Growing up in Scotland: what research tells us about parenting young children

Paul Bradshaw and Lesley Kelly describe the Growing Up in Scotland study which is providing new, unique information about the lives of children and their families and the influences on and of different parenting approaches, attitudes and behaviours.

What constitutes 'good' parenting will always be a value judgement but the Growing Up in Scotland research study (GUS) is providing objective data invaluable for exploring parenting and child well-being in contemporary Scotland.

GUS is tracking the lives of thousands of children across Scotland from birth through to the teenage years and beyond. It has been collecting information about every aspect of children's lives since 2005. The children originally recruited to take part in the study are now nearly eight years old. A new group of babies has recently been recruited into the study to allow researchers to compare the experiences and circumstances of children born in Scotland recently with those born six years earlier.

The main aim of GUS is to find out how early experiences impact on later outcomes.

GUS finds that parenting varies significantly according to parent and family characteristics. It sheds light on the difficulties faced by parents in bringing up children in challenging circumstances; identifies the factors which promote 'resilience' and highlights the inequalities experienced by some children as they grow up. The study suggests ways to improve child outcomes by supporting parents and by tackling wider inequalities.

Exploring parenting

GUS collects a wide range of data on children and their families which can be used to explore parenting in Scotland. GUS can tell us how parents are parenting, what influences parenting and how parenting styles impact on children. The study collects a range of data which describes parenting - activities undertaken together; approaches to discipline, rules and routines; measures of attachment; use of services for parents and children; and availability and use of support from family and friends. GUS can also explore the factors which appear to influence variation in these aspects of parenting. For example, variation in parents' levels of education, income and physical and mental health appear to have an effect. In considering the influence of parenting on children, GUS can be used to explore the relationships between parenting and child outcomes such as child health, cognitive ability and social, emotional and behavioural development. Because GUS is a 'longitudinal' study, following the same children over time, it can tell us how all these themes change over time and examine how changes in circumstances affect parenting or how changes in parenting affect child outcomes.

Some findings from the study

Home learning environment

Most parents of children under five are providing a good 'home learning environment' for their children, with opportunities for playing, talking and reading. At age 22 months, 79% of children were read to every day, 58% sang songs or were sung to every day while 28% had the opportunity to paint or draw every day (Bromley 2009). However, children from less advantaged households were doing these activities with their parents and carers less frequently. Children taking part in more activities scored higher on cognitive ability tests, even after other socio-demographic factors were taken into account. This suggests that encouraging parents to spend more time playing with their children can influence - though by no means eradicate - the effect of socio-demographic disadvantage on child outcomes.

Discipline techniques

One third of parents in Scotland had used smacking by the time their child was aged four (Bradshaw et al. 2008). However, only 13% of parents agreed that smacking was a useful technique. Parents were much more likely to rate 'time out' or the 'naughty step' and 'removing treats or privileges' as useful techniques for children of this age.


A quarter of parents with a child aged just under one said that they found it difficult to know who to ask for help or advice about being a parent. One third said that they found it difficult to ask for help, while 10% were wary of interference from professionals like doctors or social workers. More than half of parents agreed with the statement 'nobody can teach you how to be a good parent; you just have to learn for yourself'. This suggests some resistance to parent education programmes. Younger mothers were more likely than older mothers to say they did not like classes or groups. It is clear that the parents whom service providers and policy makers often most want to reach, i.e. those living in the most difficult circumstances, are those most reluctant to engage with services aimed at young children and their families (Mabelis and Marryat 2011).

Parenting and children's health

A 2011 report examined the relationships between 'family adversity' (difficult circumstances), parenting and child health during the first five years (Parkes and Wight 2011). Levels of 'parenting skills' were established by considering three aspects of parenting - connection (attachment and togetherness), negativity (conflict and harsh discipline) and control (supervision, routine and regularity). 'Family adversity' was measured using eight indicators of disadvantage such as low income and living in an area of high deprivation. There was a strong relationship between parenting behaviours and family adversity.

Parents in families experiencing higher adversity were less likely to have a warm relationship with their child, to share activities with their child and to exercise control over their child's behaviour. They were more likely to report high levels of conflict with their child.

Low overall parenting skills were associated with poorer health and health behaviours amongst children. In particular, high levels of parent-child conflict were associated with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Low parental supervision was associated with poor general health, limiting long-term illness and behavioural difficulties. Children experiencing a high level of mother-child activities and rules at home were more likely to exhibit healthy behaviours, such as better nutrition and more frequent physical activity, than those who took part in few activities or had few rules at home.

In general, children living in families experiencing high levels of adversity were less healthy and had less healthy behaviours. Further analysis of the data suggests that differences in parenting account for some, but not all, of the health inequalities linked to family adversity. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that supporting parenting is likely to have a positive effect on child health.

Resilience - against the odds?

Analysing the circumstances and experiences of children who manage to avoid the negative outcomes normally associated with disadvantage indicate that parenting factors contribute to 'resilience' to poorer health in childhood. The factors associated with avoiding early negative health outcomes amongst more disadvantaged children were: having an older mother (aged 25 or over at child's birth); having a mother with no long-term health problems; having parents with positive attitudes towards seeking support and advice; an enriching 'home learning environment'; living in a household with at least one adult in full-time work; and satisfaction with local services and neighbourhood (Bromley 2010).

Data on changes in child cognitive ability during the pre-school years suggests that various circumstances and experiences might be influenced to help improve cognitive abilities amongst children from more disadvantaged backgrounds before they go to primary school (Bradshaw 2011). Amongst children whose parents had lower levels of education, those who had been breastfed; who demonstrated better early communication and language ability; had developed a stronger infant-maternal attachment; and more regularly experienced parent-child activities, showed a greater improvement in their cognitive ability during the pre-school period than children from the same background who did not have these experiences.

GUS is funded by the Scottish Government and is carried out by ScotCen Social Research in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh and the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow. More information:

About the authors

Paul Bradshaw is a research director with ScotCen Social Research. He has been managing the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) since its launch in 2005. Paul has been involved in a range of research studies in Scotland particularly into families and children.

Lesley Kelly is the dissemination officer for the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study, based at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, the University of Edinburgh. Her role is to make sure that findings and data from the study are accessible to a wide range of audiences including policy makers and service planners, practitioners, academics and parents.


Bradshaw, P et al. (2008). Growing Up in Scotland: year 2 main report. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Bradshaw, P. (2011). Growing Up in Scotland: changes in child cognitive ability in the pre-school years. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Bromley, C. (2009). Growing Up in Scotland: the impact of children's early activities on cognitive development. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Bromley, C. (2010). Growing Up in Scotland: health inequalities in the early years. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Mabelis, J. and Marryat, L. (2011). Growing Up in Scotland: parental service use and informal networks in the early years. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Parkes, A. and Wight, D. (2011). Growing Up in Scotland: parenting and children's health. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

See also:

Bradshaw, P. and Jamieson, L. (2009). Growing Up in Scotland: parenting and the neighbourhood context. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Jamieson, L. (2008). "Parenting practices and approaches in Scotland". CRFR Briefing 50 .Edinburgh: Centre for Research on Families and Relationships