- The form of parenting involves parental behaviors, while the function describes the outcome of parents' behavior from the child's perspective.
- The forms and functions of parenting can be passed on through generations.
- Parenting norms can also be defined differently across various cultures.
Researchers who study parenting in different cultural contexts often talk about the form versus function of parenting. The form of parenting involves parents’ behaviors. The function of parenting involves the outcome of the behavior from the child’s perspective.
Think of a two-by-two matrix with “form” on one axis and “function” on the other, with both form and function either the same or different across cultural contexts. Different forms of parenting (e.g., physical affection, saying “I love you,” preparing special food, supporting a child’s education) can all serve the same function of making a child feel loved and accepted. In contrast, the same form of parenting (such as making direct eye contact with the child) can serve different functions depending on the cultural context (establishing attentive communication in some but showing disrespect in others).
Four forms of parenting
My colleagues and I studied how four forms of parenting are related to five aspects of child flourishing to understand both commonalities and cultural specificity in how parenting is related to children’s well-being. We recruited a sample of 8-year-old children and their parents in nine countries (China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States) and interviewed them annually for many years.
Parents reported on four forms of parenting in their relationships with their children, as well as recollections of these same four forms of parenting in their childhood relationships with their own parents. We asked parents questions about: (1) warmth (e.g., “I make my child feel wanted and needed,” “When I was a child, my mother/father made me feel wanted and needed”); (2) hostility and aggression (e.g., “I go out of my way to hurt my child’s feelings,” “When I was a child, my mother/father went out of their way to hurt my feelings”); (3) indifference and neglect (e.g., “I pay no attention to my child,” “When I was a child, my mother/father paid no attention to me”); and (4) rejection (e.g., “I do not really love my child,” “When I was a child, my mother/father did not really love me”).
At ages 12 and 15, children reported on five aspects of flourishing: engagement (being absorbed and involved in an activity or the world itself), perseverance (the tenacity to stick with things and pursue a goal despite challenges), optimism (having a sense of hope and confidence about the future), connectedness (feeling loved, supported, and valued by others), and happiness (a general feeling of cheer and contentment with life).
Our results suggest that single-generation effects of the four forms of parenting on child flourishing may demonstrate commonality across cultural contexts. Within a single family generation, warmth promotes, and hostility, neglect, and rejection impede the subsequent development of child flourishing. Yet, we also found evidence of cultural specificity in intergenerational patterns from the grandparent to parent to child, depending on the cultural normativeness of some forms of parenting. For example, children from cultures with above-average parent warmth experienced the most benefit from the intergenerational transmission of warmth on child flourishing. Similarly, children from cultures with below-average hostility, neglect, and rejection were best protected from the deleterious effects of intergenerational transmission of these behaviors.
These findings suggest that children can benefit from some forms of parenting (and be harmed by others) regardless of cultural context. However, the findings also suggest that parents and children interpret parenting behaviors by referencing norms about which behaviors are common, acceptable, and advised in their cultural context.
Rothenberg, W. A., Lansford, J. E., Bornstein, M. H., Uribe Tirado, L. M., Yotanyamaneewong, S., Alampay, L. P., Al-Hassan, S. M., Bacchini, D., Chang, L., Deater-Deckard, K., Di Giunta, L., Dodge, K. A., Liu, Q., Long, Q., Malone, P. S., Oburu, P., Pastorelli, C., Skinner, A. T., Sorbring, E., Tapanya, S., & Steinberg, L. (2021). Cross-cultural associations of four parenting behaviors with child flourishing: Examining cultural specificity and commonality in cultural normativeness and intergenerational transmission processes. Child Development, 92, e1138-e1153.