Edward Zigler

Yale University

Social scientists' interest in parenting has lagged far behind their attention to other aspects of human development. Early in the twentieth century, professional efforts were child focused, progressing from infant schools to nursery schools to child study centers to work like that of Arnold Gesell to chart the entire course of children's physical and social growth. Few professional people noticed parents, an exception being the U.S. Children's Bureau, which published handbooks devoted to the practical aspects of parenting such as feeding, toilet training, and the stern advice that mothers should not play with their infants so they learn regulation and self-sufficiency (Kessen, in press). By the second half of the century, researchers were immersed in discovering ways to increase children's intelligence. Yet the only notice parents (read: mothers) received in the scientific literature was blame for all types of psychopathology and other deviant child outcomes. Then, in 1965, the first Head Start centers opened their doors to economically disadvantaged preschool-age children and invited their mothers in to assume key roles in the children's preschool education. Years later, the importance of fathers in children's lives was discovered.

Eventually, attention to the critical roles parents play in every facet of child development became more and more common in a host of professional disciplines ranging from education to health care to social work. The literature blossomed so quickly that, when Marc Bornstein decided to synthesize it in 1996, the first edition of this Handbook of Parenting filled four thick volumes. The contents amazed and inspired workers, who for the first time realized the breadth of theory and research being conducted in fields far removed from their own. Yet even as readers began to familiarize themselves with this virtual knowledge base on parenting, critics of the view that parents have a profound influence on early development garnered publicity (Bruer, 1999; Harris, 1998). On the heels of and in symbolic rebuttal to such views, this second edition of the Handbook fills five thick volumes.

There are two major reasons why professional interest in parenting has gained such rapid momentum. One was the massive effort by a committee of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine to evaluate the entire science of early childhood development. The conclusions, published in a book titled From Neurons to Neighborhoods (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000), focused on the importance of early experiences—particularly early relationships—in every type of developmental task. This authoritative work presented clear proof that early parent-child interactions relate to academic, behavioral, socioemotional, and most other outcomes. The scientists were careful to emphasize that human development is a continuous, lifelong process. Although the earliest years have prominence, all stages of growth are critical and are affected by what occurs within the child and in the child's environment. The committee underscored that, although there is ample scientific evidence that "early environments matter and nurturing relationships are essential," this knowledge has not been put to full use. "Society is changing and the needs of young children are not being addressed" (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000, p. 4).

This leads to the second reason why expert interest in parenting is justified and well timed. Americans in general are pragmatic people who have developed a government expected to be responsive to societal needs. When they sense that something is missing, that there is a problem without a solution or a challenge without the supports to overcome it, they demand that the vacuum be filled and the solutions and supports be forthcoming. Policymakers turn to experts on the matter for knowledge and guides to action. Before that can happen, of course, the experts must have spent time constructing a knowledge set to the point at which it is ready to put to use.

These are truly hard times for parents. Their elemental role of rearing children has taken on many new dimensions, creating some distance between their family needs and supports provided by society. For one, today's parents face what may be unprecedented levels of social and economic stress. In just a few decades, the incidence of such major social problems as failing schools, homelessness, juvenile violence, weapons, and substance abuse has ballooned. Although poverty affects a smaller but still significant percentage of the population, its face has grown uglier and the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. In many communities, poverty and its accompanying stressors make it difficult for parents to create a decent life for themselves, much less protect their children from harm and plan for their futures. Such anxieties have an especially hard impact on households headed by single parents (usually a mother)—a now relatively common type of family structure (approximately 25% of all children and over 60% of African American children). In many cases the double disadvantage of poverty and single parenting is combined with extreme youth, as the number of father-absent teenage births remains extremely high compared with that of just a few generations ago. Teen mothers can be expected to lack adequate guidance, support, and preparation for parenthood, but in this they are not alone. With today's mobile lifestyle and changing family structures, most parents miss the cross-generational passing down of childrearing wisdom that once occurred within extended families.

Today's brands of economic stresses affect single- and two-parent families alike. Single parents no longer have welfare payments as an option and must be in the labor force (or at the very least preparing for it). Among married couples, both parents typically work outside the home to make ends meet. There are two added stresses on parents who have employment, which is the large majority of all parents: the stress of finding quality childcare they can afford and the stress of having too little time to spend with their children. To make matters worse, a large number of adults today are in the so-called "sandwich generation," caring for their elderly parents even as they struggle to rear their own children.

Parents living in the United States must tackle all of these challenges largely without the considerable social supports offered in other industrialized nations. Such supports include paid parental leave and government-subsidized childcare, health care, and higher education. Although America's policymakers have shown increased interest in supportive programming and some improvement in meeting family needs (e.g., passage of an unpaid parental leave law in the form of the Family and Medical Leave Act), parents are still largely on their own in the challenging and complex task of nurturing those who will take over the nation.

However, Americans do not like vacuums, and American parents today are demanding that something be done to help them be better parents. The Handbook of Parenting should prove invaluable in meeting this need for expert guidance. Of course, this is not a handbook in the sense of a manual, although the chapters describing what it is like, for example, to parent a child born prematurely or how to foster sound moral development, can offer valuable insights. Rather, the volumes that make up the Handbook offer a comprehensive account of the state of our scientific and social knowledge regarding virtually every facet of parenting, from a social history of the topic to its psychological, educational, medical, and legal aspects. The knowledge represented in these five volumes should help professionals to help parents and also to meet the critical need for increased family supports by enlightening our policymakers. This knowledge can immediately be put to use by such home visitation programs as Parents as Teachers and Healthy Families America. It will also provide the scholarly underpinnings of the myriad of family support programs that can now be found coast to coast.

At minimum, the stellar contributors assembled for the Handbook of Parenting succeed admirably in their effort to capture and describe the many aspects of parenting today. These volumes have an extraordinary scope in that the authors share with us an impressive breadth, as well as depth, of experience and learning. The writers are acknowledged experts in their individual fields, and they represent a remarkable diversity of perspective. This comprehensive approach is essential to reveal the social ecology of parenthood.

All of the forces that make up the larger sociopolitical world create the context in which parents must nurture, educate, and struggle to understand their children and themselves as parents. The Handbook of Parenting offers us a detailed roadmap to that context. It tells us a good deal about the needs, beliefs, troubles, wishes, and triumphs of the parents who inhabit our increasingly complex society. The contributors to this excellent compendium have provided a great resource for parents and for the clinicians, educators, and other professionals who strive to assist parents in carrying out their important work as guardians of the next generation. They have also provided policymakers with a solid base of knowledge to guide the construction of family-friendly social policies.

Joy Of Modern Parenting Collection

Joy Of Modern Parenting Collection

This is a collection of parenting guides. Within this collection you will find the following titles: Issues, rule and discipline, self esteem and tips plus more.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment