Refocusing on Parenting

Marc H. Bornstein
Senior Inverstigator and Head, Child and Family Research
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, MD


States Parties agree to the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(c)The development of respect for the child's parents,

Article 29
U. N. Convention on the Rights of the Child

Each day more than three-quarters of a million adults around the world experience the joys and heartaches, the challenges and rewards, of becoming new parents. Despite the fact that most people become parents, and everyone who ever lived has had parents, parenting remains a somewhat mystifying subject about which almost everyone has opinions, but about which few people agree. One thing is certain: It is the principal and continuing task of parents in each generation to prepare children of the next generation for the physical, economic, and psychosocial situations in which those children must survive and thrive. Many factors influence the development of children, but parenthood is the "final common pathway" to childhood oversight and caregiving, development and stature, adjustment and success. The fit is neat because childhood is the phase of the life cycle when parent-provided experiences are believed to exert their most significant and salient influences: Not only is the sheer amount of interaction between parent and child greatest then, but childhood is the time when human beings are particularly susceptible and responsive to external experiences. Indeed, the opportunity for enhanced parental influence, and prolonged learning, is thought to be the evolutionary reason for the extended duration of human childhood.

Yet, parenting is under "friendly fire" today on account of strong secular and historical trends operating in modern society. Industrialization, urbanization, poverty, increasing population growth and density, and especially widespread dual parental employment constitute centrifugal forces on parenting and the family. Society at large is also witnessing the emergence of striking permutations in parenthood and the constellation of the family structure, notably in the rise of single-parent headed households, divorced and blended families, and teenage first-time moms and dads. In short, the family generally, and parenthood specifically, are today in an agitated state of question, flux, and re-definition. Because these society-wide changes exert many unfortunately debilitative influences on parenthood, on interactions between parents and children, and consequently on children and their development, organizations at all levels of society increasingly feel the need to intercede in childrearing and to right some of society's ills through family intervention. This trend too leads away from a focus on parents as the proximal protectors, providers, and proponents of their own progeny.

Yet parents are children's primary advocates and their front-line defense. Parents are the corps available in the greatest numbers to lobby and labor for children. Few sentient parents want to abrogate their childrearing responsibilities. Quite the opposite, virtually all parents want only the best for their children. Against modern trends, we want to engage centripetal forces for the family. Insofar as parents can be enlisted and empowered to provide children with environments and experiences that optimize children's development, society can obviate after-the-fact remediation: "An ounce of parenting prevention" so to speak.

This essay therefore refocuses on parenthood. I address questions about the positives of parenthood for parents, the purview of parenthood, who parents, prerequisites and origins of parenthood, present-day problems of parenthood, and parenting programmes.1 Parenting is a principal reason why we are who we are, and why we are so different from one another. We need to attend to what we know about parenting and capitalize on that knowledge. The wonder is that every day 11,000 babies are born in the U.S.A. -- a number equivalent to the population of a small town -- and every one is unique and dear and special, and because we are all concerned how these children turn out, we need to turn our attention to the nature and dimensions of parenthood, the conditions of parenthood, and the concerns of parenthood -- in short to refocus on parenting.

One contemporary social critic has compared family life to an airplane flight; both need a clear destination, a flight plan, and a compass to keep them on course.  I would add that both require careful and knowledgeable piloting. Like airplanes, which can stray from their flight plans but come back and (hopefully) arrive at their destination safely, families (the best of which go off course) can come back on their flight plan and reach a desired destination through knowledge, organization, and commitment. The turbulence is great way up there where families are trying to fly today, and good piloting -- that is parenting -- is required. As a consequence, we are moved to ask:

What Is In Parenting For Parents?

First, it is important to stress that parenting has its own intrinsic pleasures, privileges, and profits. Parenting is not all giving. According to a recent nation-wide survey by Zero-to-Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, more than 90% of parents say that when they had their first child, they not only felt "in love" with their baby, but were personally happier than ever before in their lives. Parents can find interest and can derive considerable and continuing pleasure in their relationships and activities with their children. Evolutionary theory asserts that adults are motivated by strong self-interest to be good parents: According to this sociobiology, all individuals are compelled to see their childbearing and their childrearing succeed on the argument that that is the way people continue their unique genetic characteristics.

Becoming or being a parent also means having new and vital responsibilities to oneself as well as to others. Parenthood can enhance one's psychological development, self-confidence, and sense of well-being. Parenting children augments self-esteem and a sense of fulfillment. Parenting translates into a constellation of new adult trusts and affords a view to the "larger picture" of life. Of course, parenthood also gives adults ample opportunity to confront new challenges and to test and display diverse competencies. Freud listed bringing up children as one of the three "impossible professions" -- the other two being governing nations and psychoanalysis.

In essence, then, parents receive a great deal "in kind" for their hard work and commitment: They are often recipients of unconditional love, they gain skills, they gain an enhanced sense of self, and they even gain immortality. Not surprisingly, parents everywhere appear, at least at first, to be highly motivated to carry out the many tasks associated with the parenting role -- in the Zero-to-Three survey, nearly 72% of new parents said they actively prepared for parenthood, rather than doing "only a little" or "waiting to see what the experience would be like." Parents recognize and appreciate that there are human beings in their care. As a consequence, we are moved to ask:

What Are Parents' Responsibilities?

2. The parent(s) or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child's development.

Article 27
Convention on the Rights of the Child

From the start, parenthood is a 168-hour-a-week job. Young human children are totally dependent on parents for survival. Childhood is the time when we first make sense of and understand objects in the world, forge our first social bonds, and first learn how to express and read basic human emotions. In childhood, individual personalities and social styles also first develop. It is parents who escort children through all these dramatic "firsts". Not surprisingly, these developmental dynamics are closely tracked by parents, parents shape them, and all, in turn, shape parenting.

The influences of these developments reverberate through time: In the view of many social theorists (Freud, Bowlby), the child's first relationships with parents set the tone and style for all of the child's later social relationships. Empirically, a history of shared work and play activities with parents predicts children's smooth transition into school, for example, and afterward parents' involvement with their children's school-related tasks continues to relate to children's school performance.

It is a biological fact that human children do not -- and cannot -- grow up as solitary individuals; parenting constitutes an all-encompassing ecology of a child's development. Mothers and fathers, as well as siblings, other family members, and even children's nonfamilial daycare providers guide the development of children via many direct and indirect means. Direct effects are of two kinds: genetics and experience. Biological parents endow a significant and pervasive genetic makeup to their children with its beneficial or other consequences for children's proclivities and abilities.

Beyond parents' genes, all prominent theories of human development put experience in the world as either the principal source of individual growth or as a major contributing component. It falls to parents and other caregivers to provide and shape most, if not all, of young children's experiences, and parents directly influence child development both by the beliefs they hold and by the behaviors they exhibit. Parenting beliefs include perceptions about, attitudes toward, and knowledge of all aspects of parenting and childhood. Parenting beliefs are generally recognized to play many telling parts in the story of child development. Consider three examples. First, seeing yourself in one or another way vis-à-vis children can lead to expressing one or another kind of affect, thinking, or behavior in childrearing. According to Zero-to-Three, for example, 90% of new parents in the U.S. have confidence in their abilities and think of themselves generally as good parents Second, how you see childhood functions in the same way: Parents who believe that they can or cannot affect their children's temperament, intelligence, or what have you often modify their parenting accordingly. According to Zero-to-Three, one in four parents in America today thinks that a baby is born with a certain level of intelligence which cannot be increased or decreased by how parents interact with the baby. Finally, seeing your own children in a particular way has its special consequences: Parents who regard their children as being difficult, for example, are less likely to pay attention or respond to their children's overtures. Their inattentiveness and nonresponsiveness can then inhibit optimal child growth. In this way, parental beliefs can foster further temperamental difficulties because they can lead adults to treat children more negatively.

It is important to remember in this connection that parents in different cultures or subcultures hold different understandings about the meaning and significance of their parenting beliefs and behaviors, as well as the development of their children. Parents also act on these culturally defined beliefs about children, as much as they do on their own experiences with children. Cultural variation in parenting beliefs is striking, as for example, in self-reported competence at parenting: In some cultures competence is high relative to others.

Perhaps more salient in the phenomenology of childhood are parents' behaviors, the tangible experiences parents provide children. Until the time that children participate in informal and then formal social learning situations outside the family, like play groups and school, virtually all of their worldly experiences stem directly from interactions they have within the family. In this context (at least in Western cultures) two adult caregiving figures -- mom and dad -- are normally responsible for structuring the universe of a child's life experiences. The contents of parent-child interactions are varied, some being compulsory, and some discretionary. A small number of central domains of parental caregiving and interactions have been identified, however, as a prominent "core" in the childcare repertoire. Nurturant, material, social, and didactic caregiving constitute perhaps universal categories, even if they vary in their instantiations or emphases with different aged children or in different ethnic groups or locales.

  1. Nurturant caregiving meets the biological, physical, and health requirements of children. Parents are responsible for promoting children's wellness and preventing their illness. Parents in virtually all higher species nurture their young, providing sustenance, routine care, protection, supervision, grooming, comfort, and the like. Nurturance is prerequisite to children's survival and well-being.

  2. Material caregiving includes the ways in which parents provision, organize, and arrange the child's physical world, including home and local environments. Adults are responsible for the number and variety of inanimate objects (toys, books, tools) available to the child, the level of ambient stimulation, the limits on physical freedom, and the overall safety and physical dimensions of children's experiences. The amount of time children spend interacting with their inanimate surroundings rivals or exceeds the time children spend in direct social interaction with parents or others.

  3. Social caregiving includes the variety of visual, verbal, affective, and physical behaviors parents use to engage children emotionally and manage their interpersonal exchanges. Rocking, kissing, tactile comforting, smiling, vocalizing, and play illustrate parent-child interpersonal interactions. Through positive feedback, openness and negotiation, listening, and emotional closeness, parents can make their children feel valued, accepted, and approved of. Social caregiving includes helping children to regulate their own affect and emotions, and influencing the communicative styles and interpersonal repertoires which children bring to form meaningful and sustained relationships with others.

    Nurturant, maternal, and social are broad categories. Research has also identified typologies within these categories, for example of social parenting styles. An "authoritative style" combines high levels of warmth with moderate to high levels of discipline and control. In middle-class children, it is associated with achievement of social competence and overall adaptation. "Authoritarian" parenting, by contrast, contains high levels of control, but little warmth or responsiveness to children's needs, and it is generally associated with poorer developmental outcomes. In different social classes or ethnic groups, however, different outcome patterns may obtain. For example, adolescents from European-American and Hispanic-American authoritative homes perform well academically, and better than those coming from nonauthoritative households. However, school performance is similar for authoritatively and for nonauthoritatively reared Asian Americans and African Americans.

  4. Finally, from the taxonomy, didactic caregiving consists of the variety of strategies parents use to stimulate children to engage and understand the environment and to enter the world of learning. Didactics means introducing, mediating, and interpreting the external world; teaching, describing, and demonstrating; as well as provoking or providing opportunities to observe, to imitate, and to learn.

Taken as a totality, this constellation of caregiving categories constitutes a diverse and demanding set of tasks, and adults differ considerably in terms of how they recognize, esteem, and engage in components of this caregiving repertoire, as well as in how successful they are in executing different components. In all this, individual parenting styles also appear to be rather consistent, and individual parents do not vary in them much from day to day. Over longer periods, of course, parenting can change, and certainly does in response to children's development.

While elements of this taxonomy are self-evident, in practice caregiver-child interactions are dynamic, intricate, and multidimensional, and caregivers regularly engage in combinations of them. What is important to note is, however, that human children are reared in, influenced by, and adapt to a physical and social ecology commonly characterized by elements in this taxonomy.

These caregiving behaviors and styles constitute direct experience effects of parenting. Indirect effects are more subtle and less noticeable than direct effects, but perhaps no less meaningful. Parents indirectly influence their children by virtue of their influence on each other, for example by marital support and communication. Parents' attitudes about their spouse and their marriages can modify the quality of their interactions with their children and, in turn, their children's adjustment and development. The ways in which spouses provide support and show respect for each other in parenting, and how they work together as a co-parenting team, can then have positive or negative consequences for children. Intimate support from husbands enhances maternal competence, family dynamics, and child outcomes. Women who report having supportive relationships with husbands (or lovers or grandparents) are more attentive and sensitively responsive to their children. By contrast, quarreling parents are likely to convey confusing messages to their children, have less time for and become less involved in their children's lives, and engage in more hostile relationships with their children. Parents often forget that children in the back seat of the car overhear everything they say in the front seat. In short, parents who feel negative about their marriage (as those who feel negative about themselves) tend to act with their children in negative, inattentive, and nonresponsive ways.

Whether direct or indirect, parental influences on children operate on two noteworthy principles. It is probably not the case that overall level of parental stimulation directly affects children's overall level of functioning and compensates for selective deficiencies: Simply providing an adequate financial base, a big house, or the like does not guarantee, or even speak to, children's development of an empathic personality, verbal competence, or other valued capacities. The specificity principle states that specific experiences parents provide children at specific times exert specific effects over specific aspects of child growth in specific ways. This principle is apparently counterintuitive because, according to the Zero-to-Three national survey, 87% of parents simplistically think that the more stimulation a baby receives, the better off the baby is. In fact, parents and caregivers need to carefully match the amount and kinds of stimulation they offer to the child's level of development, special interests, temperament, mood at the moment, and so forth.The transaction principle asserts that the experiences parents offer their children shape the characteristics of the child through time just as, reciprocally, the characteristics of the child shape his or her experiences. Thus, children influence which experiences they will be exposed to, as well as how they interpret those experiences, and therefore ultimately how those experiences affect them. Child and parent bring distinctive characteristics to their mutual interactions, and child and parent alike are believed to change as a result of those interactions; both parent and child then enter future interactions as somewhat "different" individuals.

So, parenting is a peculiar kind of life's work, marked by challenging demands, changing and ambiguous criteria, and too-frequent evaluations. Principles such as specificity and transaction do not make it easier. Successful parenting entails both affective components -- in terms of commitment, empathy, and positive regard for children, for example, -- as well as cognitive components -- the how, what, and why of caring for children. Moreover, the path to achieving satisfaction and success in parenting is not linear or incremental, but tends to be winding and cyclic. Different tasks are more or less salient and challenging at different times in the course of childrearing. Parenting is a process that formally begins during or before pregnancy, and continues through the balance of life span: Practically speaking, once a parent, always a parent. It is obvious to say that parenthood is central to childhood, to child development, and to society's long-term investment in children. Parents are fundamentally invested in the survival, socialization, and education of young children. But parenthood is also a critical component of adulthood. So, we are motivated to know about the meaning and importance of parenthood as much for itself, as out of the desire to improve the lives of children. As a consequence, we are moved to ask:

Who Parents?

In the minds of many, mother is unique, the roles of mother universal, and motherhood unequivocally principal in the development of young children. Cross-cultural surveys attest to the primacy of biological mothers in all forms of caregiving, and theorists, researchers, and clinicians have typically concerned themselves with motherhood, rather than parenthood, in recognition of this fact, even if historically fathers' social and legal claims and responsibilities on children were pre-eminent. The recent nationwide Zero-to-Three survey found that, although the days when most women "stay home" with children are in the past, fully 65% of America's mothers -- whether working outside the home or not -- continue to bear the largest part of day-to-day responsibilities of childrearing; only 25% say that mother and father share these duties equally; and a meager 10% indicates that fathers do most of the basic caregiving each day.

Western industrialized nations have witnessed some increases in the amount of time fathers spend with their children; and of course fathers are neither inept nor uninterested in caregiving. Fathers normally engage in all its forms: nurturant, material, social, and didactic. But in everyday life, fathers still assume altogether precious little responsibility for childcare and rearing. That said, research suggests that mothers and fathers tend to interact with, and care for, their children in complementary ways; that is, they divide and share the labors of caregiving and engage children by taking responsibility for different types of interactions. For example, mothers are more likely to kiss, hug, talk to, smile at, and hold babies, whereas fathers are identified with tactile and physical playful interactions. Mothers and fathers also differ in degree of responsibility they take for managing different family tasks. Various constraints and differences in interests and abilities no doubt cause mothers and fathers to devote different amounts of time and resources to their children in different domains, such as school, sports, or the household.

Beyond mother and father, pluralistic caregiving arrangements are common and, as we know, significant in the lives of today's children. Clinton includes a variety of caring adults in the "village" of critical persons responsible and responsive to children. 60% of children under age 3 are cared for on a regular basis by someone other than their parents; 80% under 3 have had at least one non-parental careprovider; and 50% have had two or more. In many places around the globe, young children spend most of their time under the care of nonparents, including siblings, other relatives, or caregivers. Thus, many individuals "parent" young children. Indeed, some have argued that direct childcare by a biological parent has been more the historic exception than the rule. Sources of nonparental childcare divide roughly into four types: The first (and unfortunately not infrequent) childcare arrangement used throughout the world -- in spite of the hazards involved -- is non-existent childcare. Children are simply left unattended while mother and father are otherwise occupied. Second is childcare provided by other members of the parents' household or kin group, including siblings, grandparents, aunts, and the like. The third source of nonparental care involves reciprocal exchanges of childcare among members of a residential group (usually without any financial compensation). The fourth type is a combination of formal and informal child care services, where childcare is provided for a fee at home (either the home of the child or the provider) or in an institutional setting.

The implications of these increasingly common and diverse patterns of early "parenting" relationships for children's development are still unclear. But, according to theZero-to-Threesurvey, nearly half of all parents think that the more caregivers a child has before age 3, the better that child will adapt and cope with change. In fact, when very young children switch repeatedly from one caregiver to another, the time they spend grieving the loss of the old caregiver and learning the new caregiver's ways may adversely affect their development. Moreover, it is a curious and tragic fact that even superb substitute parenting work is low in value and remuneration, while the outcome for succeeding generations of humanity is inestimable.

What Factors Influence Parenting?

The origins of maternal and paternal beliefs and behaviors are extremely complex, but certain factors seem to be of paramount importance. First, some aspects of parenting appear initially to arise out of biological processes associated with pregnancy and parturition. Pregnancy in human beings causes the release of certain hormones thought to be involved in the development and expression of protective, nurturant, and responsive feelings toward offspring. Prenatal biological events -- age, diet, and stress, as well as other factors, such as disease, exposure to environmental toxins, and even birth anesthetics -- all affect postnatal parenting as well as child development. Some characteristics of parenting may be "wired" into our biological makeup: Lorenz contended that structural characteristics of the very young -- like facial features -- excite feelings of affection and solicitude in mature members of different species. Parents commonly speak to babies even though they know that babies cannot understand language and will not respond, and parents and nonparents alike even speak to babies in a special register which is specifically geared to promote language learning and understanding. For example, whether we are mothers or fathers, French, Italian, German, Japanese, English, or American we tend to raise the pitch of our speech to attract a baby's attention. Indeed, adults almost cannot help but speak this way to babies.

Second, parenting calls upon enduring personality and associated characteristics, including intelligence, traits and attitudes, motivation to become involved with children, and childcare knowledge and skills. Some characteristics that favor good parenting include general well-being, empathic awareness, predictability, responsiveness, and emotional availability. More educated parents tend to engage in the authoritative style of childrearing. Perceived self-efficacy is likely to affect parenting positively because parents who feel effective vis-à-vis their children are motivated to engage in further interactions with their children, which in turn provides them with additional opportunities to understand and interact positively and appropriately with their children. The more rewarding their interactions, the more motivated parents may be to seek "quality" interactions again. On the other hand, negative characteristics of personality, like self-centeredness and depression, whether transient or permanent, typically affect parenting adversely. Mothers with elevated depression are more likely to ignore, protest, or verbally attack their children in problem-solving situations, and even subclinical depression is negatively related to mothers' communication of nurturance and trust. Depressive symptoms are associated with the endorsement of authoritarian strategies rather than rational discipline strategies, and mothers who are depressed generally have a difficult time providing nurturant care to children and become frustrated and yell more.

Third, characteristics of children influence parenting and, in turn, child development. These characteristics may be more obvious ones, like age, gender, or physical appearance, or they may be more subtle ones, like temperament, and other individual differences. Child temperament affects parents' confidence, management styles, and levels of involvement, and control strategies.

Biology, personality, and child characteristics constitute salient factors that influence parenting from the start. Beyond these, contextual factors motivate and help to define parental behaviors and beliefs. Family configuration, social support, economic class, and cultural world view encourage divergent patterns of parenting perceptions and practices. The family life of a laterborn child is not the same as that of the firstborn, for example, for many reasons including parent's changing experiences and the new family constellation.

Mothers in different SES groups might behave similarly in certain parenting domains, however SES -- through environment or education -- also orders home circumstances and multiple attitudes and actions of parents toward children. Higher- compared to lower-SES parents typically provide children with more opportunities for variety in daily stimulation, more appropriate play materials, and more language. The Zero-to-Three survey confirms that the youngest, the lowest income, and single parents feel relatively unprepared for their daunting new role as caregiver.

Furthermore, cross-cultural comparisons show that virtually all aspects of parenting children -- whether beliefs or behaviors -- are shaped by cultural habits. We acquire some understandings of parenting simply by living in a culture: Generational, social, and media images of parenting, children, and family life -- handed-down or ready-made -- play significant roles in helping people form their parenting beliefs and guide their parenting behaviors, even if public service announcements are marginalized to black-and-white newspaper images and 2 a.m. TV.Culture influences some parenting patterns and practices (and, in turn, child development) through such pervasive factors as when and how parents care for children and which behaviors parents appreciate and emphasize. Inasmuch as culture is "organized information," parenting consists of mechanisms for transmitting that information, and childhood consists of processing that information. Both parents and children then "select, edit, and refashion" cultural information. Parents from different cultures vary, for example, in the ages they expect children will reach different milestones or acquire different competencies, and they differ in their opinions about the significance of certain competencies for children's success and adjustment. Indeed, at the very heart of the concept culture is the expectation that different peoples possess different values, beliefs, and motives and behave in different ways:All of these forces then engender similarities or differences in parenting.

In summary, direct experiences with children and the self-constructive aspects of parenting are both important in formulating parenting attitudes and actions. Achieving successful parenting thus implies psychological understanding and interpretation and the confidence to enact culturally defined programs. The important consequence of this emerging complex view of the origins and conduct of parenting is that parenthood can be influenced and modified through education and cultural climate for good or ill

Finally, we are moved to ask:

What Happens If Parenting Goes Awry ?

2. For the purpose of guaranteeing and promoting the rights set forth in the present Convention, States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children.

Article 18
Convention on the Rights of the Child

In everyday life, parenting children does not always go well and right. Infanticide was practiced historically, and although it is rare today, it is not unknown. But, short of that extreme, too many children live in poverty ... children are the common victims of abuse and neglect ... babies are born drug addicted ... many children are never immunized. For these and other reasons, contemporary parenting has witnessed an explosive growth in information and support programmes.

Parents are normally information-hungry. Nearly half of all parents of infants and toddlers (46% in the Zero-to-Three survey) report that they pay serious attention to news reports and newspaper articles about early childhood issues. However, the time available for families for nurturing children has diminished, and economic pressures on today's families often cause children to receive inadequate care and, as we have seen, to be placed in nonfamilial environments at ever earlier times in their lives. As a consequence of contemporary social and cultural changes, most notably dual parent employment, a demand for high-quality community-based childcare services has burgeoned, and nonfamilial caregivers in these settings have assumed responsibility for meeting children's developmental needs -- essentially for preparing children for a future in society.

Still, the family is the principal source of care and development of the child, and we need to refocus on parents in this practical regard. Belief in the potential of the early years as the time when families can aid the development and education of children is strong. At that time, children's physical, emotional, and social learning requirements might be better managed by parents with supportive efforts from professionals. Contemporary parenting programmes are therefore normally guided by several assumptions: Parents are usually the most consistent and caring people in the lives of their children. If parents are provided with knowledge, skills, and supports, they can respond more positively and effectively to their children. Parents' own emotional and physical needs must be met if they are to respond to their children.

Certain tools can help to address these parenting requirements successfully. First, parents benefit from knowledge of how children develop. Therefore, the normative patterns and stages of children's physical, verbal, cognitive, emotional, and social development, as well as their nutritional and health needs should be part of the knowledge base for parenthood. Concretely, parents' understanding the patterns and processes of their children's cognitive growth helps them to develop more realistic expectations of the stages of child development and the requisite skills for children's achieving more mature competencies.

Second, parents need to know how to observe young children. Child watching helps us to understand a child's level of development in relation to what we want our children to learn or to accomplish. Parents need information and observation skills to help them discover the match between their child's ability or readiness and ways and means to help their child achieve developmental goals. Observing also allows parents to spot potential trouble early, and may help parents handle a child's daily frustrations more skillfully.

Third, parents need all manner of insights for managing their children's behaviors. Knowledge and skills regarding alternative methods of discipline and problem avoidance are basic. Parents' knowing how to implement a variety of positive rewards can help their children more fully enjoy and appreciate the exploration and struggles required in mastering new skills.

Fourth are supports for development. Knowing how to take advantage of settings, routines, and activities to create learning and problem-solving opportunities enhances parenthood and childhood. Parents realize that they exercise important influences on their children's development, but often do not fully appreciate how their day-to-day interactions affect children. They need to understand the tremendous impact they have on their children's lives through the simplest things: their attention, expressed pleasure, listening, and interest. These activities nourish a child's growing sense of self, just as food nourishes a child's growing body.

Finally, parents need patience, flexibility, and to be goal-oriented -- personal sources of support -- and they must command an ability to extract pleasure from their encounters with children. We don't remind ourselves of those parental positives often enough, refocusing here could be useful in practice and policy arenas.

Positive programmes for parents are guided by beliefs in the consummate role of families in rearing their own children and the importance of family participation in defining its own priorities and identifying appropriate intervention strategies. Even when extrafamilial services are needed, if benefits to the child are to be maintained, people at home must take part. In other words, parental involvement remains the indispensable ingredient for sustaining the accomplishments of extrafamilial childhood education programmes. The responsibility for determining the child's best interests rests first and foremost with parents. Therefore, the doctrine of parental rights remains a fundamental premise of parent education efforts.

In this regard, it is reasonable to ask: How well is society faring? Almost two in five parents (37% in the Zero-to-Three survey) say that one of the chief reasons they need to improve as parents is that they do not spend as much quality time with their children as they would like to. Parents typically complain that they have too many balls in the air already: working, errands, multiple commitments. Parenting is our cheapest and best resource for ensuring viable children and a viable future for our children. This is not to trivialize the daunting problems that parents face: In the 1940s and 1950s chewing gum and talking out of turn were the classroom problems listed by teachers as most prominent; today drug abuse and violence -- as far as Pearl, Peducah, Edinbiro, and Jonesboro -- top their list.

Moreover, families are best served when they are helped to enhance their own skills, rather than when decisions are made and solutions implemented for them. Families are complex social systems marked by strong forms of interdependence among all members and by a kaleidoscopic redistribution of forces associated with responsibilities and functions of those family members through time. Interdependence means that to understand the responsibilities and functions of any one family member, we also need to recognize the complementary responsibilities and functions of other family members. Mothers, fathers, and children (as well as other interested parties) influence each other both directly and indirectly. When one member of the family changes, all members of the family are potentially affected. Beyond the nucleus, all families are also embedded in, influence, and are themselves affected by larger social systems. These include both formal and informal support systems, extended families, community ties with friends and neighbors, work sites, social, educational, and medical institutions, as well as the culture at large. Redistribution of forces means that parents and children change in their persons and positions. Moreover, on the transaction principle, we need to recall that each influences the other, so that elements of who we were yesterday, who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow are in constant transformation.

To fathom the nature of parenthood and parent-child relationships within families, therefore, requires of us a multivariate and dynamic stance. It is, unfortunately, only by taking multiple circumstances into consideration simultaneously that we can appreciate individual, dyadic, and family level aspects within the family and reflect the embeddedness of the family within its many relevant extrafamilial systems. The dynamic aspect involves the different developmental trajectories of individuals in the family. Parenting a child is akin to trying to "hit a moving target", the everchanging child developing in fits and starts at his or her own pace. Parents and children stimulate and provide feedback to one another. In order to maintain appropriate influence and guidance, parents must effectively adjust their interactions, cognitions, emotions, affections, and strategies for exerting influence to the age-graded activities, abilities, and experiences of children. The multiple pathways and dynamics of parenting and child development present us with the really quite "messy" facts of life, and it makes everyone's job harder: researchers have to develop new paradigms and research methdologies to accommodate this chaos; similarly, the use of this perspective in the development and implementation of parenting programs as well as policy development is problematic. Yet, out of all this complexity and chaos, we could potentially understand more about the reality of families and children and parenting. It is no wonder, however, that children do not come with an Operating Manual; it would have to be as encyclopedic as life itself.

The costs of inadequate parenting and failures to address problems in family life are high. Children lacking appropriate care are exposed more frequently to illness, poor nutrition, stress, and unstimulating environments. Children need to receive deep psychological messages about how special and precious each one is. Just feeding and clothing a child will not produce the kind of person who will nurture well in the next generation. The long-term costs can be measured in terms of school drop-out, unemployment, delinquency, and the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty and low self-esteem.


... in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance ...

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Parents intend much in their interactions with their children: They promote their children's mental development through the structures they create and the meanings they place on those structures -- and they foster their children's emotional regulation, development of self, and social sensitivities and participation in meaningful relationships and experiences outside of the family -- through the models they portray and the values they display. As children move out of the nest, parenthood ultimately means having facilitated a child's self-confidence, capacity for intimacy, achievement motivation, pleasure in play and work, friendships with peers, and continuing academic success and fulfillment.

Within-family experiences exercise a major impact during the early years of life. The nuclear family triad of mother, father, child constitutes the crucible in which children initially grow and develop. A full understanding of what it means to parent a child, however, depends on the ecology in which that parenting takes place. Family constitution, context, social class, and cultural variation also affect patterns of childrearing and exert salient influences on the ways in which young children are reared and what is expected of them as they grow. These early relationships all ensure that the "parenting" which children experience is rich and multifaceted. Parenting is immensely time consuming and effortful. In parenting, we sometimes don't know what to do, but we can find out; sometimes, we do know what to do, but still don't get into the trenches and do it. On the other side, the characteristics developed and acquired in childhood are formative and fundamental, in the sense that they endure, or at least constitute features that later developments or experiences in maturity build on or modify. Of course, human development is too subtle, dynamic, and intricate to assert that parenthood alone determines the course and outcome of ontogeny; stature in adulthood is shaped by the actions of individuals themselves, and by experiences that take place after childhood. Parenthood does not fix the route or terminus of the child's development. But it makes sense that effects have causes -- and that the start exerts an impact on the end. Hence, the enormous implications and enduring significance ... and reason to refocus on parenthood.


This chapter summarizes selected aspects of my research, and portions of the text have appeared in previous scientific publications cited in the references. I thank B. Wright for comments and assistance. Requests for reprints should be sent to Marc H. Bornstein, Child and Family Research, Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Building 31 -- Room B2B15, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda MD 20892-2030, U.S.A. Email:


1 Most contemporary research about parenthood is Western in origin, and the determinations and dimensions of parenthood I bring to the table are weighted by a Western orientation. Some of my observations might apply outside that context, others may not "travel" so well. As always, projecting Western ideas onto the behaviors and experiences of different peoples is problematic.

Copyright © 1998 Marc H. Bornstein

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