- Just as children develop over time, so do parents.
- In response to children's growth through adolescence, parents curb the degree of warmth and behavioral control they exert.
- The changes parents make reciprocally foster the development of their children.
The end of the school year often leads parents to reflect on how their children have grown and developed over the course of the year. Parents change over time, too.
My colleagues and I recruited a sample of 8-year-old children and their mothers and fathers from nine countries (China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States) to participate in a long-term study of parenting and child development. We’ve interviewed the children and their parents annually since that time, and the children are now young adults.
Over the course of the study, we’ve learned a lot not just about child development in different cultural contexts but also about how parenting changes as children develop. Here are a few ways that parenting changes 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.
It may be more difficult for parents to continue displaying high levels of warmth as children transition to adolescence in the face of conflict, which often is more frequent and intense in adolescence than in childhood. An increase in such conflict is often tied to parents’ attempts to exert behavioral control, so parents may reduce their attempts to control their children’s behavior as one way to reduce 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, we find decreases in parents’ control 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 that 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 also 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 parents’ limit-setting and knowledge solicitation, become more developmentally salient as children enter adolescence and begin spending less time under parents’ direct supervision and more time with peers and in other activities away from home.
Across many cultures that differ in general expectations regarding adolescents, a desire for more autonomy has been found to increase during adolescence, and adolescents often want more autonomy than their parents are willing to provide. Thus, parents negotiate issues related to autonomy with their children during the transition to and progression through adolescence. These negotiations related to autonomy are reflected in changes over time in parents’ rules and knowledge solicitation, which have been found to decrease with adolescent age in many different cultural contexts.
As children develop, parents develop, too. 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.