Other Influences on Parenting (page 4)
Parenting needs to be examined and analyzed in the context of culture and community. Numerous variables affect family life and may be external factors of community and environment as well as internal factors of cultural background, family demographics, and economics.
With extended work schedules for most American families, a huge number of parents now must cope daily with requirements for temporary care of their children. At one time, when many mothers were homemakers, child care was merged with running the household. Mothers attended their preschool-age children, welcomed their older children home from school, and supervised most at-home activities.
At the present time, however, the situation is far different: Welfare reform has increased the number of parents in the workforce, single-parent and dual-income families grow every year, and fewer extended family members are available to care for children. More than 65% of mothers with children under six are in the workforce (Children’s Defense Fund, 2001). This means that a huge number of young children are in some type of child-care arrangement for part of every workday. These arrangements include center-based and family child care as well as less formal situations, such as babysitters or care by slightly older siblings.
Infant, toddler, and preschool child care and after-school care for older children are now facts of life for most communities. As more families, formerly on welfare, enter the workforce, the demands for quality care for children will intensify. Many child-care programs have waiting lists for children who need this service, and added requests will intensify the problem. Although a number of schools now operate their own after-school care programs, the need for care outstrips availability. Furthermore, the quality and costs of care are quite variable- adding another dimension to the problem for parents seeking care for their children.
Good child care, once found, solves many problems for parents. Supportive caregivers become an extension of the family and often develop strong affectional ties to the child and parents. These caregivers know the child well and can offer parents advice and reassurance as issues and concerns arise. This can be especially helpful to single parents. Child care also fosters connections between parents and other families with children, allowing them to develop a larger support network. Knowing their child is well cared for relieves parents of stress and anxiety and allows them to do their jobs. Child care offers benefits to both children and parents.
Life-Changing Events as Family Stressors
The circumstances of modern life have led to an increase in stress in children and their parents (McKenry & Price, 2005). Separation, divorce, chronic illness, and death of a parent can negatively affect children’s feelings of security and subject them to new patterns of family life. Living within a blended family, a single parent household, or with parents who travel frequently also contributes to the stress level of all involved. These circumstances are difficult for all families, but children and parents who live in poverty or suffer economic setbacks face added challenges that can contribute to additional stress (Bartholomae & Fox, 2005).
Stressors resulting from changes in family life and economic difficulties can be challenging for every family; some families, though, through coping skills and resources, are better able than others to handle problems. Although a few stressors are self-inflicted, many are unavoidable or are developed through conflicts and economic pressures and through racist, elitist, and sexist practices.
Accumulated stressors lead to at-risk situations, and policy makers, educators, and others must be mindful of this possibility. The effects of risk on the intelligence measurements of preschool children (Sameroff, Seifer, Barocas, Zax, & Greenspan, 1987) show that most children seem able to cope with low levels of risk, but an accumulation of more than two risk factors jeopardizes their mental development. The message is clear: We must either prevent or compensate for accumulated risk factors (Stanford & Yamamoto, 2001).
Before ending our discussion of family functioning, we review in the following paragraphs the concerns and risk factors that cause stress in families. Bear in mind, however, that strategies exist to deflect or accommodate stress arising from these factors. Helping children and their parents cope with stress is becoming an increasingly important role for teachers and community-service providers (Scully, 2003).
Separation, Divorce, and Reconfigured Families
Divorce has become common for U.S. families in recent decades, and although the divorce rate is no longer increasing, at the present time, first marriages in the United States have a 47% chance of breaking up, and second marriages a 49% chance (Pann & Crosbie-Burnett, 2005). Consequently, more than 40% of American children will experience the effects of divorce, with nearly 90% placed in the physical custody of their mothers (although increasingly legal custody tends to be shared between parents). Of the children born in the 1990s, more than half will have spent some or all of their childhood in a single-parent household (Anderson, 2003).
Liberalization of divorce laws in most states permits couples to separate more easily and more amicably, and although parents may adjust reasonably well to a divorce, many children of divorced parents tend to have long-term difficulties (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000). Separation changes all roles in a family and alters the way a family functions. Responsibilities for the custodial parent increase dramatically, particularly with regard to child-care arrangements. There are more household tasks to care for, and financial obligations are heavier than before. Complicating the situation for children is the likelihood of one or more of their parents remarrying (65% of divorced women and 75% of divorced men remarry within four years). Even more likely are the nonmarital short-lived cohabitations of either parent. Finally, one third of American children today will become part of a stepfamily (Greene, Anderson, Hetherington, Forgatch, & DeGarmo, 2003).
Financial Aspects of Divorce
Mothers are most often given custody of children in a divorce, but this can have dire consequences for the resulting single-parent family (Fine, Ganong, & Demo, 2005). Casper and Bianchi (2002) reported that the poverty rate for single-mother households was 38.7%, compared to a rate of 6.9% in two-parent homes. It is a fact in the United States that women in the workforce earn less than men do, and even though child support judgments are made in divorce cases, fathers frequently do not pay, leaving mothers to assume full financial responsibility for their children. Casper and Bianchi (2002) stressed the financial inequities after divorce: Divorce improves the economic position of men but reduces that of women and children left with their mothers.
Other Consequences of Divorce
Increased work hours for custodial parents are typical after divorce, and decreased social interaction with children results (Anderson, 2003). This means less parenting. Children in the home will face increased responsibilities, less time with either parent, and less emotional support after separation. A serious long-range effect of divorce is the removal of marriage models for children affected.
Behavioral changes for youngsters often result from divorce and separation. A considerable amount of research shows that the negative effects for children of divorce are sadness, anger, fear, aggressiveness, anxiety, and disobedience (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997; Wallerstein, 2001). Children who have positive, nurturing relationships with both parents, low levels of parental and family conflict, and adequate economic resources, however, seem to adjust better to the diverse forms of family life that occur after a divorce (Fine, Ganong, & Demo, 2005).
For many children, these diverse family forms may include living in a single-parent home, moving between the homes of both parents as part of shared-custody arrangements, or becoming part of a step-family. All of these situations can pose challenges to children, but all can have strengths when compared to a predivorce situation: happier environments, better custodial parent–child relationships, more commitment to a wider community, and better-run households. Hetherington and Kelly (2002), in their review of hundreds of clients, found that most single-parent households do provide the nurturance that children need, despite the challenges. Negative stereotypes continue to affect single parents, step-parents, and their children (Anderson, 2003; Greene et al., 2003), however. For example, teachers have a tendency to assume that problems in school are related to the situation in the home. In the foreseeable future, large numbers of young and school-age children will experience their parents’ separation, divorce, and remarriage. Therefore, school personnel and community workers must find ways to accommodate the extra needs these individuals will have.
Support groups are available to help families through the initial period of adjustment after divorce, which is always one or more years. Children’s literature, when sensitively read and discussed, can also help children who are caught in a family upheaval.
Management of household life in the dual-income home can produce stress at times (Fraenkel, 2003). As parents try to balance the potentially competing demands of jobs and child rearing, many find the conflict between caring for children and employment physically and psychologically draining. The stress is particularly pronounced for women who despite their increased participation in the work force, still have primary responsibility for children in the majority of families. Research indicates, however, that it is the nature and intensity of the work and family responsibilities, rather than employment or parenthood per se, that determine the impact of parents working outside the home (Fredriksen-Goldsen & Scharlach, 2001).
Although a double income enables a family to enjoy a higher standard of living, it has drawbacks, such as less time for family interaction, tighter schedules, increased dependence on child care, and fewer choices in recreation. Statistics show that 67% of children living with both parents have mothers and fathers in the workforce, and the trend increases each year (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). In addition, more than 7% of American working men and women hold two or more jobs (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998b), which could mean a total of four jobs for some dual-income families. Time for family interactions is, of course, minimal in such situations.
Poverty restricts many positive experiences for children and their families, because financial resources dictate quality of education, housing, diet, clothing, and amount of health care, to say nothing of entertainment and recreation. Most of all, poverty lays a veil of despair on poor or near-poor families- a group disproportionately composed of single-parent families and families of color- and aspirations and a sense of self-worth become hard to elevate (Dodson & Bravo, 2005). Of all the stressors present in U.S. families, poverty is perhaps the greatest, and it is expanding in the lower-income brackets.
Children’s Defense Fund (2005) findings show that in 2004 more than 13 million, or almost 17.8% of U.S. children under 18 were living below the poverty line. In addition, the record demonstrated that poverty in the United States has increased each year since 2000. This is a disturbing reversal of the gains made from 1992 to 2000, when close to four million children were lifted out of poverty. Even more disturbing is the growing number of children who live in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than $7,610 per year for a family of three. Poverty rates among minority groups are disproportionate to their populations. While the poverty rate for Whites was 14.4%, that for Hispanics was 28.9%, and for African Americans 33.2% (Children’s Defense Fund, 2005).
Poor families are burdened with the challenges of survival, and their lives are punctuated with stress brought on by lack of money. Family members are frequently ill, they sustain injury more often, and they encounter hostility from numerous sources. Lives become saturated with despair, and each new plight adds to family discouragement (Dodson & Bravo, 2005; Laureau, 2003). The buildup of stress in poor families is extensive. Housing that is affordable to families near or below the poverty line tends to be in crime- and drug-ridden areas, where children and many adults lead lives of sheer terror. Cramped living and meager diets result in illnesses that precipitate even more stress. Not surprisingly, children raised in poverty are more likely to become teen parents and as adults will earn less and have more unemployment than those raised with higher incomes. They are also more likely to raise their own children in poverty, continuing the cycle.
Reversing the state of poverty in the United States requires strong community action and large investments in federal, state, and private aid to provide job training, child care, adequate housing, and health facilities to help rebuild families in besieged areas of society. Recommendations outlined in The State of America’s Children (Children’s Defense Fund, 2005) serve as a good starting point. Leach (1994), in Children First, reemphasized this challenging prescription, and Schorr (2002) suggested ways in which neighborhoods and communities can help families.
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