Questionnaires: Parenting Styles and Flow

By Michael Wapner

For too many students, schoolwork is drudgery. Even good students may find some classes and a good deal of homework boring. But there are those great occasions when a student finds a course fascinating—when the topic is so engrossing that an hour’s lecture seems to last only 10 minutes and when television can’t compete with the assigned reading. This experience of intrinsically rewarding immersion in an ongoing activity is termed flow, and you will not be surprised to find that students who frequently have this experience in school tend to learn well and achieve much.

Research suggests that episodes of flow occur when individuals experience a balance between the challenges of a task and their abilities to meet that challenge. That is, the task must be sufficiently demanding to present a challenge, but students must also experience their talents as up to the task. If the task requires less than the available skills, then it will be boring. If skills are not up to the task, then individuals will experience anxiety.

Kevin Rathunde (1996) of the University of Utah wondered whether there was a connection between students’ likelihood of experiencing flow while engaged in schoolwork and their relationship with their parents; in other words, whether a particular family context corresponds to adolescents’ experience of flow at school. The question arose from theorizing about the effects of various patterns of parenting. Based on the work of other investigators, Rathunde identified two dimensions of the parent–adolescent relationship and hypothesized that conditions at home had to be favorable on both dimensions to maximize the likelihood of flow experiences at school. On the one hand, parents who are supportive and patient give the student the security to risk involvement in new and engaging tasks. On the other hand, parents who are challenging and expect the adolescent to assume more mature responsibilities motivate achievement. It is both the confidence to try and the motivation to achieve, Rathunde guessed, that give rise to the experience of flow in academic contexts.

But how might one go about testing this idea? Rathunde had high school students wear pagers (a technique described in the textbook’s Research Focus Box 6.1 on sampling), allowing him to sample the quality of their experiences as they worked. He also asked students and their parents to fill out a questionnaire assessing dimensions of family interaction. Questionnaires, along with interviews, are a type of survey research. Surveys obtain information from large numbers of people, through the use of personal reports. Rathunde, for instance, surveyed 165 adolescents and their parents—a total of 400 people. The use of personal reports has its strengths and weaknesses. A major strength of this type of data is the chance it offers to study behavior that otherwise could not easily be observed. Parenting, for instance, is a behavior that extends over time, rather than occurring in a limited, and easy-to-observe, time frame. Having adolescents and their parents report on parenting by filling out a questionnaire offers a convenient alternative to many hours of observation. Personal report data, as obtained through questionnaires, is also useful for private behaviors, such as sexual activity, or even illegal ones, such as drug use. A related advantage to the use of questionnaires, unlike face-to-face interviews, is the anonymity they offer individuals, who at times may be asked to disclose very personal information. Because most questionnaires rely on closed-ended questions, ones that supply individuals with alternative answers from which to choose, data are easy to score; in contrast, data obtained from interviews require elaborate preprocessing or coding before being analyzed. Because of the ease of scoring answers, questionnaires can be given to large numbers of people at relatively little expense to the investigator.

There also are disadvantages to the use of questionnaires. They can only be given to people who can read, thus eliminating their use with very young children or others with limited reading skills. Nonnative English speakers may also find them difficult. Individuals also appear to find it less interesting to fill out a questionnaire than to be interviewed, making participation somewhat less likely than with the use of personal interviews. A more serious disadvantage, however, is the investigator’s inability to interpret questions for an individual who might not understand or might misinterpret the questions’ meaning, as can be done in an interview, thereby ensuring that each participant has answered the questions as they were intended. Another disadvantage to questionnaires is the opportunity for distortion, either by deliberately changing information (as might occur in surveys on drug use among adolescents) or by failing to remember events as they really happened. Our memories are notably better for pleasant events or occasions in which we come off looking good. This type of distortion is known as the social desirability effect.

What did Rathunde find about parenting correlates of flow? As he anticipated, students whose parents both supported and challenged them reported more optimal experiences when working at school tasks. Specifically, the dimension of parental support was related to students’ reports of feeling open, excited, and involved in what they were doing, or to flow, and the dimension of parental challenge was related to their goal directedness.



P. C. Cozby. (1997). Methods in behavioral research (6th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

M. Csikszentmihalyi. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

K. Rathunde. (1996). Family context and talented adolescents’ optimal experience in school-related activities. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6: 605–628.