Biological Determinants of Parenting

Of course, forces within the parent shape parenting as well. Basic physiology is mobilized to support parenting (Corter and Fleming, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook; Rosenblatt, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook), and parenting cognitions and activities normally first arise around biological processes associated with pregnancy and parturition. However, prenatal biological events—parental age, diet, and stress, as well as other factors such as contraction of disease, exposure to environmental toxins, and even anesthetics—also affect postnatal parenting.

Papousek and Papousek (in Vol. 2 of this Handbook) developed the notion that some infant care-giving practices are biologically "wired" into human beings. Intuitive parenting, so-called, involves responses that are developmentally suited to the age and the abilities of the child and that often have the goal of enhancing adaptation and development. Parents regularly enact intuitive parenting programs in an unconscious fashion—such programs do not require the time and the effort typical of conscious decision making, and, being more rapid and efficient, they utilize less attentional reserve.

An example of intuitive parenting is the use of child-directed speech. Parents (as well as others) habitually and unconsciously modulate myriad aspects of their communication with infants to match infants' presumed or evaluated competencies. Special characteristics of such child-directed speech include prosodic features (higher pitch, greater range of frequencies, more varied and exaggerated intonation); simplicity features (shorter utterances, slower tempo, longer pauses between phrases, fewer embedded clauses, fewer auxiliaries); redundancy features (more repetition over shorter amounts of time, more immediate repetition); lexical features (special forms like "mama"); and content features (restriction of topics to the child's world) (Papousek, Papousek, and Bornstein, 1985). Cross-cultural developmental study attests that child-directed speech is (essentially) universal (Jacobson, Boersma, Fields, and Olson, 1983; Snow, 1977; but see Ratner and Pye, 1984). Indeed, parents find it difficult to resist or modify such intuitive behaviors, even when asked to do so (Trevarthen, 1979). Additional support for the premise that some interactions with infants are intuitive comes from observations that nonparents (males and females) who have little prior experience with infants modify their speech as the infants' own parents do when an infant is actually present and even when asked to imagine speaking to one (Jacobson et al., 1983). Children from 2 to 3 years of age also engage in such systematic language adjustments when speaking to their year-old siblings as opposed to their mothers (Dunn and Kendrick, 1982). When communicating with their infants, mothers with hearing and speech impediments modify their sign language the way hearing mothers use child-directed speech (Erting, Prezioso, and Hynes, 1994).

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