Influences on Parenting

Parenting is a complex process in which parents and children influence one another. There are many reasons that parents behave the way they do. The multiple influences on parenting are still being explored. Proposed influences on parental behavior include 1) parent characteristics, 2) child characteristics, and 3) contextual and sociocultural characteristics (Belsky, 1984; Demick, 1999).

Parent Characteristics

Caregivers bring unique traits and qualities to the parenting relationship that affect their decisions as parents. These characteristics include the age of the caregiver, gender, beliefs, personality, developmental history, knowledge about parenting and child development, and mental and physical health. Caregivers’ personalities affect parenting behaviors. Caregivers who are more agreeable, conscientious, and outgoing are warmer and provide more structure to their children. Caregivers who are more agreeable, less anxious, and less negative also support their children’s autonomy more than caregivers who are anxious and less agreeable (Prinzie, Stams, Dekovic, Reijntjes, & Belsky, 2009). Caregivers who have these personality traits appear to be better able to respond to their children positively and provide a more consistent, structured environment for their children.

Caregivers’ developmental histories, or their experiences as children, also affect their parenting strategies. Caregivers may learn parenting practices from their own parents (Kerr, Capaldi, Pears, & Owen, 2009). Patterns of negative parenting and ineffective discipline also appear from one generation to the next. However, caregivers who are dissatisfied with their own parents’ approach may be more likely to change their parenting methods with their own children.

Child Characteristics

image of a sad child with fatherParenting is bidirectional. Not only do caregivers affect their children, children influence their caregivers. Child characteristics, such as gender, birth order, temperament, and health status, affect parenting behaviors and roles. For example, an infant with an easy temperament may enable parents to feel more effective, as they are easily able to soothe the child and elicit smiling and cooing.

On the other hand, a cranky or fussy infant elicits fewer positive reactions from his or her parents and may result in caregivers feeling less effective in the parenting role (Eisenberg et al., 2008). Over time, caregivers of more difficult children may become more punitive and less patient with their children (Clark, Kochanska, & Ready, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff, Lengua, & Zalewski, 2011). Caregivers who have a fussy, difficult child are less satisfied with their marriages and have greater challenges in balancing work and family roles (Hyde, Else-Quest, & Goldsmith, 2004).

Contextual Factors and Sociocultural Characteristics

The parent–child relationship does not occur in isolation. Sociocultural characteristics, including economic hardship, religion, politics, neighborhoods, schools, and social support, also influence parenting. Parents who experience economic hardship are more easily frustrated, depressed, and sad, and these emotional characteristics affect their parenting skills (Conger & Conger, 2002). Culture also influences parenting behaviors in fundamental ways. Although promoting the development of skills necessary to function effectively in one’s community is a universal goal of parenting, the specific skills necessary vary widely from culture to culture. Thus, caregivers have different goals for their children that partially depend on their culture (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008). For example, caregivers vary in how much they emphasize goals for independence and individual achievements and goals involving maintaining harmonious relationships and being embedded in a strong network of social relationships. These differences in parental goals are influenced by culture and by immigration status. Other important contextual characteristics, such as the neighborhood, school, and social networks, also affect parenting, even though these settings don’t always include both the child and the parent (Brofenbrenner, 1989).

For example, Latina mothers who perceived their neighborhood as more dangerous showed less warmth with their children, perhaps because of the greater stress associated with living in a threatening environment (Gonzales et al., 2011).  Fieldwork by Furstenberg and his colleagues (1993) led them to conclude “where parents live affects how they manage their children” (p. 254). The results from several ethnographic and qualitative studies suggest that residence in dangerous or impoverished neighborhoods is associated with more restrictive parenting practices (e.g., Burton, 1990; Furstenberg, 1993).  Neighborhood characteristics also have been found to affect the parenting dimension of warmth/responsiveness. Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, and Duncan (1994) found a strong association between residence in poorer neighborhoods and lower levels of displayed maternal warmth toward children. Again, ethnographic research supports this contention by providing narratives that suggest that parents who live in more impoverished or dangerous neighborhoods are less warm and more controlling with their children than parents who live in more advantaged and safer neighborhoods (e.g., Furstenberg, 1993). This parenting style is considered to be somewhat adaptive because it teaches children to take care of themselves in a dangerous environment (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000).

In addition to socioeconomic status, typically defined as the proportion of families under the poverty line residing in a particular neighborhood, neighborhoods or communities may be classified by population density (e.g., urban vs. rural; Forehand et al, 2000), thus allowing for a comparison of parenting practices across diverse community contexts. For example, Armistead and colleagues examined parenting among single-parent African American families (most of whom were poor) in rural and urban communities. They found that, on average, urban parents monitor their children’s activities more than their rural counterparts, and that urban parents perceive more risks in their communities than did rural parents, which the authors speculate could account for the differential rates of parental monitoring across the two contexts.  Interestingly, the authors also found that higher levels of parental monitoring were associated with better child and adolescent outcomes in urban, but not rural, families. Their findings suggest, once again, that parents alter their parenting strategies to fit the environmental circumstances in which they are raising their children so that their children’s chances of success are maximized (Ogbu, 1981).

It is important to distinguish between differences in the distribution and the correlations of parenting style in different subpopulations.  Although in the United States authoritative parenting is most common among intact, middle-class families of European descent, the relationship between authoritativeness and child outcomes is quite similar across groups. There are some exceptions to this general statement, however:

  1. Demandingness appears to be less critical to girls’ than to boys’ well-being (Weiss & Schwarz, 1996), and
  2. Authoritative parenting predicts psychosocial outcomes and problem behaviors for adolescents in all ethnic groups studied (African-, Asian-, European-, and Hispanic Americans), but it is associated with academic performance only among European Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic Americans (Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1992; Steinberg, Darling, & Fletcher, 1995).

Chao (1994) and others (Darling & Steinberg, 1993) have argued that observed ethnic differences in the association of parenting style with child outcomes may be due to differences in social context, parenting practices, or the cultural meaning of specific dimensions of parenting style.

Despite the interest in the development of parents among lay people and helping professionals, little research has examined developmental changes in parents’ experience and behaviors over time. Thus, it is not clear whether these theoretical stages are generalizable to parents of different races, ages, and religions, nor do we have empirical data on the factors that influence individual differences in these stages.

Pause to Reflect!

Discuss the following questions.

  1. Consider the parenting behaviors (e.g., rules, discipline strategies, warmth, and support) used in your household when you were a child. What socioeconomic or cultural factors influenced those parenting behaviors?
  2. Think about different parents and grandparents you know. Do the challenges they face as parents differ based on the age of their children? Do your observations fit with Galinsky’s stages of parenting?


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