Attitudes And Beliefs in Parenting Research Paper

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Parenting has been investigated extensively by developmental psychologists ever since Freud drew formal attention to its critical significance for children’s social, emotional, and intellectual functioning. In studying parenting, researchers have come to believe that parents’ attitudes and beliefs are centrally important in directing their treatment of children. Therefore, much effort has been focused on looking at links between how parents think about children and child rearing—both generally and in specific situations—and child outcomes. In this research paper, global and specific attitudes and beliefs are discussed, with an emphasis on the challenges provided by their measurement.

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1. What Are Attitudes And Beliefs?

Attitudes include beliefs or opinions, an evaluation of those beliefs, and an intention to act in accord with them (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). People with a positive attitude to exercise, for example, may reveal their positive feelings by agreeing with others who endorse the same position, by exercising more themselves, by admiring others who exercise, or by encouraging others to exercise. Thus attitudes provide a link, albeit not a perfect one, between thinking and action.

2. Global Attitudes And Beliefs

Dozens of measures of parental attitudes and beliefs have been devised, as investigators have tried to understand the relation between parents’ thoughts and actions and children’s resulting development. Holden and Edwards (1989) and Holden (1995) have noted the basic assumptions in this approach as well as the fact that they are sometimes violated. These include the premise that parents have pre-existing attitudes, although this is not always the case; that attitudes do not change over time, although they can certainly be modified by education and experience with children; and that parents are not ambivalent with respect to them, although they often are. When these assumptions are violated, relations between attitudes, parents’ behavior, and children’s development will be less robust.

2.1 Approaches And Findings

Attitudes are assessed either through interviews or questionnaires, with the latter more frequently employed. The majority of attitude questionnaires have focused on parents’ views about different child-rearing practices, with a smaller number addressing views of children (Holden 1995). Questionnaires addressing ideas about child-rearing practices have focused on two major features: the quality of the parent’s relationship with the child and the extent to which the parent attempts to control the child’s behavior. Questions therefore deal with issues of warmth, acceptance, responsiveness, coldness, rejection, and hostility on the one hand, and permissiveness, firm control, punitiveness, and restrictiveness on the other. Typical statements, with which parents indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement, are: ‘Children should always treat adults with respect’ and ‘I enjoy being with my child.’

Researchers have looked at relations between these attitudes and a variety of features of children’s development. Positive attitudes toward warmth and reasonable firm control are moderately predictive of outcomes such as high academic achievement, high self-esteem, and a strong moral orientation, while endorsement of restrictiveness and lack of acceptance relate moderately to negative outcomes (Maccoby and Martin 1983). It should be noted that most of the research has been conducted with Anglo-European middle-class mothers and their children and that it is not clear the same pattern of relations holds for lower socioeconomic classes, in other cultural contexts, or with fathers (Parke and Buriel 1998).

2.2 Limitations Of Questionnaire Measures And Needed Improvements

Although the assessment of parenting attitudes has provided useful information for developmental psychologists, dissatisfaction with modest relations between attitudes and child outcomes has fostered attempts to improve existing approaches (Holden 1995). For example, investigators have begun to show a greater concern with the actual relation between attitudes and behavior. Given the basic assumption that attitudes inform behavior, and that it is parenting behavior that determines children’s development, there is, of course, little use in studying attitudes if they do not reliably reveal themselves in parenting actions. Reasonable attitude–behavior links are more likely to be found when items assessing attitudes on questionnaires match the nature of the parent’s action, e.g., the response to a question about the importance of firmness in getting children to obey is related to observations of reactions when a child fails to comply with a parental request. As well, links are stronger when many examples are added together to provide an aggregated measure of a particular parenting behavior. The fact that relations between attitudes and behavior are stronger under these two conditions underlines two things: asking about general attitudes may give incomplete information when it comes to specific actions, and parenting behavior varies across situations and is determined by a number of variables so that a variety of situations needs to be assessed in order to gain an accurate impression of a particular parent’s attitudes.

Holden and Edwards (1989) have raised other methodological concerns. For example, statements on questionnaires are often couched in the third person on the assumption that this may lead to more valid answers because respondents are not placing themselves in a negative light: On the other hand, this approach produces situations in which respondents are not sure whether they are to answer with respect to what might be ideal attitudes rather than what they know to be their own attitudes. Another problem is that attitude measures are based on self-report data that depends on the willingness of the respondent to be honest or even to have access to or conscious awareness of a particular attitude. Psychologists have become increasingly aware that much behavior is determined by implicit or automatic processes, and a variety of techniques have been developed to study the operation of these processes (Bugental and Goodnow 1998). Clearly, however, asking people to state their position on a given topic is not going to be effective if that position is unavailable to conscious introspection.

3. Parental Thinking In Specific Situations

One response to the problems of measuring global attitudes has been to focus on the thoughts or beliefs parents have when they are interacting with their children in specific situations. Thus, rather than ask about general and abstract beliefs and attitudes, researchers have asked about the content of parents’ thinking in a particular context. For example, as noted above, inquiries about global attitudes have focused on parents’ beliefs about the best child-rearing practices, e.g., authoritarianism, or the extent to which children should obey their parents. More recent inquiries focus on goals, such as obedience, that parents have in a particular situation. Thus the interest in general attitudes has been translated into an interest in goals at a particular point in time, with the recognition that goals of a parent change as a function of context (although, on average, some people may be more inclined to favor some goals more than others). Hastings and Grusec (1998) have shown that, when a child misbehaves, many parents have obedience as their goal and they are punitive. If all one knew was the extent to which those parents had endorsed a general measure of authoritarianism without knowing their specific goal, prediction of their actual behavior would be less accurate.

The study of particular goals reflects the interest of developmental researchers in attitudes toward childrearing practices. However, interest in parenting cognitions has expanded to a wider range of content including theories about how children develop, expectations about children’s abilities, and feelings of self-efficacy with respect to parenting. In the next three sections three additional areas that have received considerable attention will be described.

3.1 Causal Attributions

Parents try to find explanations for why their children have behaved in a particular way, that is, they make ‘causal attributions.’ Although people make causal attributions in a variety of contexts, parents are probably particularly likely to make them because they need to understand their children so that they can effectively influence them. Dix and Grusec (1985) have outlined some of the features of parents’ thinking in this context. In the search for explanation, parents can make internal or dispositional attributions that find the source of action in the child’s personality or character. Alternatively, they can make external attributions that locate the source of action in the external situation or environment. When a negative action is attributed to dispositional factors it is most often seen as intentional and under the child’s control. In this case parents have been shown to react punitively, possibly both because of their accompanying anger and because a Western ethical system dictates that intentional misdeeds should be punished. Parents who make external attributions, believing their child was tired or provoked or did not know any better, are likely to respond in a more benign way, e.g., by reasoning in an attempt to guide their child’s future actions. When the attributions are accurate, parental behavior is likely to be appropriate for modifying the child’s actions. When the attribution is inaccurate, however, parenting will be ineffective, given that children who lack knowledge, for example, are merely punished and do not learn what correct actions are, or children who have knowledge do not experience the negative consequences of their actions.

3.2 Relative Control

The impact of parental thinking has also been mapped in the domain of perceptions of relative control between parents and children. In her research program, Bugental (Bugental 1992, Bugental and Goodnow 1998) has shown how parents’ beliefs about such control are elicited in difficult interactions with their children. Once elicited, these beliefs have an impact on emotional reactions, behavior, and, subsequently, child outcomes. Parents who perceive their children as having more control of the difficult situation than they do experience physiological arousal that reflects feelings of threat aroused by the apparent reversal of power. Because they feel relatively powerless they resort to coercive and overly aggressive behavior. At the same time they transmit confusing and inconsistent messages to the child, both because their cognitive capacity is limited by the distracting thoughts associated with threat and because they cannot adequately inhibit the negative feelings they are experiencing. In turn, the confusing behavior leads to nonresponsiveness on the child’s part that serves to reinforce the parents’ negative thoughts and affect.

3.3 Attachment Relationships

Early in their development children learn that their needs for security will either be dealt with satisfactorily, rejected, or responded to inconsistently (Ainsworth et al. 1978) (e.g., see Attachment Theory: Psychological ). These early experiences form the basis of adult working models of relationships that function throughout the life course and that manifest themselves in parenting behaviors. Thus adults who are secure with respect to the satisfaction of their emotional needs have a model of relationships that enables them to respond sensitively and supportively to their children. Adults whose model includes others as rejecting are cool, remote, and task-focused in their interactions with children, while those with models of other as inconsistent are unpredictable and confusing in their parenting actions (Crowell and Feldman 1991).

4. Automatic vs. Conscious Thinking

The earlier discussion of global attitudes noted that some of these attitudes are not open to conscious awareness. The same distinction has been made in the area of parenting cognitions, with some thoughts seen as automatic and implicit and others as more open to conscious reflection and awareness. Bugental has argued, for example, that the experience of a difficult child activates a high threat schema that operates at a preconscious level and places parents in a state of perceptual readiness to react to certain events in the environment. Thus the stress produced by a problematic interaction with a child is filtered through this schema, which in turn influences both emotional feelings and more conscious or deliberate ideation. Mental representations of childhood attachment experiences are also considered to operate outside conscious awareness (Bretherton 1985). Parents’ goals and attributions about children’s behavior may be more open to conscious awareness and reflection— they frequently change in response to changes in the external situation. On the other hand, some parents are not able to use situational information to change their attributions for child misbehavior (Milner and Foody 1994), an indication that even the same kinds of cognitions may be sometimes more and sometimes less automatic.

5. Future Directions

The use of global parenting attitudes and beliefs and specific cognitions to understand parent–child relationships will continue to be a significant part of the arsenal of developmental researchers. Measurement issues remain of paramount importance. Strong linkages between measured attitudes and behavior still need to be demonstrated. A fundamental question has to do with how to measure attitudes and beliefs that are automatic in nature and, as such, cannot easily be articulated by respondents even if they are perfectly willing to be open and honest in their answers. The move must be away from straightforward transparent questions to more subtle measures where ‘correct’ or socially acceptable answers are not so self-evident. Bugental’s measure of relative control (Bugental 1992) and the Adult Attachment Interview which assesses mental representations of attachment relationships (Main and Goldwyn 1991) are examples of such measures, and they have proved to be accurate predictors of a variety of parenting behaviors and child outcomes. Another important question has to do with the origins of various parenting belief systems. Some presumably are part of the cultural context in which parents find themselves. Others come from experience with one’s own children. And others emerge as a result of a parent’s own experiences as a child; it is these latter, presumably, that are most automatic and most difficult to alter when alteration seems desirable.

Finally, linkages among the many sets of beliefs that have taken up the attention of researchers need to be made, as well as explorations of the distinctive ways in which each contributes to the parenting process.


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