Mechanisms of Parenting Effects on Infants

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Parents' beliefs and behaviors influence infants and infant development by different paths. A common assumption in parenting is that the overall level of parental involvement or stimulation affects the infant's overall level of development (see Maccoby and Martin, 1983). An illustration of this simple model suggests that the development of language in infants is determined (at least to some degree) by the language infants hear (Hart and Risley, 1995, 1999). Indeed, mothers' single-word utterances are just those that appear earliest in their children's vocabularies (Chapman, 1981), and specific characteristics of maternal speech appear to play a big part in children's specific styles of speech as well (Bates, Bretherton, and Snyder, 1988).

The nature of interactions. Increasing evidence suggests, however, that sophisticated mechanisms need to be brought to bear to explain parenting effects (Collins et al., 2000). First, specific (rather than general) parental activities appear to relate concurrently and predictively to specific (rather than general) aspects of infant competence or performance, and, second, parent and infant mutually influence one another through time. The specificity principle states that specific parent-provided experiences at specific times exert specific effects over specific aspects of child development in specific ways (Bornstein, 1989a). Several such associations were observed in one illustrative longitudinal study of relationships between mothers and their 2- to 5-month-old infants (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990). For instance, mothers who encouraged their infants to attend to the mothers themselves had babies who later looked more at their mothers and less at the environment, whereas mothers who encouraged infant attention to the environment had babies who explored external properties, objects, and events more and their mothers less. Mothers' responses to their infants' communicative overtures are central to children's early acquisition of language, but exert less influence on the growth of motor abilities, play, or cognition broadly conceived (Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein, 1994).

The transactional principle in development recognizes that the characteristics of individuals shape their experiences and reciprocally that experiences shape the characteristics of individuals through time (Sameroff, 1983). Biological endowment and experience mutually influence development from birth onward, and each life force affects the other as development proceeds to unfold through the lifespan (Lerner, 1997). By virtue of their unique characteristics and propensities—state of arousal, perceptual awareness, cognitive status, emotional expressiveness, and individuality of temperament— infants actively contribute, through their interactions with their parents, toward producing their own development. Infants influence which experiences they will be exposed to, and they interpret those experiences and so determine how those experiences will affect them (Scarr and McCartney, 1983). Infant and parent bring distinctive characteristics to, and each is believed to change as a result of, every interaction; both then enter the next round of interaction as different individuals. Thus infant temperament and maternal sensitivity operate in tandem to affect one another and eventually the attachment status of babies (Cassidy, 1994; Seifer, Schiller, Sameroff, Resnick, and Riordan, 1996). Vygotsky (1978) contended that, as a central feature of this transactional perspective, the more advanced or expert partner (usually the mother) will raise the level of performance or competence of the less advanced or expert partner (the infant), and the "dynamic systems perspective" posits that reciprocity between mother and infant specifically facilitates higher-level forms of interaction (Thelen and Smith, 1998). In essence, transactional goodness-of-fit models best explain the development of much in infant development. Thus Lea, who is an alert and responsive baby, invites her parents' stimulation; Lea's enthusiastic responses are rewarding to her parents, who engage her more, which in turn further enriches her life.

The specificity and the transactional principles together propel development from infancy onward. The working model of parenting infants and infant development is that specific experiences at specific times affect specific aspects of the infant growth in specific ways and that specific infant abilities and proclivities affect specific experiences and specific aspects of development.

Growth And Development Infant

Models of interaction effects. Parenting beliefs or behaviors affect development in infancy by means of different pathways (see Bornstein, 1989a; Bradley, Caldwell, and Rock, 1988). A parent-provided experience might influence the infant at a particular time point in a particular way, and the consequence for the infant endures, independent of later parenting and of any other contribution of the infant. Theoreticians and researchers have long supposed that the child's earliest experiences affect the course of later development (Plato, ca. 355 B.C.). This "early experience" model is consonant with a sensitive period interpretation of parenting effects (e.g., Bornstein, 1989b), and data derived from ethology, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and neuropsychology support this model. Empirically, mothers encouraging their 2-month-old infants to attend to properties, objects, and events in the environment uniquely predicts infants' tactual exploration of objects at 5 months of age, that is, over and above stability in infant tactual exploration and any contemporaneous 5-month maternal stimulation (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990; see also Nicely et al., 1999).

In a second, "contemporary experience" model, parents exert unique influences over their infants at only a given point in development, overriding the effects of earlier experiences and independent of whatever individual differences infants carry forward. Empirical support for this model typically consists of failures of early intervention studies to show long-term effects and recovery of functioning from early deprivation (Clarke and Clarke, 1976; Lewis, 1997; Rutter and the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team, 1998). Empirically, mothers' didactic encouragement of 5-month-old infants uniquely predicts infants' visual exploration of the environment at 5 months of age and does so more than mothers' didactic encouragement of 2-month-old infants (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990).

A third "cumulative/additive/stable environment" model combines the first two. That is, a parent-provided experience at any one time does not necessarily exceed threshold to affect the infant, but meaningful longitudinal relations are structured by similar parenting interactions that continually repeat and aggregate through time (e.g., Abelson, 1985; Olson, Bates, and Bayles, 1984). Empirically, maternal didactic stimulation when the infant is 2 and 5 months old has been shown to aggregate to predict unique variance in infant nondistress vocalization when the infant is 5 months old (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990; see also Olson et al., 1984).

Although longitudinal data in the first 6 months provide evidence for unique early, unique contemporary, and cumulative experiential effects between mothers and infants, for the most part it is typical for children to be reared in stable environments (Holden and Miller, 1999), so that cumulative experiences are very likely (Collins et al., 2000). Of course, there is nothing to prevent different models of parenting influence from operating simultaneously in different spheres of infant development. It would be equally shortsighted to assume that different kinds of parenting exert only independent and linear effects over infant development; such a stance fails to consider significant complex, conditional, and nonlinear effects of caregiving. Parenting of specific sorts might affect development monistically, but different behaviors certainly also often combine in conditional ways; parenting affects development over short or over long periods; parenting effects may be immediate, or they may need to aggregate; and some may be direct, others indirect.

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