or negative (punishment) consequences contingent upon the child's behavior. Rewards include both social consequences (praise, affection) and nonsocial consequences (material goods, money, special privileges). Such consequences are not inherent in the activity they reinforce, and are called extrinsic rewards.

There has been much discussion over the years as to the various effects of rewards and punishments on performance. From the literature, the type of external motivators that parents use with a child fall into three categories: 1) punishments serving to discourage behavior, 2) rewards having a positive impact and thereby increasing future behavior, and 3) rewards having a negative impact and thereby decreasing behavior.

Punishments have routinely been shown to have a negative relationship with achievement behaviors in children (e.g, Clarke-Stewart, 1977). In addition to decreasing the likelihood of future behavior (e.g., Skinner, 1974), they can also negatively influence children's feelings of self-esteem and confidence. Parents' use of punitive techniques such as physical punishment, deprivation of material objects/privileges, or the overt nonphysical expression of disapproval or anger can lead a child to feel guilty and self-punishing (Benjamin, 1974); to lack belief in his/her own ability to control the environment (Clarke-Stewart, 1977); to feel resentment and fear (Mussen, Conger, Kagan, & Huston, 1984); and to feel anxious (Bandura, 1986) or frustrated (Hess & Shipman, 1967). Parents who use such techniques are likely to have children who make external attributions for their behavior (Dix & Grusec, 1983). In the study of wrestlers cited earlier (Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1986), boys who reported that their mothers often responded negatively to their performance reported the lowest levels of sport enjoyment.

Rewards' effects on achievement behavior are more complex, having both a positive and negative impact. There is empirical evidence for rewards serving to increase achievement behavior (Crandall, Preston, & Rabson, 1960; Rosen & D'Andrade, 1959; Winterbottom, 1958). In this case, rewards would be serving an instrumental or incentive function (Lepper & Hodell, 1988). However, extrinsic incentives and sanctions may also have a detrimental effect, especially on the child's intrinsic motivation, task performance, and learning. Rewards can have a negative effect if they are perceived as controlling rather than providing information about the individual's performance (Deci, 1975; Lepper & Hodell, 1988). In a study of college students in both laboratory and naturalistic settings, Deci (1971) concluded that rewarding subjects with money and "closely related tangible rewards" for engaging in an intrinsically interesting task decreased subsequent interest when there were no rewards. Similarly, Lepper, Green, & Nisbett (1973) found that children lost interest in activities they originally enjoyed when they performed them in order to obtain a reward. Other studies (e.g., McLoyd, 1979; Loveland & Olley, 1979) however, showed that these effects only held true for activities with high initial interest -- for activities of low interest, rewards tended to increase interest as measured by time engaging in the activity.

Pierce (1980, cited in Stratton & Pierce, 1980) evaluated the perceptions of youth sport participants, nonparticipants, and dropouts regarding the relative importance of rewards and the impact of rewards on levels of participation. A majority (|greater than~53%) of the respondents reported that rewards from parents were either important or very important to them. Pierce also found that less than 13% of the respondents would quit or play less if there were no rewards. He concluded that rewards are important to children who participate in youth sport, but not important enough to drastically change patterns of participation.

Many issues remain unaddressed with regard to the effects of rewards. Because different types of parental "rewards" vary considerably in their salience (e.g., from a nod, a smile, or a pat on the back; to a swim pin for attending a meet; to $15 for every second shaved off a personal best), they are likely to have very different effects on children's motivation and behavior in sport. Based upon Lepper et al's (1973) theory of overjustification, the more salient the reward, the more likely it is to undermine intrinsic interest in an activity.

Rewards of equal salience may also vary considerably in their meaning. A trip to a favorite restaurant after a game may be interpreted by the child very differently than a talk about the possibility of obtaining a college scholarship. In addition to the salience of rewards and the degree to which they are seen as manipulative or controlling, rewards vary on other dimensions, such as: their value, whether they are short-term or long-term, their deservedness, their probability of attainment, and so on. Because all of these characteristics depend, at least partially, upon the meaning the child derives from the reward, the importance of child perceptions should not be overlooked.


Directiveness refers to the degree to which parents actively instruct their child about what to do (or not do), with a particular emphasis on areas in need of improvement. Parents who are highly directive tend to tell their child directly what to do whether the child asks for it or not, versus making suggestions or only providing advice when the child requests it. Examples of directiveness items from the Woolger and Power (1988) study are: "Before a meet, I remind my child of what he/she needs to work on" (high directiveness) and "I give my child advice about how to improve in swimming only when he/she asks for it" (low directiveness).

Hess and associates (Hess et al., 1984; Hess & McDevitt, 1984) found that parental directiveness and criticism of children's errors were significantly negatively correlated with children's school readiness and later achievement. Bourg and Power (1986) assessed the strategies mothers used to keep their children working on an achievement task in the presence of distraction (television cartoons). Mothers who adopted a highly directive style when teaching/supervising their children (i.e., provided numerous directions and instructions, and responded often and immediately to off-task behavior) had children who later showed the least on-task behavior in the mother's absence.

In the Averill (1987) and Woolger & Power (1988) studies, mother and father directiveness showed either negative or curvilinear relationships with child or coach reports of enjoyment and enthusiasm for the sport. Apparently, too high (and sometimes too low) levels of directiveness are associated with low levels of sport enjoyment.

The existence of curvilinear effects suggests that there is a fine line between parental instruction that promotes children's achievement and enjoyment, and overdirectiveness that can hinder achievement. Unfortunately, the literature has not established exactly what constitutes too much directiveness. If a parallel is drawn with research on the detrimental effects of rewards, it can be argued that the child's perception and interpretation of their parents' directiveness might affect the ways that achievement is impacted. If a parent's behavior is such that the child perceives it as controlling, and begins to attribute performance to external (e.g., parental training or feedback) rather than internal (e.g., effort, skill development) sources, then achievement is likely to be hindered. More research is needed to determine the levels and/or degrees of parental directiveness that positively and negatively affect children's achievement motivation and behavior.


The achievement research reviewed above should provide numerous directions for future research in the sport area in terms of the types of parenting behaviors that should be studied. As indicated throughout the discussion, both perceptions and behaviors are important, so future studies should include measures of both. Moreover, the parenting dimensions should not be examined in isolation. It is very likely that the many dimensions described above interact in complex ways in influencing children's behavior. The effects of material rewards, for example, are likely to vary as a function of the amount of acceptance in the parent-child relationship. The same parental gift could be viewed as either appreciative or manipulative, depending upon the level of acceptance between parent and child.

Child age and gender differences should receive more study as well. In order to understand the possible gender differences in this area, future studies should assess mothers and fathers with their sons and daughters. Longitudinal data, where parental and child behaviors are assessed over time, would allow researchers to study some of the developmental changes that occur in the child and within the parent-child relationship. Another way to understand some of the developmental issues would be to study several age-groups in which within-group variability in ability level and experience exist. This would make it possible to examine the independent contributions of ability level, experience, and developmental level to the child's motivation and performance. Finally, studies of different types of sports: individual versus team, contact versus noncontact, traditionally male versus traditionally female, should be conducted. Both within- and between-sport analyses should be conducted. Each approach has its advantages. For example, in an individual sport, variables such as effort, enjoyment, and performance can be more easily tested without the confound of other team members affecting the results.

If more specific parenting behaviors and attitudes can be identified as either enhancing or interfering with children's achievement motivation and behavior, researchers can make more specific predictions and suggestions regarding parental influences. In addition, parents can learn to understand their own behaviors and how they might impact their children. Although parents' main interest is to maximize the performance and benefits of their child in sport, they may be unaware that their involvement, expectations, or ways of motivating the child are actually hindering his/her enjoyment and ultimate achievement. If dysfunctional parental patterns are recognized, they can be changed before they prevent the athlete from realizing his or her potential, or before they inhibit the child's desire to compete in athletics altogether. Coaches can help parents recognize such attitudes and behaviors, and replace them with more appropriate ways of interacting to promote the child's achievement.

From this review it appears that the effects of these five parenting dimensions can be applied to the interactions among parents, children, coaches, and professionals. Although coaches and other professionals play a significant role, different from that of the parent in regards to the child's sport participation, the above information may help them direct their own attitudes and behaviors in ways that might enhance rather than hinder the child's achievement in sport. For example, a parent or coach who is totally accepting of a child regardless of his/her effort or performance, may fail to provide that child with the feedback necessary to improve and achieve. Adults, especially parents and coaches, are important role models for the child, and can help instill achievement-oriented attitudes, behavior, and values. It is also important for parents and coaches to have high expectations for children--in a sense telling them that the parents believe in them. Parents and coaches may want to focus on the social rewards such as a smile, handshake, hug, or praise for performances, rather than the monetary gifts such as money or trophies. These social rewards will help increase the child's intrinsic motivation and ultimate achievement. Most parents want to be involved, but some may become too involved out of concern for their child's success. This overinvolvement, which can take the form of directiveness, may ultimately hinder the child's enjoyment and achievement. However, once this behavior is identified, coaches can help parents to become less involved, by suggesting more appropriate ways to participate and be a part of the child's sport experience (e.g., volunteer positions associated with the sport activity).

Based on the literature reviewed above, it is clear that the aspects of parenting that influence children's achievement in academic settings are likely to be equally important when applied to sport. Given that most children get involved in sport at a time when their parents have a major influence on their developing attitudes and behaviors, it is unfortunate that more information on parental influences in the sport area is not available.


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Author:Woolger, Christi; Power, Thomas G.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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