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Dana McDermott, Ph.D. (2002)
School for New Learning, DePaul University

This is taken from a draft of a publication in preparation by D. McDermott entitled "Parenting education from k-12: Theoretical and empirical background and support." Portions of this material were prepared with support from New York State toward implementation of the parenting education requirement for high school graduation. It will be useful for many projects that call for theoretical framework and resources. This document may be duplicated for educational or advocacy purposes with acknowledgement of authorship.

References are listed at www.preparetomorrowsparents.org/references.html

Part One: What is involved in parenting?

Many of us in our early training as educators learned of the classical theories of parent-child relations. While we now know of the increasing complexity of child and parent development we do acknowledge the following: Freud (1936) saw parents as mainly responsible for a child’s developmental outcome and this impacted many early parenting programs. Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development (1963) placed more emphasis on the inner biological and additional societal factors impacting children’s growth and development than on the primacy of parental influences at all stages over the life span.

The behavioral genetics theory of Gesell, described by Thelen & Adolph (1992) suggested that a parent’s central role was to support the unfolding of a child’s inherited pre-dispositions and provide an environment matched to the child’s maturational readiness. Today, behavioral geneticists also look to the impact of the environment to account for child outcomes. The research of Sutherland (1983) demonstrated that parents in America today might be seen as neglectful by others if they support Gesell’s theory on the natural unfolding of development. She found many parents were in transitional states regarding how they viewed children’s needs and their role. Many of the Mexican American mothers she studied were transitioning between the Gesell model and adapting to an American culture with parents having more of a role in a child’s development.

Piaget and Inhelder’s (1969) research on children’s different stages of cognitive development continue to inform theories of how parents might or should relate to children to maximize development based on understanding how they are capable of thinking and reasoning at different ages. We learn from Vygotsky’s work (1978) that social interactions between active, thinking children and their caregivers are key for a child’s development. His zone of proximal development has to do with adults facilitating a child’s more mature behavior by being with them as they are challenged by more advanced tasks. It has been defined as the distance between what the child can accomplish alone (the level of actual development) and what the child can do when helped (the level of potential development). The image is the scaffold. A parent erects a structure (parent support and guidance) around a child’s behavior. As children gain more skills, the parents can dismantle the scaffold.

R. Q. Bell (1968) expands our understanding of these interaction processes and builds on Kurt Lewin’s (1935) transactional theory, which is that behavior is a function of the person and the environment. His “child effects approach” suggested parents and children regulate each other’s behavior. This was in contrast to Freud’s parent effects approach. Parents have a certain level of tolerance regarding their children’s behavior, which could either call forth some structure or be within their tolerance level. Child- effects theories differ from trait theories that have informed so many parent programs.

Trait theories focus on a parent’s personality or style rather than on a parent’s ability to adjust to different children of different ages, genders, temperaments and times. Most popular are Schaefer (1959) who discussed the now familiar parenting continua of warmth and control. Baumrind (1989; 1996) described three parenting styles as authoritarian, permissive or authoritative, some of which included warmth and control. While these approaches may help us understand more about parents, there is a belief that styles might vary with different children and at different times. Holden & Miller (1999) describe the trait approach as the oldest and most prominent approach to the study of parents, but add “the trait approach is intended to reflect not one interaction but the ‘season’s average’” (p. 225). A hazard with the trait approach is that it can lead to erroneous conclusions of similarity –across time, children and situations. Even Baumrind (1989) notes that a similar parental style may not be as effective at a different stage in a child’s life or with a different child. (p. 189).

Bell’s child -effects perspective and the traits perspective are just parts of a larger transactional model. As Holden and Miller (1999) note in describing Bell’s important work, parenting should be thought of as a relational rather than an individual difference construct, and therefore child-rearing will vary when interacting with different children in a family. Mischel & Shoda (1995) also found that the person-situation interaction was a better measure to understand behavior than personality styles or traits. This is important to remember in designing parent education programs for future parents that sometimes are limited to looking at parental style.

Related to the above person-child interaction is Attachment theory (Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1991) where research demonstrates that the attachment between a parent and child reflects a behavioral system promoting survival and competent functioning. These theorists suggest that caregivers need to establish a secure base for infants over the first year of life by being sensitive to the cues emitted by infants, addressing the infant’s needs, and providing emotional regulation. Infants learn to trust that caregivers will take care of their needs. That trust develops into secure attachment facilitating the exploration of the environment, and supporting the development of social and cognitive competence, establishing the important feelings of efficacy. The next generation will be able to adapt to changing environments. Today’s brain development research supports the need for understanding the crucial role of parents in the early years of a child’s development.

This same sensitive feedback and communication to older verbal children is encouraged in the humanistic and reflective theory of Carl Rogers (1963). He suggested parents use therapeutic skills of empathy to understand a child’s needs and feelings. Maslow’s (1971) detailed list of human needs is very helpful also. Parents are taught to reflect back to children what they are feeling to help them grow in awareness and understanding. The popular parenting program of Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training) (1975) expands upon this theoretical perspective. The parenting model of Dreikurs (1969) and Dinkmeyer et al.’s STEP program (1987) build upon the work of Alfred Adler (1957) who also focused on understanding children but more in terms of their goals in order for a parent to derive the outcome he/she wants. This focus on understanding in order to control behavior puts more emphasis back on the external world. This is even more so in the behavioral parent education programs which minimize the emotions or internal motivations of the child and focus on observable behavior that can be changed by rewards and reinforcement.

In addition to facilitating the child’s self-awareness, Kohut’s self-psychology theory helps facilitate parental self-understanding as well. Recognition of parental needs may be a prerequisite to interventions with abusive parents (Shanook, 1990). Recently, Brems, et al., (1993) compared the effectiveness of a traditonal PET and behavioral parent education program with one focusing on the self-psychology model. While both had about the same effect there was lower attrition and more parental enthusiasm for the self-psychology model. Newberger’s construct of parental awareness (1980) also informs the successful Reflective Dialogue Parent Education Design implemented by Thomas (1996). Since the 1970’s and McBride’s (1973) classic book “The growth and development of mothers” theorists and researchers have demonstrated the value of supporting a parent’s growth needs to enhance their development as well as their children’s. As Belenky et al. (1997) and McBride (1973) found, mothers who acknowledged their own needs and were listened to and validated by others were more effective with their children.

Bandura’s (1997) social-cognitive theory emphasizes the cognitive and information processing capacities of an individual like a parent that mediate social behavior. This work adds to the knowledge base that must be shared in parent programs. In particular, Bandura proposes that individuals’ feelings of self-efficacy, or beliefs about their ability to actually effect changes in the environment, constitute one of the key ingredients to understanding human behavior (Grusec, 1992). Thus, we are not just looking at the behavior that flows from certain parent-child interactions but how parents and children think about these interactions as key to outcomes. The underlying assumption to this and other viable parenting models is that there are processes directing how parents think about child-rearing and how their thinking combines with child characteristics and other environmental influences to affect a child’s ultimate growth.

Sigel et al.’s (1992), parent beliefs approach is also helpful. It emphasizes the important cognitive mediation of behavior or how immediate and ongoing thinking processes influence parent-child interactions. Child- rearing, they believe, is multiply influenced by parental values and beliefs, previous experiences of parents, information sources and other people. The beliefs approach holds the promise of providing a way to change child-rearing behavior through cognitive restructuring i.e. providing new information about children or child-rearing techniques, revising perceptions, correcting erroneous attributions or expectations or training in problem-solving techniques. While this sounds like “Experts know best” this approach takes parents own beliefs as the starting point. The process of reflection on these beliefs may result in change and may not.

Minuchin (1985) added another dimension to understanding parent-child processes…family systems theory. Here, the relationship amongst all members of the family must be recognized in order for family functioning to be fully understood. Researchers have found e.g. that fathers are more demanding of sons when wives are present than when they are absent. ( Buhrmester et al., 1992). Holden et al. (1992) found that the stress of domestic violence results in more maternal aggression on children. Werkele & Wolfe (1993) concluded that we need to optimize development of all family members and recognize the importance of empowering the parental subsystem to engage other subsystems adaptively (Dunst, Trivette & Deal, 1988) This too must be part of parent education.

Hinde (1989) explored parents’ adaptations to changing children and changing environ- ments over time. While adapting takes skills it is more than merely a bag of skills; parenting becomes a dynamic process. Hinde’s (1989) social relationships theory, holds that ongoing human interactions forming interpersonal relationships represent the most important aspect of the environment for parenting. These dynamic interactions between parents and children are embedded in long-term relationships; are affected by both preceding interactions and expectations about future ones. Parent programs need to address these complex issues. Werkele &Wolfe (1993) concur. They define parenting competence as more than a set of skills; it involves using them appropriately during interactions within an enduring and unique relationship. The way parents adapt and adjust to a changing child, changes in themselves, or changing life situations is not captured by any static approach of parenting (Holden, 1997).

Bronfenbrenner- (1979) in his ecological systems theory sees child development as occurring within a nested series of contextual levels from the immediate setting e.g. parents and families to the level that links to other systems e.g. home to school. A question then might be “How might domestic violence at home impact a child’s performance at school?” The third level of influence might impact the child indirectly e.g. “what is the effect of work on parents and on their child- rearing?” The final system even more removed but yet influential has to do with the larger culture and institutions. “How does social policy in the U.S. affect children?” To sum, to understand how effective parents would need to operate, the ongoing parent-child environment interaction process must be the focus of attention for educators and the future parents to whom they are teaching parenting education.

Belsky’s work (1984) nicely delineates what theorists above believe should be addressed in parenting programs. He focuses on the ecological systems and parental competence approach. He defines competence as sensitivity to the child’s developing abilities and communications. It is influenced by such factors as parental resources (previous experience, education, attitudes and expectations about child-rearing, etc.) the child’s characteristics (e.g. temperament, health status, developmental level, size, gender, etc.) and the family context (e.g. quality of the marriage, social networks, support systems, culture, etc.) Individual characteristics of the parent and the child can mediate the impact of a process in each particular context. Luster and Okagaki (1993) explain : “individuals carry forward from their prior relationships experiences, attitudes, expectations, emotions, behavioral patterns that shape the way they function as parents and spouses-in the families they establish (p.1). According to Belsky a parent needs a buffer if one of these areas is weak. For example, if a parent is living in poverty but is motivated to do well and has an easy child they might be more effective than if all systems were weak. An example here would be an uneducated, poor teen parent with a difficult infant and no societal support. Outcome is more negative here than with a teen with a supportive boyfriend, extended family, school and community and a temperamentally easy child.

Understanding families has moved over time from seeing dysfunction to seeing potential. (Cochran, 1993). One hesitates now to even push the word strengths as it implies weaknesses. Drawing upon the Cornell empowerment model we take the following principles to our parent education programming: This models has as it’s goal helping people feel hopeful, believe in themselves, promote the possible, be responsible, focus on strengths and expect much of themselves and others. We seek to bring out the good in people rather than see only their deficits. As coaches we are generalists and know that those we serve as specialists have an important body of knowledge about themselves and their situations. We too have knowledge and information to share when appropriate.

The empowerment model implies that the professional thinking about parenting education and support today acts as a coach. Family Support America, (FSA.org) the National Organization for parents and families suggests we must work in relationships based on respect and equality. We must try to enhance the families’ capacity to support the growth and development of all family members. We need to help families and future parents to see themselves as resources to all their members, to other families, programs and communities. Any program we develop must affirm and strengthen a families’ cultural, racial and linguistic identities and enhance their ability to function in a multi-cultural society.(FSA.org) We want above all else in our programs to empower our future parents to be able to mobilize formal and informal resources to support family development.

Part Two: Theory from Historical Perspective

Recently, thanks to the increased focus on brain development we understand better that children are very complex and there is much to learn in order to facilitate their development at every stage over the lifespan. In the past three decades we have also learned a great deal about parent development over the lifespan. While early theories of parent and child development are inadequate to explain the complex social-contextual world of parents and children we serve today, we include them here to show the development of theories over time and to help educators better understand the theoretical foundations of the parent education programs or materials they choose to use as resources.

Parents are mainly responsible for child’s psychological development.
Behavior is a function of a person and the environment.


More emphasis is placed on the inner biological and additional societal influences on child and adult psychosocial development over the lifespan.
Behavioral genetics
The parent’s role is to support the unfolding of a child’s inner predispositions, and provide an environment matched to a child’s maturational readiness.
Piaget and Inhelder
Parents need to understand how children think and reason at different ages in order to maximize the cognitive development of the child.
Social interaction
Social interaction between an active thinking child & a caregiver are key.
Child effects approach
Bell, Mischel
Children and parents regulate each other’s behavior. Look at relationships.
Humanistic and reflective approach
Rogers, Maslow
Parents use empathy to understand a child’s needs/ feelings & reflect back what they are feeling to help them grow in awareness and understanding
Ainsworth and Bowlby
If children trust that their caregivers will meet their needs, this results in the attachment that is necessary to facilitate social and cognitive competence and efficacy.
Traits approach
Schaefer, Braumrind
Focuses on parent’s personality styles or traits more than a parent’s ability to adjust to different children, individual differences, gender, ages, etc.
Social cognitive
Bandura, Grusec
Individual beliefs about one’s ability to effect change in the environment are the key ingredient. How parents think about child-rearing are combined with the child characteristics and the environment to affect a child’s ultimate growth and development
awareness and identity

Newberger,Sha- nook, Mc Bride, Thomas, Kohut Belenky et al.
Recognition of parent needs and stage of parental awareness, identity and understanding are prerequisites to effective parenting and good outcomes.
Family systems
Relationships amongst all members of a family must be recognized for family functioning to be fully understood. Empower parent subsystems
Social relationship
Holden, Hinde
Parenting is dynamic and embedded within relationships affected by both preceding interactions and future expectations. Parent adaptation is key.
Ecological systems
The child impacts both the parent and the environment and vice versa. Development occurs within a nested series of contextual levels.
Empowerment /family strengths
Dunst et al., Cochran
Caregivers have the capacity to support their own and family growth and development within themselves. Professionals help them recognize this.
Ecological systems and determinants of parental competence
Belsky’s general theory with broad interpretation of contextual factors
Parental competence, defined as sensitivity to child’s developing abilities and communications, is influenced
by such factors as
parental resources: previous experience, self-esteem, education, attitudes, expectations about child rearing, health, skills, knowledge of child development, beliefs, values, level of thinking, etc.child’s characteristics: temperament, health, developmental level, birth order, size, gender, learning style, transient characteristics, etc.context: quality of marriage, social networks, support systems, cultural values, work environment, social cultural context, etc.


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