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Definition: parenting from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1958) 1 : the raising of a child by its parents 2 : the act or process of becoming a parent 3 : the taking care of someone in the manner of a parent

Summary Article: Parenting
From Encyclopedia of Family Health

Parenting is the regulation of children's behavior and development in order to promote children's survival, adaptation to the environment, and pursuit of their own goals. Parenting may also be conceived of as socialization, or inculcation of the values and norms of a culture or society. Good parenting enhances children's health and well-being across a broad array of outcomes. Parenting contributes to infants' attachment and exploratory behavior; young children's language skills, self-esteem, self-regulation, social skills and peer relationships, academic achievement, behavior, and resilience; adolescents' academic achievement, problem behaviors, and risk taking; and young adults' well-being and risk-taking behavior.

This entry first discusses determinants of parenting and then discusses the various ways parenting has been studied and described, including how dimensions of parenting are related to child health. Finally, predominant parenting interventions and their effectiveness are briefly discussed.

Theories of Parenting

Although there is no overarching theory of parenting, understanding parenting grows from knowledge of what children need to grow and thrive. Attachment theory, first devised by John Bowlby from a psychoanalytic background, explains attachment as a system of behaviors (e.g., crying and smiling) that promote survival by bringing caregivers into close proximity during times of danger or need. Over time, as parents respond to infants' needs, an emotional bond grows from these transactions, and infants develop models of themselves, others, and the world that serve as blueprints for future relationships.

Infants whose needs are met consistently are more likely to develop secure attachments, with “internal working models” of themselves as worthy, others as reliably available, and the world as safe. Infants whose needs are not met consistently or who are abused or neglected develop anxious attachment styles built on mental representations that help is not available, the world is unsafe, and they are not worthy. Since the 1990s, neuroscience research and attachment theory are increasingly being integrated to suggest that sensitive and responsive parenting work through secure attachment to develop and organize the brain.

Secure attachments are associated with children's greater self-efficacy, social competence, and empathy and better emotional and mental health and to higher levels of academic achievement, perhaps because of greater feelings of security that lead to more exploration of the environment. In addition, the attachment relationship provides a venue for communicating and expressing feelings. Through the expression of distress and the soothing responses of the caregiver, the infant learns to self-regulate her emotions.

Determinants of Parenting

Jay Belsky's ecological determinants of parenting model proposes that parenting is determined by factors related to the parent (e.g., developmental history, psychological attributes); the child (temperament, in particular); and context (e.g., social support). Recent research has placed more emphasis on the external environment's influence on parenting. Research shows neighborhood influences, economic stress, and social support in particular influence parenting. Parenting does not occur in a vacuum, and the stress associated with an environment of chronic poverty makes good childrearing difficult for the most caring parent.

There is substantial evidence for the intergenerational transmission of parenting, but discontinuity also occurs. Parents learn much of what they know from their own upbringing, but cultural and ethnic heritage, community, kinship networks, partners' parenting, family's psychosocial circumstances, and available resources are also important.

Whereas early parenting research assumed parents to be the actors and children the receivers, parenting is currently believed to be bidirectional, as children and parents influence each other. For example, children who are described as having difficult temperaments often invoke harsher parenting and, in turn, are likely to respond to such harshness with externalizing behaviors.

Culture and Ethnicity

Parenting is a goal-oriented activity related to socialization, and it is clear that culture and ethnicity have strong influences. Until recently, most parenting research was conducted with white, middle-class participants. In comparative research, European American parenting was cast as the “right” way, with emphasis on the deficits of minority parenting. Current research more frequently recognizes how different parenting values, goals, and circumstances influence parenting. For example, African American parents must protect children from racism and teach them to function effectively within both the minority and majority cultures. In addition, it appears that African American parenting may be shared, with kin, fictive kin, and faith-based organizations playing key roles.

Dimensions of Parenting

Parenting is described in many ways, including parenting knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs; practices or particular functional aspects, such as discipline and parent-child interaction; and parenting style.

Parenting Knowledge, Attitudes, and Beliefs

Greater knowledge of child development is correlated with more effective parenting. For example, parents who understand that a toddler's limited attention span makes it unlikely he or she can sit quietly in church for an hour are less likely to react with hostility when the child fidgets or talks aloud.

Attitudes about parenting are preconceptions of desirable parenting behavior—a general model of how parents should behave in fulfilling the duties of childrearing. Relatively little attention has been paid to linkages between parenting attitudes and actual parenting behavior, and despite an obvious relationship, the influence of attitudes on behavior is not consistently clear. Attitudes toward corporal punishment, for example, do not always predict use of corporal punishment. Parenting attitudes generally, however, are believed to make important contributions to actual behavior, even if this relationship is not an absolute one.

The Adult Adolescent Parenting Inventory (AAPI) is a widely used self-report measure of parenting knowledge and attitudes that is reliable and valid and discriminates between abusive and nonabusive parents. It measures (a) inappropriate expectations of children, (b) lack of empathy for children's needs, (c) endorsement of corporal punishment, (d) reversal of parent-child roles, and (e) power assertion as opposed to encouragement of child independence.

Parenting Practices

Parenting practices are specific behaviors parents employ to socialize their children. Frequently studied practices include parental involvement (e.g., helping with homework), monitoring (e.g., supervising activities), and discipline (e.g., corporal punishment). Some researchers include parental values (e.g., importance of obedience) and goals and aspirations (e.g., a college degree) in this category.

Robert Bradley and Betty Caldwell categorized parenting practices at a molecular level as tasks related to the provision of (a) sustenance (provision of necessary and appropriate nutrition, clothing, and shelter for the circumstances); (b) supervision and safety (monitoring of child's conditions, activities and surrounding circumstances); (c) stimulation (provision of materials and experiences to engage a child's attention, provide information, and promote skills development); (d) support and affection (behaviors that respond to a child's social and emotional needs); and (e) structure (management and organization of physical and temporal environments). The tasks performed by parents must be specific to child age, developmental level, and circumstances.

Self-reports are less useful for measuring behavior than observational measures. The widely used Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) Inventory is a naturalistic observation measure used in home visits of at least 90 minutes. In addition to aspects of the physical environment, the HOME measures behaviors, such as speech directed toward the child, kissing or hugging, and a derogatory tone used about the child.

Parenting Styles

When years of research on specific parenting practices or behaviors (such as corporal punishment) failed to show expected correlations with child outcomes, researchers began to focus on parenting styles or constellations of parenting attitudes and behaviors that set the emotional climate within the family. Early research on parenting styles addressed responsiveness or nonresponsiveness, democratic or autocratic, warmth or coldness, and high versus low control, among others.

Most current classification systems focus on parenting style as described by the dimensions of warmth and expressions of affection and control or demandingness.

Sensitive and Responsive Parenting

Adequately meeting children's needs facilitates both survival of the infant and affectional bonds. Sensitivity involves correct perceptions and interpretations of children's needs, either by situational context (e.g., when it is time to eat) or by understanding signals (e.g., fussiness indicating hunger). Responsivity is indicated by prompt, contingent, and appropriate meeting of the needs. (Some definitions include sensitivity as a part of responsive parenting.) Research consistently shows that sensitive, responsive parenting is associated with secure attachment and positive child outcomes, such as social competence, self-regulation, school achievement, and physical and mental health. Notably, sensitive and responsive parenting appears to promote resilience, buffering children against significant environmental and other risk factors, including poor nutrition, fussy infant temperament, and low birth weight.

Authoritative, Authoritarian, Permissive, and Neglecting Parenting

The two constructs of warmth, or nurturance, and demandingness were placed on a grid by psychologist Diane Baumrind and further developed to describe parenting that is (a) authoritative (high behavioral and maturity expectations, high warmth and responsiveness), (b) authoritarian (high expectations, low warmth), and (c) permissive (low expectations, high warmth). A fourth style, uninvolved or neglecting (low demands, low warmth), was added later. Research shows that authoritative parenting correlates with the most successful developmental outcomes for most children.

Critics point out that this parenting style classification system generally reflects a white, middle-class bias (most research being conducted with middle-class, white families) and fails to account for context. The authoritarian style may be best for minority and disadvantaged parents, who often live in dangerous environments. In this context, authoritarian parenting may protect children and prepare them to live in a dangerous environment. For example, studies show authoritarian parenting to be associated with positive outcomes for some African American, Hispanic, and Asian children.


Until relatively recently, virtually all parenting research was conducted with mothers. During the 1970s and 1980s, research attention was devoted to defining and studying specific tasks and types of fathers. Since then, research on fathering has concerned tasks fathers perform and the amount of time they spend with children, often in comparison to mothers.

Paternal involvement has increased over the last 3 decades, both in absolute terms and in proportion to mothers, particularly with older children. Fathers are likely to be more involved with their children when marital relationships are positive. Fathers are also likely to be more involved with firstborn children, premature infants, and infants with difficult temperaments. Although fathers' child care has increased in recent years, mothers still bear more caregiving responsibility and spend more time alone with their children.

Parenting under Special Circumstances
Adolescent Parents

Research shows consistently that the children of adolescent parents experience disadvantages in cognitive and social development, language development, academic achievement, health, and other arenas. Adolescent mothers are less knowledgeable about child development and parenting and have less optimal parenting attitudes. In addition, adolescent mothers have been shown to be less emotionally responsive to their infants and to engage in harsher parenting and less positive interactions.

Although it is often assumed that the relationship between adolescent parenting and poor child outcomes is causal, research controlling for background factors and socioeconomic deprivation has not always demonstrated causality. On the other hand, it is clear that adolescent parents lack maturity, knowledge, and skills for parenting and that social and environmental circumstances, including high rates of poverty, single parenting, and interruption of education, further complicate their ability to provide competent care for their children. Social support may mitigate some of the stress experienced by adolescent mothers and improve child outcomes.

Parents with Mental Illness

Parents with serious mental illnesses are less emotionally available and involved with their children and less positive, encouraging, and sensitive to their children's needs. Children of mentally ill parents are at greater risk of mental illness themselves. The effects of mental illness on parenting may vary for different diagnostic groups, and severity of symptoms and level of community functioning are more strongly related to parenting than a mental illness diagnosis. Much of the research is based on comparisons of depressed and nondepressed mothers, but schizophrenia also has been studied.

Parents of Child with Special Needs

Parents of children with chronic illnesses and disabilities face special challenges. They must understand their children's conditions, negotiate the service system, and frequently manage complicated medical regimens, all within the context of family, home, and work. At the same time, as they address these special needs, they also must manage the normal developmental process, as it is influenced by their children's special needs. For example, parents of developmentally delayed young adults must help their children deal with sexual maturity and the desires for love, marriage, and parenthood and the challenges of independent living.

Parenting Services and Interventions

Parenting programs and interventions vary in goals and objectives, content, target populations (e.g., teens, single parents), settings (e.g., homes, churches, mental health clinics), formats, and duration. Some interventions are preventive and population oriented while others are designed to mitigate children's problem behaviors.

The many available interventions may be classified as either behaviorally based programs designed for parents of children with problem behaviors or more relationship-based programs designed for parents deemed to have deficits in parenting behavior. Some programs are termed parent education (providing information, e.g., about child development), others are termed parent training (aiming to provide specific skills to parents), and still others are termed parent support (providing many supportive services, such as material assistance or services for substance abuse, for example). In reality, these terms are not mutually exclusive, and many programs provide a mixture of education, skills training, and support.

Research shows that behavioral training programs can be effective in modifying parenting behavior and subsequently reducing children's problem behaviors. Effectiveness is enhanced by role-play and feedback, focus on narrow goals, and providing content on consistent discipline, positive interaction, and communication skills.

Programs designed to enhance deficits in parenting center on sensitive and responsive parenting, and there is evidence that such interventions can enhance parenting as well as child outcomes. At-risk children (e.g., premature infants) appear to benefit especially, but socioeconomically disadvantaged parents may find it more difficult to take advantage of such resources.

Few parenting services have been available to meet the specific needs of African Americans, other minorities, or other cultural groups, whose parenting occurs in different cultural environments and in the context of discrimination and limited opportunity. Recently, interventions have been provided specifically for African American parents, including groups that focus on the unique circumstances of African American parents, including racial socialization and identity and the development of bicultural skills. A strengths-based Africentric perspective that encourages pride in “blackness” characterizes these programs.

See Also:

Caregiving: Infants, Depression in the Family, Ethnic/Racial Influences in Families, Parental Attachment, Schizophrenia and the Family, Teen Pregnancy

Further Readings
  • Belsky, J. The determinants of parenting: A process model. Child Development, 55 : 1984.
  • Bornstein, M. H. (Ed.). (2002). Handbook of parenting (Vols. 1-5,2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Bradley, R. H., & Caldwell, B. M. Caregiving and the regulation of child growth and development: Describing proximal aspects of caregiving systems. Developmental Review, 15 : 1995.
  • Brooks-Gunn, J., & Markman, L.B. The contribution of parenting to ethnic and racial gaps in school readiness. The Future of Children, 15 : 2005.
  • Combs-Orme, T.; Wilson, E.; Cain, D. S.; Page, T., & Kirby, L. D. Context-based parenting in infancy. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20 : 2003.
  • Lovejoy, M. C.; Graczyk, P. A.; O'Hare, E., & Neuman, G. Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 20 : 2000.
  • Siegel, D. J. Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22 : 2001.
  • Sommer, K.; Whitman, T. L.; Borkowski, J. G.; Schellenbach, C.; Maxwell, S., & Keogh, D. Cognitive readiness and adolescent parenting. Developmental Psychology, 29 : 1993.
  • Zepeda, M., Varela, F., & Morales, A. (2004). Promoting positive parenting practices through parenting education. In Halfon, N.; Rice, T. & Inkelas, M. (Eds.), Building state early childhood comprehensive systems series (No. 13, pp. 1-16). Los Angeles: National Center for Infant and Early Childhood Health Policy.
  • Combs-Orme, Terri
    © SAGE Publications, Inc

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