As we continue to wrestle with the complexity of understanding families, one large task would be simply defining the word family. A family may meet the traditional image of two married, biological parents and their children—or it may mean single parents, grandparents raising children, same-sex couples raising children, adoptive parents, or foster parents. Parents may be of the same or different religions and of the same or different races or cultures. The changing composition of the family does not change what is important to the child about being a member of a family, however. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes” (Perrin, 2002, p. 341). In the recent past, we considered the two-biological-parent family as “normal” and regarded any other family structure as having deficits. The many changes in the structure of families have caused us to look at this differently. We currently view all families as having both risk factors and protective factors (Seifer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1992). Risk factors are those life events or personal characteristics that threaten a child or family’s well-being. Protective factors are the events and characteristics that act against risk factors (Donahoo, 2003). Any family structure may have risk factors and protective factors, given the particular characteristics of the family. For example, a calm, nurturing single-parent home would provide more protection than a two-biological-parent home affected by alcohol and violence. Children can grow up happily, healthy, and without serious problems in all kinds of families, but children in two-parent households are more likely to escape poverty, teenaged unmarried childbearing, and school and mental health issues (ChildTrends 2002; Weitoft, Hjern, Haglund, & Rosén, 2003). The majority of American children live in two-parent households; however, according to census reports, that percentage has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. About 69% of children live with two parents (biological or stepparents), 22% live with only their mother, 4% live with only their father, and 4% live with neither parent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). In order to work effectively with extremely diverse families and their infants and toddlers, it is helpful to understand some of the issues that may be related to family structure. There are so many variations to the American family, and the issues surrounding them are so complex, that the following discussion should be considered a brief introduction to a topic worthy of deeper study.


Each year nearly 1 million American children experience the divorce of their parents and, before they reach adulthood, over half of all children will live in a home with one parent only (Cathcart & Robles, 1996). Parents who are able to navigate the breakup of their marriages without extreme conflict may spare their children some of the negative outcomes associated with divorce. Nonetheless, many children suffer effects of divorce—such as problems in the parent-child relationship (Wallerstein, 1985), poor school attendance and performance (Cherlin et al., 1991), and aggressive or disobedient behavior—and children who are under the age of 6 when their parents divorce appear to be most vulnerable (Shaw, 1991). Parents of infants and toddlers have particular issues to consider when they divorce. Infants and toddlers may not be able to understand the difficulties their parents are experiencing, but they are very aware of the emotional tone of their environment. The sadness, tension, and anger of divorce can be very stressful to even very young infants (Doescher, Hare, & Morrow, 1996). The baby’s ability to develop a sense of trust in others depends on the adults’ predictability and consistent emotional availability. Custody issues concerning parenting time are quite complex when it comes to infants and toddlers. Breastfeeding, for example, can be a significant factor in determining how much time the baby can spend with the father, away from the mother (Baldwin, Friedman, & Harvey, 1997). A recent study (George & Soloman, 2003) suggests that overnight visitation with fathers in divorced or separating families relates to a high occurrence of disorganized attachment in 12- to 18-month-olds. Two thirds more of these children demonstrated disorganized attachment, compared to infants who saw their fathers only during daytime visits. Disorganized attachment occurs when infants are unable to signal their distress to parents in order to elicit contact and comfort. These babies were unable to utilize their parents as a resource for handling stress. The degree of harmful effects of the overnight visits was related to the parents’ ability to remain responsive to the baby’s behavior, to communicate and cooperate about the baby’s well-being, and to keep conflicts away from the baby. Implications for teachers.

An infant-toddler teacher needs to be sure that she relates fairly to both divorced parents, supporting each parent’s relationship with the child. She must remain neutral in a situation that can be fraught with difficult feelings. In supporting the child’s relationship with each parent, the teacher must keep both parents well informed about the child and find ways, when necessary, to describe the effect that the parent’s relationship, or the custody situation, is having on the child.

Single Parents

Some of the issues for infants and toddlers concerning divorce are also relevant for children raised by a single, never-married parent. The percentage of children born to women who have never married is increasing dramatically:

In the early 1960s, less than 1 percent of children lived with a never-married parent. By 2000, nearly one in 10 children lived with a never-married parent. . . . Today nearly one-third of all births occur to unmarried women. (ChildTrends, 2002)

In his book Fatherneed, Kyle Pruitt recounts the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. He then provides this advice for the single mothers of infants and toddlers:

  • Take care of yourself first, especially if you are alone. Surround yourself with all of the support you can find—emotional, physical, nutritional, and spiritual. Don’t let loneliness, bitterness, and isolation take root.
  • Invite close males, relatives and friends, to hold, walk, rock, play with, or baby-sit your child. Be sure these men have an important relationship with you, because your kid can tell the difference even at this age.
  • Have close male friends or relatives engage in physical play and rough-and-tumble exploration with your child.
  • Have close male friends or relatives read to and comfort your child.
  • Try to find child care arrangements or play groups in which men or older male siblings are involved as staff or regular volunteers.  (Pruett, 2000, pp. 161–162)
Implications for teachers

Teachers need to be particularly sensitive to infants and toddlers who are growing up with only one parent, as these children need and long for safe, nurturing contact with adults of both sexes. Because child care is predominantly female, it is easier to provide female experiences to children being raised by fathers than male experiences to children of single mothers.

Same-Sex Parents

Same-sex parents are estimated to be raising as many as 9 million of America’s children, but accurate statistics are impossible to find. Gay and lesbian parents share the same concerns and worries of all parents but face additional issues unique to their situation. If the child was not originally conceived within an earlier heterosexual relationship, there are questions of adoption, artificial insemination, or surrogate mothers. There are legal issues wherein the biological or adoptive parent may have full parental rights, but the same-sex partner may not be allowed to adopt the child as an equal parent. Children of gay and lesbian parents also experience more teasing during their school years (Patterson, 1992). The majority of children of same-sex couples have experienced the divorce of their biological parents’ heterosexual marriage. Research studies describe them as looking much like other children of divorced parents with no significant differences in gender identity, social roles, or sexual orientation (Patterson, 1992). Children of lesbian mothers look very similar to children of heterosexual, divorced mothers in terms of self-esteem, behavior, academic success, and peer relationships (Golombok, Tasker, & Murray, 1997). They were rated higher in terms of tolerance of diversity, being protective of younger children, and seeing themselves as more lovable (Steckel, 1987).


Grandparents raising grandchildren is an increasing phenomenon in America. Parents may or may not live in the same household, but grandparents are increasingly providing primary care for grandchildren. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1997 3.9 million children were living in homes maintained by their grandparents, up 76% from 2.2 million in 1970. The steady increases are due to a variety of factors: substance abuse by parents, teen pregnancy, family violence, illness, and incarceration. Grandparents are sometimes able to offer a stable home to their grandchildren; however, they often care for their grandchildren without any legal rights. This leaves them in precarious conditions for accessing health care or other social supports for the children (Minkler, 2002).

Implications for teachers

Both the grandparents and the infant and toddler will need sensitive understanding from educators. “While the home-school connection is critical for every young child, it is especially crucial in grandparent-headed households. Education professionals need unique insight and information about custodial grandparents’ particular circumstances” (Smith, Dannison, & Vach-Hasse, 1998). The infants and toddlers may be grieving for the loss of a parent, and grandparents may be struggling with transforming their role of doting grandparent into one of parent with multiple responsibilities for their grandchildren.

Adoptive Parents

Adoption is another subgroup of parenting with so many variables that it is tempting to say it can only be understood on a family-by-family basis. Given that about 120,000 adoptions occur annually in the United States and about 1 million children live with adoptive parents, there are endless differences (NAIC, 2002). Infants may be adopted at birth from parents who relinquish their rights immediately, they may be adopted by family members, or they may be removed from their birth parents because of abuse or neglect and spend years in foster care without a permanent home. They may have been exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero. Obviously, the circumstances leading up to the adoption will have considerable effect on the child’s outcomes. For infants and toddlers, the developmental work of developing relationships and establishing trust are highly dependent on consistent, responsive caregiving. Achieving a balance between a secure attachment to a caregiver and a healthy ability to move out into the world to explore can be challenging for any baby. Infants and toddlers who have experienced many disruptions in early relationships may have particular difficulties in establishing trust and in feeling safe enough to explore the world (NAIC, 2002).

Implications for teachers

Teachers may also need to support adoptive parents as they struggle with particular issues. In an earlier section of this chapter, we described some of the issues men and women struggle with as they become parents. While the process of adoption is very time-consuming, many adoptive parents have only a few days between being notified that their child is available and actually receiving the child. In contrast to a 9-month pregnancy, this can leave very little time for emotional preparation. In order to protect themselves from disappointment, the adoptive parents may not dream and fantasize about parenting as much as the pregnant couple. They may be afraid at first to become too attached to the baby. They may worry whether they will love the baby or whether the baby can love them, given the lack of genetic connection. Adopting families may be acting in opposition to their own families’ cultural beliefs and values concerning adoption (Frank & Rowe, 1990). They may also need help in determining whether issues that arise are typical behavioral issues for infants and toddlers or whether they are related to the adoption.

Foster Parents

When children are abused or neglected, they enter the child welfare system and, often, are placed in foster homes. More than 30% of all children in foster care are under 5 years of age. Infants comprise the largest cohort of the young child foster care population, accounting for one in five admissions, and they remain in care twice as long as older children (Dicker, Gordon, & Knitzer, 2001). These children are possibly the most vulnerable in our country. In order to be placed in foster care in the first months or years of life, they have already experienced deficient or dangerous parenting. They may not have received prenatal care, and they may have been poorly nourished and substance exposed in utero. Nearly 80% of these children are at risk for medical and developmental problems due to prenatal exposure. They may have witnessed or been victims of physical or sexual violence. More than 40% of foster children are premature and/or of low birth weight. More than half have serious health problems and more than half have developmental delays—4 to 5 times the rate of children in the general population. With all of these problems, children in foster care are also unlikely to receive basic health care such as immunizations, and are highly unlikely to receive early intervention or mental health services due to fragmented systems and record keeping (Dicker et al., 2001).

Implications for teachers

Participation in high-quality early childhood programs is included as one of five strategies to promote the healthy development of young children in foster care proposed by the National Council on Poverty. High-quality early childhood programs provide stimulating, engaging, and nurturing environments that can be inherently supportive of development. Early childhood teachers can also provide information, strategies, ideas, and emotional support to foster parents. In recognition of the important role early childhood programs can play in the foster care system, Early Head Start and the Children’s Bureau launched a collaborative effort in 2002. Twenty-four Early Head Start programs received grants to enhance and expand services for children and their families who are part of the child welfare system, as well as to provide more intensive services throughout communities. This initiative emphasizes both the important role that quality programs can play in children’s development and the need for early childhood programs to develop the specific skills and knowledge necessary to serve these children effectively. Another acknowledgment of the benefits of high-quality child care programs comes from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (IDCFS). IDCFS has implemented an extensive system of developmental screening and services for children in foster care. As one of its available services, the IDCFS has appropriated $2 million of child care funds to cover the costs of private early childhood programs for children in foster care.