Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005
What Is Parenting?
Parenting encompasses the literally hundreds of activities that parents engage in either with or for their children. Often, researchers divide parenting into categories of behavior. In this article we use seven: nurturance, discipline, teaching, language, monitoring, management, and materials.2
Nurturing behavior involves ways of expressing love, affection, and care. High nurturing behaviors include expressing warmth, being responsive to a child's needs, and being sensitive to changes in a child's behavior. Low nurturing behaviors include detachment, intrusiveness, and negative regard.3
Researchers measure nurturance by observing a parent interacting with her child (parents are not particularly good or accurate reporters of their own warmth, detachment, or intrusiveness). They observe naturally occurring interactions during a two- or three-hour home visit or during structured tasks that can be set up at home, at a preschool center, or at a pediatric clinic. For home visits, the Home Observation for the Measurement of the Environment (HOME) Inventory, for example, asks the observer to record whether she saw certain behaviors, such as a parent spontaneously praising a child's qualities twice; caressing, kissing, or cuddling a child; or using a term of endearment.4 The structured tasks range from free play with a specific set of toys to problem solving with unique materials (for example, getting a toy from a box using a rake or another utensil) to copying a puzzle or design. Often, researchers videotape the interactions so that they can code them later. Sometimes they code very detailed behaviors (marking the presence or absence of up to fifteen parent and child behaviors every five to ten seconds); other systems involve more global coding of a number of constructs, such as sensitivity to a child's cues, expressed warmth, intrusiveness, and detachment. Training of coders is intensive (often for as long as six weeks) to ensure their reliability.
In semistructured videotaped free play sessions, the observer gives parents and young children toys to play with, leaving instructions deliberately vague. In several studies, she places three toys in separate bags, so that the mother uses one toy at a time, and observes the parent and child for ten to fifteen minutes.5 The observer rates the session after repeatedly viewing videotapes of behaviors, including detachment (low involvement with and lack of attention to the child), intrusiveness (over-control and over-involvement in the child's play), negative regard (anger, rejection), sensitivity (extent to which the parent perceives the child's signals and responds appropriately), and positive regard (demonstration of love, respect, and admiration).6
Sometimes, these behaviors are treated separately, because they measure different aspects of nurturance. At other times, they are clustered together to identify different groups of parents. For example, we have identified several groups of parents—we term them sensitive, directive, uninvolved, and harsh—based on the coding of behaviors in the three-bag free play.7
Discipline involves parents' responses to child behaviors that they consider appropriate or inappropriate, depending on the child's age and gender and on parental beliefs, upbringing, and culture.8 Observers sometimes measure discipline from what they see during the course of a home visit. They would describe discipline as harsh or punitive if the parent spanked, slapped, or yelled at the child during the visit.9 Because parents may be less likely to spank a child with an observer in the home, observers often ask parents about frequency of spanking. They also ask about their use of other discipline strategies, such as time out, explanations, and taking away toys or food. In a few studies, they give parents a scenario. For example, they ask what a mother would do if her child had a temper tantrum in the market; or, if her child had had a tantrum, what she did in response. Sometimes they calculate a severity-of punishment score or a use-of-reason score.10
Teaching typically includes didactic strategies for conveying information or skills to the child. Observers set up interaction situations such as putting together a puzzle that is slightly difficult for the child; drawing a complex figure; learning a skill such as tying a shoe or buttoning a coat; or sorting building blocks by shape or color, and then observe teaching behaviors. Often, they rate the strategies in terms of quality of assistance. For example, when helping her child with a puzzle, a mother might do any of the following: take over and put most of the pieces in the puzzle; wait until the child runs into difficulty and then take over; not assist the child at all; provide cues or prompts (“What would happen if you turned that puzzle piece around?”) to help the child find the right place for a piece; provide an overall strategy (“Can you find all the pieces that go on the edges of the puzzle?”). Observers would code the latter two examples as high in quality of assistance.11
The HOME Inventory includes items related to teaching—does the parent encourage the child to learn colors, songs, or numbers or to read a few words—that can be used to create a scale called Provision of Learning or Learning Stimulation.12 These reports are based on parental report, rather than direct observation.
Researchers have extensively studied language use between parents and young children. The most comprehensive studies have transcribed hundreds of hours of mother-child conversations.13 From those transcriptions, observers can code the sheer amount of language heard by and directed to the child, as well as the number of different words, length of sentences, questions asked, elaborations on the child's speech, and events discussed. Observers also frequently elicit parent language by having parents read to their children.14 Parents vary in how often they ask the child questions, expand on what is in the story, and see whether the child understands the meaning of a word.15 They also vary in how much they engage in what Katherine Snow has called nonimmediate talk, or going beyond the information given in the story, and in their style of reading.16
The HOME Inventory includes several items indicative of reading: child has access to at least ten children's books; at least ten books are visible in the home; family buys and reads a daily newspaper; child has three or more books of his or her own.17 These items are tapping something different from frequency of book reading or style of reading as measured through direct observation. The underlying premise is that children who are exposed to more reading materials live in households where reading, both adult reading and parent-child shared reading, is more common.
The term materials refers to the cognitively and linguistically stimulating materials provided to the child in the home. This category can overlap with language and with teaching. For example, some scholars categorize number of books in the home, number of children's books, and number of magazine subscriptions as materials rather than as language because they do not know whether parents use them to foster reading. Other items included here are toys and books for learning the alphabet and numbers, educational toys, musical instruments, push-pull toys, drawing materials, and the like. The extensiveness of material items in the home is associated with family income, which is not surprising, given that most are purchased.18
Monitoring is what might be called “keeping track.” With young children, monitoring refers to parental watchfulness. For example, if a child is playing in a room alone, a parent might periodically check to see what she is doing or call out to her; if a child is watching television alone, a parent might keep track of what program he is watching and change the channel if it seems inappropriate. Studies using time-use diaries of children's days try to distinguish between time when the parent is directly interacting with the child and time when the parent is in the home and responsible for the child even though the two are doing different things.19 Occasionally the distinction is difficult to make, such as when a child is watching television and the mother is in the room, sometimes watching and talking about a program with the child and sometimes doing housework. With older children, monitoring involves knowing what the child is doing and with whom he is doing it when he is outside the home.
Management encompasses scheduling events, completing scheduled events, and the rhythm of the household. Most studies of young children either do not measure management at all or assess it with only one or two short questions, even though management tasks consume huge amounts of parenting time. Most national studies do ask about two health-related areas: getting the recommended number of well-child visits and getting immunizations on time. Sometimes studies note the appearance of the child (dirty, not dressed, clothes do not fit) as a possible indicator of child neglect. Studies do not always assess taking children to scheduled activities outside the home (even though time diary studies suggest that fathers spend the greatest proportion of their weekend time with their preschoolers in such activities), but often do assess taking children to the park and to visit relatives.20
Researchers sometimes tap the rhythm of the household, typically through questions about the regularity of bedtime, bedtime routines (reading, singing, praying), how many meals the family eats together, the breakfast routine (whether breakfast is eaten at all, whether the television is on).21