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date: 15 November 2019

Life Span: Parenting

Abstract and Keywords

Parenting is a key part of social work practice and research, particularly in the child welfare arena. Despite significant research and theory in other disciplines about the importance of the parent–child relationship to the quality of parenting, the focus of social work appears to lie in narrow goals such as the prevention of abuse and child placement and to employ interventions that lack significant evidence of effectiveness. This entry summarizes social work practice and research in the area of parenting and reviews the state of the art overall in research and knowledge about parenting.

Keywords: parents, parenting, mothers, fathers, children, infants, African American parents, Attachment Theory, sensitivity, responsivity, authoritative parenting, determinants of parenting model, child welfare

Parental influences are significant and long-lasting. Parenting is not only critical to the lives of children and parents; it is the major way that societies and cultures pass on their traditions and values and guarantee that future generations are competent to carry on those traditions and values. It is critical to society as a whole.

Ogbu (1981) calls attention to cultural differences in parenting by defining child-rearing as “the process by which parents … transmit and … children acquire the prior existing competencies required by their social, economic, political, and other future adult cultural tasks” (p. 418). Combs-Orme, Wilson, Cain, Page, and Kirby (2003) emphasized context-based parenting: parenting that, given a specific child's age, developmental needs, special circumstances, culture, and immediate environment, is optimal for promoting healthy growth and development.

Demographics of Parenting

Nearly three-fourths of adult females and two-thirds of adult males report having biological children (Child Trends, 2002), while 45% of female and 38% of male adults currently live with their biological or adopted children. A biological relationship is not necessary for parenting, and the changing demographics of family in this country have led to increasing diversity in the ties between children and parents. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 6% of children (4.5 million) are being reared by grandparents, an increase of 30% during the 1990s. In addition, 1 million children in the United States live with adoptive parents, and 2–4% of American families include adopted children (U.S. Census; see “Adoption”).

Most parenting research has been conducted with mothers, although there has been increased attention to fathers in recent years, overall (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb 2000) and in social work (Greif & Greif 1997). Research shows that fathers are important to their children's development and that they make unique contributions to children's lives (Marsiglio et al., 2000).

Parenting: State of the Knowledge

Social work grows out of the social sciences and draws much of its foundation knowledge from psychology and other related disciplines. It is thus important to place social work's involvement in parenting within that broader scope of knowledge.

There is no single “theory of parenting,” although in the social work literature social systems theory, Erikson's stage of generativity, Bronfenbrenner's work on human development, Vygotsky's theories, and Adlerian theory are invoked (Heath, 2006). Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1973) is commonly used to understand the importance of parenting and is cited in relationship to parents and children in the child welfare system (for example, Howe, 2000; Page, 1999).

Attachment Theory

Understanding of the importance and desirable aspects of parenting grows from knowledge of what children need to grow and thrive. Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1973) explains that infants' attachment behaviors (such as crying) promote survival by bringing caregivers into close proximity during times of danger or need. Over time, as caregivers respond to infants' needs, attachment grows from these transactions (Davies, 1999), and infants develop models of themselves, others, and the world that serve as blueprints for future relationships. Infants whose needs are met consistently develop “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 not safe, and they are not worthy of love.

Attachment to a consistent caregiver provides an infant with feelings of security, and he or she thus feels safe to explore the environment. In addition, the attachment relationship provides a venue for communicating and expressing feelings. Through the expression of distress and the calming attention of the caregiver, the infant learns to manage her own emotions effectively (Davies, 1999). Data show that secure attachments are associated with children's greater self-efficacy, social competence, empathy, and lower levels of anxiety and anger (Weinfield, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson 1999). As Davies (1999) summarizes, “… the growing evidence of empirical studies points to quality of attachment as a fundamental mediator of development” (p. 27).

Parenting Styles

Over time, attention to specific parenting behaviors has given way to a broader focus on parenting styles or patterns, which consist of combinations of parenting dimensions that are similar in meaning and tend to covary. Current research on parenting, particularly from an Attachment Theory perspective, often reference sensitivity and responsivity.

Sensitivity and Responsivity

To meet children's needs, parents first must correctly perceive and interpret those needs, either by situational context (for example, the stress of a clinic visit) or by understanding signals (for example, signs of fatigue). Accurate perceptions of children's needs are fundamental to parents' capacities for sensitive and responsive caregiving, and these perceptions are the most consistent predictor of secure attachment (Belsky, 1999). Research consistently shows that sensitive, responsive parenting is associated with secure attachment and positive child outcomes (Belsky, 1984).

DiPietro (2000) suggested that the relationships among nurturing parenting, secure attachment, and positive child outcomes are mediated through neurophysiologic processes. Early brain development proceeds in response to experience, and parenting is the most important aspect of young children's environments. Warm nurturance appears to provide a buffer against stress when the hypothalmic-pitiuitary-adrenal system is developing, keeping the system in homeostasis and promoting effective self-regulation. Children who are mistreated or neglected have chronically high levels of stress hormones that, through adaptation, may lead to chronic dysregulation and socioemotional problems that inhibit school achievement, social relationships, and physical health.

Authoritative, Authoritarian, and Permissive Parenting

Baumrind (1967) combined dimensions of parental warmth and demandingness to categorize parents as authoritative (high expectations for behavior and maturity, high levels of warmth and responsiveness), authoritarian (high expectations, low warmth) or permissive (low expectations, high warmth). Maccoby and Martin (1983) later added uninvolved or neglecting (low demands, low warmth). Although some cultures or contexts (such as dangerous neighborhoods) may require different parenting styles (Chao, 2001), parenting marked by warmth, high expectations, and encouragement of autonomy is associated with the most successful outcomes for children (Collins, 2006).

“Determinants of Parenting” Model

Perhaps the most influential model for understanding the contributors to parenting is Belsky's “determinants of parenting” model (1984), based on Bronfenbrenner's (1986) theory of social ecology. The model explains that parenting is influenced by characteristics of the parent, the child, and the social context in which the parent–child relationship is embedded.

Parent Contributions

Developmental history. It is widely accepted that parenting behaviors and styles are transmitted across generations (Belsky, Jaffee, Sligo, Woodward, & Silva 2005). Child abuse and harsh discipline, for example, are frequently linked to parents' childhood experiences, and childhood abuse or harsh parenting is considered to be a risk factor for similar parenting (Dixon, Browne, & Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005). Less research has examined continuity of positive parenting, but recent evidence suggests that it, too, is transmitted across generations (Chen & Kaplan 2001). However, some parents who were reared poorly are able to develop resilience that allows them to parent competently (Travis & Combs-Orme, 2007).

Personality. Parent maturity, positive coping, and psychological adjustment are especially important predictors of parenting effectiveness (Belsky, 1984; Belsky & Barends 2002). Parents who are more intelligent and more knowledgeable about parenting and children's needs have more positive interactions with their children (O'Callaghan, Borkowski, Whitman, Maxwell, & Keogh 1999). Kochanska, Aksan, Penney, and Boldt (2007) also found that parent personality and aspects of socialization buffer against the negative effects of demographic risk on parenting behavior.

Mental health. Mental health influences parenting skills and behaviors. Mowbray, Oyserman, Bybee, and MacFarlane (2002) summarized research showing mothers with serious mental illnesses to be less emotionally available, involved with their children, positive, encouraging, and sensitive to their children's needs. They caution, however, that much of that research is based solely on comparisons of depressed and nondepressed mothers. Their study of a large urban sample with a variety of diagnoses demonstrated that effects on parenting may vary for different diagnostic groups, and that severity of symptoms and level of community functioning are more strongly related to parenting than diagnosis.

Demographic factors. Demographic factors such as parental age, income, and marital status are associated with parenting, as they are indicators of the resources available for parenting (Hubbs-Tait et al., 2006), and the accumulation of stress related to impoverishment is likely to interfere with parents' emotional availability to their children. Older maternal age (up to the early 30s), is related to more optimal parenting, presumably because of greater experience, maturity, and knowledge (Bornstein, Putnick, Suwalsky, & Gini 2006).

Research on race and culture has generally held white, middle-class parenting as the norm and ignored effects of racism, oppression, and socioeconomic discrimination on parenting and child outcomes (Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Cochran, 1997). Current research recognizes the influences of cultural heritage and the environment on parenting and acknowledges the strengths of the African American family and families of other cultures (Cochran, 1997; Hossain et al., 1999). Carter-Black's (2001) qualitative study of two middle-class African American families emphasized the dominance of racial heritage over social class issues on parenting.

Parenting attitudes. Parenting attitudes can be thought of as preconceptions of desirable parenting behavior, or generalized models of how parenting should be done (Page, Combs-Orme, & Cain, in press). In the absence of overt maltreatment, and even with adequate physical care, negative parenting attitudes may provide early indications of relationship problems that may lead to abuse, neglect, poor attachment, and poor child development (Crouch & Behl 2001). With notable exceptions, little attention has been paid to links between parenting attitudes and behavior (Holden & Buck 2002). Research does not support Heath's (2006) statement that “attitudes predict behavior” (p. 757). However, parenting attitudes are believed to make important contributions to actual behavior (Holden & Buck 2002).

Child Contributions

Studies demonstrate a reciprocal relationship between parenting quality and child personality and behavior (Crowley & Kazdin 1998). Child abuse research shows that child behaviors, particularly externalizing problems, are independently related to child abuse potential (Ammerman & Patz 1996) and severity (Sprang, Clark, & Bass 2005). Child temperament, in particular, has been shown to be related to parenting behavior (Calkins & Dedmon 2004).

Environmental Contributions

As Belsky (1984) originally posited, the quality of parents' interactions with the wider social environment is an important contributor to quality of parental care. The accumulation of risk factors associated with life in impoverished social environments, including poor family functioning, stressful life events, maternal psychological distress, and low income, in particular, presents greater risks to children's development than do individual indicators (Sameroff & Fiese 2000). Poverty has profound effects on the personal and social resources available to parents to meet their children's needs (Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Combs-Orme & Cain 2006). Whether tangible (child care, financial assistance) or nontangible (advice, information, sympathy), and whether from informal (family, friends) or from formal (health care professionals, teachers) sources, social support is associated with more optimal parenting, possibly through moderation or “buffering” of the effects of stress and adversity (Cochran & Niego 2002).

Parenting in Social Work Practice and Research

Perhaps because of social work's deep roots in the child welfare system (CWS), most attention to parenting is based on preventing abuse and child placement and restoring a minimum level of parenting. The literature suggest that social workers rarely focus on the parent–child relationship within a theoretically informed assessment and understanding of attachment issues (Turney & Tanner 2001), and it is remarkable how little attention is paid to the influence of poverty and deprivation on quality of parenting.

Across the settings described below, parenting interventions appear either to focus on correcting specific excesses or deficits in behavior, or to be delivered in “psycho-educational” groups, which include both content and social support elements. Sessions include videotape instruction, direct observation of parent behavior, role-play, and feedback. Increasingly, “manualized” commercial programs are employed, particularly in public child welfare agencies. (Documentation of social workers' interventions with clients to improve parenting in psychotherapeutic or other one-on-one settings is sparse, although such work undoubtedly occurs.)

Child Welfare Settings

Child welfare agencies are the center of social work's involvement in parenting, and many parents in the CWS participate in voluntary or mandated parenting services (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). In this setting, parents have usually been reported for child maltreatment, and agencies seek to “help caregivers provide a minimum sufficient level of care” (Barth et al., 2005, p. 355).

This narrow focus results from agency missions in the United States of avoiding child placement and preventing recurrence of abuse or neglect, of course. Nevertheless, despite neglect being the most common type of maltreatment, discipline is usually the targeted parenting behavior in such programs (Barth et al., 2005). Turney and Tanner's (2001) interpretation of neglect as a breakdown in the parent–child relationship (using Attachment Theory) would suggest that one reason that neglectful parenting is so difficult to treat is a failure to address this relationship dimension.

Following decades of failure of homemaker and intensive family preservation services to document the parenting services they provide or to demonstrate substantial effects, Barth et al. (2005) recently called for the extension of evidence-based parent training programs to parents in the CWS. Ironically, they found that only one third of parents in the CWS were identified as having poor parenting skills and that there is a lack of knowledge about the kinds of parenting problems these parents experience. Despite the fact that a majority of parents in the CWS suffer the effects of acute poverty, poverty is not identified as a parenting problem in Barth et al.'s summary of the Department of Health and Human Services report on child maltreatment.

Barth et al. (2005) reviewed several training programs designed for parents of children with behavior problems that have some empirical documentation of effectiveness, considering the purposes and characteristics of the programs to determine their usefulness for training parents in the CWS. Some of those programs have been evaluated with maltreating parents, but not specifically with parents in the CWS. They also examined the parent training programs that are currently widely used in child welfare agencies, finding little evidence for the effectiveness of those programs. Their summary emphasizes the critical need for individual assessments of parenting so that intervention can target specific deficits in parenting skills. No mention of parent–child relationship or the challenges of parenting in poverty are included.

Non–child-Welfare Settings

Social workers frequently provide classes and groups for mentally ill (Ackerson, 2003), drug-addicted (Plasse, 2000), and other parents with problems. In these settings, parents are assumed to lack appropriate parenting skills, and the focus is on pathology, often with the goal of assessing the necessity of terminating parental rights (Ackerson, 2003). Ackerson notes that few “generic” community parenting programs are equipped to deal with parents who have serious mental illnesses, and few programs for the mentally ill target parenting. He asserts that programs for mentally ill parents should involve thorough assessments of specific functional impairments, competencies, and parenting knowledge, as well as observation of parent–child interaction. He does not discuss the parent–child relationship.

Social workers also frequently work with parents of children with mental health problems, such as conduct disorder or other behavior problems. These children are challenging to care for, and social work interventions are focused on teaching parents the skills they need to meet their children's special needs. (See Barth et al., 2005, for a discussion of these interventions.) For example, Harrison, Boyle, and Farley (1999) provided 12-week group-based courses for parents of children referred by mental health and juvenile court agencies.

Minority Parents

Few parenting services have been available to meet the specific needs of African Americans, other minorities, or other cultural groups (Harachi, Catalano, & Hawkins 1997), 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 (Miller, 1997) and a strengths-based, Africentric perspective grounded in an ecological framework (Harvey & Hill 2004). Farber and Maharaj (2005) provided a manualized, group-based psycho-educational program for parents of high-risk developmentally delayed African American children. Although evaluations of these parenting interventions indicated positive outcomes, none included comparison groups and require replication.

Fathers

Since the mid-1980s, there has been an increased interest in fathers (Greif & Greif 1997; Marsiglio et al., 2000), beyond social work's almost exclusive emphasis on absent fathers and child support issues. The literature demonstrates social work interest in low-income fathers (for example, Shears, Summers, Boller, & Barclay-McLaughlin, 2006), incarcerated fathers (LaRosa & Rank 2001), fathers in the CWS (Tyrer, Chase, Warwick, & Aggleton 2005), and fathers caring for children with special needs (Jones & Neil-Urban, 2003). There is continuing interest in absent or noncustodial fathers and child support policy (Carlson, 2006; Mandell & Sharlin 2006). Curran (2003) examined fathering programs in the context of welfare reform and found little evidence of effectiveness in increasing child support of quality of fathering.

Published research indicates that social work has gone beyond describing absent fathers to addressing issues of fathers' perceptions of their roles and performance in those roles (Kost, 2001) and involvement with their children (Carlson, 2006). Lane and Clay (2000) addressed the service needs of young fathers.

Despite interest in fathers in social work, parenting by fathers—or “fathering”—is not generally well conceptualized or placed within a framework or theory about children's needs, although other disciplines are pursuing that topic (for example, Brotherson, Dollahite, & Hawkins's 2005 conception of generative fathering and Bradford and Hawkins's 2006 concept of competent fathering). One exception in social work is Jones (2005), who provides a discussion of the role of the father in psychoanalytic theory, touching on fathers' contemporary roles.

Adolescent Parents

Adolescent parents continue to be of interest to social workers. (See “Adolescent Pregnancy”.) Many interventions for this group (for example, Sangalang & Rounds 2005) not only emphasize the completion of education and economic independence, as well as contraceptive use to prevent further pregnancies, but also may provide information about child development and children's needs. There is abundant evidence that adolescent parents lack maturity, knowledge, and skills for parenting and that their social and environmental circumstances further complicate their ability to provide competent care for their children that is optimal for the children's healthy development (Corcoran, 1998).

Conclusion and Issues for the Future

Social workers have a pivotal role in working with parents in diverse settings, and they provide the majority of services to parents in the child welfare system. The profession needs to address a number of challenges in order to demonstrate its effectiveness in enhancing improvement of parenting and thus the lives of the children touched in this way.

First, social work interventions in parenting are not making use of a vast, rich literature in other disciplines. Research in child development and psychology can provide a theoretical foundation and understanding of the parenting relationship on child health and development, the ultimate lens through which parenting is viewed (Combs-Orme et al., 2003; Davies, 1999; Heath, 2006; Woodcock, 2003). That research has moved beyond specific behaviors and parenting skills to affirm the fundamental importance of the parent–child relationship and to measure broader parenting styles. As described earlier, parenting interventions in American social work are not embedded in this knowledge and appear to focus narrowly on such goals as preventing placement. Woodcock's (2003) discussion of the British system indicates that the child welfare community there is struggling with these two different goals: preventing maltreatment and supporting families.

Second, despite social work's long history and commitment to understanding the impact of poverty, the profession pays insufficient attention to the effect of environmental deprivation on parents and their parenting. Belsky's (1984) model of the determinants of parenting provides a framework for considering the impact of poverty and incorporating that understanding into research and practice with parents, particularly those in the child welfare system.

Finally, although social workers are delivering parenting interventions and often evaluating their efforts, Barth et al. (2005) emphasize the poor state of our knowledge. The more general move toward empirically based practice surely demands rigorous examination of this most critical part of social work's mission.

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Shears, J., Summers, J. A., Boller, K., & Barclay-McLaughlin, G. (2006). Exploring fathering roles in low-income families: The influence of intergeneral transmission. Families in Society, 87(2), 259–268.Find this resource:

Sprang, G., Clark, J. J., & Bass, S. (2005). Factors that contribute to child maltreatment severity: A multi-method and multidimensional investigation. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 335–350.Find this resource:

Turney, D., & Tanner, K. (2001). Working with neglected children and their families. Journal of Social Work Practice, 15(2), 193–204.Find this resource:

Tyrer, P., Chase, E., Warwick, I., & Aggleton, P. (2005). “Dealing with it”: Experiences of young fathers in and leaving care. British Journal of Social Work, 35(7), 1107–1121.Find this resource:

U.S. Census. Available at http://www.census.gov.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). Child maltreatment, 2004. Available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#can.

Weinfield, N. S., Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., & Carlson, E. A. (1999). The nature of individual differences in infant-caregiver attachment. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 68–88). New York: Guilford Press.Find this resource:

Woodcock, J. (2003). The social work assessment of parenting: An exploration. British Journal of Social Work, 33, 87–106.Find this resource:

Travis, W., & Combs-Orme, T. (2007). Resilient parenting: Overcoming poor parental bonding. Social Work Research, 31(3), 135–149.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bunting, L., & McAuley, C. (2004). Research review: Teenage pregnancy and parenthood: The role of fathers. Child and Family Social Work, 9, 295–303.Find this resource:

Waller, M. A., Brown, B., & Whittle, B. (1999). Mentoring as a bridge to positive outcomes for teen mothers and their children. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 16(6), 467–480.Find this resource: