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High-risk Neighborhoods, Influence Of Parents' Level Of Education, Influence On Child's Educational Aspirations And AttainmentOVERVIEW

Laurence Steinberg

Claire Smrekar

Joan M. T. Walker
Claire Smrekar

Joan M. T. Walker
Claire Smrekar


The study of parenting and its impact on children and adolescents has long been a central concern to scholars interested in child development and education. Although some contemporary commentators have suggested that social scientists have overestimated the influence of parents on their children's development and have underemphasized the importance of genetic factors and forces outside the family, most experts continue to believe that children's emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development is profoundly affected by the ways in which their parents have raised them.

This confidence in parental influence notwithstanding, it is important to note that much research on parenting and child development, which tends to be correlational in nature, leaves open the question of causal direction. The observation that children with certain characteristics are more likely than not to come from parents who engage in certain ways of parenting can be accounted for with a variety of explanations, of which parental influence is just one. Consider, for example, the commonly observed correlation between parental harshness and childhood aggression. Although it is reasonable to suggest that this observation reflects the fact that parental hostility creates aggressive children, it is also reasonable to suppose that parents are influenced by their children (i.e., that aggressive children elicit harsh parenting), that other environmental or genetic factors influence both parents and children in certain directions (e.g., that poverty makes parents harsh and children aggressive, or that harsh parents and aggressive children share a genetic predisposition for violence).

Researchers interested in disentangling these different accounts have generally followed one of three approaches. First, through the use of longitudinal designs, researchers have studied the links between parenting and child adjustment over time, examining whether certain types of parenting precede, rather than simply accompany or follow from, the emergence of certain child characteristics. Second, in studies of animals, researchers have been able to randomly assign infants and juveniles to rearing environments in which adults vary in their parenting practices, and by doing so, scientists have been able to examine the impact of variations in parenting on adjustment through experimentation. Finally, a number of investigators have studied the impact of parent-focused interventions on child adjustment. In these studies, parents' behavior is changed through some sort of psychoeducational treatment, and any resultant change in child adjustment is examined in relation to the parenting intervention. All three designs (longitudinal, experimental, and interventional) have buttressed the findings from correlational work.

Parenting, of course, encompasses many different phenomena. Nancy Darling and Laurence Steinberg (1993) have suggested that researchers distinguish between parenting style and parenting practices. They define parenting style as a constellation of attitudes toward the child communicated to the child by the parent, that taken together create an emotional climate in which the parent's behaviors are expressed. These behaviors include both the specific, goal-directed behaviors through which parents perform their parental duties (what Darling and Steinberg refer to as parenting practices) as well as non-goal-directed parental behaviors, such as gestures, changes in tone of voice, or the spontaneous expression of emotion. The focus of the current entry is on parenting style. Information on specific parenting practices, especially those related to parenting practices designed to influence educational achievement, may be found in other entries.

Dimensional Approaches to Research on Parenting

Whether through correlational, longitudinal, or experimental designs, research on parenting style and its impact has traditionally followed one of two approaches. In the dimensional approach, researchers isolate critical dimensions of parenting along which parents differ and examine the relations between variability on one or more of these dimensions and variability in one or more child outcomes. The most frequently studied dimensions of parenting have been warmth (sometimes referred to as acceptance or responsiveness), firmness (sometimes referred to as demandingness or behavioral control), and restrictiveness (sometimes referred to as intrusiveness or psychological control). Four broad sets of child adjustment indicators have been examined in relation to each of these dimensions of parenting: psychosocial development (including social competence, self-conceptions, and self-reliance); school achievement (including school performance, school engagement, and academic motivation); internalized distress (including depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic problems); and problem behavior (including delinquency, aggression, and drug and alcohol use).

Generally speaking, research shows that children and adolescents fare better when their parents are warm, firm, and nonrestrictive. Although variability in parental warmth has been associated with variability in all four areas of child adjustment listed in the preceding paragraph, it appears that variations in parents' firmness and restrictiveness contribute relatively more to some aspects of children's development than to others. In general, variations in firmness are linked most strongly to variations in problem behavior (with children whose parents are low in firmness exhibiting more problem behavior than their more vigilantly reared peers), whereas variations in restrictiveness are linked most strongly to variations in internalized distress (with children whose parents are high in restrictiveness scoring higher on measures of depression, anxiety, and the like). Thus the distinction between behavioral and psychological control is important not only because each is related to different outcomes but also because optimal child development is associated with high levels of one type of control (behavioral) but low levels of the other (psychological).

Configurational Approaches to Research on Parenting

The dimensional approach attempts to separate various aspects of parenting from one another, to isolate their independent relations to child outcomes. In contrast, the configurational approach to parenting attempts to identify particular types or styles of parenting that are defined by certain constellations of parenting characteristics (e.g., a group of parents who are high on warmth, low on behavioral control, and low on psychological control; a group who are high on warmth, high on behavioral control, and low on psychological control, etc.). This has been done by using configurations that are defined a priori on the basis of theory as well as by identifying naturally occurring clusters of parents whose parenting has been assessed on several of the key dimensions identified earlier. The advantage of the a priori approach is that all possible constellations of parents are identified, even those that are relatively rare. The advantage of identifying naturally occurring clusters of parents is that the end result is a categorization system that accurately reflects the type of parenting found within the particular ecological niche studied. This can be an important consideration for researchers who are interested in cultural groups whose parenting may not be easily classified using preexisting configurational models. Some critics, for example, contend that the most commonly used configurational models of parenting have greater applicability within white, middle-class, American samples than within samples of parents from other backgrounds.

The most widely used configurational model of parenting is one that derives from the work of Diana Baumrind (1971), whose theory of parenting style has been enormously influential. Although Baumrind's initial conceptualization of parenting styles was not explicitly based on the dimensions of parental warmth, behavioral control, and psychological control, more contemporary models of parenting, such as those of Darling and Steinberg, have attempted to bridge Baumrind's configurational approach with research on these three dimensions of parenting. Within this parenting-style framework, parents are classified as authoritative (high in warmth, high in firmness, and low in restrictiveness), authoritarian (low in warmth, high in firmness, and high in restrictiveness), or indulgent (high in warmth, low in firmness, and low in restrictiveness). Contemporary variations of this framework have also included a fourth group, indifferent parents, who are characteristically low in warmth, low in firmness, and low in restrictiveness. Although it is theoretically possible to derive additional configurations of parents based on other combinations of warmth, firmness, and restrictiveness, most empirical research suggests that, at least in contemporary Western cultures, the authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and indifferent styles account for the vast majority of parents.

Authoritative parents. These four general styles of parenting can be distinguished in many respects beyond their scores on measures of parental warmth, firmness, or restrictiveness. For example, in addition to being both warm and firm, authoritative parents set standards for the child's conduct but form expectations that are consistent with the child's developing needs and capabilities. They place a high value on the development of autonomy and self-direction but assume the ultimate responsibility for their child's behavior. Authoritative parents deal with their child in a rational, issue-oriented manner, frequently engaging in discussion and explanation with their children over matters of discipline.

Authoritarian parents. In contrast, authoritarian parents place a high value on obedience and conformity, favoring more punitive, absolute, and forceful disciplinary measures. Verbal give- and-take is not common in authoritarian households, because the underlying belief of authoritarian parents is that the child should accept without question the rules and standards established by the parents. They tend not to encourage independent behavior and, instead, place a good deal of importance on restricting the child's autonomy.

Indulgent parents. Indulgent parents behave in an accepting, benign, and somewhat more passive way in matters of discipline. They place relatively few demands on the child's behavior, giving the child a high degree of freedom to act as he or she wishes. Indulgent parents are more likely to believe that control is an infringement on the child's freedom that may interfere with the child's healthy development. Instead of actively shaping their child's behavior, indulgent parents are more likely to view themselves as resources that the child may or may not use.

Indifferent parents. Finally, indifferent parents try to do whatever is necessary to minimize the time and energy that they must devote to interacting with their child. In extreme cases, indifferent parents may be neglectful. They know little about their child's activities and whereabouts, show little interest in their child's experiences at school or with friends, rarely converse with their child, and rarely consider their child's opinion when making decisions. Rather than raising their child according to a set of beliefs about what is good for the child's development (as do the other three parent types), indifferent parents are "parent centered"–they structure their home life primarily around their own needs and interests.

In light of research findings linking positive child adjustment to the presence of parental warmth and firmness, and to a lack of parental restrictiveness, it is not surprising to find that child adjustment varies as a function of parenting style, with children from authoritative households exhibiting relatively healthier adjustment than their peers and children from neglectful homes exhibiting poorer functioning on virtually all measured indicators. More specifically, children and adolescents from authoritative homes score better than their peers on measures of psychosocial development, school achievement, internalized distress, and problem behavior, whereas those from neglectful homes score worse across all four sets of outcomes. Youngsters raised in authoritarian or permissive homes score somewhere between the two extremes, with authoritarian parenting associated with special problems in self-reliance, social competence, and internalized dis-tress, and permissive parenting associated with somewhat lower school achievement and elevated rates of problem behavior.

Although occasional exceptions to these general patterns have been noted from time to time, the evidence linking authoritative parenting and healthy child and adolescent development is remarkably strong, and it has been found in studies of a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, regions, social classes, and family structures. At the other extreme, parenting that is indifferent, neglectful, or abusive has been shown consistently to have harmful effects on the adolescent's mental health and development, leading to depression and a variety of behavior problems, including, in cases of physical abuse, aggression toward others.

The Power of Authoritative Parenting

Why is authoritative parenting so consistently associated with healthy child and adolescent development? First, authoritative parents provide an appropriate balance between restrictiveness and autonomy, giving the child opportunities to develop self-reliance but providing the sorts of standards, limits, and guidelines that developing individuals need. Authoritative parents, for instance, are more likely to give children more independence gradually as they get older, which helps children develop self-reliance and self-assurance. Because of this, authoritative parenting promotes the development of and enhances their ability to withstand a variety of potentially negative influences, including life stress and exposure to antisocial peers.

Second, because authoritative parents are more likely to engage their children in verbal give- and-take, they are likely to promote the sort of intellectual development that provides an important foundation for the development of psychosocial competence. Family discussions in which decisions, rules, and expectations are explained help the child to understand social systems and social relationships. This understanding plays an important part in the development of reasoning abilities, role taking, moral judgment, and empathy.

Finally, because authoritative parenting is based on a warm parent-child relationship, adolescents are more likely to identify with, admire, and form strong attachments to their parents, which leaves them more open to their parents' influence. Adolescents who have had warm and close relationships with their parents are more likely, for example, to have similar attitudes and values. Adolescents who are raised by indifferent parents, in contrast, often end up having friends their parents disapprove of, including those involved in antisocial activity.

Cultural Differences in Parenting

A number of researchers have asked whether parents from different ethnic groups vary in their child rearing and whether the relation between parenting and child and adolescent outcomes is the same across different ethnic groups. These, of course, are two different questions: The first concerns average differences between groups in their approaches to parenting (e.g., whether ethnic minority parents are firmer than white parents), whereas the second concerns the correlation between parenting practices and child adjustment in different groups (e.g., whether the effect of firmness is the same in ethnic minority families as it is in white families).

In general, researchers find that authoritative parenting is less prevalent among African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic families than among European-American families, no doubt reflecting the fact that parenting practices are often linked to cultural values and beliefs. Nevertheless, even though authoritative parenting is less common in ethnic minority families, its effects on adolescent adjustment are beneficial in all ethnic groups. In other words, ethnic minority youngsters for the most part benefit just as much from parenting that is responsive and demanding as do their nonminority peers.

Research has also indicated that authoritarian parenting is more prevalent among ethnic minority than among white families, even after taking ethnic differences in socioeconomic status into account. As opposed to research on authoritative parenting, however, which suggests comparable effects across ethnic groups, research on authoritarian parenting indicates that the adverse effects of this style of parenting may be greater among white youngsters than among their ethnic minority counterparts. Several explanations have been offered for this finding.

First, some writers have suggested that because ethnic minority families are more likely to live in dangerous communities, authoritarian parenting, with its emphasis on control, may not be as harmful and may even carry some benefits. Second, as several researchers (Ruth Chao, 1994; Nancy Gonzales, Ana Mari Cauce, and Craig Mason, 1996) have pointed out, the distinction between "authoritative" versus "authoritarian" parenting may not always make sense when applied to parents from other cultures. For example, nonwhite parents frequently combine a very high degree of restrictiveness (like white authoritarian parents) with warmth (like white authoritative parents). If they focus too much on parents' strictness when observing family relationships, European-American researchers may mislabel other ethnic groups' approaches to child rearing (which appear very controlling, but which are neither aloof nor hostile) as authoritarian.

In the last years of the twentieth century, new models of parenting began to emerge, which attempted to move beyond the traditional, often stale, debates between those who believe that parents are relatively impotent in the face of genetic and non-familial influence on child development and those who believe that parents' influence is limitless. These new models emphasize the importance of studying parenting as a bidirectional process, in which parents both influence and are influenced by their child, and as an embedded process, in which a range of forces in the proximal and distal environment influence the parent-child relationship. New research on parenting examines such questions as whether and in what ways the child's temperament moderates the impact of certain types of parenting on child adjustment; whether and how the impact of parenting varies across neighborhood and community contexts; and whether and through what processes the influence of parents on their children is itself affected by the other settings in which the child spends time, such as the peer group, day-care center, or classroom.


BAUMRIND, DIANA. 1971. "Current Patterns of Parental Authority." Developmental Psychology Monograph 4 (1), part 2.

CHAO, RUTH. 1994. "Beyond Parental Control and Authoritarian Parenting Style: Understanding Chinese Parenting through the Cultural Notion of Training." Child Development 65:1111–1119.

COLLINS, W. ANDREW, et al. 2000. "Contemporary Research on Parenting: The Case for Nature and Nurture." American Psychologist 55:218–232.

DARLING, NANCY, and STEINBERG, LAURENCE. 1993. "Parenting Style as Context: An Integrative Model." Psychological Bulletin 113:487–496.

GONZALES, NANCY; CAUSE, ANA MARI; and MASON, CRAIG. 1996. "Interobserver Agreement in the Assessment of Parental Behavior and Parent-Adolescent Conflict: African American Mothers, Daughters, and Independent Observers." Child Development 67:1483–1498.

HARRIS, JUDITH R. 1998. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: Free Press.

STEINBERG, LAURENCE. 2001. "We Know Some Things: Adolescent-Parent Relationships in Retrospect and Prospect." Journal of Research on Adolescence 11:1–20.

STEINBERG, LAURENCE, et al. 1994. "Over-Time Changes in Adjustment and Competence Among Adolescents from Authoritative, Authoritarian, Indulgent, and Neglectful Families." Child Development 65:754–770.


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