The Impact of Parental Views of the Nature of Humankind upon Child-Rearing Attitudes

Lawrence O. Clayton

Lawrence O. Clayton, “The Impact of Parental Views of the Nature of Humankind upon Child-Rearing Attitudes,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 272–82.

Lawrence O. Clayton, an ordained United Methodist minister, was an adjunct professor in the Department of Family Relations and Child Development, Oklahoma State University, and an approved supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy when this was published. He received his PhD from Texas Woman’s University.

In the past, child development theorists and researchers have indicated that the preschool years are of tremendous significance to personality development. Allport (1961) concluded that the young child’s sense of self is simply a product of the way in which his parents perceive him. Dreikurs reported similar findings when he said of the child, “He absorbs the family values, mores and conventions, and tries to fit within the pattern” (or the standards set by the parents) (1964: 19). Agreeing, Stone and Church said, “Perhaps the most important single principle of human development is the self-fulfilling prophecy which says simply that our children become what we expect them to become” (1973: 205). White stated that “the child’s character is shaped by his identification with his parents during his earliest years, and through such identification, he accepts and assimilates their values, beliefs and patterns of behavior” (1975: 31).

Others have stated that views of humankind have an impact on mental-health and child-rearing issues. For example, Gordon stated, “Much of cultural identity is closely tied to religious identity. Each group has its own cultural goals and traditions, from which its patterns of child-rearing flow.” (1980: 2.) This study was developed to test the following assumptions: persons who view others as basically bad are relatively authoritarian in their child-rearing attitudes; persons who consider others as basically good are relatively permissive in their child-rearing attitudes; and, finally, persons who view others as neither good nor bad are relatively moderate in their child-rearing attitudes.

Research Hypotheses

The following null hypotheses were tested at the .05 level of significance. When parents are grouped according to their view of the nature of humankind as moral, immoral, or amoral, there is no significant difference between their scores in each of the following variables: Child-Rearing Attitudes, Encouraging Verbalization, Fostering Dependency, Seclusion of the Parent, Breaking the Will, Martyrdom, Fear of Harming the Child, Marital Conflict, Strictness, Irritability, Excluding Outside Influence, Deification, Suppression of Aggression, Rejection of Homemaking Role, Equalitarianism, Approval of Activity, Avoidance of Communication, Inconsiderateness of Spouse, Suppression of Sex, Ascendance of the Parent, Intrusiveness, Comradeship and Sharing, Acceleration of Development, Dependency of Parent.

This study is limited to the following: a randomly selected sample of parents of preschool children residing in Cleburne, Texas. Also taken into account are the limitations of pencil and paper questionnaires (specifically, Wrightsman’s Philosophy of Human Nature Instrument [WPHNI] and the Parent Attitude Research Instrument [PARI]) as well as the limited accuracy reflecting behavior indicated by the attitudes and perceptions of the parent surveyed.


According to Thomas (1979), the moral view of the nature of humankind is that people are born essentially good. The immoral view of the nature of humankind is that people are born essentially bad. And, finally, the amoral view of the nature of humankind is that people are born neither good nor bad, but that goodness or badness is the product of learning and experience.

Review of Literature

The central issue of this study is whether human beings come into the world essentially immoral, moral, or amoral. Support for each of these views is best represented by the thoughts of Calvin, Pelagius, and Arminius, respectively.

John Calvin believed that, because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, the entire human race became essentially bad or immoral (Dillenberger, 1975: 159). And because of this immoral character, Calvin continued, humans were incapable of doing any good of their own design. A contrasting view was developed by an Irish monk by the name of Pelagius who settled in Rome hundreds of years before the birth of John Calvin. Greatly upset over the moral state of the Romans about the year A.D. 400, Pelagius began to preach that people were essentially good or moral. (Latourette, 1954: 185.) Synthesizing the beliefs of both Calvin and Pelagius, Jacob Arminius claimed that man was neither totally good nor bad and, therefore, was capable of both moral and immoral behavior (Harrison, 1974).

These variant views of humankind were translated into educational philosophies by the Puritans, as well as Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. The leading proponents of the Calvinistic view of the nature of mankind were people who wanted to purify the Church of England. Their religious belief that humans were essentially immoral had an impact upon their child-rearing practices and upon their educational philosophies. For example, because they believed children to be innately vile, they “did not hesitate to nourish them with threats, moralizing and the whip” (Thomas, 1979: 55).

Rousseau became the disciple, in an educational sense, of the ancient monk Pelagius. Rousseau taught, “All things are as good as they came from the hands of their creator” (1955: 1). He also believed that children, left to their own devices, were naturally curious, not evil. They would, therefore, make some bad choices. But, similar to Pelagius’s view of what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, bad choices would not make children evil, just human (Thomas, 1979).

John Locke, British philosopher and supporter of the amoral philosophy of man, believed that children are born into the world with characters that resembled blank tablets, or tabula rasa, upon which experience inscribes its indelible lessons (Stone and Church, 1973).


The sample consisted of 330 of the total population of 2,205 parents residing within the city limits of Cleburne, Texas, who currently had at least one preschool child living in their homes. The sampling technique was stratified random sampling of race and sex of parent within each census tract in the city. Subjects chosen were given three instruments: Wrightsman’s Philosophy of Human Nature Instrument (WPHNI), Parent Attitude Research Instrument (PARI), and Background Information Form (BIF).

The first instrument, developed by Wrightsman (1965), assesses the parent’s philosophy of human nature. It consists of 84 items, 14 for each of the six subscales: (1) trustworthiness, (b) altruism, (c) independence, (d) strength of will, (e) complexity, and (f) variability. The scores on the first four subscales, as Wrightsman has shown, can be combined to give an overall indication of the parent’s positive or negative view of human nature. Therefore, in this study the last two subscales were not used.

Robinson and Shaver (1973), using inter-subscale correlations, reported split-half and test-retest reliabilities for the WPHNI. Wrightsman (1974) also established long-term reliability of the WPHNI, reporting that “a number of predictions about hypothesized differences in favorableness about human nature were confirmed.” Further, along with Nottingham and Gorsuch, Wrightsman (1970) did a factoral replication of the theoretically derived subscales and reported that the first four subscales were, in fact, well replicated in the factor structure.

The second instrument, developed by Schaefer and Bell (1958), also assesses parental child-rearing attitudes. It consists of 115 items, five for each of the 23 subscales. Each item is presented in a standard A-a-d-D form. It is, therefore, a forced choice instrument. Total scores can vary from 20 to 5 on each of the 23 subscales or from a total score of 460 to 115.

The third instrument contains questions designed to determine the subject’s sex, race, educational level, marital status and income level.


The author’s research assistants were given the pieces of paper with race and sex of the participants in each census tract. Randomization was insured by numbering the houses in each census tract starting at the upper left side, and then selecting the houses to be approached by using a table of random numbers. Research assistants approached each house and asked the occupants who had preschool children to fill out the WPHNI, PARI and BIF. The survey continued until reaching the appropriate percentages of both sexes and of each ethnic group.

By a random discard of the necessary number of research packets, any category of respondents exceeding the numbers represented in the appropriate sample was brought to the correct level. Incomplete questionnaires were also discarded.

Parents, according to their view of the nature of humankind as revealed by their scores on WPHNI, were placed in three groups:

Group 1 consisted of those parents who scored +10 or more (moral); Group 2 was made up of parents who scored –10 or less (immoral); and Group 3 contained the parents who scored between +9 and –9 (amoral).


A multivariate analysis of covariance performed among the groups measured the 23 child-rearing attitude subscales of PARI, with race, sex, marital status serving as dichotomous dummy variables in the case of most multilevel nominal variables. Hotelling’s T2 calculated results of T2 = .47047, F = 3.00692, P = < .0001. These figures indicate that, when parents are grouped according to their views of the nature of humankind as moral, immoral, and amoral, an overall significant difference exists among parents’ child-rearing attitudes. Also showing attitude differences are the results of the Univariate F-tests performed on each of the 23 parents’ subscales of PARI (see Table 1). Finally, Tukey pair-wise comparisons (at the .05 level of significance) computed specific group differences (see Table 2).

Table 1. Univariate Analysis of Covariance of the Moral, Immoral, and Amoral Groups in the Pari Subscales

VariableGroup 1Group 2Group 3FaP
Encouraging Verbalization16.1115.3015.295.35590.005
Fostering Dependency10.5412.0410.759.35521.000
Seclusion of the Parent10.9412.9913.1321.97811.000
Breaking of the Will11.0512.6112.019.04198.000
Fear of Harming the Child13.3014.1114.606.17171.002
Marital Conflict15.1914.4115.002.99440.050
Excluding Outside Influences11.4412.7711.997.19547.001
Suppression of Agression12.1012.9712.463.80708.023
Rejection of Homemaking Role12.4513.5012.346.41248.002
Approval of Activity12.5113.5413.194.48861.012
Avoidance of Communication10.5812.4111.2610.20917.000
Inconsiderateness of Spouse13.1213.9413.974.80191.009
Suppression of Sex10.0912.0210.8111.32485.000
Ascendence of Parent13.1113.8813.833.49599.031
Comradeship and Sharing16.4815.6916.695.11654.007
Acceleration of Development10.9313.3511.1220.36249.000
Dependency of Parent13.3713.4913.63.23595.790

aDegrees of Freedom = (2,327).

Table 2. Tukey Pair-wise Comparisons of Group 2 (Immoral) and Group 3 (Amoral) on the Pari Subscales

VariableGroup 1 Group 2 Group 3
Encouraging Verbalization16.11>15.30=15.29
Fostering Dependency10.54<12.04>10.75
Seclusion of the Parent10.94<12.99>13.13
Breaking of the Will11.05<12.61>12.01
Fear of Harming the Child13.30<14.11=14.60
Marital Conflict15.19>14.41<15.00
Excluding Outside Influences11.44<12.77>11.99
Suppression of Agression12.10<12.97>12.46
Rejection of Homemaking Role12.45<13.50>12.34
Approval of Activity12.51<13.54>13.19
Avoidance of Communication10.58<12.41>11.26
Inconsiderateness of Spouse13.12<13.94=13.97
Suppression of Sex10.09<12.02>10.81
Ascendence of Parent13.11<13.88=13.83
Comradeship and Sharing16.48>15.69<16.69
Acceleration of Development10.93<13.35>11.12
Dependency of Parent13.37=13.49=13.63

*Degrees of Freedom = (2,327)


Interestingly, the first major finding of this study is that there are no significant differences among parent groups based on variables of Strictness, Equal-itarianism, and Dependency of Parent. The variable of Strictness may be explained by Rokeach (I960), who theorizes that there may be two types of authoritarianism—one negatively oriented and the other positively oriented. It may well be that parents who view humankind as moral or amoral hold those views just as strictly as do those who view others as essentially immoral (range 14.03–14.77).

In contrast, a rather different dynamic seems to have been operating on the variable of Equalitarianism. Apparently, parents in every group very strongly believe children are equal to adults (range 14.84–15.03). This result is quite inconsistent with parent group scores on other variables that measure parent authoritarianism: Breaking the Will, Excluding Outside Influences, Suppression of Aggression, Suppression of Sex, and Acceleration of Development. On each of these variables, Group 1 parents (moral) scored lowest, Group 2 parents (immoral) scored highest, and Group 3 parents (amoral) scored between the two extremes. So parents, according to these results, are most likely affected by the social desirability of equality. Still the variable of Dependency of Parents seems to have been affected by another dynamic. Evidently none of the parents tested tend to be dependent upon their children. This clearly supported the relatively low scores of all the parent groups (range 13.37–13.63).

A second major result of this study is that parents viewing others as moral scored highest on the variables of Encouraging Verbalization, Marital Conflict, and Comradeship and Sharing. On the other hand, they scored lowest on the following sixteen variables: Fostering Dependency, Seclusion of the Parent, Breaking the Will, Martyrdom, Fear of Harming the Child, Irritability, Excluding Outside Influence, Deification, Suppression of Aggression, Rejection of Homemaking Role, Approval of Activity, Avoidance of Communication, Ascendance of the Parent, Intrusiveness, Acceleration of Development, and Suppression of Sex. These findings, in other words, are generally consistent with the original assumption: parents who see human nature as basically moral are comparatively permissive in their child-rearing attitudes. These parents tend to be persons who typically allow children to be themselves. Generally, the only pressure they place on their children is for them to express themselves. Though not as surprising as it first appears, these parents experience more marital conflict than do parents in other groups. According to the test scores, the conflict may result directly from their willingness to allow others to be themselves, because these are the same parents who scored low on both the variables of Suppression of Aggression and Inconsiderateness of Spouse. This practice is somewhat consistent with the advice of many authorities in the social sciences (Dreikurs, 1964; Kelly, 1962; Maslow, 1962).

A third major finding of this study is that parents who view others as basically immoral are relatively authoritarian in their child-rearing attitudes. These parents scored highest on the variables of Fostering Dependency, Breaking the Will, Martyrdom, Fear of Harming the Child, Irritability, Excluding Outside Influence, Deification, and Suppression of Aggression, as well as on Approval of Activity, Avoidance of Communication, Inconsiderateness of the Spouse, Suppression of Sex, Ascendance of the Parent, Intrusiveness, and Acceleration of Development. This group scored lowest, however, on Encouraging Verbalization, Rejection of Homemaking Role, Marital Conflict, and Comradeship and Sharing. Generally, these parents do not allow their children to be themselves. The impact of this group’s negative views of the nature of humankind upon child-rearing attitudes is consistent with the original assumption and is perhaps most strikingly conveyed by the parents’ exclusion of outside influence. As Kelly suggests (1962), the people who feel others are no good desire to force what they consider acceptable behavior on others.

Agreeing with Kelley, Brody (1964) shows that highly authoritarian persons tend to restrict outside influences. As added support, it is helpful to note that this group of parents scored highest on Avoidance of Communication, while scoring lowest on the variables of Encouraging Verbalization and Comradeship and Sharing, and moderately low on Seclusion of the Parent. This means, in other words, that these parents are close neither to their children nor to others. This lack of closeness may stem from their fear that allowing their children or others to be close will cause them to be perceived as they perceive themselves—as no good. It may also explain why this group scored lowest in Marital Conflict while scoring highest on the variable of Inconsiderateness of Spouse.

Another dynamic evidenced by this group of parents is the high score of Martyrdom, Irritability, and Deification. Perhaps Feldman best explains these high scores by the concept of projective identification, or the splitting of the intropsychic self into good and bad representations. “In conflicted marriages, projection is mobilized as a defense which involves projecting these ‘all-bad’ self-representations upon the spouse. The ‘all-good’ other representation is retained, leading to an experience of self as the victim. The ‘all-good’ other representation is projected upon a lover or a child.” (1982: 419.)

The fourth and final major finding of this study is that parents seeing others as basically amoral tend to score much differently from both the other parenting groups, but lower than those who saw others as basically moral and higher than those who saw others as essentially immoral. There is, therefore, a direct relationship between the degree of parents’ belief in the nature of humankind issues and their parenting scores on these variables. Because this group of parents tended to have moderate scores on both WPHNI and PARI, they may have a rather moderate orientation toward life in general.

Based upon the findings of this study, the following conclusions are drawn: parents who believe the nature of humankind to be moral tend to be relatively permissive in their child-rearing attitudes; parents who view the nature of humankind as immoral tend to be relatively authoritarian in their child-rearing attitudes; and, finally, parents who believe the nature of humankind is amoral tend to be relatively moderate in their child-rearing attitudes. There appears to be a number of implications of this research both for those studying the family empirically and those treating it clinically.

Researchers typically consider child-rearing attitudes as the point of departure in their theories; that is, as independent variables in the prediction of various child outcomes. The present research suggests the existence of ante- cedent conditions that modify child-rearing attitudes; namely, that these attitudes are an outgrowth of parents’ views of the basic nature of humankind.

From a clinical perspective, the therapeutic goal, as Minuchin (1981: 215) has pointed out, is often to impose a reality on the client in order to “convert” the client from a dysfunctional to a functional worldview; that is, one that does not need the symptom and allows for greater diversity of attitude and behavior. Minuchin (1981) utilized the technique of appealing to universal symbols, family truths, and expert advice to alter these worldviews. The question that needs to be addressed, however, is whether the therapist is aware of the client’s overall worldview. (Indeed, the therapist may not even be aware of his or her own worldview.) Thus, the present research suggests that an understanding of the client’s view of the nature of humankind is critical in an evaluation of client behavior. Rather than initially focusing on client behavior per se, the therapist may more profitably begin by addressing the underlying worldview that provides the genesis for the dysfunctional and otherwise irrational behavior presented.

Clearly, much work remains to be done. For example, it may be helpful to examine other parental worldviews to see if they impact child-rearing attitudes in a similar manner to the views evaluated in this study. Similarly, clinicians require assessment studies to adequately evaluate the various therapeutic approaches to modifying a client’s underlying worldview. It is the hope of this author that the present study may sow the seeds for such ongoing professional activities.


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