Research Summary

The role of parental behaviour for the development of behaviour specific environmental norms – The example of recycling and re-use behaviour

Parents Influence Children’s Recycling Behavior

Journal of Environmental Psychology

This study explores the role of parents in influencing their children’s behavior, specifically the recycling and reuse of paper. The researchers were particularly interested in how parents may activate norms that lead to these behaviors in children. Citing various theories on human behavior, the authors differentiate between different types of norms: A personal norm is a personal moral obligation to take specific actions, while a social, or subjective, norm is influenced by others who are relevant to the individual. Social norms can be further broken down into injunctive and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms are based on what one thinks ought to be done, while descriptive norms are based on what others are doing.

Research has identified parent communication and behavior as potential variables that influence environmental norms and behavior among children. Parents can share knowledge of environmental problems and explain the consequences of individual actions to children. When parents praise or criticize their child’s behavior, they create injunctive norms. A parent can also serve as a model of behavior through his or her behavior, providing a descriptive norm for the child. For this study, the variables of problem communication from parents (related to both need for and consequence of action), sanctions from parents (injunctive norms), and parental behavior (descriptive norms) were analyzed in relation children’s awareness, norms, and behavior.

Two hundred and six students, aged 8-10, from ten different schools in Cologne, Germany, were the subjects of this study. The age group of students was considered particularly relevant to this study’s focus on parental influence with behavior norms, as children this age are considered in an early stage of moral development in which interaction with parents is particularly important. Each student and the parent identified as most responsible for each student’s education in each household were provided a questionnaire that gathered information on communication, awareness, norms, and actual behavior related to paper recycling and reuse. Ninety percent of the parents in this study were mothers.

The specific behaviors the authors studied were the separation of paper waste for recycling and the reuse of paper through using both sides of the paper. With both paper reuse and recycling, the child’s social and personal norms were predictive of their behavior. The parents’ communication of the problem was shown to affect the child’s personal norm and behavior through the child’s awareness of the need for and consequences of reusing and recycling paper.

With paper recycling, the parent’s recycling behavior was related to the child’s norm and behavior. But the parent’s sanctioning of paper recycling had little relation to the child’s paper recycling norm or behavior. When it came to reusing paper, however, neither the parent’s behavior nor sanctioning affected the child’s paper reuse behaviors. The authors think parental behavior may matter more with recycling than reuse because paper recycling may be more visible and easier to control than using the back of a sheet of paper.

In summary, communication by parents related to both recycling and reuse, along with parental behavior in relation to recycling, seems to matter when it comes to a child’s behavior. These findings suggest that what parents say and do is important. When parents talk about environmental issues and involve their children in everyday pro-environmental behaviors, children respond. The authors also argue that, in addition to parental involvement, incorporating “practical training of pro-environmental behavior” in education programs can also help build environmental behavior in children.

The Bottom Line

Parents play a key role in the development of children’s pro-environmental norms related to specific behaviors such as paper recycling. Parents’ communication of the need for and the consequences of specific individual behaviors can affect what their children do. With some behaviors, such as paper recycling, the parent’s own behavior can also influence the child’s behavior. Parent sanctioning of behavior, such as through praise and criticism, has less effect on specific behaviors. Educators can apply these findings to their work with children and parents, keeping in mind that the implications of these findings may be most relevant to low-cost behaviors such as recycling and reuse.