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Social Development

Infancy And Preschool: An Emphasis On Biology And Parenting

Even before a child is born, much has occurred in terms of social development. Genetic and prenatal biological factors play a large, persistent role in determining later social behavior. After birth, parents and other family members are the key socializing agents of the preschooler's development.

By studying monozygotic (i.e., identical) and dizygotic (i.e., fraternal) twins, as well as adopted siblings, behavioral geneticists have concluded that genetic factors account for 40 to 70 percent of the variability in certain characteristics. Sandra Scarr described how genes contribute directly to children's characteristics and indirectly influence social development through three processes: passive effects, in which children's genes are related to the parenting of their biological parents; evocative effects, by which children elicit certain types of behaviors from others; and active effects, through which children seek out environments that best fit their genetic makeups.

Although it is clear that genetic makeup plays a crucial role in social development, it is less certain exactly what biological mechanisms account for this influence. Certainly, many innate factors affecting social behavior are common to nearly all infants. For instance, infants will cry when distressed, and they actively attend to and seek attention from caregivers. Infants have differences, however, in their genetic makeups, and researchers have searched for ways in which these differences are expressed. Perhaps the most widely studied aspect is temperament, which consists of several components related to emotional reactivity and regulation. Infants described as having "difficult temperament" are those who are fussy, become upset easily, and are not easily soothed. Other infants are considered inhibited—they are timid and fearful, become easily upset by intense stimuli, and are also not easily soothed. Infants with "easy temperaments" are outgoing and respond positively to social stimuli (i.e., do not show excessive fear), and are easily soothed when they do become upset. Temperament is rather stable across time and exerts powerful eliciting effects on parents' and other family members' behaviors toward the child across development.

Parenting practices also play a crucial role in infants' social development. Certain parenting practices, such as feeding and protecting, are necessary for the infant's survival and are performed by nearly all parents. Parents vary considerably, however, in the degree to which they are permissive, are warm or rejecting, and are consistent in the form of discipline they apply. Many of these factors are incorporated into Diana Baumrind's three typologies of parenting: authoritative parenting, in which parents are warm and responsive to the child, yet place limits on the child's behavior; authoritarian parenting, in which parents place strict limits on the child's behavior, with violation of these limits harshly punished, and in which there is little parental warmth; and permissive parenting, in which parents are warm and nurturing without placing limits on the child's behavior. There is ample evidence that authoritative parenting is associated with positive social development, whereas authoritarian and permissive parenting are associated with negative development (e.g., conflictual relationships).

These parenting styles are influential throughout development, but may be especially important in the formation of attachment security in infancy. According to John Bowlby, nearly all infants form an attachment bond to their caregivers, and this bond is evolutionarily adaptive in promoting a balance between exploring the world and seeking safety with the caregiver. Mary Ainsworth demonstrated that there are important differences in infants' attachment styles, depending on the history of caregiver availability and responsiveness. Secure attachment is related to a history of warm and consistent parenting, avoidant attachment to parental negativity and rejection, and resistant attachment to inconsistent parenting. These attachment styles influence social behavior not only with parents, but also with siblings and peers. Securely attached children are the most socially competent with others, while avoidant toddlers are hostile and aggressive, and resistant toddlers are socially inhibited in their interactions with others.

These early influences likely exert influence on later social behavior through the formation of social cognitions, or mental representations of the social world. Albert Bandura described three classes of social cognitions that guide social behavior: self-efficacy is the perception of one's ability to enact a behavior (e.g., "how well am I able to maintain a conversation with a peer?"); outcome expectations are the expected consequences if one enacts a behavior (e.g., "if I converse with this boy will he want to be my friend?"); and outcome values are the values placed on the expected outcomes (e.g., "do I want him as my friend?"). The behaviors of parents and other family members shape these early social cognitions, which are further shaped by interactions with peers in childhood.

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7Social Development - Infancy And Preschool: An Emphasis On Biology And Parenting, Childhood And Early Adolescence: An Emphasis On Peers