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The family from a child development perspective

Theories of child development, which approach the family from the child perspective, include concerns with nature versus nurture, the flexibility or plasticity of the child at different ages to being moulded by the family, and the relative permanence of family influences (Kreppner and Lerner 1989). The development of the child is viewed as following a probabilistic epigenetic course - according to which, biology remains a prime mover but the developmental results depend on reciprocal interaction between biology and the social context, and hence on the probability that biological sensitive points in the child and the social and environmental resources of the family will come together to produce certain outcomes (Lerner 1989).

This approach to the family elaborates theories regarding family factors as determinants of child outcome that have been useful in the design of such social interventions as the Head Start Program, later championed by Lerner. It includes the investigation of psychological resilience, or why some children thrive in adverse circumstances. Exploration of family effects often is reduced to the examination of dyadic parent-child interactions, usually focusing on the mother-child dyed, with little attention to family dynamics.

The Bronfenbrenner model

Bronfenbrenner (1979) placed child development in an ecological perspective. His ground-breaking work combined aspects of sociology and developmental psychology and laid an enduring foundation for future approaches. The relationships between individuals and their environments are viewed as "mutually shaping." Brofenbrenner saw the individual's experience "as a set of nested structures, each inside the next, like a set of Russian dolls" (Bronfenbrenner 1979, 22). In studying human development, one has to see within, beyond, and "across" how the several systems interact (family, workplace, and economy). The study of the ability of families to access and manage resources across these systems would appear to be a logical extension of his investigations. His four interlocking systems that shape individual development are as follows:

1. The micro-system. At this level the family enters Bronfenbrenner's framework, but only in terms of its interpersonal interactions with the child. It is the level within which a child experiences immediate interactions with other people. At the beginning, the micro-system is the home, involving interactions with only one or two people in the family ("dyadic" or "triadic" interaction). As the child ages, the microsystem is more complex, involving more people - such as in a child-care centre or preschool. Bronfenbrenner noted that as long as increased numbers in a child's micro-system mean more enduring reciprocal relationships, increasing the size of the system will enhance child development.

2. The meso-system. Meso-systems are the interrelationships among settings (i.e. the home, a day-care centre, and the schools). The stronger and more diverse the links among settings, the more powerful an influence the resulting systems will be on the child's development. In these interrelationships, the initiatives of the child, and the parents' involvement in linking the home and the school, play roles in determining the quality of the child's meso-system.

3. The exo-system. The quality of interrelationships among settings is influenced by forces in which the child does not participate, but which have a direct bearing on parents and other adults who interact with the child. These may include the parental workplace, school boards, social service agencies, and planning commissions.

4. The macro-system. Macro-systems are "blueprints" for interlocking social forces at the macro-level and their interrelationships in shaping human development. They provide the broad ideological and organizational patterns within which the meso- and exo-systems reflect the ecology of human development. Macro-systems are not static, but might change through evolution and revolution. For example, economic recession, war, and technological changes may produce such changes.

Bronfenbrenner's conceptual framework proved a useful starting point for multivariate systems research in which family considerations became secondary to the design of institution-based social programmes focusing on children.

The Belsky process model

Belsky (1984) pioneered theories of the processes of competent parental functioning. His model focused on factors affecting parental behaviour and how such factors affect child-rearing, which in turn influences child development. At the family level, Belsky's interest, like Bronfenbrenner's, is primarily on interpersonal interactions between parent and child. Developed to explain the causes of child abuse and neglect,

The model presumes that parenting is directly influenced by forces emanating from within the individual parent (personality), within the individual child (child characteristics of individuality), and from the broader social context in which the parent-child relationship is embedded. Specifically, marital relations, social networks, and jobs influence individual personality and general psychological well-being of parents and, thereby, parental functioning and, in turn, child development. (Belsky 1984, 84)

Through an intensive literature search, Belsky drew the following conclusions regarding the determinants of parenting (Belsky 1984, 84)

(1) parenting is multiply determined by characteristics of the parent, of the child, and of contextual subsystems of social support; (2) these three determinants are not equally influential in supporting or undermining parenting; and (3) developmental history and personality shape parenting indirectly, by first influencing the broader context in which parent-child relations exist (i.e., marital relations, social networks, occupational experience).

Belsky found that parental personality and psychological wellbeing were the most influential of the determinants in supporting parental functioning. When two of three determinants are in the stressful situation, he stated that parental functioning is most protected when parental personality and psychological well-being still function to promote sensitive caring. In other words, optimal parenting still occurs even when the personal psychological resources of parents are the only determinant remaining in positive mode.

The influence of contextual subsystems of social support is greater than the influence of child characteristics on parental functioning. On the basis of his review of the literature, Belsky determined that risk characteristics in the child are relatively easy to overcome, given that either one of the other two determinants is not at risk.

The Belsky process model does not specifically define the child's developmental outcome (Belsky defined it as competent offspring, without any further explanation). No special attention is given to the importance of the family's material resources, while the family's social resources are conceptualized impersonally as the contextual subsystem of support. Belsky's work is most useful in exonerating the child of blame for poor outcomes. Blame, however, might seem to shift to the parent, as parental personality is viewed as a relatively transcendent or intrinsic and immutable characteristic.

Table 4.3 Characteristics of developmentally stimulating environments

1. The optimal development of a young child requires an environment ensuring gratification of all basic physical needs and careful provisions for health and safety.

2. The development of a young child is fostered by the following:

(a) a relatively high frequency of adult contact involving a relatively small number of adults;

(b) a positive emotional climate in which the child learns to trust others and himself;

(c) an optimal level of need gratification;

(d) the provision of varied and patterned sensory input in an intensity range that does not overload the child's capacity to receive, classify, and respond;

(e) people who respond physically, verbally, and emotionally with sufficient consistency and clarity to provide uses as to appropriate and valued behaviours and to reinforce such behaviours when they occur;

(f) an environment containing a minimum of social restrictions on exploratory and motor behaviour;

(g) careful organization of the physical and temporal environment that permits expectancies of objects and events to be confirmed or revised;

(h) the provision of rich and varied cultural experiences rendered interpretable by consistent persons with whom the experiences are shared;

(i) the availability of play materials that facilitate the coordination of sensorimotor processes and a play environment permitting their utilization;

(j) contact with adults who value achievement and who attempt to generate in the child secondary motivational systems related to achievement;

(k) the cumulative programming of experiences that provide an appropriate match for the child's current level of cognitive, social, and emotional organization.

Source: Caldwell and Bradley (1984).

The Caldwell HOME inventory

Caldwell and Bradley (1984) take an operational approach to defining the list of home, environmental, parental, and family characteristics needed to foster the development of the child (table 4.3). While consistent with Belsky's concept of the importance of parental personality, this approach operationalizes a set of propensities to interact behaviourally with the child in ways that are, or are not, conducive to the child's development. It then focuses on assessing and intervening on these behaviours and on the contextual support subsystem rather than on the personalities that produce them. Studies linking the HOME to cognitive development have been conducted (Caldwell and Bradley 1984). The two HOME assessment checklists for children, aged 0-3 years, and 3-6 years, provide the behavioural variables used in our models. These check-list items, on the 0-3-year scale, are combined into subscales, derived from factor analysis of data from the US reference population, measuring emotional and verbal responsivity, acceptance of the child's behaviour, organization of the environment, provision of play materials, parental involvement with the child, and opportunities for variety.

The Caldwell HOME inventory has proven a very useful research tool, but should be viewed as a starting point for more culturally appropriate measures in each developing country setting. A modification of the Caldwell HOME inventory, along with other culturally appropriate items determined by rapid appraisal and preliminary qualitative research, could be used with factor analysis to identify the relevant factors. As an example, in analysing Caldwell HOME inventory data from Indonesia and Nigeria, we discovered that neither the Indonesian nor the Nigerian HOME data yielded an "acceptance" factor similar to the American data during factor analysis. Moreover, in these cultures the variables in the acceptance subscale seemed more indicative of parental neglect than of positive parenting (Satoto and Zeitlin 1990; Aina et al. 1992). By contrast, factor analysis on the Indonesian 0-3-year-old check-list identified a "community socialization" factor that was apparently not present in the US sample. These analyses sensitized us to the value placed by American culture on "acceptance" of what was viewed to be the child's emerging autonomy, and the fact that our two other cultures did not value autonomy similarly.

Resilience and positive deviance research

Belsky's conclusions regarding the central importance of parental personality/caregiving behaviours for children are supported by research on psychological resilience and positive deviance. Zeitlin, Ghassemi, and Mansour (1990), reviewing and conducting cross-cultural studies in developing countries on good physical growth and (in fewer studies) good cognitive test performance in the presence of poverty, concluded that children with the most favourable outcomes tend to live in cohesive, supportive, wellspaced, two-parent families, without major pathologies.

These findings contrast with studies from the United States that controlled for socio-economic status (Cashion 1982), showing that children in female-headed households have good emotional adjustment, if they are protected from stigma, and good intellectual development comparable to that of other children in studies. In fact, child outcomes were better in a low-conflict, single-parent household than in a high-conflict, nuclear family (Clingempeel and Reppucci 1982). Parents of children who are positive deviants typically have superior mental health, life satisfaction related to the child, greater upward mobility and initiative, and more efficient use of health, family planning, and educational services. They display favourable behaviours towards their children, such as rewarding achievement; giving clear instructions; frequent affectionate physical contact; and consistent, sensitive, and patiently sustained responsiveness to the children's needs (Zeitlin, Ghassemi, and Mansour 1990).

This research provides further empirical evidence for Belsky's conclusion that the psychological resources of the parents are particularly important in impoverished settings, where the support context and the child's own condition may be fragile or in a negative state.

The family both as an entity in itself and as the producer of developmental and welfare outcomes of its members

Perspectives on the family both as an entity and as a producer of developmental outcomes of its members (Kreppner and Lerner 1989) depict it as a social context or "climate" facilitating the individual's entry into other social contexts and as an environmental factor containing both genetically shared and non-shared components for the developing individual. Research in this area investigates the interplay between sensitive periods in individual development and family development - e.g. the birth of a child leading to changes in family relationships and structure that in turn affect the child (Kreppner and Lerner 1989). The family is seen as a dynamic context in which the child is both transformer and transformed.

The Schneewind model

Schneewind (1989) provides a psychological model of the family and its effects on children that is supported by empirical work, using an extensive field study of 570 West German families with children aged 9-14 years. The model, which Schneewind called "an integrative research model for studying the family system," is the only one we found that deals quantitatively with the family itself as a system as well as with measurable child outcomes that depend on the family system, and that clearly specifies causal relationships between factors. Using this model, Schneewind tried to understand how and to what extent the "extrafamilial world" is associated with the "intrafamilial world" in the processes of socialization within the family.

A general conceptual framework of the model can be seen in figure 4.6. Socio-economic and demographic variables are used as contextual variables reflecting the spatial and social organization, and social inequality. These variables represent the family's eco-context for further use. This eco-context is a potential source of stimulating agents that can be used by parents in performing their parental functioning. This potential source is transformed into the actual experience field of both parents and children. The process of transforming the potential into the actual is called the "inner-family socialization activity."

The inner-family socialization activity is divided into three parts:

1. The family system level, or the family climate that measures the overall quality of interpersonal relationships within the family;

2. The spouse subsystem level, or the marital relationship;

3. The parent-child subsystem level, or the educational style in dicated by parental behaviours and attitudes or authoritarianism.

The family system/climate variables were based on factor analysis of the variables shown in table 4.4, which loaded on three factors referred to as positive emotional family climate, stimulating family climate, and normativeauthoritarian family climate. We present these variables in detail because their measurement illustrates one approach that could be pursued to identify the component parts contributing to the family decision-making/management capabilities and to the contextual and resource variables contributing to family coping that we ultimately seek to define.

Schneewind's applied structural causal modelling used latent variables for hypothesis testing and formulation. His model, which served as a guide for our own, and its variables are shown in figure 4.7 and table 4.5. This type of modelling, sometimes known by the name LISREL (Jöreskog and Sörbom 1989), constructs abstract underlying (latent) variables using factor analysis and relates these to measured outcomes. The data supporting the causal model linked extrafamilial (measured by socio-economic status [SES], urban or rural location, and job experience) and intrafamilial variables (measured by family climate, and personal traits of the father and the son). The expressive family climate factor (measured by high degree of mutual control, intellectual/cultural orientation, active-recreational orientation, and independence) appeared to be an important mediating factor in the child outcome variable, which was the social adjustment of the son (termed "extraverted temperament"). In another model in the same paper, he demonstrated that low socio-economic eco-context and rigid unstimulating job conditions of the father were associated with an authoritarian parenting style that produced sons with inferiority feelings and weakly internalized locus of control.

Fig. 4.6 An integrative research model for studying family systems in context (source: Schneewind 1989)

Table 4.4 Subscales of the family environment scale

Type of dimension Dimension Description
Relationship 1. Cohesion The degree of commitment, help, and support family members provide for one another
  2. Expressiveness The extent to which family members are encouraged to act openly and to express their feelings directly
  3. Conflict The amount of openly expressed anger, aggression, and conflict among family members
Personal growth 4. Independence The extent to which family members are assertive, are self-sufficient, and make their own decisions
  5. Achievement orientation The extent to which activities (such as school and work) are cast into an achievement-orientated or competitive framework
  6. Intellectual-cultural orientation The degree of interest in political, social, intellectual, and cultural activities
  7. Active-recreational orientation The extent of participation in social and recreational activities
  8. Moral-religious emphasis The degree of emphasis on ethical and religious issues and values
System maintenance 9. Organization The degree of importance of clear organization and structure in planning family activities and responsibilities
  10. Control The extent to which set rules and procedures are used to run family life

Source: Schneewind (1989), after Moos and Moos (1981).

Schneewind found that at the same level of family eco-context are critical differences in the inner-family socialization activity. He concluded that "the psychological makeup of family life ... has an important influence on how a family's potential eco-context is actually utilized." This is similar to Belsky's conclusion that personality and the psychological well-being of the parents have the greatest influence on parental functioning.

Fig. 4.7 Antecedents and consequences of the family's social network (source: Schneewind 1989)

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