Site MapHelpFeedbackThe Family
The Family

The family is both the earliest and most sustained source of social contact for the child. The beliefs and values of culture are filtered through the parents, and the parents' interpretation is influenced by their own personalities, religion, social class, education, and gender. Although rearrangements in family ties are increasingly common, family relationships remain the most intense and enduring bonds.

Socialization is the process by which an individual's standards, skills, motives, attitudes, and behaviors are shaped to conform to those regarded as appropriate for the society. Parents, siblings, peers, and teachers are major agents of socialization. They may influence the child by directly teaching standards, rules, and values; by providing role models; by making attributions about the child; and by creating the environment in which the child lives.


The family is a complex system involving interdependent members whose functioning may be altered by changes in the behavior of one member, or relationships among family members, and by changes over time. In addition, family functioning is influenced by the larger physical, cultural, and social setting in which the family lives.

The Ecological Systems Perspective

Family processes involve mutual influences among family members and adaptation to changes in family members and their relationships as well as to circumstances external to the family. In addition to the principles of system theory discussed in Chapter 1, the family system is governed by the principles of interdependency and homeostasis and by the types of boundaries it establishes.

The functioning of the marital system, parent-child system, and sibling system are interrelated and influence children's adjustment.

The Marital System

A satisfying marital relationship is often regarded as the basis of good family functioning, which directly or indirectly affects the interactions with the children. Increased parent-child involvement and positive parent-child relationships have been found when spouses are mutually supportive.

Marital conflict, which can affect children either directly or indirectly, is associated with negative feelings and behaviors directed toward the children and with disruptions in children's social and cognitive competence. Particularly when conflicts are unresolved, children are likely to react with anger, sadness, or other negative emotions. Boys are more susceptible to the negative effects of family disharmony than girls because they are more likely to be directly exposed to family conflict whereas girls are more likely to be protected from it.

Children have an impact on the marital relationship. Pregnancy and the birth of a first child are associated with a shift toward more traditional masculine and feminine roles, so that the woman does more of the child care. Both mothers and fathers report declines in marital satisfaction following the birth of their first child, but fathers are slower to express such declines than mothers. In addition, temperamentally difficult, deviant, or handicapped children place additional strain on the marriage and may be enough to destroy an already fragile marriage.

The Parent-Child System

Parents typically begin to consciously and systematically socialize their child during the second year by saying "no" to some behaviors and by praising other behaviors. They also teach social rules directly, serve as models with whom the child may identify or imitate, and choose the environment and social life that their child will experience.

Parents' relationships with their children have frequently been categorized along the dimensions of emotionality and control. Parental warmth and responsiveness are regarded as important to socialization, and some degree of parental control is necessary for positive social development. The goal should be the child's learning of self-regulation rather than continuing external control by the parents. Thus, discipline strategies that present alternatives and rely on reasoning and attributions about the child's positive intentions are the most effective.

The interaction of the dimensions of warmth and responsiveness with those of permissiveness and control creates a four-way typology: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved parenting. In a classic study Baumrind found that distinctive types of parental behavior were related to specific patterns of child behavior. She found that authoritative parenting involving high-warmth, responsiveness and communication, but also consistent and firm control and high-maturity demands, led to the most positive emotional, social, and cognitive development in children and adolescents.

Critics of this typology have cited the need to identify more clearly the components of each style that contribute to its effects on the child's development, the need to pay more attention to the role played by the child's temperament and behavior, and the question of the generalizability across cultures of the original findings. As one example, the most effective Chinese style of parenting may fall somewhere between authoritative and authoritarian. In addition, the relative emphasis in China and many other Asian countries on the relation of the self to the group is quite different from the emphasis on the individual self, common in the United States and other Western nations.

The first goal of socialization is compliance, and as children meet this goal at their parents' specific requests and reminders in many specific situations, they begin to acquire the capacity for self-regulation. Learning compliance and self-regulation is part of the evolution of the self system.

The Sibling System

Most families in the United States have more than one child. The functioning of the family is affected by the number, gender, and spacing of the children. These factors influence both parent-child interaction and sibling interaction. As family size increases, parents and children have less opportunity for extensive contact, but siblings experience more contact. This may result in greater independence but lower self-esteem and academic achievement in children from large families.

Variations in interactions with parents and siblings have been associated with birth order. Firstborn children often show emotional and behavioral problems after the birth of a sibling, but the outcome is mediated by the mother's reaction and efforts to include the firstborn and by the father's involvement. In general, parents tend to stay highly involved with firstborn children throughout their lives, often having higher expectations, exerting greater pressure for achievement, and requiring the acceptance of more responsibility.

Different characteristics have been related to firstborn and later-born children. Firstborns are more adult-oriented, helpful, self-controlled, conforming, and anxious than their siblings, and they tend to excel in academic and professional achievement. Although only children experience many of the same parental demands of firstborns, they do not have to compete with siblings. Thus, they tend to be high in achievement, but lower in anxiety, and make more positive adjustments in social relations both within and outside of the home.

Birth order is associated with variations in sibling relations. Eldest children are typically expected to assume some responsibility for and self-control toward the younger children. This leads both to antagonistic behavior and to more nurturant behavior toward younger siblings. Eldest children tend to focus on parents as sources of social learning, whereas younger children use both parents and older siblings as models and teachers.

The Family Unit as an Agent of Children's Socialization

The family as a unit is as much a family subsystem as are the marital, parent-child, and sibling subsystems. The family unit is particularly responsible for the development and perpetuation of family stories and rituals, which transmit values, teach family roles, and reinforce the family's uniqueness.


Subgroups within our culture have both divergent values and different problems with which to cope. These may have an impact on the goals and methods of socialization parents choose.

Poverty and Powerlessness

In addition to obvious differences in income, education, and occupation, lower-class and middle-class families may differ in other ways. Poor families generally experience little power within all of the systems (e.g., education, health) that they encounter, leading them to feel helpless, insecure, and controlled by external forces. In addition, they may be involved in cycles of disadvantage, associated with accumulating risk factors that make childrearing difficult and lead to adverse outcomes in the next generation. However, the stresses experienced by poor families often result in the formation of extensive support networks, which involve both emotional support and services that cannot be purchased.

How Social Class Affects Childrearing

Social class, ethnicity, race, and culture have been related to differences in childrearing. Among these four, race is probably the least significant factor. Among other things, childrearing may differ according to whether a given cultural group emphasizes the traditional nuclear family or the extended family; the former is likely to be found among people who stress individualism, the latter among those who stress the importance of the relationships between the individual and the group.

Cultural Patterns in Childrearing

Specific differences in styles of childrearing and their effect on children are also influenced by other systems-for example, the workplace, the neighborhood, peers, and the school-that in turn are influenced by culture and society.


In recent years family roles and forms have become more varied. As the number of working mothers has increased, the average size of households has decreased. Single-parent households have increased greatly in number due largely to rising divorce rates and increases in out-of-wedlock births.

Parental Employment and Child Development

The effects of maternal employment have been related to the mother's reason for working, the mother's satisfaction with her role, the demands placed on other family members, the attitudes of the other family members, and the quality of substitute care provided for the children. If each of these is positive, maternal employment not only has no detrimental effects on children but instead may have specific positive effects, especially for girls.

Marital Transitions

Divorce, life in a one-parent family, and remarriage should be viewed as part of a series of transitions that modify family roles and relationships and the lives of parents and children. In the first year following divorce, the children in single-parent households tend to be more disturbed, but in the long run most are able to adapt to their parents' divorce. However, single, custodial mothers suffer from task overload, a marked decline in income, and a lack of social support.

Family interactions immediately following divorce are characterized by inept parenting on the part of custodial parents-usually mothers-and distressed, demanding, noncompliant behavior on the part of children. These effects seem to last longer and to be more negative for preadolescent sons than for daughters.

Children's responses to remarriage vary depending on the previous family experience, but the age at which the remarriage occurs is associated with the child's acceptance of the new parent. It is particularly difficult for adolescents to cope with a parent's-or both parents'-remarriage. Antisocial behavior, depression and anxiety, school problems, and disruptions in peer relations have been associated with divorce and remarriage. In preadolescence, boys show the most negative responses to divorce and girls the most lasting resistance to remarriage; however, gender differences are rarely found in adolescence.

Although in nearly 75 percent of divorce and custody cases the children reside with the mother, a divorced couple may select either joint legal custody, or joint physical custody arrangements. Even when parents choose the latter, however, close to half of the children live full-time with their mothers.

The timing of first parenthood is a powerful organizer of parental roles. People are marrying and becoming parents later today than in earlier years, and there are some positive aspects to later parenthood, such as being better established in careers, feeling more responsibility, and being more flexible about family roles.

Gay and Lesbian Parents

Gay and lesbian families are becoming increasingly common, whether composed of children from former heterosexual marriages or of children adopted or conceived by various assisted reproductive techniques. The evidence suggests that the children of gay and lesbian couples develop as children of heterosexual marriages do, that they generally adopt heterosexual lifestyles, and that their concepts of gender roles do not differ from those of children of heterosexual parents.

Teen Pregnancy: Children Having Children

Although births to teenage parents have declined somewhat, births to unwed adolescent mothers tripled between 1960 and 1994. Largely because of economic constraints on these unmarried mothers, the children of teen mothers are at particular risk. The younger the mother, the more likely the child is to experience cognitive and eventual academic deficits. Children of teen mothers are more likely to have behavior problems, to have less self-control, and to show more antisocial behavior, such as the misuse of drugs and delinquency.

Education, a comfortable economic situation, and religious faith can help to prevent teenage pregnancy, as of course can the proper use of contraceptives. Once an unmarried teenager has had a child, getting an education, limiting future births, and forming a stable marriage may help her pull herself out of poverty and give her child a chance for good adjustment and academic performance.


In 1996, nearly a million cases of child abuse or neglect were substantiated, another 2 million cases were reported, and the number of unreported incidents was unknown. The severe abuse of children is most likely to occur in the presence of multiple risk factors and the absence of protective factors such as community resources, good health, high intelligence, education, and a supportive social network.

Abused Children and Their Parents

Child abuse is more likely to occur in large families, to children under age 3, and to children with physical and intellectual deficits or excessive fussiness and crying. Parents in abusive families are often socially isolated and have unrealistic beliefs about young children's abilities and about the parent-child relationship. Child abuse is preceded by escalating verbal and physical aggression that is often unpredictable and not contingent on the child's actual behaviors.

The Ecology of Child Abuse

Parents who abuse their children are frequently involved in a distressed marriage, have been abused by their own parents, and are unemployed, poorly educated, and economically deprived. No single factor leads to abuse; it is a product of the interactions among family characteristics, nonsupportive environments, and cultural values that tolerate aggression and physical punishment as well as poverty, unemployment, and high-risk, dangerous neighborhoods. The latter sort of neighborhood may promote insecurity, feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, and children are often left to fend for themselves, as the prevalence of latchkey children attests.

Consequences of Abuse

The devastating consequences of child abuse include less secure attachment in infants; problems with emotional regulation and aggressive behavior in toddlers; poor relations with peers and adults, academic problems, and low self-esteem as children get older; brain dysfunction; mental retardation, neuromotor deficits, physical handicaps-and death.


Research indicates that many children are able to survive the disruptions and violence associated with war without long-term adverse psychological effects. Resiliency is associated with continuity in social networks and social support but especially with sustained supportive family relationships.

Child PsychologyOnline Learning Center

Home > Chapter 12