Conclusions

Because of the nature of the infant as well as the range, magnitude, and implications of developmental change early in life, infancy is intensely fascinating and undeniably appealing, but challenging and formidable in the extreme for parents. The popular belief that parent-provided experiences during infancy exert powerful influences on later behavior or personality has been fostered from many quarters. Nevertheless, human behavior is quite malleable, and plasticity remains a feature of adaptation in infancy and long after. Although not all infant experiences are critical for later development and single events are rarely formative, infant experiences doubtlessly can have long-lasting effects. Certainly, little and big consistencies of parenting aggregate over infancy to construct the person.

Parents intend much in their interactions with their infants: They promote their infants' mental development through the structures they create and the meanings they place on those structures, and they foster emotional understanding and development of self through the models they portray and the values they display. The complex of parent beliefs and behaviors with infants is divisible into domains, and parents tend to show consistency over time in certain of those domains. Some aspects of parenting are frequent or significant from the get-go, and wane after; others wax over the course of infancy. For new parents, the first years with an infant constitute a period of adjustment and transformation: Mothers typically assume primary responsibility for infantcare within the family, and mother-infant interactions are characterized by nurturant and verbal activities; father-infant interactions are dominated by play. As a result, infants' relationships with their two parents are distinctive from a very early age. The interactive and intersubjective aspects of parent and infant activities have telling consequences for the after-infancy development of the child. Researchers and theoreticians today do not ask whether parenting affects infant development, but which parent-provided experiences affect what aspects of development when and how, and they are interested also to learn the ways in which individual children are so affected, as well as the ways individual children affect their own development.

A full understanding of what it means to parent infants depends on the ecologies in which that parenting takes place. Within-family experiences appear to exert a major impact during the first years of life. Family composition, social class, and cultural variation exert salient influences on the ways in which infants are reared and what is expected of them as they grow. Infants also form relationships with siblings and grandparents as well as with other nonfamilial caregivers. Large numbers of infants have significant experiences outside the family—often through enrollment in alternative care settings—but the effects of out-of-home care vary depending on its type and quality, as well as on characteristics of infants and their families. These early relationships with mothers, fathers, siblings, and others all ensure that the parenting that the young infant experiences is rich and multifaceted.

Biology, personality, beliefs and intuitions, aspects of economic, social, and cultural circumstances, and quality of intimate relationships all play important roles in determining the nature of infant parenting. Of course, infants bring unique social styles and an active mental life to everyday interactions with adults that shape their caregiving experiences too. Infants alter the environment as they interact with it, and they interpret experiences and environment alike in their unique ways. Parent and infant convey distinctive characteristics to every interaction, and both are changed as a result. In other words, parent and infant actively coconstruct one another through time.

Infancy is a distinctive period, a major transition, and a formative phase in human development. Infants assume few responsibilities and are not at all self-reliant. Rather, parents have central roles to play in infants' physical survival, social growth, emotional maturation, and cognitive development. A better understanding of the nature of the human being is afforded by examination of parent-infant interaction and its consequences in this period of the dyad's initial accommodation—the unique and specific influences of parent on infant and of infant on parent. With the birth of a baby, a parent's life is forever altered. Those changes, in turn, shape the experiences of the infant and, with time, the person she or he becomes. Linked, parent and infant chart that course together. Infancy is a starting point of life for both infant and parent.

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