Parental socialization may be key to raising trusting children, says study

Black woman and child

It’s already known that trusting parents will likely produce trusting children, but until now, just how that process worked was unclear. New research out of York University has found the key may be the way parents socialize their children.

Over the years, there has been some debate about whether trustful children are the product of genetics, environmental influences or parental socialization. York University Assistant Professor Cary Wu of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), looked at the process underlying the intergenerational parent-to-child transfer of trustfulness to find the answer.

Cary Wu, professor of sociology at York University
Cary Wu

“Although not the only ones, parents are primarily responsible for socializing their children,” says Wu of the Department of Sociology. “Children without trustful role models usually become distrustful adults, whereas children who have trusting parents become more trusting adults. Parents pass their own trust levels and views to their children.”

He found trust develops more through cultural influences from parental socialization rather than through genetics or environmental influences. Trust in this case is the willingness to trust in strangers or general social trust, which underlines a belief in the goodness of others. The study focussed specifically on children from age 10 to 15.

But his research also points to the unequal role parents play in child socialization. “Mothers are generally more influential than fathers in shaping the trust of their children,” says Wu.

He also looked at whether there were differences between same-sex dyads (mother-daughter and father-son) and cross-sex dyads (mother-son and father-daughter) to find the underlying mechanisms of trust transmission.

He found when it comes to same-sex and cross-sex dyads, there is greater trust transmission between mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. The mother’s trust has a stronger impact on the daughter’s level of trust, while the father’s trust has a stronger impact on son’s level of trust.

Both sons and daughters show the highest levels of trust when both parents trust rather than when both parents have low trust levels. Parents with similar levels of trust are more successful at transmitting that trust than parents with dissimilar levels of trust.

The paper, “Intergenerational Transmission of Trust: A Dyadic Approach,” was published today in American Sociological Association’s journal Socius.