Jerome Kagan

Harvard University

The replacement of experiential explanations of the emergence of universal dispositions or individual variation with biological ones has occurred rapidly and with much less resistance than I would have expected, given the implications of this substitution. The reasons for the shift in perspective are multiple.

On the one hand, thousands of hours of observations of parents interacting with children have not yielded conclusions with the effect sizes investigators expected. Almost 20 years ago, Maccoby and Martin, following a thorough examination of the evidence on family socialization, concluded, "In most cases, the relationships that have appeared are not large____The implications are either that parental behaviors have no effect, or that the only effective aspects of parenting must vary greatly from one child to another within the same family." How can we explain such a pessimistic conclusion?

One reason is that most of the research was relatively unsophisticated. Some investigators asked a mother how she behaved with her child. Others based inferences on less than an hour of observation in a laboratory waiting room. Neither source of evidence was likely to yield robust insights. More important, many psychologists expected to find a relation between what parents did and particular child outcomes and failed to appreciate that the child is always interpreting the actions of parents. The effect of every experience, for example a father's prolonged absence or a divorce, depends on how the child interprets the event. Rarely is there a fixed consequence of any particular event, even a traumatic one.

Most scholars now recognize that parents affect children in subtle and complex ways that are not revealed by crude methods. The assumption that the family has power is supported by the chapters in this Handbook, as well as by the fact that the profiles of children from different class or ethnic groups, all of whom watch the same television programs and attend the same movies, can be dramatically different. For example, Mexican American children are more cooperative and less competitive than African American or European American children living in the same town or city. Japanese children in California work harder in school than Mexican American children from the same region.

Few social scientists would argue with the claim that the experiences associated with a family's social status have a profound influence on development. Well-educated parents are generally more convinced than less well-educated ones that their child can develop internal controls on temptation. Less well-educated parents are more likely to believe that much of the control lies in the outside environment. Middle-socioeconomic parents expect that their decisions and actions have consequences and therefore have faith in their ability to control life events and to guide their children, through their agency, to the ego ideal they hold. Economically less-advantaged parents are vulnerable to believing that they are victims of forces beyond their control. That is one reason why children from families divergent in social-status background develop very different phenotypes. Emmy Werner's elegant longitudinal study of Hawaiian children revealed that the social status of the child's family was the best predictor of asocial behavior, school drop-out rates, and the development of psychiatric symptoms.

The chapters in this Handbook document that parents affect their children through at least three different mechanisms. The most obvious, and the one easiest to measure, refers to the consequences of interactions with the child that can be recorded on film. A mother praises her 3-year-old toddler for eating properly or names an unfamiliar animal in a picture book. These mundane events, which often involve the rewarding of desirable actions and the punishment of undesirable ones, have a cumulative effect. That is why a consistent failure to discipline acts of disobedience or aggression is predictive of later asocial behavior.

These first-order effects have second-order consequences that often appear in later childhood and adolescence. An 8-year-old child with a more extensive vocabulary than her peers, because her parents encouraged language development during the preschool years, will master the tasks of the elementary school more easily and perceive herself as more competent than many of her peers. This belief will embolden the child to resist domination by others and motivate the initiation of challenging tasks.

An emotional identification with parents and one's social status and ethnic category represents the second, different way families affect children. Most 5-year-old children believe, unconsciously, that some of the attributes of their parents are part of their own repertoire, even though this belief has little objective foundation. A girl with a mother who is afraid of storms is tempted to assume that she, too, is afraid of this danger. By contrast, a girl with a relatively bold, fearless mother will come to the opposite conclusion.

The third form of family influence is more symbolic. Some parents tell and retell stories about relatives who were, or are, especially accomplished in some domain. Perhaps an uncle made an important discovery, performed a courageous act, or was a talented athlete, writer, or public official. The child feels pride on hearing these stories because of the implication that, because the child is biologically related to that family member, she or he, too, might possess some part of the admirable characteristics. George Homans, an influential Harvard sociologist, noted in a memoir written shortly before his death, that he coped with his childhood anxiety over poor school grades and unpopularity with peers by reminding himself that he could trace his pedigree to John Adams. Charles Darwin's description of his father glows with awe for his father's intelligence, sympathy, kindness, and good business sense. Darwin knew about the inheritance of psychological features because of his acquaintance with animal breeders and may have felt that, given his family's eminence, his talents were inevitable.

Direct interactions, identifications, and knowledge of the accomplishments of family members are three of the ways families affect children. The first mechanism has its most profound effect on cognitive development and character traits. The second and the third have a greater influence on children's confidence or doubt about their talents and therefore on expectations of future success or failure when a challenge is encountered.

However, the family represents only one component of a large constellation of conditions. A child's temperamental biases, size of community, peer friendships, school quality, chance events, and, always, the historical era in which the adolescent years are spent, share power with the family. The influence of the historical period is seen in Glen Elder's study of the cohort of Americans who were between 10 and 20 years of age during the economic depression in America from 1930 to the beginning of the Second World War. A large proportion of those adolescents, who are now in their seventh decade, saved more money than the generation before or after them and conducted their lives with a gnawing concern over financial loss.

The youth protests against the Vietnam War at the end of the 1960s affected a large numbers of privileged adolescents who turned against established authority. Some college students seized administration buildings and shared sexual partners in unheated communal homes during long winters. Some high school youth marched out of their classrooms to protest the war and got away with it.

It is heady for a 16-year-old teenager to defy the rules of authority and escape punishment. Such experiences erode a tendency to worry too much about coming to work at 10 in the morning instead of 9 and leaving at 4 instead of 5. A proportion of American middle-socioeconomic youth thumbed their noses at authority because they happened to be young adults during a brief period when many adults in American society were uncertain of the legitimacy of such actions.

It is more accurate therefore to describe the effects of the family by arguing that parental qualities contribute to a child's profile rather than claim that family conditions determine particular outcomes. Eleanor Maccoby has also argued that the contribution of parental practices to children's personality cannot be viewed in isolation. Put plainly, the consequences of growing up in a home in which both parents work from 8 to 6, five days a week, will depend on the child's temperamental vulnerability to uncertainty, the economic resources of the family, the values of the peers in the surrogate care context, and whether 10%, 50%, or 70% of the children in that community have working parents.

The values of this extraordinarily rich Handbook rest, in part, on its acknowledgment of the many factors that sculpt the child. The editor and the authors are entitled to our gratitude for the conscientiousness and wisdom they brought to their assignments.

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