Researchers, practitioners, and programs from international organizations increasingly emphasize the importance of understanding how parenting and child development are influenced by cultural contexts. This understanding can help practitioners and policymakers develop and tailor more effective parenting supports and interventions that are broadly appropriate to families and narrowly appropriate to specific cultures.
My colleagues and I have learned a lot about child development in different cultural contexts, as well as about how parenting changes as children develop. In 2008, we recruited 8-year-olds and their mothers and fathers in nine countries (China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States) as part of a long-term study of parenting and child development. We have interviewed the children and their parents annually since that time, and the children are now young adults.
Based on our findings, here are some of the ways parenting has changed over time.
Warmth and control
Warmth captures the dimension of parenting related to providing love, affection, and acceptance. Behavioral control captures the dimension of parenting related to parents’ attempts to regulate their children’s behavior and socialize them to become well-functioning members of their society. Although warmth appears to be a universally positive aspect of parenting, behavioral control appears to be more culturally variable. Across cultural groups, parents’ warmth and behavioral control generally decrease as their children move through adolescence.
Programs can emphasize the importance of demonstrating warmth to make children feel loved and accepted.
It may be more difficult for parents to continue displaying high levels of warmth as children transition to adolescence and there is more frequent and intense conflict in the parent-child relationship. An increase in such conflict is often tied to parents’ attempts to exert control over their children’s behavior, so some parents reduce these attempts as one way to reduce the conflict.
Parents’ use of behavioral control and the reactions of children and adolescents to their parents’ attempts to exert control are tied to parents’ and children’s perceptions of the legitimacy of parental authority. Parents’ behavioral control may remain higher into adolescence in cultures in which parents and adolescents believe that parents have legitimate authority to continue exerting control over different aspects of adolescents’ lives. But even in these cultures, parents’ control declines over time. Across cultures, behavioral control may decrease over time as parents recognize that adolescents are increasingly able to regulate their own behavior and make informed decisions.
Monitoring is one way parents try to keep track of their children’s and adolescents’ behavior from a distance. Parents can set rules and limits (like curfews), and can try to solicit information by asking questions about their children’s friends, activities, and whereabouts. Children and adolescents also contribute to the monitoring process. For example, children can either voluntarily disclose information or withhold it. If adolescents are secretive, it makes it more difficult for parents to monitor them. Different forms of monitoring, including when parents set limits and solicit information, become more developmentally salient as children enter adolescence and begin spending less time under parents’ direct supervision and more time with peers and in activities away from home.
Programs can guide parents in providing behavioral control and monitoring in ways that are consistent with cultural norms about legitimate parental authority.
Across many cultures that differ in general expectations regarding adolescents, a desire for more autonomy increases during adolescence, and adolescents often want more autonomy than their parents are willing to provide. Thus, most parents negotiate issues related to autonomy with their children during the transition to and progression through adolescence. These negotiations are reflected in changes over time in parents’ rules and efforts to solicit information, which decline with age in many different cultural contexts.
Implications for practice and policy
To support parents in all cultural contexts, parenting programs can emphasize the importance of demonstrating warmth to make children feel loved and accepted. This should continue as children move through adolescence, when increasing conflict in the relationship can make it more difficult for parents to continue providing warmth and acceptance. Parenting programs can also guide parents in providing behavioral control and monitoring in ways that are consistent with cultural norms about legitimate parental authority, as well as sensitive to the need for increasing autonomy as children become adolescents.
Parent-child relationships can best be understood as a series of reciprocal transactions over time. Children’s development prompts changes in parenting, and changes in parenting affect children’s development.