Few child development experts would disagree that parenting has a significant influence on child psychological and behavioral outcomes. Furthermore, research has reported that the way in which a child is parented not only impacts childhood health, but also shapes the course of adult lives. A problem for parents is that advice from child professionals has periodically changed, ranging from a “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy that directs parents to control their children through the use of frequent and harsh discipline, to advising parents to become their children’s “pals, buddies or best friends” by adopting a generally permissive style in which discipline is virtually absent.
Human development researchers have indicated more recently that a “roots and wings” philosophy of child rearing, which provides children with a secure base and opportunities for autonomous exploration of their environment, is best. Decades of child development research collectively suggests that children develop best in a variety of domains if parents foster a strong emotional connection with their children while also creating and permitting occasion for their children to experience independent learning.
How Do Children Connect (Attach) To Caregivers?
Attachment is the process through which children develop specific emotional bonds with any person who performs a large portion of the care in their first year of life. John Bowlby proposed that an infant’s attachment to their primary caregiver happens as the result of infant signals and the caregiver’s responses to them. This synchrony of interaction is characterized by a cadenced, mutually rewarding communication that occurs in infant-caregiver pairs in the early months of life. If a caregiver is unresponsive to the infant’s signals of distress and fails to reward the infant’s socializing attempts, attachment may be less secure. Therefore, the ideal infant-caregiver relationship is principally dependent on the infant’s trust of the caregiver and the caregiver’s protection of the infant during this early stage of their relationship.
Mary D. Salter Ainsworth, a developmental research psychologist, was interested in how infants’ connectedness to their primary caregivers influenced infant social behaviors. Her attachment research described five sequential stages in the development of an infant’s connection to a caregiver. She linked these stages to the infant’s age and therefore its cognitive developmental level. Briefly, Ainsworth suggested that the infant’s smiling and cuddling behaviors in the first 3 months were attempts to influence caregiver attachment responses and that throughout the toddler and preschool years children used other age-appropriate methods, such as mimicking the caregiver’s actions or helping with household chores, to satisfy their need for connectedness with their parents.
Ainsworth demonstrated the effect of caregiver responsiveness to these infant attempts to garner connectedness by using what she termed the “strange situation.” This research procedure exposed infants to a 20-minute period in which infants and caregivers (mothers in this protocol) were placed alone in an unfamiliar room for several minutes, followed by the entrance of a stranger who would attempt to engage the infant with a toy. The caregiver would then briefly leave the room while the stranger continued to distract the infant with the toy. After a brief absence, the caregiver would return to the room and attempt to comfort the infant. The infant’s responses during each situation were recorded. Ainsworth found that infant reaction to the return of the caregivers was central to determining whether a secure or insecure infant-caregiver attachment existed, because the reunion indicated whether the infant was attached to a specific individual or if the infant considered its caregivers interchangeable. Four attachment patterns were noted using this research protocol:
- Secure Attachment. These infants actively explored the novel environment and interacted with the stranger while the caregiver was present, and their distress at the caregiver’s absence was reduced when the caregiver returned. These infants showed a specific connection to their primary caregiver.
- 2. Anxious-Avoidant Attachment. The infants in this group were indifferent to their caregiver when present, variably distressed when their caregiver left, and soothed equally well by a stranger as by their caregiver. These infants appeared to be uncertain of their caregiver and to less feel confident of her connectedness to them.
- 3. Anxious-Resistant Attachment. These infants can be best described as cautious of both caregiver and stranger. They were distressed when the caregiver left, but were not easily soothed when the caregiver Again, these infants did not appear to have formed a specific connection to their caregivers and did not feel confident in any of the situations.
- Disorganized Attachment. These infants demonstrated seemingly apprehensive behavior, such as moving toward the caregiver but not making eye contact. They appeared confused and sometimes dazed in all three situations. These infants were theorized to have been traumatized by abuse or parental neglect and to represent a minority of infants.
In a secure attachment, caregivers are believed to be more sensitive and appropriately responsive to their infant’s signals, such as smiling at their infant when the infant smiles at them, encouraging verbalizations by talking to their infants, and comforting their crying or fearful infant. These responsive caregivers are also more emotionally available to their infants than caregivers in the other three insecurely attached patterns. Accordingly, infants demonstrating stranger anxiety and separation anxiety would actually be indicating that a specific, secure attachment has been made to their caregiver. Infants who appeared avoidant, resistant, or disorganized in their approach to seeking comfort from their caregiver indicate an insecure attachment as a result of caregivers who withdraw from interactions with the infant, are markedly intrusive or overly stimulate the infant, or who are erratically or unpredictably responsive to their infant’s cues. In other words, securely attached infants had caregivers who were consistently responsive to their needs and emotionally interactive with them.
How Do Insecure Attachment Patterns Form?
There are several factors that may be responsible for the various insecure attachment patterns. A primary influence is the home environment in which the child lives. Homes that are impacted by instability in the marital relationship, domestic violence, parental unemployment, family poverty, or illness of a parent can disrupt a pattern of attachment. Individual and cultural differences in infants have been suggested as a factor affecting attachment development as well.
Because synchrony depends on both caregiver and child performing reciprocal behaviors, children who are preterm (and thus delayed in social development) or infants who have shy, fearful, or irritable temperaments are at risk for insecurely bonding with their caregivers. Infants born with significant problems such as autism, blindness, or deafness may also have attachment difficulties. These infants are at greater risk for being abused by parents as well, because their neediness, coupled with the delay in (or total absence of) displaying normal infant-bonding behaviors and the development of regular sleep and eating routines, makes parenting them a more intensive process.
Child-rearing practices differ significantly across cultures and subgroups, and any given population’s values and beliefs may influence its infant-caregiver attachment patterns. For example, strange situation studies conducted with both Israeli kibbutzim and German children identified more of those children as insecurely attached to their caregivers. Researchers attributed these findings to the inherent child-rearing goals of these cultures, such as the communal parenting responsibilities in the Israeli kibbutzim and the focus on rearing autonomous and undemanding children in German society, rather than on bonding deficiencies. The psychological impact of parent-child connections in non-Western cultures has been recently debated. Some researchers claim that infant-caregiver attachment is paramount to healthy psychological functioning regardless of culture, while others argue that the meanings attributed to infant behavior in the strange situation are insufficient to determine the quality of the infant-caregiver bond in a non-Western population.
Although some researchers have suggested that a child’s attachment pattern can be both stable and changeable (depending on the stability of their environment), Bowlby has argued that the pattern of attachment becomes an internal model by approximately age 4 or 5 and is relatively disrupted according to the child’s age and characteristics of the parents. Thus, younger children would be more likely to experience a change in their internal model of attachment to a primary caregiver, from a secure to insecure pattern, following a family crisis such as divorcing parents, death of a parent, or abuse by a parent, than would an older child. Conversely, the attachment of older children would be more resistant to change despite a disrupting event and more likely to generalize to other relationships. Bowlby also suggested that the reliability of attachment is relationship specific, with attachment patterns changing with some individuals but not others. For example, following the divorce of a child’s parents, he or she might retain a secure attachment to one parent while shifting from a secure to insecure pattern with the other, depending on the quality of their pre and post divorce relationships.
Attachment research has clearly indicated, at least for Western cultures, that attachment patterns are likely internalized, generalized to child, adolescent, and adult relationships, and may persist in subsequent generations. Attachment in non-Western cultures appears to be better determined when the values and beliefs of the respective culture are first considered.
What Are The Consequences Of Attachment?
Attachment patterns in infancy have been linked to adolescent and adult social behaviors, as well as to the style one uses to parent one’s own children. Several researchers have reported that infants identified as securely attached to their caregiver tend to be more socially skilled and positive in their adolescent and adult relationships. It is also reported that securely attached children are less clinging and less dependent on parents and teachers, are more emotionally mature in home and school settings, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to be socially aggressive or disruptive, and are more popular with peers. These children also appear to have an academic advantage in that they are more often rated as leaders and tend to get better grades. On the other hand, insecurely attached infants show more disruptive behaviors in adolescence and adulthood, and insecure attachment patterns have been linked to early sexual involvement, riskier sexual behavior, and sexual dysfunction in adulthood. For these reasons, attachment patterns have been implicated in childhood and adolescent social and academic success.
How we parent our children may also be linked to our own early attachment patterns. Developmental researchers have consistently reported that caregivers and infants share the same attachment patterns. That is, caregivers who were classified through testing as securely attached to their parent had infants who were securely attached to them. Conversely, caregivers who showed insecure attachment patterns had infants who were also insecurely attached to them. Consequently, we not only tend to parent our children as we were parented, but we also pass on an attachment style to our children and, quite possibly, to future generations.
What Are Parenting Styles And Parenting Practices?
Child rearing is the process whereby parents teach their children the rules of the society in which they live, so that their children are prepared for an autonomous adult life. Optimal socialization prepares children to function well as adults and to continue to do so when their parents are no longer available to parent. Child-rearing practices, then, might be an important predictor of whether this socialization was successful.
The terms parenting styles and parenting practices are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually refer to different aspects of parenting. Parenting style is a descriptor of a parent’s attitudes, beliefs, and values regarding how parenting is best accomplished. Parenting practices are the specific behaviors, strategies, or methods parents use, based on their particular parenting style. So although the two concepts have different conceptual meanings in the developmental literature, they are intrinsically linked with regard to how parents rear their children.
Various authors have written about differences in parenting styles and practices in terms of their influence on child outcomes and in noting differences across cultures. Outcome investigations, similar to those in the attachment literature, typically use a predictive model to associate various parenting practices with child and adult characteristics such as emotional stability, social skills, academic abilities, and incidence of psychopathology. Cultural difference studies point to how ethnic or cultural values influence diversity in the implementation and meaning of various child-rearing practices, and how culturally shared beliefs guide parenting attitudes and practices. For example, Western cultures who value individualism may see autonomy as an ideal characteristic to shape in children, whereas collectivist cultures who value the common good would be more likely to discourage autonomy as a goal of child rearing. Important to note is that despite cultural differences, some characteristics such as parental warmth and responsiveness appear to be considered important across many cultures.
How Does Parenting Influence Child Behaviors?
Diana Baumrind, an influential developmental psychologist, researched a “parenting style” theory that has become important to Western parenting ideology. She suggested that a person’s parenting practices is embedded in their beliefs about how control of their offspring is related to the socialization process. She studied four dimensions of parental functioning: (1) warmth/nurturance, (2) clarity and consistency of rules, (3) level of expectations (maturity demands), and (4) communication between parent and child.
She connected each of these dimensions to various child behaviors. Accordingly, nurturing parents tended to raise more securely attached children and parental warmth was linked to high self-esteem, higher IQs, better school performance, and greater empathy for others. Conversely, parental hostility was linked to poorer school performance, higher rates of delinquency in adolescence, criminality in adulthood, and less socially skilled children.
Likewise, parents who were clear and consistent in their communication, who reliably enforced family rules, and who had high expectations (maturity demands) for their children tended to have children who were less defiant and more socially competent and who showed more empathy for others. Open and regular communication with children has been similarly associated with their emotional and social maturity.
According to Baumrind, these four dimensions occurred in high/low combinations that produced three distinct parenting patterns:
- Authoritarian parents are low in nurturance/ warmth and in communication with their children and high in control and maturity demands. These parents evaluate and attempt to control all behaviors and attitudes of their children. Family rules are typically in accordance with rigid traditional standards, and strict obedience is demanded, while open communication between parent and child is discouraged. These parents generally use punitive methods to discipline their children.
- Permissive parents are low in maturity demands, communication, and control and high in nurturance. These parents exercise little or no control over their children and typically view themselves as their child’s “friend.” They have few maturity demands, so their children set their own schedules and priorities and learn about life without any kind of structure for such learning. Discipline in these families is usually absent or inconsistent.
- Authoritative parents are high in all four dimensions. These parents acknowledge the power differential in the parent-child relationship, but because they believe their children have rights too, consider their children’s point of view. Although they have high expectations (maturity demands) for their children, they use open and regular communication to explain and teach, rather than punitive disciplinary methods to control and stifle their children. They are less likely to stress obedience and more likely to encourage critical thinking and self-responsibility.
Baumrind found that each parenting pattern was associated with a specific pattern of early childhood behavior. Children of authoritarian parents tended to be less socially competent. These children often withdrew from, and would less often initiate, social contact. They were less intellectually curious and lacked problem-solving skills. Children of permissive parents were immature relative to their peers. They tended to have more difficulty with impulse control, independent action, and taking responsibility for their social behaviors. Children of authoritative parents were more self-confident, more self-reliant, more explorative, more self-controlled, and calmer than children in the other two parenting groups. Hence, children of authoritative parents exhibited better socialization skills and greater self-confidence than children who were raised by either authoritarian or permissive parents.
Baumrind’s parenting categories were expanded by Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin, who proposed only two dimensions to categorize families: degree of demand or control (high or low) and amount of acceptance (high or low). They also identified four parenting styles, rather than three: authoritarian (high demand and control, low acceptance); permissive (low demand and control, high acceptance); authoritative (high demand and control, high acceptance); and an additional type, uninvolved/neglecting (low in demand and control, low in acceptance). Child outcomes for these parent types were consistent with Baumrind’s descriptions of the authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative styles. However, they reported that the most consistently negative outcomes were associated with the uninvolved/ neglecting parenting type. Children of uninvolved or neglecting parents generally had “psychologically unavailable” caregivers, who often had emotional problems or were substance abusers and who had also had an insecure attachment to their own parents in infancy. According to Maccoby and Martin, these children had much more difficulty with impulsivity, social relationships, and academic achievement and were more likely to be conduct disordered.
Similar to the attachment research, parenting style research has child-related and culture-specific limitations. The development of a human child is so complex that it is more likely that an interaction between a child’s environment (nurture) and their inborn characteristics (nature) influences child outcomes, rather than parenting styles and practices alone.
A child’s preexisting temperament may, in part, influence the child-rearing strategies its parents use. Child development researchers have long indicated that children show distinct individuality in temperament in the first weeks of life, independent of either their parents’ personality or parenting style. Moreover, these temperamental traits persist into the childhood, adolescent, and adult years. A classic study by Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and Herbert G. Birch identified three child temperament classifications based on children’s activity level, regularity of bodily responses, reactions to strangers, adaptability to changes in their environment, mood, attention and distractibility, persistence, and intensity of reaction. They identified the following three “type of child” categories:
- “Easy” children presented few problems for parents because they generally showed regularity in their sleep and feeding behaviors, had low or moderate intensity of reactions, did not withdraw from novel objects or persons, adapted quickly to new situations or routines, and displayed a positive mood. As infants, they were quick to develop routines, were less likely to tantrum as toddlers, and adapted to school and home schedules without difficulty.
- “Difficult” children, in contrast, were erratic in their development of sleep and eating cycles in infancy, took a much longer time to adjust to routines, and cried more often and more loudly. During toddler and preschool years, these children became frustrated more quickly, engaged in violent tantrums, had more conflict with parents and siblings, and required more consistency and tolerance from parents.
- The “slow to warm up” child displayed some of both the easy and difficult characteristics. These children usually had a low activity level, tended to initially withdraw from novel situations but would gradually adapt, had a moderately negative mood, but displayed low-intensity reactivity. As infants, they presented fewer parenting frustrations than the difficult children because they eventually developed regular feeding and sleeping schedules, but were still more problematic than easy children, who quickly established routines consistent with their parent’s expectations. As toddlers and preschoolers, slow-to-warm-up children required much more effort by parents to help them adjust to the demands of school, but once acclimated, were not
According to Thomas, Chess, and Birch, children who fit their easy description may be much easier to parent because they respond positively to most parenting styles and will adapt to environmental changes much more quickly. Conversely, difficult children challenge parents from the outset. Parents experience many more daily battles, which result in the use of more punitive or inconsistent parenting, which in turn can exacerbate the child’s negative mood and intense reactivity tendencies. Slow-to-warm-up children require patient parents who allow their child to adapt at his or her own pace while offering encouragement and support for trying new things. When a parental demand “conflicts excessively” with a child’s natural temperament, the child will feel extreme distress and will react in a negative fashion. Parents who can recognize their child’s temperament pattern and be responsive to it will have less conflict with, and more compliance from, their children. Consistent parenting approaches are essential because a mismatch of parental demand to child temperament will excessively frustrate parents and their children. Parents must acknowledge what their child can and cannot do (given his or her temperament) and adjust their expectations accordingly.
Although authoritative parenting styles and practices appear to best fit most child temperaments, this approach may not be effective for every child. The social skills of a shy child who is inherently reticent to initiate interactions with other people may be harmed by an authoritarian parent who controls his or her social contacts, whereas an overly active or excessively aggressive child may be better parented with the control strategies imposed by authoritarian parents. It is unclear whether authoritative parenting can moderate family conflict and stress, parent psychopathology, and poverty.
Parenting style has not been found to be predictive of the same child outcomes in non-Western cultures as it has in Western societies. Parenting styles and practices tend to differ across cultures due to the different meanings the culture attributes to specific child behaviors. For example, African American parents view physical punishment as essential to protect their children from social dangers and enforce respect for parental authority, but their children do not show more externalizing behaviors than children of authoritative parents. Similarly, Arab cultures associate “autonomy granting” with “obedience to parents’ wishes” rather than as a method to encourage their children to internalize parental values, and no differences between Arab and Western cultures in terms of child outcomes are reported. Children of authoritarian parents view their practices as normative for their culture, and as an indication of parental warmth and caring. Thus, the cultural meaning parents and children attribute to parenting methods might be more important to child outcomes than a universal parenting style. In fact, only parental warmth has been consistently reported to be a universally positive parenting characteristic in both Western and non-Western cultures.
How Do Parents Learn To Be Parents?
Parents typically enjoy most of their interactions with their children. The “hard work” of parenting occurs when guidance or discipline is necessary to address child misbehavior. How do parents decide how to discipline their children? Generally parents are heavily influenced by how they were parented themselves, because their childhood experiences are their primary, and often only, source of information for child discipline techniques. The relative success or failure, then, of parents’ efforts to guide their children may be solely dependent on what they learned from their parents. If their parents used a limited repertoire of ineffective or inconsistent disciplinary strategies, then repeating this in their own families can result in frustration and poor child outcomes.
There is help for parents who want to go beyond their own family history of parenting. Programs designed to give both child development and child management information have become popular for parents wishing to supplement their parenting knowledge or learn alternate parenting strategies. Research suggests that educational experiences may buffer the effects of problematic parenting and decrease the transfer of risk to subsequent generations. Many of these programs contain content congruent with authoritative parenting ideas and emphasize skill building to help parents successfully provide their child with a sense of security (roots), while appropriately encouraging their child to explore and learn self-regulation (wings). Collectively, these programs consistently provide the following parenting advice:
- Parents who are warm, nurturing, and responsive to their children’s needs are more likely to develop a secure infant-caregiver bond and build a positive child caregiver relationship. It is the parents’ responsibility to provide physical and emotional nurturance for their children, not for children to supply these for parents.
- Parents who value their children’s ideas and activities by taking time to listen to children’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences foster high self-esteem and better competency skills. Involvement in their children’s daily lives provides opportunities for parents to shape their children’s character and behaviours.
- Parents need to model caring toward others, rational thought, behavioral self-control, emotional understanding, and social sensitivity in what they say and in what they do. It is important to remember that children say what their parents say and do what their parents do.
- Parents who directly confront their children’s behavior in a consistently decisive way with clear consequences for noncompliance orient children toward parent-preferred goals while providing stability in their understanding of parental expectations. Consequences should always fit the “crime.” Parents who think before imposing consequences will have greater success in maintaining their resolve than those who impose punishment during an emotionally charged moment. A reasonable consequence will communicate a sense of fairness to children as well. Children learn more about what is expected of them when parents reinforce expected behavior, instead of just punishing disobedience. Positive feedback yields better compliance with family rules, while frequently harsh punishment conditions children to escape, often by lying, from consequences.
- 5. It is the parents’ job to set standards of conduct for their children by remaining behaviorally focused, rather than attributing child misbehavior to a flaw in the child’s character. Behavioral misconduct implies that change is possible and the transgression is time limited, whereas a defective character is more resistant to modification and more likely to generalize to other contexts.
- The use of reason and persuasion to gain compliance is more effective than the use of power and manipulation. Parents who are firm, but reasonable, in their parental control and who take time to clearly explain the rules to their children are more likely to have children who internalize their morals and values than children of parents who are arbitrary in their rule setting, assert their power, or withdraw their love from their However, flexibility in setting limits that match each child’s individual characteristics is essential. Not all rules are necessarily appropriate for all children at all ages.
- Parents who encourage their children to be independent thinkers, accept opposing points of view, and encourage verbal give-and-take teach their children to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions and to accept differences in others. Reciprocity of thoughts and emotions teaches self-honesty and humility. Children see themselves as having more agency in their lives when parents resist using restrictive control of their children’s thoughts and ideas.
- Parents who do not overly control or restrict their children’s experiences permit children to build confidence in their ability to handle varying and complex situations and give them the opportunity for learning about themselves and the world in which they live. The fear of children becoming emotionally or physically harmed is paramount for parents and causes them to worry about a negative outcome from allowing their children too much freedom. The decision about how much autonomy, or freedom of choice, a child should have must be child specific and age based, so that experiences are formative in nature rather than an overwhelming or harmful experience for the child.
What is the best advice to parents based on current research? First, infants require parents who are warm and responsive to their physical and emotional needs so that a secure attachment can form. Second, authoritative parenting styles and practices, which encourage children to develop strong emotional bonds with their parents as a secure base for their autonomous exploration of their environment, are linked to optimal development in social and academic arenas and to a positive self-esteem. Third, it is a necessity that parents attend to their child’s individual temperament and developmental needs and be aware of the reciprocal nature of the child-caregiver relationship. Fourth, cultural differences must be considered in the use of any parenting style.
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