The Parental Role
Today, couples have fewer children and have their first child later than in the past. The average age at the time of the birth of a woman’s first child in the United States is about 25. This average age has been increasing steadily since 1970 due to two major trends: Many women postpone children in order to establish careers, and the teen birth rate dropped
430 CHAPTER 11 dramatically between the early 1990s and 2005 (but increased in 2006).
Older mothers are more at ease being parents, spend more time with their babies, and are more affectionate, sensitive, and supportive to them (Berlin, Brady-Smith, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002). The age of the father also makes a difference in how fathers interact with their children. Compared to men who become fathers in their 20s, men who become fathers in their 30s are generally more invested in their paternal role and spend up to three times as much time caring for their preschool children as younger fathers do (Cooney et al., 1993). However, men who become fathers in their 30s are also more likely to feel ambivalent and resentful about time lost to their careers (Cooney et al., 1993).
Parenting skills do not come naturally; they must be acquired. Having a child changes all aspects of couples’ lives. As we have seen, children place a great deal of stress on a relationship. Both motherhood and fatherhood require major commitment and cooperation. Parenting is full of rewards, but it also takes a great deal of work. Caring for young children is demanding. It may create disagreements over division of labor, especially if both parents are employed outside the home. Even when mothers are employed outside the home (and more than 70% of women with children under age 18 are), they still perform most of the childrearing tasks. Even when men take employment leave, although they are more likely to share tasks, they still do not spend more time on them than fathers who do not take leave (Seward, Yeatts, Amin, & DeWitt, 2006).
In general, parents manage to deal with the many challenges of childrearing reasonably well. They learn how to compromise when necessary, and when to apply firm but fair discipline. Given the choice, most parents do not regret their decision to have children.
Ethnic Diversity and Parenting. Ethnic background matters in terms of family structure and the parent-child relationship. African American husbands are more likely than their European American counterparts to help with household chores, and they help more with child care (Penha-Lopes, 1995). But African American wives still do more of the
traditional household chores such as cooking and cleaning. In low-income families, African American parents may buffer their children from involvement with drugs and other problems due to their more conservative views about illegal substance abuse (Paschal, Lewis, & Sly, 2007). Overall, most African American parents provide a cohesive, loving environment that often exists within a context of strong religious beliefs (Anderson, 2007), pride in cultural heritage, self-respect, and cooperation with the family (Brissett-Chapman & Issacs-Shockley, 1997).
As a result of several generations of oppression, many Native American parents have lost the cultural parenting skills that were traditionally part of Native culture where children were valued, women were considered sacred and honored, and men cared for and provided for their families (Witko, 2006). Thus, a strong sense of tribalism is a major factor in Native American families. This helps promote strong ties to parents, siblings, and grandparents (Garrod & Larimore, 1997). Native American children are viewed as very important family members, and tribal members spend great amounts of time passing cultural values to them, such as cooperation, sharing, personal integrity, generosity, harmony with nature, and spirituality, values very different from European American ones that emphasize competitiveness and individuality (Stauss, 1995). Many Native American parents worry that their children will lose their values if they are overexposed to European American values, such as during college.
Latino families are less likely than either European American or Asian American families to be two-parent families, largely due to higher rates of cohabitation, cultural values, and out-of-wedlock births (del Pinal & Singer, 1997). Among two-parent families, Mexican American mothers and fathers both tend to adopt similar authoritative behaviors in dealing with their preschool children, but mothers use these behaviors more frequently (Gamble, Ramakumar, & Diaz, 2007). Two key values among Latino families are familism and the extended family. Familism refers to the idea that the well-being of the family takes precedence over the concerns of individual family members. This value is a defining characteristic of
Family ties are very important in many cultures, with some placing more emphasis on the family than on individuals.
Latino families; for example, Brazilian and Mexican families consider familism a cultural strength (Carlo, Koller, Raffaelli, & de Guzman, 2007; Lucero-Liu, 2007). The extended family is also very strong among Latino families, which serves as the venue for a wide range of exchanges of goods and services, such as child care and financial support.
Like Latinos, Asian Americans value familism (Meyer, 2007) and place an even higher value on extended family. Other key values include obtaining good grades in school, maintaining discipline, being concerned about what others think, and conformity. Children are encouraged to mature at an early age, and sibling rivalry and aggressive behavior are not tolerated (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). Men have higher status in most Asian American families (Yu, 1995). Among recent immigrants, though, women are expanding their role by working outside the home. Research shows that Chinese American parents experience less marital stress during the transition to parenthood than European American couples, perhaps because of the clearer traditional cultural division of tasks between husbands and wives (Burns, 2005).
Raising multiethnic children presents challenges not experienced by parents of same-race children. For example, parents of biracial children may face prejudice toward themselves and their children by members of both races (Chan & Smith, 1995). These parents also worry that their children may be rejected by members of both racial communities.
Perhaps that is why parents of multiracial children tend to provide more economic and cultural resources to their children than do parents of single-race children (Cheng & Powell, 2007).
In multiethnic families, you might think that the parent from a minority group would take primary responsibility for guiding that aspect of the child’s ethnic identity. A study of children of European mothers and Maori fathers in New Zealand, though, showed that the mothers played a major role in establishing the child’s Maori identity (Kukutai, 2007). Similarly, European American mothers of biracial children whose fathers are African American tend to raise them as African American in terms of public ethnic identity (O’Donoghue,
As is clear, ethnic groups vary a great deal in how they approach the issue of parenting and what values are most important. Considered together, there is no one parenting standard that applies equally to all groups.
Single Parents. Although the overall number of single-parent households in the United States has remained at about 9% since 1994, the proportion of births to unmarried mothers is at an all-time high at roughly 37% (National Center for Health Statistics, 2007b). The number of single parents, most of whom are women, continues to be high in some ethnic groups. Roughly 70% of births to African American mothers, 48% of births to Latina mothers, and 25% of births to European American mothers are to unmarried women (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a). Among the causes are high divorce rates, the decision to keep children born outside marriage, different fertility rates across ethnic groups, and the desire of many single adults to have or adopt children. Being a single parent raises important questions. Ethnic group differences are due in part to different rates at which women marry to legitimate a pregnancy (African American women do this the least) and higher rates of cohabitation among some groups (e. g., Latinos; Raley, 1999).
Two main questions arise concerning single parents: How are children affected when only one adult is responsible for child care? and How do single
parents meet their own needs for emotional support and intimacy?
Many divorced single parents report complex feelings such as frustration, failure, guilt, and a need to be overindulgent (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). Loneliness can be especially difficult to deal with (Anderson et al., 2004). Separation anxiety is a common and strong feeling among military parents who are about to be deployed (Roper, 2007). Feelings of guilt may lead to attempts to make up for the child’s lack of a father or mother. Some single parents make the mistake of trying to be peers to their children, using inconsistent discipline, or, if they are the noncustodial parent, of spoiling their children with lots of monetary or material goods.
Single parents, regardless of gender, face considerable obstacles. Financially, they are usually much less well-off than their married counterparts. Having only one source of income puts additional pressure on single parents to provide all of the necessities. Integrating the roles of work and parenthood are difficult enough for two people; for the single parent, the hardships are compounded. Financially, single mothers are hardest hit, mainly because women typically are paid less than men, and because single mothers may not be able to afford the level of child care necessary to provide the work schedule flexibility they may need for higher-paying jobs.
One particular concern for many divorced single parents is dating. Several common questions asked by single parents involve dating: “How do I become available again?” “How will my children react?” “How do I cope with my own sexual needs?” Research indicates that repartnering happens fairly quickly (Anderson et al., 2004), with half having had some dating experience even prior to the divorce filing. At one-year post filing, typically parents have dated two new partners. Among recent filers, younger parents, those with greater time since separation, and those in households containing other (nonromantic) adults are significantly more likely to have dated. There are typically no differences in dating by ethnic group, but African American parents report significantly longer times since separation.
Alternative Forms of Parenting. Not all parents raise their own biological children. In fact, roughly one third of North American couples become stepparents, foster parents, or adoptive parents sometime during their lives.
To be sure, the parenting issues we have discussed thus far are just as important in these situations as when people raise their own biological children. In general, there are few differences among parents who have their own biological children and those who become parents in some other way (Ceballo et al., 2004). However, some special problems arise for the latter group as well.
A big issue for foster parents, adoptive parents, and stepparents is how strongly the child will bond with them. Although infants less than 1 year old will probably bond well, children who are old enough to have formed attachments with their biological parents may have competing loyalties. For example, some stepchildren remain strongly attached to the noncustodial parent and actively resist attempts to integrate them into the new family (“My real mother wouldn’t make me do that”), or they may exhibit behavioral problems. As a result, the dynamics in blended families can be complex (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). Stepparents must often deal with continued visitation by the noncustodial parent, which may exacerbate any difficulties. These problems are a major reason second marriages are at high risk for dissolution, as discussed later in this chapter. And they are a major reason why behavioral and emotional problems are more common among stepchildren (Crohn, 2006).
Still, many stepparents and stepchildren ultimately develop good relationships with each other. Stepparents must be sensitive to the relationship between the stepchild and his or her biological, noncustodial parent. Allowing stepchildren to develop the relationship with the stepparent at their own pace also helps. What style of stepparenting ultimately develops is influenced by the expectations of the stepparent, stepchild, spouse, and nonresidential parent, but there are several styles that result in positive outcomes (Crohn, 2006).
Adoptive parents also contend with attachment to birth parents, but in different ways. Even if they
don’t remember them, adopted children may wish to locate and meet their birth parents. Wanting to know one’s origins is understandable, but such searches can strain the relationships between these children and their adoptive parents, who may interpret these actions as a form of rejection (Rosenberg, 1992).
Families with children adopted from another culture face unique issues in terms of how to establish and maintain connection with the child’s culture of origin. For mothers of transracially adopted Chinese and Korean children, becoming connected to the appropriate Asian American community is an important way to accomplish this (Johnston et al., 2007). Research in The Netherlands found that children adopted from Columbia, Sri Lanka, and Korea into Dutch homes struggled with looking different, and many expressed desires to be white (Juffer, 2006).
Foster parents tend to have the most tenuous relationship with their children because the bond can be broken for any of a number of reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the care being provided. For example, a court may award custody back to the birth parents, or another couple may legally adopt the child. Dealing with attachment is difficult; foster parents want to provide secure homes, but they may not have the children long enough to establish continuity. Furthermore, because many children in foster care have been unable to form attachments at all, they are less likely to form ones that will inevitably be broken. Thus, foster parents must be willing to tolerate considerable ambiguity in the relationship and have few expectations about the future.
Finally, many gay men and lesbian women also want to be parents. Some have biological children themselves, whereas others are increasingly choosing adoption or foster parenting (Braun, 2007). Although they often experience resistance to their having children, gay men and lesbian women make good parents. Research indicates that children reared by gay or lesbian parents do not experience any more problems than children reared by heterosexual parents and are as psychologically healthy as children of heterosexual parents (Braun, 2007). Substantial evidence exists that children raised by
gay or lesbian parents do not develop sexual identity or any other problems any more than children raised by heterosexual parents (Macatee, 2007). Children of gay and lesbian parents also are no more likely than children of heterosexual parents to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning.
The evidence is clear that children raised by gay or lesbian parents suffer no adverse consequences compared to children raised by heterosexual parents. Children of gay or lesbian couples and heterosexual couples are equally adjusted behaviorally, show equivalent cognitive development, and have similar behaviors in school. Indeed, one study found that the only difference between such couples was that lesbian couples exhibited more awareness of parenting skills than did heterosexual couples (Flaks et al., 1995).
Some evidence shows that children raised by gay or lesbian parents may even have some advantages over children raised by heterosexual parents (Macatee, 2007). Children of gay or lesbian parents might be better adjusted than adult children of heterosexual parents in that the adult children of gay and lesbian parents exhibit lower levels of homophobia and lower fear of negative evaluation than do the adult children of heterosexual parents. Gay men are often especially concerned about being good and nurturing fathers, and they try hard to raise their children with nonsexist, egalitarian attitudes (Flaks et al., 1995).
These data will not make the controversy go away, as much of it is based on long-held beliefs and prejudices. Admittedly, the data comparing children raised by different types of parents are inadequate; for example, there is very little information about children raised by lesbian women. Only when societal attitudes toward gay men and lesbians become more accepting will there be greater acceptance of their right to be parents like anyone else.
People like Susan in this section’s opening vignette connect generations. Family ties across the generations provide the context for socialization and for continuity in the family’s identity. At the center agewise are members of the middle – aged generation, like Susan, who serve as the links
434 CHAPTER 11 between their aging parents and their own maturing children (Hareven, 2001). Middle-aged mothers (more than fathers) tend to take on this role of kinkeeper, the person who gathers family members together for celebrations and keeps them in touch with each other.
Think about the major issues confronting a typical middle-aged couple: maintaining a good marriage, parenting responsibilities, children who are becoming adults themselves, job pressures, and concern about aging parents, just to name a few. Middle-aged adults truly have quite a lot to deal with every day in balancing their responsibilities to their children and their aging parents (Riley & Bowen, 2005). Indeed, middle-aged adults are sometimes referred to as the sandwich generation; they are caught between the competing demands of two generations (their parents and their children). Being in the sandwich generation means different things for women and men. When middle-aged women assess how well they are dealing with the midlife transition, their most pressing issues relate more to their adolescent children than to their aging parents; for middle-aged men, it is the other way around (Riley & Bowen, 2005).
In this section, we first examine the dynamics of middle-aged parents and their maturing children and discover whether Susan’s feelings are typical. Next, we consider the issues facing middle-aged adults and their aging parents. Later, we consider what happens when people become grandparents.