Social-Contextual Determinants of Parenting
JAY BELSKY, PhD
Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues
Birkbeck University of London, UNITED KINGDOM
(Published online October 5, 2005)
By tradition, students of socialization have directed their primary energies toward understanding processes whereby parents’ child-rearing strategies and behaviours influence children’s development. An abundance of mostly correlational (but some experimental) evidence underscores parenting practices that, in general, promote child well-being. In the infant-toddler years, these take the form of sensitive-responsiveness, which is known to foster attachment security,1 and mutually-positive parent-child relations, which themselves promote child cooperation, compliance and conscience development.2 In the preschool through adolescent years, authoritative (vs. neglectful) parenting that mixes high levels of warmth and acceptance with firm control and clear and consistent limit-setting fosters prosocial orientation, achievement striving, and positive peer relations.3,4,5 Across childhood and adolescence, then, parenting that treats the child as an individual, respecting developmentally-appropriate needs for autonomy, and which is not psychologically intrusive/manipulative or harshly coercive contributes to the development of the kinds of psychological and behavioural “outcomes” valued in the western world.
The fact that not all parents engage in such generally growth-promoting child-rearing raises a fundamental question that was generally neglected until 15 to 20 years ago: Why do parents parent the way they do? Whereas the earliest work on this topic emphasized the socio-economic status of parents and the way in which (maltreating) parents were themselves reared, subsequent work, guided principally by Belsky’s6 process model of the determinants of parenting, highlights social-contextual factors and forces that shape parenting.7 These include (a) attributes of children; (b) the developmental history of parents and their own psychological make-up; and (c) the broader social context in which parents and this relationship are embedded.
Recent Research Results
Virtually all the work to be considered derives from correlational (and sometimes longitudinal) studies linking some putative determinant with some feature of parenting. As such, most of the work fails to account for the fact that parenting, like so much of behavioural functioning, is itself heritable.8,9 Thus, findings to be summarized linking social-contextual “determinants” and parenting “outcomes” illuminate potential causal processes rather than confirm them.
Characteristics of children
It has long been presumed that hard-to-manage, negatively emotional and demanding children are not only more likely to develop behaviour problems, especially of the externalizing variety, but do so because of the hostile-intrusive or even detached-uninvolved parenting they evoke. A number of investigations do link infant or child negativity/difficulty with less supportive, if not problematic parenting,10,11 as well as children’s positive emotionality with sensitive-responsive parenting.11 Pike and associates12 found, in fact, that more negative, irritable or aggressive adolescents received more negative parenting even after accounting for heritability. Such results are in line with experiments manipulating child behaviour to investigate its causal effect on parenting.13 All this is not to say, however, that variation in parenting is exclusively – or even primarily – a function of child temperament/behaviour, only that it makes a contribution, especially when considered in the context of other sources of influence.7
Characteristics of parents
Research on the etiology of child maltreatment called attention to the role of child-rearing history in shaping parenting. What has become clear, however, is that the intergenerational transmission of parenting, whether maltreating or growth-promoting, is by no means inevitable.7 Nevertheless, in the main, both harsh14,15 and supportive parenting16,17 tend to be transmitted down generational lines, in the case of mothers, fathers or both.
Psychological attributes of parents also influence the way parents manage their children.18 Parents prone to negative emotional states, be it depression, irritability and/or anger, tend to behave in less sensitive, less responsive and/or harsher ways than other parents; and this appears true whether they are parenting infants/toddlers,19 older children20 or adolescents.21 When parents are extroverted, that is, experience frequent positive emotions and enjoy social engagement, their parenting tends to be emotionally sensitive, responsive and stimulating during the early-childhood22,23 and later-childhood years.9 How agreeable parents are also seems to make a difference, as those who are more cynical, vengeful and manipulative and less trusting, helpful and forgiving are more negatively controlling than other parents,9 particularly in disciplinary situations.24
There is reason to believe that these personality characteristics shape parenting by influencing the emotions parents experience and/or the attributions they make about the causes of child behaviour (e.g. crying is caused by tiredness or by a desire to manipulate the parent).7,25 The possibility must be entertained, as well, that these processes are themselves a product of how parents were raised by their own parents.6,26
The social context: marital/partner relationships
Evidence dating back to at least the 1930s linking troubled marriages and child behaviour problems led to the hypothesis that while some of the association between marital processes and child functioning is direct and unmediated via parenting,27 some of it derives from the effect of marriage on parenting.6,28,29 One way in which marriages affect parenting involves emotions, be they positive or negative, spilling over from one relationship to affect the other,10 though compensatory mechanisms also seem to be at work in some families, with problems in the marriage fostering more sensitive and involved parenting.30 In some cases this probably reflects efforts to protect the child from marital stress,31 though in other cases it may reflect developmentally inappropriate enmeshment, whereby adults use the parent-child relationship to meet unmet emotional needs.32 Anger in the marriage can also promote parental withdrawal,33 something that children can perceive as rejection. But it is also the case that spousal withdrawal from partner conflict can engender hostile and intrusive parenting.33,34 The fact that marriage-parenting linkages are so varied probably explains why simple marriage-parenting correlations are not always as strong as might be expected.16,31
Twenty years ago, Belsky6 argued that parenting is multiply determined by a variety of factors and forces and that weakness or strength in any one was unlikely to determine how parents behaved, as the positive contribution of the latter buffered the undermining effect of the former. Thus, what was most important to understanding why parents parented the way they did was the accumulation of stresses and supports or, in developmental-psychopathology terminology, risk and protective factors.35 Therefore, while the cited evidence calls attention to some of the social-contextual determinants of parenting, these need to be considered “in context,” i.e. in the context of other determinants, only some of which have been discussed.
The most important implication of this observation is that there should be no single way to promote growth-fostering parenting. In some cases, the best way may be to promote marital relationships; in other cases, it may be to shape how parents think about the causes of child behaviour. And in still others, it may be to enable parents to better regulate their negative emotions. Of course, if it can be done well, there is no reason not to target multiple avenues of potential influence.
De Wolff MS, Van IJzendoorn MH. Sensitivity and attachment: A meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachment. Child Development 1997;68(4):571-591.
Kochanska G, Forman DR, Aksan N, Dunbar SB. Pathways to conscience: Early mother-child mutually responsive orientation and children's moral emotion, conduct, and cognition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2005;46(1):19-34.
Ackerman BP, Brown ED, Izard CE. The relations between contextual risk, earned income, and the school adjustment of children from economically disadvantaged families. Developmental Psychology 2004;40(2):204-216.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Early child care and children’s development prior to school entry: Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. American Educational Research Journal 2002;39(1):133-164.
- Skinner E, Johnson S, Snyder T. Six dimensions of parenting: A motivational model. Parenting: Science and Practice 2005;5(2):175-235.
- Belsky J. The determinants of parenting: A process model. Child Development 1984;55(1):83-96.
- Belsky J, Jaffee S. The multiple determinants of parenting. In: Cicchetti D, Cohen D, eds. Developmental psychopathology. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley & Sons; 2006.
- Spinath FM, O’Connor TG. A behavioral genetic study of the overlap between personality and parenting. Journal of Personality 2003;71(5):785-808.
- Losoya SH, Callor S, Rowe DC, Goldsmith HH. Origins of familial similarity in parenting: A study of twins and adoptive siblings. Developmental Psychology 1997;33(6):1012-1023.
- Goldberg WA, Clarke-Stewart KA, Rice JA, Dellis E. Emotional energy as an explanatory construct for fathers’ engagement with their infants. Parenting: Science and Practice 2002;2(4):379-408.
- McBride BA, Schoppe SJ, Rane TR. Child characteristics, parenting stress, and parental involvement: Fathers versus mothers. Journal of Marriage and the Family 2002;64(4):998-1011.
- Pike A, McGuire S, Hetherington EM, Reiss D, Plomin R. Family environment and adolescent depressive symptoms and antisocial behavior: A multivariate genetic analysis. Developmental Psychology 1996;32(4):590-603.
- Brunk MA, Henggeler SW. Child influences on adult controls: An experimental investigation. Developmental Psychology 1984;20(6):1074-1081.
- Capaldi DM, Pears KC, Patterson GR, Owen LD. Continuity of parenting practices across generations in an at-risk sample: A prospective comparison of direct and mediated associations. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2003;31(2):127-142.
- Conger RD, Neppl T, Kim KJ, Scaramella L. Angry and aggressive behavior across three generations: A prospective, longitudinal study of parents and children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2003;31(2):143-160.
- Belsky J, Fearon RMP. Exploring marriage-parenting typologies and their contextual antecedents and developmental sequelae. Development and Psychopathology 2004;16(3):501-523.
- Chen ZY, Kaplan HB. Intergenerational transmission of constructive parenting. Journal of Marriage and the Family 2001;63(1):17-31.
- Belsky J, Barends N. Personality and parenting. In: Bornstein MH, ed. Being and becoming a parent. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2002:415-438. Handbook of parenting; vol 3.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Chronicity of maternal depressive symptoms, maternal sensitivity, and child functioning at 36 months. Developmental Psychology 1999;35(5):1297-1310.
- Kanoy K, Ulku-Steiner B, Cox M, Burchinal M. Marital relationship and individual psychological characteristics that predict physical punishment of children. Journal of Family Psychology 2003;17(1):20-28.
- Brody GH, McBride Murry V, Kim S, Brown AC. Longitudinal pathways to competence and psychological adjustment among African American children living in rural single-parent households. Child Development 2002;73(5):1505-1516.
- Belsky J, Crnic K, Woodworth S. Personality and parenting: Exploring the mediating role of transient mood and daily hassles. Journal of Personality 1995;63(4):905-929.
- Belsky J, Jaffee SR, Sligo J, Woodward L, Silva PA. Intergenerational transmission of warm-sensitive-stimulating parenting: A prospective study of mothers and fathers of 3-year olds. Child Development 2005;76(2):384-396.
- Clark LA, Kochanska G, Ready R. Mothers’ personality and its interaction with child temperament as predictors of parenting behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2000;79(2):274-285.
- Bugental DB, Happaney K. Parental attributions. In: Bornstein MH. Being and becoming a parent. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2002:509-535. Handbook of parenting. 2nd ed; vol 3.
- Serbin L, Karp J. Intergenerational studies of parenting and the transfer of risk from parent to child. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2003;12(4):138-142.
- Wilson BJ, Gottman JM. Marital conflict, repair, and parenting. In: Bornstein MH, ed. Social conditions and applied parenting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2002:227-258. Handbook of parenting. 2nd ed; vol 4.
- Belsky J. Early human experience: A family perspective. Developmental Psychology 1981;17(1):3-23.
- Emery RE. Family violence. American Psychologist 1989;44(2):321-328.
- Cox MJ, Paley B. Families as systems. Annual Review of Psychology 1997;48:243-267.
- Grych JH. Marital relationships and parenting. In: Bornstein MH, ed. Social conditions and applied parenting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2002:203-225. Handbook of parenting. 2nd ed; vol 4.
- Margolin G, Oliver PH, Medina AM. Conceptual issues in understanding the relation between interparental conflict and child adjustment: Integrating developmental psychopathology and risk/resilience perspectives. In: Grych JH, Fincham FD, eds. Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research, and applications. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 2001:9-38.
- Lindahl KM, Malik NM. Observations of marital conflict and power: Relations with parenting in the triad. Journal of Marriage and the Family 1999;61(2):320-330.
- Katz LF, Woodin EM. Hostility, hostile detachment, and conflict engagement in marriages: Effects on child and family functioning. Child Development 2002;73(2):636-652.
- Cicchetti D, Toth SL. Perspectives on research and practice in developmental psychopathology. In: Sigel IE, Renninger KA, eds. Child psychology in practice. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons; 1998:479-583. Handbook of child psychology. 5th ed; vol 4.
To cite this document:
Belsky J. Social-contextual determinants of parenting. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2005:1-6. Available at: http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/BelskyANGxp-Parenting.pdf. Accessed [insert date].
Copyright © 2005
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005 Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development