Contexts of Parenting

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Biology, personality, and perceptions of role responsibilities constitute factors that influence parenting from the start. However, societal factors condition and channel beliefs and behaviors of infants' parents as well. Family situation, social status, and culture, for example, encourage diverse patterns of parenting perceptions and practices. In some places, infants are reared in extended families in which care is provided by many relatives; in others, mothers and babies are isolated from almost all social contexts. In some groups, fathers are treated as irrelevant social objects; in others, fathers assume complex responsibilities for infants (Bornstein, 1991).

Family situation. Infant parenting is influenced by family configuration, level of parental stress, marital relationships, and parents' social networks, among other social-situational factors. For example, approximately one half of babies born in a given year are firstborn infants, and firstborn infants receive more attention and better care as infants than do laterborn infants (Sulloway, 1997). Mothers engage, respond, stimulate, talk, and express positive affection more to their firstborn babies than to their laterborn babies, even when firstborn and laterborn babies show no differences in their behavior, indicating that these maternal behaviors do not reflect infant effects (Belsky et al., 1984). However, mothers are also prone to rate their firstborn babies as difficult (Bates, 1987), which may derive from the fact that firstborn babies actually are more difficult babies or, alternatively, because first-time mothers are less at ease with their infants and thus tend to perceive them as more demanding. Relatedly, multiparas report higher self-efficacy than primiparas (Fish and Stifter, 1993). Among the more dramatic changes in family dynamics is the one that takes place when a second baby is born (Belsky, Rovine, and Fish, 1991; Mendelson, 1990; Stewart, 1990); consequently, the social and physical ecologies of firstborn and laterborn infants are thoroughly different (Dunn and Plomin,

1991). The births of later children alter the roles of each family member and forever affect the ways in which each interacts with all others. Parents of a secondborn infant are in many ways, therefore, not the same as parents of a firstborn infant.

Even though the absolute frequency of "daily hassles" reported by parents of infants is approximately the same as for children of other ages, parents of infants do not rate their intensity or salience as high (Crnic and Low, in Vol. 5 of this Handbook). Infancy may well represent a "honeymoon period" in which parents recognize the difficultness of parenting chores and choose not to make as stressful attributions about them. Parents also attribute greater willfulness to children's behavior once they make the transition out of infancy (Bugental and Happaney, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook).

Marital relationships and father involvement affect the quality of mother-child and father-child relationships and child outcomes (Gable, Crnic, and Belsky, 1994; Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera, 1999), and how parents work together as a coparenting team may have far-reaching consequences for infants (Fincham, 1998).

The situations in which new mothers find themselves exert specific influences over parenting. A large number of new mothers in the United States have not finished high school, are not married, or are teenagers when their baby is born (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2000). Nearly 70% of women on welfare are unmarried when they have their first child (Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera, 1999). Having a baby is a major transition in a person's life, marked by dramatic changes in information seeking, self-definition, and role responsibility (Belsky, 1984; Cowan and Cowan,

1992). Teenage mothers are thought to have lower levels of ego strength, to be less mature emotionally and socially, and to lack a well-formed maternal self-definition, perhaps because they themselves are negotiating their own developmental issues and are unskilled on account of a dearth of life experience (Moore and Brooks-Gunn, in Vol. 1 of this Handbook). Many people appear to start their career as parents by being disadvantaged in some way.

Financial and social stresses adversely affect the general well-being and health of parents and demand attention and emotional energy from them (Magnuson and Duncan, in Vol. 4 of this Handbook). These circumstances, in turn, may reduce their attentiveness, patience, and tolerance toward children (Crnic and Low, in Vol. 5 of this Handbook). Emotional integration or isolation from potential support networks mitigates or exacerbates these effects in new parents (Cochran and Niego, in Vol. 4 of this Handbook). Social support consists of the people who are important in a parent's life, including a spouse or significant other, relatives, friends, and neighbors (Jennings, Stagg, and Connors, 1991). Social support can improve parenting satisfaction, affecting the availability of mothers to their infants as well as the quality of mother-infant interactions (Bradley and Whiteside-Mansell, 1997). Well-supported mothers are less restrictive and punitive with their infants than are less well-supported mothers, and frequency of contacts with significant others improves the quality of parent-infant relationships (Crnic, Greenberg, Ragozin, Robinson, and Basham, 1983; Powell, 1980) as well as the parents' sense of their own effectance and competence (Abernathy, 1973). Mothers report that community and friendship support are beneficial, but intimate support from husbands (those "indirect effects" mentioned in the subsection on direct and indirect effects) has the most general positive consequences for maternal competence (Crnic et al., 1983).

Socioeconomic status. SES influences parental behavior. Mothers in different SES groups behave similarly in certain ways; however, SES also orders the home environment and other behaviors of parents toward infants (Bornstein, Suwalsky, Hahn, and Haynes, 2001; Hoff, Laursen, and Tardif, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook). Low SES is considered a risk factor in children's development on account of its detrimental effect on the quality of mother-infant interaction (Dodge, Pettit, and Bates, 1994): Low SES adversely affects mothers' psychological functioning and promotes harsh or inconsistent disciplinary practices (Conger, McMarty, Yang, Lahey, and Kropp, 1984; McLoyd and Wilson, 1990; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, and Wu, 1991). Low-SES compared with middle-SES parents typically provide infants with fewer opportunities for variety in daily stimulation, less appropriate play materials, and less total stimulation, for example (Gottfried, 1984).

Significantly, middle-SES mothers converse with their infants more, and in systematically more sophisticated ways, than do lower-SES mothers, even though young infants (presumably) understand little maternal speech (Hart and Risley, 1995; Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991). Such social status differences in maternal speech to infants are pervasive across cultures: In Israel, for example, upper-SES mothers talk, label, and ask "what" questions more often than do lower- or middle-SES mothers (Ninio, 1980). Higher-SES mothers' encouragement in language undoubtedly facilitates self-expression in children; higher-SES babies produce more sounds and later words than do lower-SES babies (Hart and Risley, 1995, 1999; Papousek et al., 1985).

The lower-SES mother is likely to have been a poorer student, making it unlikely that she will turn to books readily as sources of information about pregnancy, infancy, and parenthood; among middle-SES women, reading material is primary (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, and Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Hofferth and Hayes, 1987; Young, 1991). Middle-SES, more than lower-SES, parents also seek out and absorb expert advice about child development (Lightfoot and Valsiner, 1992). Indeed, social class and culture pervasively influence the complexity and the resourcefulness with which mothers view infant development (Palacios, 1990; Sameroff and Feil, 1985).

Culture. Cultural variation in beliefs and behaviors is always impressive, whether observed among different ethnic groups in one society or among different groups in different parts of the world. As illustrations throughout this chapter attest, cross-cultural comparisons show that virtually all aspects of parenting infants are informed by culture. An investigation of expected developmental timetables in new mothers from Australia versus Lebanon found that culture shaped mothers' expectations of children much more than other factors, such as their experiences in observing their own children, comparing them with other children, and receiving advice from friends and experts (Goodnow, Cashmore, Cotton, and Knight, 1984).

Culture influences parenting patterns and child development from very early in infancy through such factors as when and how parents care for infants, the extent to which parents permit infants freedom to explore, how nurturant or restrictive parents are, which behaviors parents emphasize, and so forth (Benedict, 1938; Bornstein, 1991; Erikson, 1950; Whiting, 1981). For example, Japan and the United States maintain reasonably similar levels of modernity and living standards and both are child centered, but the two differ dramatically in terms of history, culture, beliefs, and childrearing goals (e.g., Azuma, 1986; Bornstein, 1989e; Caudill, 1973). Japanese mothers expect early mastery of emotional maturity, self-control, and social courtesy in their offspring, whereas U.S. American mothers expect early mastery of verbal competence and self-actualization in theirs. American mothers promote autonomy and organize social interactions with their infants so as to foster physical and verbal assertiveness and independence, and they promote infants' interest in the external environment. Japanese mothers organize social interactions so as to consolidate and strengthen closeness and dependency within the dyad (e.g., Befu, 1986; Doi, 1973; Kojima, 1986), and they tend to indulge infants (Bornstein, Azuma, et al., 1990; Bornstein, Tal, and Tamis-LeMonda, 1991; Bornstein, Toda, et al., 1990). Japanese mothers encourage the incorporation of a partner in infant pretense play; by contrast, American mothers encourage exploration and function in play. For Americans, parent play with infants and the toys used during play are more frequently the topic or object of communication; for Japanese, the play setting serves to mediate dyadic communication and interaction (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 1992).

Mothers in different cultures show striking similarities in interacting with their infants as well. All must nurture and promote the physical growth of infants if their infants are to survive (Bornstein, 1989a, 1995; LeVine, 1988). Whether converging patterns in mothers reflect biological bases of caregiving, the historical convergence of parenting styles, or the increasing prevalence of a single childrearing pattern through migration or dissemination by mass media is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. In the end, different peoples (presumably) wish to promote similar general competencies in their young. Some do so in qualitatively and quantitatively similar ways. Others appear to do so differently, and of course, culture-specific patterns of childrearing can be expected to be adapted to each specific society's settings and needs (Lerner, 1989; Valsiner, 1987).

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