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Who Is Socializing U.s. Children?

A wealth of research findings indicate there is great variation within each type of family structure— such as two-parent, divorced, remarried, cohabitating, and single-parent—such that family structure alone is a very poor indicator of quality of home environment or child outcomes. Children can have their emotional, social, cognitive, and physical needs met in the context of diverse family structures when parents have the personal and economic resources and the desire to provide a healthy environment for children in their charge. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 1999, 68 percent of children in America lived with two parents. This represented a drop from 77 percent in 1980. Among children living in two-parent households, 91 percent lived with both biological parents while 9 percent lived with a stepparent—more commonly a stepfather.

Who Is Socializing U.S. Children?

Despite progressive shifts in cultural attitudes regarding the appropriateness of mothers and fathers sharing caregiving activities and involvement with children, only small changes in actual parenting patterns are recorded by existing research completed after 1980. Fathers continue to spend less time than mothers with infants and children in the United States and other industrialized countries. When they are with their children, fathers are more likely than mothers to be involved in play rather than the children's routine maintenance such as feeding and grooming. Fathers also spend a greater amount of time on personal activities, such as watching television and reading, in comparison to mothers. Parenting infants, as opposed to children or teenagers, differs greatly with respect to the common activities and skill utilization parents have the opportunity to employ. Although qualitative changes in parenting are dramatic as children mature, the traditional division of labor between mothers and fathers persists through developmental changes.

Division of labor is not an issue for the growing number of parents who manage all the varied responsibilities for their children on their own. The substantial majority of single parents are mothers. In 1999 the Census Bureau reported that 23 percent of children lived with only their mothers while 4 percent lived with only their fathers. Other data indicated that growth of one-parent families was slowing. In particular, the number of single-father households was rising, while the number of single-mother households remained nearly constant between 1995 and 1998, after almost tripling from 1970 to 1995. Time and money continue to be the biggest challenges for mothers parenting alone. In America, the richest country in the world, 19 percent of children lived in poverty in 1998. This statistic reveals that many divorced or never-married mothers struggle to make ends meet. The median household income for single fathers is significantly higher than that of their female counterparts. Some of the financial difficulties faced by single parents may be assuaged by contributions made by cohabitating partners. Sixteen percent of children living with fathers and 9 percent of children living with mothers also lived with a parent's cohabitating partner.

Fluctuations in family structure have been accompanied by a changing American work force. From the 1960s on, much media, legislative, and academic attention has been devoted to mothers' increased presence in the workplace. Mothers have challenged societal gender norms as the proportion of employed mothers has steadily risen. Even as far back as 1980, 50 percent of American women were employed for pay and the typical woman worker was a mother. The percentage of mothers who held jobs and had children under age one continued to increase; according to the Census Bureau, 59 percent of mothers of infants worked in 1998—up from 38 percent in 1980. These numbers are compelling, and they have sparked a national debate regarding the effect of child care on the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development of American children. Concern about overuse of child care may be quelled by data indicating that the majority of mothers of very young children are not employed full time. Children under age two are generally in home-based care when mothers do work. Children ages three to six are likely to be in a part-time or full-time center-based, preschool-type program. The extent to which center-based care is learning-focused varies widely; a minority of programs feature developmentally appropriate, effective learning environments. Good quality, learning-based preschool experience is related to positive long-term outcomes for children, especially children with lower-quality home environments. In addition, smaller amounts of state and federal monies are spent on social programs over time for individuals who attended a good-quality preschool.

In findings published in 1998-2000 from the most comprehensive study of early child care, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Childcare indicate that up to thirty hours per week of good-quality child care does not pose a threat to the cognitive, social, or emotional development of children ages zero to three who are from adequate home environments. The fact that American child-care facilities often do not rise to the level of "good" presents greater cause for concern. Further, in communities where a sufficient amount of good-quality child care is present, it is often unaffordable for many middle-class families.

Many formulas for "correct" or effective parenting have been published since the 1930s, when behavioral scientists likened parenting babies to training animals with conditioning paradigms based on strict use of reward and punishment. Unlike other cultures, both industrialized and nonindustrialized, American society experiences wide swings in popular parenting wisdom espoused by parents, psychologists, and pediatricians. Present understanding of parent-child interaction has benefited from a context of reviewing existing research findings and examining long-term consequences of various approaches. There are two contemporary approaches to understanding the impact of parenting on children's development: typo-logical and social interaction. Typological models focus on overall styles or types of parenting while the social interaction approach stresses the nature of specific exchanges between parent and child.

The most widely appreciated typological approach to understanding parenting was developed by Diana Baumrind in 1973. Baumrind identified authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting styles. Parenting style is a set of attitudes toward the child that a parent transmits to the child to create an emotional climate surrounding parent-child exchanges. Parenting style is different from parenting behaviors, which are characterized by specific actions and socialization goals. The combination of parental warmth and demandingness is central to conceptualization of parenting style. Authoritative parents display a warm, accepting attitude toward their children while maintaining firm expectations of and restrictions on children's behavior. Open communication between parent and child is facilitated within this emotional climate. Long-term outcomes for children and adolescents of authoritative parents are more favorable compared to outcomes for children of authoritarian or permissive parents. For instance, Baumrind found that adolescent sons of authoritative parents were more competent in comparison to children reared with other parenting styles.

The authoritarian parenting style is characterized by a harsh, rigid emotional climate combined with high demands and little communication. Baumrind found in her longitudinal study that boys with authoritarian parents were particularly vulnerable in terms of both cognitive and social competence. Permissive parents display warmth and acceptance toward their children but do not place demands or restrictions on children's behavior.

Behavioral scientists have continued to conduct research based on Baumrind's parenting styles. Findings have confirmed positive outcomes for offspring of authoritative parents, in particular, better academic achievement. Some findings indicate parenting styles may not be relevant cross-culturally since they are conceptually based in Western cultural values and parenting practices, which do not translate readily into other cultural socialization norms. Also, there has been a lack of research on the processes by which associations exist between parenting styles and social, cognitive, and emotional outcomes for children and adolescents.

Behavioral scientists have also approached the question of how to best understand relations between the parental role and child outcomes through studying parent-child interaction. This method focuses on the dyadic relationship between one parent (historically the mother) and one child. From a family systems perspective, the dyadic relationship represents one piece of a larger puzzle. Nonetheless, emphasis on the dyadic relationship has been fruitful and has dominated decades of parenting literature. Parent-child interaction research has shown that the interaction between parent and child is linked to a variety of social outcomes including aggression, achievement, and moral development. Significant associations between parent-child interaction and child outcomes are impressive not because of their size, which is often small, but because of the unique influence they have on child development amid the array of other family, school, and community influences on any given child. Behavioral scientists have "turned over many stones" in their search for influential parental characteristics. Examples of parental qualities that have been repeatedly identified as salient predictors of positive development include parental responsiveness, lack of hostility and controlling parenting, and positive parental affect.

Studies conducted in the 1990s found unique effects for fathers' interaction apart from effects from mothers with respect to cognitive and social development. Thus, it is no longer accurate to view fathers' role in the household as instrumental (e.g., breadwinner) while mothers influence all emotional development. Despite the lesser amount of time fathers spend with children, fathers' interaction patterns contribute to children's emotional development apart from the influence of mothers. Further, parent-child interaction research has evolved from simply matching behaviors on the part of parents with behaviors displayed by their children. Contemporary work focuses on psychological processes that underlie associations between parenting and child adjustment, such as emotional understanding, emotional regulatory skills, mental representations, attributions and beliefs, and problem-solving skills.

Whether one approaches parenting from a large-scale family climate perspective or a more fine-detail, parent-child interaction perspective, how to discipline children remains one of the most frequently asked questions from behavioral scientists and parents alike. Specifically, is physical punishment effective, and even if it is, is it damaging to children? A wealth of research indicates that physical punishment yields obedience out of fear, which quickly translates into transgressions when the fear is alleviated. That is, children do not continue to obey when the threat of punishment is lifted. Children are, however, likely to incorporate parents' rules into their normal repertoire of behavior when they have been consistently rewarded for their good behaviors. Reasoning, rather than punishment, has yielded effective socialization outcomes. Further, minor physical discipline such as spanking a child's buttocks in a controlled manner with an open hand is associated with higher levels of bullying aggression displayed by kindergartners as well as noncompliance among young children. Children learn what they live, and spanking clearly does not promote prosocial development based on current research knowledge.

Another practical and influential parenting behavior often studied and questioned is parental monitoring. Parental monitoring is a range of activities that includes the supervision of children's choice of social settings, activities, and friends. Monitoring of young children is direct in nature while for adolescents it is indirect in the form of management of social activities. A number of studies have shown that less monitoring and supervision of children's activities is associated with delinquent and antisocial behavior. After-school time and evening are particularly important segments of the day for parents to keep close tabs on preadolescents and adolescents by phone calling, asking questions, verifying answers, and, where possible, escorting and supervising kids. Children on their own after school, especially girls, are susceptible to peer pressure to engage in such activities as vandalism, cheating, and stealing.

Parental involvement is conceptually related to monitoring in that it involves the parents' management of the child's access to opportunities to develop socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively, such as extracurricular activities and social circles. Parents act as a conduit for children to interface with institutional settings such as church, Brownies, Cub Scouts, library, and pool. Mothers more often than fathers maintain involvement with such organizations. Social class differences are related to children's use of community organizations and the level of maternal participation. Diminished participation by less advantaged families may be explained by lesser ability to pay and get time off from work to attend. Involved parents also act as social coaches in that they arrange opportunities for play and socialization through their own adult peer network.

Individual parents bring unique levels of personal resources to the parenting process, including the cumulative effects of upbringing, education, employment, and mental health. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Parenting is such a wildly complex and subtle process that it is necessary to use several levels of analysis in order to gain a well-rounded understanding of the entire process. For instance, from most fine-grained to most general, one can examine parent-child interaction, parenting style or family climate, the family as a system, and, finally, influences on parenting quality altogether external to the family.

One factor external to the family, but important to the parenting process, is parental employment. Employment affects parents as individuals since the way they feel about work is often brought home after work, a process called spillover. Parents with very demanding jobs have been found in research studies to shy away from complex parenting tasks such as helping with homework. A disengaged parenting style is one in which a parent seeks to do the minimum required when interacting with offspring. This approach may be more likely when parents are emotionally and cognitively drained from work. Disengaged parenting style has been shown to be related to poor outcomes for children. Jobs also affect parents' skills, attitudes, and perspectives through providing practice at the objective tasks that they perform on the job. From this point of view, jobs shape parents developmentally over time, reinforcing particular strengths and weaknesses.

Parental employment changes the allocation of responsibilities and power in the family. Children may be asked to be responsible for chores at an earlier age when both parents are employed. Although the data are not conclusive, fathers may take on more responsibility for running the household when mothers are employed. The adjustment each family member makes to the time management and effort jobs require of parents determines the effect employment has on children. In other words, with respect to children's development, employment versus nonemployment is less informative than details about the job and family functioning, such as quality of the home environment and parental involvement.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is a reliable predictor of parenting and child adjustment that is closely tied to parental employment. It is a complex variable based on income and education, along with other "social address" indicators, that determines many of the structural components of children's daily lives such as neighborhood, school district, extracurricular activities, health care, and nutrition. A number of studies have confirmed that there are SES differences in parenting practices and beliefs. Lower SES parents tend to be more authoritarian in their overall parenting style, with more controlling, restrictive, and disapproving parent-child interaction patterns. Parents' use of control strategies may be the result of dangerous living conditions.

Higher SES mothers tend to be more verbal when interacting with their children. Researchers are far from understanding why SES is such a reliable indicator of parenting factors. Current efforts are focused on developing more detailed information on how specific components related to SES—such as neighborhood, job quality, and family structure—affect parenting, and examining risk and resiliency models within this framework.

Individual parents have unique levels of personal resources stemming from cumulative effects of up-bringing, education, employment, and mental health, for instance. Therefore, parents bring themselves to the parenting equation—including their own developmental stage. The lifespan developmental model emerged in the 1970s and is built on the premise that human development is a lifelong process. Parents, therefore, are at a specific point in their own growth as they face their child's continually changing needs. For instance, mothers may be negotiating their own new identity as "homemaker" or "career woman" as they make decisions about bedtimes, child care, or nutrition. Similarly, marriages evolve over time. Marital happiness and stability is a good predictor of parenting quality whether or not parents fight in front of children. Marital discord can be draining emotionally and financially taxing, and may present many unique complications in between. These factors in the socioemotional lives of parents represent very real barometers of what parents have to give to child rearing.

In a similar vein, children bring to the careful dance of child rearing their own individual selves complete with desires, habits, and temperament. Temperament is the biological preparedness infants bring into the world that predisposes them to deal with social, cognitive, and perceptual challenges in particular ways. Children's responses to such challenges play a significant role in adaptation to their environment. During the 1990s there was increasing recognition that children's individual differences in a variety of behaviors shape the way parents respond to children. For instance, infants with difficult temperament are thought to elicit more arousal and distress from caregivers than their less difficult counterparts. Temperamental differences are thought to be modifiable depending on parental personality traits, among other environmental factors.

Finally, behavioral scientists have made efforts to determine whether parenting is modifiable through parental education. Many different programs for parent education exist, with varying success rates in the short and long term. The success of a program can be measured according to changed parenting or improvement in child adjustment. In general, more training has been shown to lead to better outcomes. Parent education programs commonly focus on positive forms of discipline, information about children's developmental stages, activities to enhance children's cognitive skills, and the importance of warmth combined with consistent rules. Longitudinal data from "welfare to work" studies indicate that parental education programs need to include a minimum of biweekly home visits and last over two years to be effective in terms of changed parental behavior. Such programs are prohibitively expensive. Thus, a high-quality parent education program can change the parenting of poorly educated, young, poor mothers, but these improvements are not necessarily related to better cognitive and social development for children. This may be because parenting is just one of the challenges disadvantaged families face. For instance, better parenting may not be able to completely eclipse environmental threats, such as poverty or domestic violence.


Baumrind, Diana. "The Development of Instrumental Competence through Socialization." In Anne D. Pick ed., Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Eccles, Jacquelynne S., Allan Wigfield, and Ulrich Schiefele. "Motivation to Succeed." In William Damon and Nancy Eisenberg eds., Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development. New York: Wiley, 1998.

NICHD Early Child Care Search Network. "The Effects of Infant Child Care on Infant-Mother Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Child Development 68 (1997):860-879.

NICHD Early Child Care Search Network. "The Relationship ofChild Care to Cognitive and Language Development." Presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Meeting, April 3-6, 1997, Washington, DC.

NICHD Early Child Care Search Network. "Early Child Care and Self Control, Compliance, and Problem Behavior at Twenty-Four and Thirty-Six months." Child Development 69 (1998): 1145-1170.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. "Survey of Income and Program Participation." March Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. "Household and Family Characteristics." March Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. March Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.

Abigail Tuttle O'Keeffe



Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 6Parenting - Who Is Socializing U.s. Children?, Qualitative Aspects Of Parenting, Parenting Style, Parent-child Interaction - Quantitative Aspects of Parenting