Harmony can be taught in more than one way. Aggression and defiance is learned from the models in children’s lives.

Researchers in Isreal at Bar-Ilan University and Teacher College, Jerusalem did a clever study to show that how toddlers respond to their parents and other toddlers is based on the behaviors that they observe in their parents — effective, ineffective, and aggressive.

The researchers observed married couples with their first born toddler during dinner time, bath time, and bedtime. They recorded the behaviors couples used with each other to make requests of each other, refuse requests, give directions to the toddlers, and how everyone responded. They recorded what behaviors led to conflict; and, they recorded how parents and children resolved conflict. It is important to keep in mind that the researchers where not looking at fights. Conflict– used here — means everything that required cooperation, coordination, involved differences of opinion, strategies, expectations, and sharing of tasks. Sometimes this resulted in a disagreement or a fight, usually it did not.

Here is what is really fascinating and shows that children learn early how to deal with demands by watching their parents. Palestinian and Israel couples have different styles of communication, role expectations, and conflict resolution strategies that are consistent with Arab and Israeli cultural values. Israeli families hold more egalitarian family roles and negotiate tasks. Palestinian families are more hierarchical and make direct demands of each other and respond with direct refusal or consent — most often consent. This shaped the conflict behavior of toddlers toward their parents and with each other in day care. The data showed that the subtle expressions of cultural standards for communication, social roles, and expectations of behavior had a direct effect on toddler behavior. For example, Israeli culture is closer to the American culture. So, in Israeli homes toddlers will tell parents “do” or “don’t.” In Palestinian culture, hierarchies are important. People respect elders and toddlers did not say “do” or “don’t” to their parents. Children in Arab families — especially those with low father involvement — tended to seek adult authority to resolve peer conflicts. Israeli children, in contrast, tended to offer a compromise to a peer in the face of conflict before seeking adult help. Israeli children observed their parents doing more negotiation about roles and desires; whereas, Arab children observed more defined gender roles and task oriented resolutions with parents demanding and consenting to get the job done.

All families in the study displayed discipline strategies because dinner, bath, and bed all need to be completed at a certain time. Couples had the opportunity to get involved together or undermine each other. The researchers provided no direction to the families but observed the process as it unfolded. The findings showed that co-parents’ behavior with each other and toward the toddler predicted which toddlers were more likely to use aggression against a peer or an adult.

What predicted toddler aggression toward peers? Marital hostility, undermining behavior of the other parent, and ineffective discipline. What predicted pro-social behavior in toddlers? Martial harmony, the specifics of which differed by cultures, and attentive, warm parenting. In Arab families, harmony meant higher rates of consent to co-parental requests.  In Israeli families, harmony meant more marital empathy and compromise.

Ineffective discipline was exhibited by scolding, yelling, or physically coercing children. Ineffective discipline also included permissive responses in which child refusals and non-compliance were ignored. Harsh parenting is a powerful predictors of aggressive behavior in toddlers. Harsh treatment of a co-parent is also a powerful predictor. Warm, attentive, cooperative parenting  predicts more effectiv social behavior early in life.

Teach Carefully! Teach for Life!  ACT-Raising Safe Kids.


Feldman, R., Masahla, S., & Derdikman-Eiron, R. (2010). Conflict resolution in the parent-child, marital, and peer contexts: A process-oriented cultural perspecitve.  Developmental Psychology, 46, ppg. 310-325.