Parent-Child Relationship

views updated Jun 27 2018


Throughout recorded history, there has been an interest in understanding the causes and consequences of the complex relationship between parents and children. Despite frequently expressed worries about the weakening of inter-generational ties, the evidence has demonstrated the continued intensity and influence of these ties. In fact, recent research has shown that the intensity of the bond retains its strength even long after the parents' deaths (Shmotkin, 1999). Of interest here is the relationship between adult children and their parents, particularly factors that affect the quality of relations between the generations. Also important in this discussion is how the childless fare, relative to parents, in terms of happiness and well-being in their later years.

Parent-adult child relations in historical context

Changes in American society during the twentieth century led parent-adult child relations to be of increasing interest to scholars, policymakers, and the lay public. Gains in average life expectancy have provided parents and children the opportunity for even more enduring intergenerational relationships than in previous eras. For example, men born in 1920 were expected, on average, to live to be only 54; by 1950, their life expectancy had risen to 66, and by 1996, to 73. Women's life expectancy increased even more across the same period, from 55 for women born in 1920, to 71 in 1950, and 79 in 1996. Such increases in life expectancy provide greater opportunities for meaningful family exchanges across the generations.

However, the opportunity for greater family involvement may not be sufficient to produce warm and supportive intergenerational relations. In fact, both the popular and scholarly literatures have often framed parentadult child relations as potentially problematic. Such concerns can be attributed to certain societal trends that may create obstacles to harmonious and supportive relations between the generations. First, increased life expectancy leads to a greater likelihood that families will spend longer periods of time caring for disabled elderly relatives. Coupled with declining fertility, this development suggests that larger numbers of elderly people will be cared for by fewer offspring. Adult children, in turn, will bear the costs of caring for aged parents, with fewer siblings to assist them.

In addition, the nature of parent-child relations in later life became substantially more voluntary toward the end of the twentieth century. That is, elderly parents' relationships with grown children are characterized by choice, rather than by obligation. In the past, control of family resources was a major method of ensuring contact with, and care by, children. In contemporary society, the young are dependent on the labor market for their livelihood, rather than on elderly parents. Further, norms of filial responsibility were more clearly articulated in the past. At present, the amount and nature of parent-child contact and the degree of mutual aid between the generations tend to be individually negotiated, with only limited guidance from society.

What is remarkable, in the face of such obstacles to high relationship quality, is that parent adult child ties tend, on average, to be warm and supportive despite the difficulties that both generations face.

The quality of parent-adult child relations

Children and parents' social characteristics and intergenerational relations. It has been demonstrated that both children's and parents' social characteristics are crucial to an understanding of intergenerational relations. Three social characteristics play a particularly important role in determining the quality of parent-child relations in later life: age, gender, and race.

Age. Theories of adult development and intergenerational relations suggest that the age of the adult child affects the quality of parent-child relations. These theories argue that as adult children become older, there is less conflict and greater closeness in the parent-child relationship because maturational changes reduce differences between parents and adult children, thus minimizing the bases for conflict between them. Further, these theories posit that as children and parents age, there is greater tolerance for any intergenerational differences that remain. Empirical studies conducted with both adult children and elderly parents provide support for these theories by showing consistently that relations are more harmonious when children are older.

Gender. A review of the literature suggests that the gender of both parent and child affects intergenerational relations. Studies of the effects of gender consistently demonstrate stronger affectional ties between mothers and daughters than any other combination. For example, mothers report more positive affect with adult daughters than sons, and they are more likely to rely on daughters than sons as confidants and comforters. In turn, adult daughters report greater feelings of closeness to mothers than fathers.

The literature on other parent-child gender combinations suggests that there is greater closeness and less conflict in both mother-son and father-daughter pairs than in father-son pairs. The preponderance of studies of intergenerational relations have found that adult sons report greater closeness to mothers than to fathers, whereas fathers report greater closeness to daughters than to sons.

Race and ethnicity. Research on ethnic diversity in families in the later years has grown considerably during the past two decades. Most of this work has focused on differences between black and white families; however, both Hispanic and Asian families have also received attention.

The literature has revealed some consistent differences in intergenerational relations between black and white families. In particular, elderly blacks are substantially more likely than whites to live in two- and three-generational households, and to be involved in their grandchildren's day-to-day activities. Further, it appears that there is greater closeness and less intergenerational conflict in black than in non-black families. C. V. Willie (1988) has argued that older blacks are less insistent that younger family members adhere to their elders' customs than are nonblacks, which might reduce the basis for conflict over intergenerational value discrepancies; however, the few studies that have investigated this issue have not provided a consistent picture.

Parentadult child relations among Hispanics appear to differ from those of both blacks and whites. For example, parent-adult child contact is more frequent among Hispanics than whites or blacks, and Hispanic parents are more likely to live with their adult children than are blacks or whites. Further, several studies suggest greater intrafamily support in Hispanic than non-Hispanic white families. However, because most of these studies do not separate the role of adult children from that of other close family members, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether parent-child relations are closer in Hispanic than non-Hispanic families.

Although the population of elderly Asians is growing rapidly in the United States, there is relatively little literature on parentadult child relations among these ethnic groups. The literature that exists suggests that there are inconsistencies in the patterns of parent-child relations among Asian-American families. On one hand, filial piety is still normative, and parentadult child coresidence is common, yet Chinese-American parents who do not live with their children have lower frequency of contact with them than do black, white, or Hispanic parents. Further, value differences which might lead to conflict between parents and children are increasingly common in Asian families.

Life events, parent-child relations, and parents' well-being. Changes in either parents' or children's social characteristics may have profound effects on intergenerational relations. It is important to distinguish between transitions that are experienced by adult children and those experienced by elderly parents, as well as to make a distinction between two types of transitions: those that are normativethat is, transitions that are socially acceptable and expected to occur at a given timeand those that are nonnormative.

Effects of adult children's normative transitions. Numerous studies have found a consistent pattern of increased intergenerational closeness and contact when children experience normative transitions. For example, parents and adult children appear to become closer when children establish separate households, marry, and become parents. In part, there is a positive change in intergenerational relations when adult children experience these normative transitions because such transitions confirm that the adult child is conforming to societal norms regarding maturational development. An often neglected point is that normative transitions also improve parent-child relations because these transitions increase the number of social structural positions that adult children share with their parents.

Effects of adult children's nonnormative transitions. Considering that normative transitions generally intensify affectional bonds, it is not surprising to find that nonnormative transitions sometimes affect parent-adult child relations detrimentally. However, whether the nonnormative transition affects relations appears to be determined greatly by the extent to which the transition challenges parents' values.

Recent studies of adult children's transitions support this argument. For example, studies have shown that relations between middle-class sons and their parents often become strained when the adult children, particularly sons, lose their jobs. Further, adult children's relationships with their parents have been found to suffer when the children engage in illegal behaviors, regardless of whether the actions lead to legal action.

Nonnormative transitions that do not challenge the parents' values appear to have far less impact on parent-adult child relations. For example, it appears that adult children's returning to live in their parents' homes creates little distress in the parent-child relationship. The preponderance of the literature suggests that a child's divorce also has little or no deleterious effect on the quality of parent-child relations. In fact, some findings suggest that there might even be an increase in parentadult child closeness following a child's divorce. However, studies have not examined whether the effects of an adult child's divorce on parent-child relations is affected by either circumstances surrounding the divorce or by the parents' values regarding marriage.

Children's stressful life events and parents' well-being. While negative life events in the lives of adult children do not necessarily affect the quality of the parent-child relationship, they do affect parents' psychological well-being. Studies have shown that problems experienced by adult children, and contact with children during these periods, can detrimentally affect elderly parents' well-being. For example, it has been found that parents whose adult children have had mental, physical, substance abuse, or stress-related problems experience greater depression and emotional distress than do parents whose children did not have these problems.

Further, parents of mentally ill adults have been found to experience both substantial psychological distress and reduced marital quality because of problems associated with their children's bizarre and threatening behaviors. Violence and abuse by adult children has been found to be particularly distressing to elderly parents.

Morale may also suffer if adult children's problems require parents to continue to provide them with care and support. Such continued assistance is associated with increased psychological distress among the elderly. Thus, to the extent that problems experienced by children lead to their increased dependency, the quality of the relationship tends to decline, and decrements in psychological well-being can result.

Effects of parents' normative transitions. Both retirement and widowhood have been identified as normative transitions that have potential for affecting relationships between parents and adult children. Some scholars have suggested that parental retirement might represent a major crisis for adult children because it could signify that parents could lose their productive roles and eventually die. Further, it has been argued that children might fear that the resulting decrease in parental income would require them to assume financial responsibility for their parents while they are still supporting their own children. However, recent studies that have been conducted on this issue have found either no effects of retirement on intergenerational relations, or greater contact and closeness between the generations.

In contrast to retirement, the widowhood of a parent involves a direct change in the lives of adult children. Widowhood has been found to be one of the most stressful of all life events, and marks a drastic change in the life of the surviving spouse. Adult children have been found to be a particularly important source of emotional support and instrumental assistance to the surviving parent during this time. Further, there appears to be a general pattern of stability and continuity in parent-child relationships following widowhood.

Effects of parents' nonnormative transitions. Divorce is among the most common non-normative transitions in the lives of parents of adult children. The preponderance of work on this topic has shown that the detrimental effects of parental divorce on intergenerational relations continue throughout the life course. For example, it has been found that both divorced and remarried parents provide less emotional support to their adult children, have less frequent contact, and report lower levels of parent-child solidarity than do parents who have not divorced. The effects of divorce on closeness vary by gender of the parent. Divorce appears to be more detrimental to fathers' than mothers' relationships with their adult children. In fact, many mothers and daughters continue to have very close relationships following the mother's divorce.

Family caregiving to elderly parents: patterns and consequences

As the elderly population grows, so will the number of family members involved in their care. It is estimated that in 2001, approximately 2.2 million people provided unpaid help to elderly disabled relatives, and that these individuals provide 80 percent of the care received by the frail elderly. Of these individuals, more than one-third were adult children. Daughters continue to be substantially more likely than sons to be primary caregivers to their parents, although sons' participation in caregiving has increased. In part, daughters' greater caregiving to elderly parents can be explained by the general trend toward a traditional division of family tasks in the United States. However, another contributing factor is that older parents are more likely to be cared for by adult children of the same gender, and gender differences in life expectancy result in a larger number of women than men who receive care.

Reviews of the caregiving literature have shown that caregivers experience increased depression and demoralization, as well as increased psychiatric illness. Although the evidence is less clear, caregivers also appear to be more vulnerable to physical illness. Further, studies of caregiving suggest that these physical and psychological costs of caregiving are greater for women than men, and women who become caregivers are more likely than men to experience a loss of income and retirement benefits as a consequence of their caregiving.

Studies of the effects of caregiving on the quality of the parent-child relationship do not provide an entirely consistent picture. Some studies indicate that declines in parents' health often result in decreased closeness and attachment between them and their adult children; however, other research suggests that caregiving is more likely to have positive than negative consequences on relationship quality.

There are theoretical bases for suggesting that the motivation of adult-child caregivers determines whether caregiving has positive or negative effects on the parent-child relationship. In particular, it has been suggested that adult children who are motivated by attachment, rather than by exchange or obligation, would experience better relationships. Findings of research on the connection between caregiver motivation and the quality of parent-child relations support this argument by revealing that the parentadult child caregiving relationship is better when daughters are motivated by feelings of affection and closeness.

Effects of childlessess on the elderly

Considering the closeness and mutually supportive relationships that many adult children and elderly parents enjoy, it is reasonable to expect that elderly individuals who are parents would be happier than those who do not have children. However, the research on this issue has consistently demonstrated that individuals who are childless are as happy and well-adjusted as are parents, even in the later years. Further, people who are sixty-five or older and do not have children are more likely to report advantages than disadvantages of childlessness. Individuals who have remained childless have been found to develop social networks that compensate for the absence of support from adult children. However, the emphasis on such compensatory mechanisms vary by gender. For example, childless women are more likely than their male counterparts to develop close friendship networks and become involved with community and religious organizations. Not surprisingly, older individuals who are the most likely to be disadvantaged by their childlessness are widowed men who had been dependent primarily on their wives for instrumental and emotional support.

The one area in which there are substantial differences between the experiences of parents and the childless in the later years is living arrangements. Elderly people who are childless are about 50 percent more likely to live in some form of residential care at some point than are parents. One might expect that this would mean that childless men would be the most likely to live in residential care at some point in their later years; however, the fact that women are more likely to be childless, combined with their longer life expectancy, means that childless women are more likely than childless men to live in residentialcare facilities at some point.

J. Jill Suitor Karl Pillemer

See also Caregiving, Informal; Filial Obligations; Intergenerational Exchanges; Kin; Parental Obligations.


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Parent and Child

views updated May 11 2018


status of the child

In Jewish law, there is no discrimination against a child because of the mere fact that he is born out of lawful wedlock. While the said fact may complicate the question of establishing paternity, once the identity of the father is clearly known there is no distinction in law so far as the parent-child relationship is concerned, between such a child and one born in lawful wedlock. This is also the position with regard to a *mamzer. On the status of a child with one non-Jewish parent, see below. For further details, see *Yuḥasin.

parental rights

Except as detailed below, the principle in Jewish law is that parents have no legal rights in respect of their children, neither as to their person nor their property (Ket. 46b–47a; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 424:7). So far as male children are concerned, the father is entitled to the finds of his son even if the latter is a gadol (i.e., beyond the age until which his father is obliged by law to maintain him), provided that the son is dependent on him (lit. "seated at his table"); this is "for the reason of enmity," i.e., in order to avoid the enmity which might arise between father and son if the former, who supports his son without even being obliged to by law, was not even entitled to the finds that come to the son without any effort or investment on his part (bm 12a–b; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 270:2 and commentaries). For the same reason the father is entitled to the income of his dependent son (Rema, Ḥm 270:2). Hence a father who is obliged by law to maintain his son – for example, because he has so undertaken in a divorce agreement – has no claim to the finds or income of the son, and therefore he is entitled to set them off against his liability to maintain him (Taz, Ḥm 270:2; pdr 3:329). As regards his daughter, the father is entitled to everything mentioned above, even if she is not dependent on him, until she becomes a major (bogeret), since until then she remains under his authority. For the same reason, until she reaches her majority, the father will be entitled to her handiwork and to give her in *marriage (Ket. 46a–47a; Yad, Ishut 3:11; see also Avadim 4:2). The mother has none of these rights in respect of her children since in law she has no pecuniary obligations toward them (see below).

parental obligations

The general rule is that the legal obligations toward their children are imposed on the father alone and not on the mother (Maggid Mishneh, Ishut, 21:18).


obligations of the father

The father's duty to maintain his son embraces the responsibility of providing for all the child's needs, including his daily care (Yad, Ishut 13:6; Sh. Ar., eh 73:6, 7). The rules concerning the duty of maintenance also apply with regard to the father's duty to educate his son and to teach him Torah, to see that he learns a trade or profession, and to bear all the necessary expenses connected with this (Kid. 29b, 30; Sh. Ar., yd 245:1, 4). Until the son reaches the age of six years (see below), these obligations must be borne by the father even if he has limited means and the son has independent means of his own, e.g., acquired by inheritance (Sh. Ar., eh 71:1). These obligations are imposed on the father by virtue of his paternity, whether or not he is married to the child's mother, and therefore notwithstanding termination of the marriage between the child's parents, by death or divorce, or the fact that the child was born out of wedlock (Resp. Ribash no. 41; Resp. Rosh 17:7; contrary to Ran, on Rif at end of Ket. ch. 5, who is of the opinion that the father's obligation to support his children is linked with his obligation to maintain his wife).

obligation of the mother

The mother has no legal obligation to maintain her children, even if she is able to do so out of her own property or income (Ba'er Heitev, eh 71, n. 1). She may only be obliged to do so on the strength of the rules of ẓedakah ("charity") if, after providing in full for her own needs, she is able to satisfy the needs of her children when they have no property or income of their own, and the father, being poor, is unable to support them (Pitḥei Teshuvah, eh 82 n. 3; pdr 2:3). The position is different, however, if the mother has undertaken to maintain her children, for example in a divorce agreement. In this event, if the mother has the means to support her children at a time when the father is not legally obliged to do so (i.e., because they are above the specified age), she alone will have to maintain them as she is obliged to do by virtue of law (her undertaking); the father's duty in this case is based on the rules of ẓedakah only, and since the children have property of their own (the right to be maintained by the mother) they are no longer in need of ẓedakah (pdr 3:170; 4:3, 7). On the wife's duty to take care of her children as part of her marital duties toward her husband, see *Husband and Wife.

If the child's mother is not entitled to maintenance from the father – e.g., because the parties are divorced – and the child is in need of her care, so that she can no longer continue to work and support herself, there will be legal grounds for obliging the father to maintain her to a certain extent, including payment of the rental for her dwelling. Because it is in the interests of the child to be with the mother, she must dwell with him, and because the expenses necessary for taking care of the child devolve on the father, he has to bear them within the limits of the remuneration he would otherwise be called upon to pay any other woman for taking care of the child. This would include the cost of the child's dwelling (with the mother) – notwithstanding the fact that the mother is in a position to defray all the said expenses out of her own means (pdr 1:118f.; 2:3, 5f.). After being divorced, the mother may also claim from the child's father any of the said expenses she incurred before she filed her claim for them, since, unlike the case of a married woman, there is no room for considering that she has waived this claim (pdr 1:230, 234; 2:164f.; Resp. Maharsham, pt. 2, no. 236).

the standard of maintenance

Unlike maintenance for a wife (see *Husband and Wife), the standard of maintenance to which children are entitled is determined by their actual needs and not by the financial status of their father (Yad, Ishut 13:6; Sh. Ar., eh 73:6). For this purpose the needs of a child will not be limited to an essential minimum, but they may vary according to whether the child is from a rich or a poor family. Certainly, under the laws of ẓedakah, a wealthy father may be made liable to maintain his children as befits them and not merely as absolutely necessary, although in a case where a child has other sources of income, and thus is not in need of ẓedakah, he will not be entitled to maintenance (Sh. Ar. eh 82:7; pdr 2:3, 8; 4:3, 7). On the other hand, in determining the essential, minimum attention will be paid to what the father is capable of earning and not merely to his actual income.

additional obligations toward daughters

In addition to maintaining his daughter, the father has to see to her marriage to a worthy husband, and, if the need arises, to provide her with a dowry sufficient at least – if his means permit – to cover a year's raiment (Ḥelkat Meḥokek 58, n. 1). Although the father is not legally obliged to give a dowry in accordance with his means, it is a mitzvah for him and he should do so (Ket. 68a; Sh. Ar., eh 58:1 and 71:1, Rema, ad loc. n. 4). On the father's death, and in the absence of a testamentary disposition depriving his daughter of a dowry, his heirs are bound to give the daughter a dowry based on an assessment of what her father would have given her had he been alive; in the absence of data that might form the basis for such assessment, the heirs have to give her one-tenth of the estate for the purpose of her marriage (see *Succession; Ket. 68a; Sh. Ar., eh 113:2, 10).

children entitled to maintenance until a certain age

An opinion that a takkanah of the *Sanhedrin (i.e., the Takkanat Usha) laid down that the father must maintain his children as long as they are minors (sons until the age of 13 and daughters until 12) was not followed, and the halakhah was laid down to the effect that the father's legal obligation is only to maintain his children until they reach the age of six full years (Ket. 49b., 65b; Sh. Ar., eh 71:1); above this age the obligation flows merely from the laws of ẓedakah, and, insofar as they are applicable (see above), fulfillment of the obligation will be compulsory. Since it concerns a person's own children, the charitable duty is more stringent in this case than it is with ordinary ẓedakah, and therefore the father will be required to exert himself to the utmost in order to satisfy his children's needs (Ket. and Sh. Ar. loc. cit.; Yad, Ishut 12:14, 15:21:17, Maggid Mishneh; Sh. Ar., yd 251:4). In the course of time it became apparent that the legal position as described above did not adequately protect the interests of children above six years of age, as the father tried to evade his duty. Hence it was ordained in a takkanah of the Chief Rabbinate of Palestine (1944) that the father shall be bound to maintain his sons and daughters until they reach the age of 15 years, provided they have no independent means of support (see Freimann, bibl.).

maintenance out of the deceased's estate

The father's obligation to maintain his children is imposed on him as father and terminates upon his death without being transmitted to his heirs as a charge on the estate. Hence the minor heirs cannot demand from the others that they should be maintained out of the estate in addition to their normal share of the legacy; the estate will therefore be divided amongst all the heirs, each of them, regardless of age, being given his rightful share (bb 139a; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 286:1). The position is different, however, with regard to the maintenance of the daughters of the deceased. Jewish law excludes daughters from succession to their father's estate when he is survived by sons or their descendants (see *Succession), and instead, in such a case, entitles daughters to be maintained out of the estate until their majority or marriage – whichever comes first – to the same extent as they were entitled during their father's lifetime (i.e., in accordance with their needs; Ket. 52b, 53b; Sh. Ar., eh 112:16). This right of the daughter flows from the conditions of her mother's ketubbah as her independent right, and therefore she cannot be deprived of it without her own consent, neither by her father's testamentary disposition nor by her mother's waiver of the respective condition of the ketubbah in an agreement with the father, and it remains in force notwithstanding the divorce of her parents (Ket. loc. cit., Yad, Ishut 12:2; 19: 10; Rema, eh 112:1). If the assets of the estate are not sufficient to satisfy both the daughters' right of maintenance and the heirs' rights of succession (nekhasim mu'atim), the daughters' right takes preference (Ket. 108b; Sh. Ar., eh 112:11); even if the assets of the estate should suffice for both (nekhasim merubbim) but there is established reason to fear that the sons might squander them and thus endanger the daughters' maintenance, the court will have power to take any steps it may deem fit for the preservation of the daughters' right (Rema loc. cit.).

Custody of Children

The law deals here with the determination of a child's abode, taking into account the responsibility of the parents for his physical and spiritual welfare, his raising, and his education. The rule is that the child's own interest is always the paramount consideration and his custody is a matter of a parental duty rather than a right, it being a right of the child vis-à-vis his parents.

different rules for boys and girls

In pursuance of this rule, the halakhic scholars laid down that children below the age of six years must be in the custody of their mother, since at this tender age they are mainly in need of physical care and attention. Above the age of six, boys must be with their father, since at this age they are in need of education and religious instruction, a task imposed by law upon the father, and girls with their mother ("the daughter must always be with her mother"), since they are in need of her instruction in the ways of modesty (Ket. 102b, 103a; Yad, Ishut, 21:17; Sh. Ar., eh 82:7). As these rules are directed at serving the welfare of the child, the court may diverge from them if in a proper case it considers it necessary in the interests of the child, and even order that he be removed from both his parents and be kept in a place where, in the court's opinion, his interests are better served (Rema, eh 82:7; Pitḥei Teshuvah ad loc., n. 6, in the name of Radbaz). The custody of the child is a matter not of the rights of the parents but of the rights of the child in respect of his parents. The principle of the matter is that the rule establishing the right that the daughter be always with her mother establishes the daughter's right and not the mother's; similarly in the case of the son until the age of six, it is the son's right which is established and not the father's (Resp. Maharashdam, eh 123; see also Resp. Radbaz, no. 123). As Ereẓ Israel is looked upon as the best possible place for bringing up and educating a Jewish child, his removal abroad will generally not be approved, but the court may nevertheless permit this to the mother or father if it is satisfied that in the circumstances it is necessary in the better interests of the child (pdr 1:103–7, 173–8).

relation between custody and duty of maintenance

The rules concerning the custody of children have no influence on the parental obligation to maintain them. Hence the fact that the children are with their mother in accordance with these rules does not relieve the father from his obligation to maintain them – whether this is based on law or the rules of ẓedakah (Sh. Ar., eh 82:7). Moreover, the mother is not obliged to accept the children inasmuch as, on principle, the duty to take care of them is imposed on the father only; should she therefore refuse to take them, she may send them to him and he will not be entitled to reject them (Yad, Ishut 21:18; Sh. Ar., eh 82:8). However, if a boy above the age of six should be with his mother contrary to law, i.e., without the consent of the father or permission of the court, the father will be entitled to refuse to pay for the boy's maintenance for any period he is not with him (ibid).

access of the non-custodian parent

The custodian parent has no right to deprive the other of access to their child, nor the child of access to the other parent, since the child is entitled to derive education and care from both his parents and to maintain his natural tie with both of them, so as not to grow up as if orphaned of one of them. For the purpose of realization of this right of the child, it is incumbent on the parents to come to an understanding between themselves, failing which the court will decide the question of access on the basis of the child's interest rather than those of his parents. Since for each of the parents it is a matter of a duty (not of a right) toward their child, they will not be entitled to make performance of the one's obligation dependent upon performance of the other's. Thus the fact that the mother refuses to allow her son to visit his father, or the father to have access to him, in defiance of an agreement or order of the court to this effect, will not entitle the father to withhold the son's maintenance for as long as the mother persists in her attitude; nor will the mother be entitled to refuse the father access to the child because the father withholds the latter's maintenance (pdr 1:113, 118, 158, 176).

custody in case of death of either or both parents

In this case too the decisive question is the welfare of the child. On the death of either parent, it is presumed to be best served by leaving the child with the surviving parent, while in principle no special right of custody exists in favor of the parents of the deceased. Only when clearly indicated in the interests of the child, having the regard for all the circumstances including the care of teaching him Torah, will the court order otherwise (pdr 1:65–77). On the death of both parents, custody of the child will generally be given to the grandparents on the side of the parent who would have been entitled to custody had both been alive (Rema, eh 82:7 and Ḥelkat Meḥokek ad loc., n. 11; Resp. Radbaz no. 123).

agreements between parents concerning their children

An agreement between parents as to maintenance or custody of their child will not avail to affect his rights unless proved to be in his best interest, nor will it preclude him, since he is represented by one parent, from claiming their enforcement against the other. The child is not party to an agreement between the parents, and the rule is that "no obligation can be imposed on a person in his absence" (bm 12a; pdr 2:3). Hence the father, in a claim against him by the child for maintenance, will not escape liability on a plea that he is free of such a liability by virtue of an agreement made with the mother in which she took this liability upon herself (pdr 2:171–7; 5:171, 173). The effect, if any, of such agreement is merely that it may possibly give the father the right to recover from the mother any amount he may have to expend on the child's maintenance, but toward the child it is of no effect (pdr 5:171). Similarly, a divorce agreement in which the mother waives the right to custody of her children below the age of six, or the father to custody of his sons above this age, will not preclude the children from claiming through the other parent that the court should disregard the terms of the agreement and decide the matter in their own best interest only, in the light of all the circumstances. For this purpose, the question of whether the change of his abode may detrimentally affect the child's mental well-being will be a weighty consideration (pdr 1:177) and, in a proper case, if the court considers it just to do so, it will also pay due regard to the child's own wishes (Ḥelkat Meḥokek 82, n. 10 and Ba'er Heitev ad loc., n. 6). The court's approval of such an agreement will not preclude a fresh approach to the court, owing to the fact that the circumstances have later changed, nor an application for the reconsideration of the case with regard to the child's best interests in the light of such a change (Resp. Radbaz no. 123; pdr 4:332–6).

children of parents who are not both jewish

Unless both parents are Jewish, the father has no legal standing in relation to the children, neither as regards maintenance nor custody. If the father is Jewish and the mother not, the child will be considered a non-Jew while, halakhically speaking, the non-Jewish father will not be considered his father (see *Yuḥasin). Since the duty of maintenance, like all other paternal duties, is only imposed on the person halakhically recognized as the father – toward his halakhically recognized child – there is therefore no room for the imposition of any recognized legal obligation incumbent on the father of a child qua father, except if he and the mother are both Jewish. A different, and so far apparently unsupported, opinion was expressed by R. Ben Zion Ouziel (Mishpetei Uziel, eh no. 4).

in the state of israel

Matters of child maintenance by Jewish parents are governed by Jewish law (s. 3 of the Family Law Amendment (Maintenance) Law, 1959; see also no. 507/61 in pd 16 (1962), 925, 928; no. 426/65, pd 20, pt. 2 (1966), 21). Other matters, including custody – in the case of Jewish parents – are also governed by Jewish law, except as otherwise provided in the Capacity and Guardianship Law, 1962. For their greater part both the above-mentioned laws are based on principles of Jewish law (see Elon, bibl.), and they regulate the legal position of both parents as regards maintenance and custody of their children even where one parent is a non-Jew.

For the social and ethical relationship between parent and child, see *Family; *Parents, Honor of, on patrilineal descent, see *Reform Judaism.

[Ben-Zion (Benno) Schereschewsky]

further developments in israeli law

Custody and Education – Rights and Obligations of Parents

The Capacity and Guardianship Law, 5722 – 1962 (hereinafter – "the Capacity Law" or "the Law") establishes an Israeli civil arrangement which occasionally contradicts certain principles of Jewish law. While the legal principles of Section 25 of the law, dealing with child custody, do to a certain extent resemble the principles of Jewish law, the general principles underlying the arrangement are in fact different. In addition, Section 79 of the law states that a religious court, such as the rabbinical court, that has jurisdiction in matters pertaining to this law, should employ the principles of the Capacity Law. Section 15 of the Capacity Law provides, inter alia, that the biological parents, who are their child's natural guardians, have a right and duty to educate their child. The nature of this right and duty are analyzed by the Israel Supreme Court in the Nagar case (st 1/81 Nagar v. Nagar 38(1) pd 365, 392–398, per Justice Menachem Elon).

Child Maintenance

According to Section 3 of the Family Law Amendment (Maintenance) Law, 5719 – 1959, (hereinafter – "Maintenance Law"), a person responsible for child maintenance is obligated to do so in accordance with the provisions of personal law applying to that individual; thus, in the case of a Jew the principles of Jewish law would apply. The interpretation given by the civil courts to the father's and mother's obligation to provide for their children under Section 3 of the Maintenance Law, in accordance with "the personal law applicable to them," created greater equality between the respective obligations of the father and the mother to provide for their children. While traditional Jewish law, until less than 300 years ago, placed no obligation on the mother to provide financial support for her children, the interpretation of Israel's Supreme Court, which is Israeli, judge-made law, wrought a change in this situation. A number of obligations included in the overall requirement to provide for the maintenance of Jewish children are governed by the laws of charity (ẓedakah), both in terms of their source and in terms of the criterion for obligating a parent or parents to pay them. With respect to these obligations, Justice Kister ruled that the father and mother are equally obligated to bear the cost (ca 166/66 Goldman v. Goldman, 20 (2) pd 533). In those instances, the mother and the father are obligated to bear the cost of their children's maintenance in light of their respective financial situations. Even if the father is wealthy, his obligation to pay for his children's maintenance does not exempt the mother from her obligation to share equally in the burden of payments for their children's maintenance, if she is wealthy. This interpretation of the principles of Jewish law reflects a modern innovation. Initially, the mother's obligation was broadened, but in a limited manner. Rabbi Meir Posner extended the mother's responsibility to bear the cost of maintenance for her children (see Beit Meir, eh 82.5). However, he held that the mother's responsibility to bear the cost of child maintenance if she is wealthy does not apply if the father or his relatives can bear the expense of such maintenance alone. In his opinion, the father and his relatives have a prior responsibility to bear the maintenance costs themselves. Only when the father and his relatives are unable to bear the full cost, or even part of maintenance, does the wealthy mother bear the responsibility in full or in part. Some years after Justice Kister delivered his innovative ruling that, in the aforementioned circumstances, the mother and father share an equal obligation to bear the cost of maintenance, Rabbi Yisraeli ruled in a similar vein in a decision in the Rabbinic Court of Appeals. In his view, child maintenance costs assessed according to the laws of ẓedakah are the responsibility of the father and the mother, to be shared equally (File 5733/39, pdr 9 251, p. 263). Another leading judgment in this context was delivered by Israel Supreme Court Justice Elisha Sheinbaum (ca 591/81 Portugez v Portugez, 36 (3) pd) 449). Relying inter alia on the novel formulations of Jewish law articulated by Justice Kister and Rav Yisraeli, Justice Sheinbaum ruled that the father and mother share an equal obligation for child maintenance payments determined in accordance with the laws of ẓedakah. With regard to the mother's obligation, he made no distinction between a case in which the father is poor and one in which the father is wealthy. In his opinion, both parents' obligations are established in light of their respective economic ability, and in accordance with the minor's needs. From that time on, that principle became the guiding principle in Supreme Court decisions regarding the obligations of Jewish parents for child maintenance costs based on the laws of ẓedakah. (See, e.g., ca 74/80 Notkovich v. Notkovich, 37(4) pd 197.)

In one area – child maintenance for small children until the age of six – the obligation to pay a certain basic component of maintenance, called "essential needs," is imposed upon the father alone. In this area, Israeli civil courts have ruled in a manner that shows a trend toward reducing the scope of those "essential needs" to the lowest possible minimum, so as to assure greater equality between father and mother in their obligation to bear the costs of child maintenance. At an earlier stage Justice Sheinbaum defined "essential needs" as the basic needs necessary for the child's actual sustenance (see Portugez, ibid). Years later, Family Court Judge Yehoshua Gaiffman ruled that the definition of "essential needs" should be restricted so as to engender greater equality between father and mother with respect to child maintenance obligations. According to this approach, the "essential needs" are not the child's various vital needs. Rather, they consist of those basic needs, the satisfaction of which is necessary for his very existence. (ff (Tel Aviv) 31980/96 Anon. v. Anon.; ff (Tel Aviv) 82010/96 Sa'ar v. Hefer). Nevertheless, the sources of Jewish law do not provide any such definition of "essential needs." In full awareness and intentionally, Israeli civil rulings offer their own interpretation of child maintenance rules in Jewish law. Judge Gaiffman stated, "Jewish law's rules of fairness are a normative framework that must be filled with content, and not a framework incapable of change" (Sa'ar case, ibid). As a result of the limitation of the scope of "essential needs" which are imposed exclusively on the father, the remaining needs, excluded from the category of "essential needs," are governed by the principles of charity, thus creating an equal obligation for both parents.

Israeli legislation also intervened to engender greater equality between Jewish fathers and mothers in the area of child maintenance in Israeli civil courts. In 1981, Section 3a was added to the Family Law Amendment (Maintenance) Law, 5719 – 1959. This section stated that: "(a) The father and mother of a minor are liable for his maintenance. (b) Irrespective of who has charge of the minor, his maintenance is due from his parents in proportion to their respective incomes from any source." The application of this section was supposed to be independent of the rules of the personal law of the parent obliged to pay child maintenance. Where the parent is Jewish, even in cases where the principles of Jewish law stipulate an unequal division of the obligation to pay child maintenance, Section 3a of the law mandates a deviation from these principles so as to create greater equality between the father and mother in the obligation to provide child maintenance. Opinions of both scholars and Supreme Court justices were divided regarding the application of Section 3a to Jews who have their own personal law. There are those who argue that Section 3a does not apply to Jews and other segments of the population who are subject to a specific personal status law, while others disagree. (See the reference to this question in the Portugez ruling, ibid).

The Best Interest of the Child

The influence of the views of professional experts in behavioral sciences regarding the concept of "the best interest of the child" is now felt in Israeli rabbinical courts. When parents divorce and fail to reach agreement on child custody, Israeli rabbinical courts were directed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to decide custody by requesting expert opinions from psychologists or social workers. These opinions evaluate the best interest of the child in the specific circumstances of the case, making specific and practical recommendations concerning custody that give expression to that interest. (st 1/60 Winter v. Be'eri, 15 pd 1457. This decision, delivered by Dayyan E. Goldsmith, was also printed in Resp. Ezer Mishpat (1994), 28, p. 339). These experts' recommendations are based on prevalent contemporary conceptions, which are the product of analysis of research findings in the behavioral sciences. In addition, the decisions of rabbinical courts reflect the importance ascribed by the rabbinic courts to the stance of the experts in their recommendations to the court (pdr 11, 153). As mentioned, the dayyanim operate in accordance with the guidelines issued by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, which instructed them to request an opinion from social welfare officials where divorcing parents have not reached an agreement regarding the custody of the children (see Winter case, above). Dayyan Goldschmidt explained that the halakhic basis for the Chief Rabbinate's directive is the obligation incumbent upon dayyanim who decide custody cases to determine what is in the best interest of the child in question – an obligation that stems from the court's role as "the father of orphans" (bk 37a; Winter case, ibid).

The social worker's evaluation and recommendation is important because of the great weight assigned by Israel's rabbinic courts to the principle of the best interest of the child when deciding issues of custody. According to Dayyan Gold-schmidt, this is the overriding and exclusive principle (the Winter case, ibid; File 5714/226, pdr i, 145, 157; Appeal 5719/170, pdr 3, 353, 358; Appeal 5740/182, pdr 11, 366, 368–369). A similar view is found in the rulings of other dayyanim who ruled that the principle of the best interest of the child is the decisive consideration in matters of child custody. Among these are Rabbi E.Y. Waldenberg (Resp. Ẓiẓ Eliezer 17 §50) and dayyanim of the Rabbinic Court of Appeals in a panel that included Chief Rabbis Herzog and Ouziel, and Dayyan Shabbetai (Collection of Rulings of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Israel, Rabbinical Court of Appeals, vol. 2 (5745 – 1985).

This stance also finds expression in a ruling of Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon in the Nir case (lca 458/79 Nir v. Nir, 35(1) pd 518, 523–524), where he wrote as follows:

It seems to me that not only is there no substantive difference between the approaches of these two legal systems [i.e., the rabbinical courts and the civil courts], but in fact, I tend to believe that, even from the perspective of the burden of proof, there is no significant difference between them. In both systems, the principal and general rule is that in each and every case the court is obliged, at its own initiative, to examine the best interest of the child, and it may not rely upon any of the various assumptions, and rule on that basis alone without further examination.

Corporal Punishment

When a parent or teacher resorts to corporal punishment, and claims to have employed that method for educational purposes, a defense plea frequently raised in Israel in the past was that a parent or teacher does not bear either criminal responsibility or responsibility in torts for such an action, since parents and educators are authorized to punish children for the sake of their education and/or for imposing discipline and authority on them, including the imposition of corporal punishment, when such punishment is "reasonable" (Cr. a 7/53 Rassi v. Attorney General of the State of Israel, 7 pd, 790, 793–794).

The Supreme Court ruling in the Anon. case (ca 4596/98 Anon. v. State of Israel, 54(1) pd 145, per Justice Dorit Beinish) reflects a new trend toward the protection of the child from injury at the hands of parents or educators who administer corporal punishment. This ruling displays the influence of studies by experts in the behavioral sciences indicating the unfortunate results of all forms of corporal punishment, even in its "mild" form. Those studies indicate that children who were subjected to "mild" corporal punishment subsequently suffered from psychological problems, whether in childhood or in their adult years. The use of any form of corporal punishment causes damage. Justice Beinish intentionally chose the path of judicial activism. The policy she laid down proscribed all use of corporal punishment for educational purposes. According to her ruling, even "mild" corporal punishment is generally forbidden, and only in exceptional and unusual circumstances is it permitted.

The Supreme Court's ruling in this matter provoked public controversy over the extent to which, if at all, Justice Beinish's stance is at variance with the position of Jewish law on the question of corporal punishment for educational purposes. In this context, it was argued that the Supreme Court's position contradicts the general approach of Jewish law, as expressed in the verse, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early" (Prov. 13:24). In fact, legislation was proposed, attempting to cancel the effect of the aforementioned ruling: ("He Who Spares the Rod Hates His Son" (Permission for Educational Punishment) Draft Bill 5760 – 2000, Knesset Proceedings 37 (5760), 10071–10072). However, there were also other views on this matter. Before Justice Beinish's ruling, when addressing the question of the punishment of an older child, Rabbi Jehiel Jakob Weinberg wrote that, under the circumstances, corporal punishment for educational purposes should be opposed, having consideration inter alia for the stance of "the modern pedagogues" (Resp. Seridei Esh, vol 3. no. 95). Furthermore, Rabbi Yitzhak Levi based his own negative view of the use of corporal punishment upon a number of considerations, among them the contemporary, negative view of corporal punishment for educational purposes taken by professional experts – an attitude that also finds expression in Israeli civil law. In view of all the relevant considerations, including his analysis of Jewish law sources, he concluded that such punishment produces results diametrically opposed to the intent of those administering it; it leads to rebellion and hatred, and is liable to cause damage to children. Thus, in his opinion, "we should totally avoid any kind of hitting" (see bibliography, Levi, p. 158). The same view also finds expression in the writings of scholars of Jewish law. Some of them stress that Jewish law's treatment of corporal punishment for educational purposes has established a ramified complex of limitations and restrictions that restrain it and even make it difficult to implement (see bibliography, Shmueli, 374). Similarly, there were those who argued that Justice Beinish's position is not far from the basic position of contemporary Jewish law regarding corporal punishment. Their claim is that the qualified permission granted for corporal punishment constituted isolated exceptions in Jewish law, which was in fact moving toward a clear preference for education by more peaceful and pleasant methods, while stressing the inherent dangers of corporal punishment. In their view, this trend has gained increasing acceptance, especially during the last few decades. Furthermore, it may be assumed that this tendency will become increasingly predominant, in view of the trend towards attributing cardinal importance to the best interest of the child in responsa literature and recent decisions of rabbinic judges. Another factor promoting and reinforcing this process is that many of the dayyanim and posekim interpret the best interest of the child in light of the opinions of social workers and psychologists who are influenced by the findings of research in the behavioral sciences. This research includes studies that demonstrate the psychological damage caused by corporal punishment for educational purposes (see bibliography, Kaplan, Ha-Megamah).

[Yehiel Kaplan (2nd ed.)]


Gulak, Yesodei, 3 (1922), 66–70; A. Aptowitzer, in: Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri, 2 (1926/27), 9–23; A.H. Freimann, in: Sinai, 14 (1943/44), 254–62; et, 1 (19513), 5–7, 228; 2 (1949), 22f., 378; 4 (1952), 744f.; 6 (1954), 329–32; M. Elon, in: ilr, 3 (1968), 430–2; 4 (1969), 119–26; Elon, Mafte'aḥ, 8–11; B. Schereschewsky, Dinei Mishpaḥah (19672), 359–94. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988) i:273, 275, 306f, 364, 687f.; ii. 994, 1069; idem, Jewish Law (1994), I:321, 323, 365f, 440; 2:846f.; 3:1202, 1289; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest), 1 (1986), 88; B. Lifshitz and E. Shochetman, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefat ve-Italyah (legal digest) (1997), 59–61; H. Ḥavshush, "Mezonot Yeladim: Ḥiyyuvei Horim," in: Din 'Ivri (2005); Y.Z. Gilat, Dinei Mishpaḥa: Yaḥasei Horim vi-Yladim (2000); Y.S. Kaplan, "The Interpretation of the Concept 'The Best Interest of the Child,'" in: G. Douglas and L. Sebba (eds.), Children's Rights and Traditional Values, (1998), 47–85; idem, "Ha-Megamah ha-Ḥadashah be-Inyan Anishah Gufanit shel Yeladim le-Ẓorkhei Ḥinukh," in: Kiryat ha-Mishpat, 3 (2003), 447; Y. Levi, "Haka'at Yeladim (Teguvah)," in: Tehumin, 17 (1997), 157; B. Shmueli, "Anishah Gufanit shel Yeladim be-Veit Horeihem al pi ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri – Gishot Mesoratiyyot u-Zeramim Moderniyyim," in: Pelilim, 10 (2001/2), 365.

Parent and Child

views updated May 21 2018


The legal relationship between a father or mother and his or her offspring.

The relationship between parent and child is of fundamental importance to U.S. society, because it preserves the safety and provides for the nurture of dependent individuals. For this reason, the parent-child relationship is given special legal consideration. Increasingly, local, state, and federal governments have become more involved in the relationship, especially when a child is abused or neglected. In addition, parental roles have shifted over time, and the law has moved with these changes. Legal rights that were once the sole province of the father are now shared with the mother, and, in general, the law seeks to treat parents equally.

The term child is used in the limited sense to indicate an individual below the age of majority. The more precise word for such an individual is minor, juvenile, or infant. The age of majority, which transforms a child legally into an adult, has traditionally been the age of 21 years. Many states, however, have reduced the age of majority to 18 years.

Parent-Child Relationship

In its most restricted use, the term parent refers only to a mother or father who is related to the child by blood. This definition holds whether the child is legitimate (the natural parents are married to each other) or illegitimate (the parents are not married to each other). As of 2003, as a result of statutes, adoptive parents have the same rights and responsibilities as natural parents. Other persons standing in the place of natural parents, such as stepparents, are not, however, given such extensive rights and responsibilities. Although in some instances foster parents and foster care agencies have the legal responsibility to nurture a minor, they are not entitled to the full status of parent.

A child is the issue or offspring of his parents. A posthumous child is one conceived prior to, and born after, the death of his father. Such a child has the same inheritance rights as a child born while his father is alive. A child is not entitled to full legal rights unless the child is born alive. The law does not ordinarily consider a fetus to be a child.

Children's Rights v. Parents' Rights: You Don't Own Me … Do You?

In 1874, a badly beaten girl known only as Mary Ellen became the first legally recognized victim of child abuse in the United States. Before 1874, society offered little protection for minors. Children were considered the property of their parents, and neither the government nor private individuals intervened when they were injured, overworked, or neglected. Mary Ellen was rescued from unfit parents only after the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) stepped in on her behalf. ASPCA advocates pointed out that if Mary Ellen were a horse or a dog, her mistreatment would be prohibited by statute. A judge agreed that the young girl deserved at least the same protection as an animal.

The status of U.S. children has improved dramatically since Mary Ellen's ordeal. At the turn of the twentieth century, a nationwide child protection movement helped eliminate the long hours, poor wages, and punishing conditions faced by child workers. child labor laws paved the way for later reforms regarding compulsory education, foster care, protective services, health care, and criminal justice for juveniles.

Just how far these reforms should go is the subject of debate. A mild uproar over children's rights arose during the 1992 U.S. presidential race between incumbent george h. w. bush (R) and challenger bill clinton (D). Scholarly articles written in the early 1970s by Clinton's wife, hillary rodham clinton, were at the heart of the controversy. A former lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund, Clinton questioned the traditional legal presumption of incompetency for children. She believed that children were capable of making many of their own decisions; thus she proposed the elimination of minority status for children and suggested a new presumption of legal competence. Clinton also favored granting children the same substantive and procedural rights enjoyed by adults. Further, because children's interests are not always the same as their parents', Clinton felt that minors should be allowed to hire their own lawyers.

During the presidential campaign, Clinton's views were attacked by political opponents who claimed she encouraged children to sue their parents. Her critics predicted that Clinton's ideas would lead children to "divorce" their parents over trivial matters such as curfews, homework, allowances, and household chores.

However, Clinton's views were actually much less extreme than those of so-called child liberationists who believe that children should be allowed to vote, choose their residence, refuse to attend school, enter into contracts, and take part in activities currently reserved for adults. More radical child advocates maintain that children are just as rational as adults and that the nation's commitment to justice requires equal treatment of all people, regardless of age.

Critics of children's rights believe conferring too many rights on children would erode parental authority and the traditional family. Many conservatives believe that children lack the wisdom to make important decisions and require the guidance of responsible adults. They approve of a paternalistic approach to children's welfare rather than one that empowers young people. Critics also resent the legal system's intrusion into parents' domain, arguing that parents are entitled to the final word in their children's upbringing. Conservatives fear that if children have ready access to attorneys, a rash of frivolous or retaliatory lawsuits will erupt, destroying many fragile families in need of help. So strong is this fear that the United States is one of only two countries (Somalia is the other) that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among other concerns some critics have raised against children's rights are that children could be allowed legally to join gangs or have abortions. Some critics have gone so far as to claim that ratification of the United Nations treaty would take control of children away from parents and hand it to the United Nations (even though the U.S. Constitution does not allow any treaty to override its precepts). Some groups, such as the Children's Rights Council (CRC), believe that children have the "right" to be raised in a two-parent household. One CRC goal is to keep marriages together, but, in the case of divorce, it seeks to encourage parents to share custody equitably.

Three well-publicized cases illustrate the philosophical divide over children's and parents' rights.

Kingsley v. Kingsley In 1992, an eleven-year-old Florida boy went to court to terminate the rights of his biological parents. Gregory Kingsley retained attorney Jerri Blair to represent him in a proceeding to sever all ties with his natural parents, Rachel and Ralph Kingsley. Kingsley also petitioned for his own adoption by his foster parents, Lizabeth and George Russ. Rachel Kingsley opposed her son's actions; her estranged husband did not.

Kingsley persuaded circuit court judge Thomas Kirk that he had been abandoned by his mother. Most of Kingsley's chaotic, impoverished life had been spent in and out of foster care. His unstable early environment was contrasted with the loving and more affluent home now offered by the Russ family. Kirk determined that Kingsley, a minor, had the capacity to bring the action and ordered both the termination of parental rights and the adoption.

Rachel's attorney, Jane Carey, complained that a child's wish had been declared more important than the preservation of the family. Carey worried that the termination of Rachel's rights sent a message to poor parents that they could never measure up to wealthier families. It also drove a symbolic wedge between U.S. children and their parents. To Gregory's supporters, however, the ruling was an important victory on behalf of neglected, mistreated children.

On appeal, Florida's Fifth District Court of Appeals determined that, as a minor, Kingsley could not initiate a proceeding to terminate his parents' rights (Kingsley v. Kingsley, 623 So. 2d 780 [1993]). Only a guardian ad litem, or friend of the court, could do so. Nonetheless, the appeals court upheld the termination of Rachel's parental rights because clear and convincing evidence demonstrated her abandonment of Kingsley and because Kingsley's foster parents had properly initiated the proceeding by filing separate termination petitions. The court also found that there was no legitimate reason to order Kingsley's adoption at the same time as Rachel's termination of rights. In fact, the simultaneous adoption order was in error because the termination order was subject to appeal.

Although Kingsley's initial triumph was diluted by the appeals court ruling, it challenged traditional notions of parental "ownership" of children.

Mays-Twigg Case Kimberly Mays of Florida was nine years old when she received shocking news: she had been switched at birth with another baby and raised by parents to whom she was not related. Mays was born in a rural Florida hospital in 1978. She was taken home by Robert Mays and his wife, Barbara Mays, who later died of cancer. The only other Caucasian infant in the hospital at the time was a girl who was taken home and raised by Ernest and Regina Twigg. The switch was discovered after a blood test determined that the Twiggs' daughter, whom they had named Arlena, was not genetically related to them. A review of hospital records and further blood tests established that Mays was actually the Twiggs' biological daughter. After Arlena died of a heart defect in 1988, the Twiggs sought custody of Mays, and, failing that, attempted to win visitation rights. Mays requested an end to any contact with the Twiggs, saying visits with them were upsetting.

In August 1993, state circuit judge Stephen Dakan ruled that Mays was not required to meet with her biological parents because forced visitation was detrimental to her. Dakan reasoned that if a 15-year-old minor had the right to an abortion, Mays surely had the right to refuse contact with people who essentially were strangers.

Although Mays was allowed to sever ties with the Twiggs, she later chose to renew them. In a strange twist of events, Mays moved in with the Twiggs in March 1994 because of personal conflicts with Robert Mays. She soon moved out of the Twiggs' home; by age 17, she was married and, by 19, she was a mother. Later, during a brief estrangement from her husband, she almost lost custody of her son.

Although the Mays-Twigg case suggests a weakening in the rights of biological parents, the DeBoer case indicates the opposite.

DeBoer Case Jessica DeBoer was raised from birth by Jan and Roberta DeBoer, a Michigan couple trying to adopt her. Cara Clausen, DeBoer's unmarried biological mother, terminated her parental rights shortly after DeBoer was born. Dan Schmidt, DeBoer's biological father, did not sign away his parental rights because, initially, Clausen named another man as the child's father. Clausen and Schmidt eventually married and decided to reclaim DeBoer. After much legal maneuvering, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered DeBoer, who was now age two, returned to her biological parents in Iowa, saying they had the greater legal claim to her (DeBoers v. DeBoers, 442 Mich. 648, 502 N.W.2d 649 [1993]).

Despite expert testimony that it was not in DeBoer's best interests to be separated from the only home and parents she knew, the court ordered the girl turned over to the Schmidts. The DeBoers reluctantly complied with the order after exhausting every avenue of appeal.

Child rights advocates point to this case as an example of how children are still considered the property of their natural parents. At the same time, support groups for birth parents applaud the decision. They believe that Jessica DeBoer—who was renamed Anna Schmidt—belongs with Cara and Dan Schmidt because Dan never relinquished his parental rights and because blood ties have a special social and legal significance.

further readings

Alaimo, Kathleen, et al. 2002. Children as Equals: Exploring the Rights of the Child. New York: Univ. Press of America.

Archard, David. 2003. Children, Family, and the State. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.


Child Abuse; Child Care; Child Custody.

Various rights and responsibilities that reflect the social goals of nurturing and protecting dependent individuals are attached to the status of parent and child. The public policy in favor of promoting the protection and care of minors gives rise to the legal presumption that the parent-child relationship exists when it is acknowledged by a parent or when a parent resides with and raises the child. The relationship continues in the absence of unusual circumstances that mandate intervention by the state. Proper legal procedures must be followed when the state intervenes. Parents or children cannot alter or destroy the relationship either by themselves or merely by agreement.

Ordinarily a parent has the right to the custody and supervision of her child. In addition, a parent has the duty to care for and nurture her offspring. The child has the right to receive this care and nurture and the obligation to yield to reasonable parental guidance and supervision. The state has a duty to preserve family stability by ensuring proper care of children. The right of the family to privacy limits state regulation of the parent-child relationship to some extent, but modern laws dealing with child abuse and neglect give the state greater powers to intervene.

A parent's duties extend beyond providing daily necessities and financial support. A court may reasonably expect that a parent will provide for the child's education, medical care, and social and religious training, as well as exhibit love and affection for the child. A parent must also discipline the child when necessary.

Constitutional Considerations

Statutes governing the parent-child relation-ship are primarily state laws. These laws must conform to the requirements of the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the particular state. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that many provisions of the Constitution protect the parent-child relationship, as well as the rights of both parent and child.

The issue of the right to conceive or the right to give birth to a child is governed by Supreme Court decisions involving the right to privacy. With griswold v. state of connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the Court held that married people have the right to be educated about birth control methods and to have access to contraceptive devices. The right was extended to unmarried people in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972). In roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), the Court ruled that a woman has a right to have an abortion. Because an established legal principle states that a fetus is not a child, the state cannot interfere arbitrarily with the woman's decision to have an abortion by favoring the welfare of the fetus over her welfare.

Authority of Parents

Parents are entitled to the custody of their children. They are free to make all decisions relating to the welfare of their child as they see fit, short of violating laws that protect children from abuse and neglect. Courts will not interfere with reasonable directives set forth by parents to discipline their children.

Modern statutes and courts have reconsidered the father's traditional primary role and now give equal powers, rights, and duties to both parents. In the case of divorce or separation, all rights of decision and control over the child go to the parent awarded custody, except when joint custody is awarded. In the case of the death of one parent, the other parent assumes custody.

The parent has the obligation to furnish a home for the child. A parent has the right to use corporal punishment, but it must not be so excessive as to constitute child abuse.

A parent's power over his child includes the authority and obligation to oversee medical treatment. A parent will most likely be held guilty of criminal neglect if he disregards the health requirements of his child. In cases where essential medical treatment is not procured for a child, juvenile authorities will start proceedings to provide care for the child and disciplinary action for the parent.

A controversial issue arises when a child is ill and the parents refuse health treatment for religious reasons. In an emergency that would jeopardize the child's life, a court may override the parental consent requirement and authorize treatment. A much greater obstacle exists when the parents, on religious grounds, refuse to provide their child with medical care that is important but not life threatening.

Parents are allowed broad discretion in making decisions regarding their child's education. This freedom, however, is not absolute and is tempered by compulsory state school attendance laws and the right of the state to require that the child be educated. However, most states now allow home schooling, with education provided by a parent.

A parent who fails to carry out obligations or abuses parental rights is guilty of a crime. A parent who fails to make certain that her child regularly goes to school can be held criminally liable for violating compulsory attendance laws. A number of states have criminal nonsupport and abandonment statutes that make it unlawful for a parent to neglect to provide for her child. Where essential support has been provided by an outside source, such as an agency or an individual, this source can initiate a lawsuit to recoup the expenses of services and supplies. A person who has custody or guardianship of a child can initiate a lawsuit to request that the noncustodial parent pay a suitable amount of money on a regular basis to support the child.


Parents usually have a legal right to custody of their own offspring. The Supreme Court has established that the right to child custody by a parent is constitutionally protected. The general presumption of the courts is that a child's welfare is protected best when the natural ties of mother and father are preserved. In the absence of clear evidence that a child is in danger, the state must not interfere with the judgment of the parents.

When the two parents do not live together, the question arises as to where the child will reside. In some cases, one parent will agree to relinquish custody to the other parent without giving up any other parental privileges. Although the custodial parent supervises the child's daily care, the noncustodial parent ordinarily has the right to be told about significant occurrences in the child's life. In addition, the noncustodial parent is usually entitled to visit the child at regular intervals. The noncustodial parent may seek a change in custody arrangements if circumstances so mandate.

If separated or divorced parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, the court will intervene. The court considers the circumstances of each case in light of a parent's ability to support and care for the child. In all custodial decisions, the best interests of the child are of paramount importance.

A battle for custody of a child does not always involve the parents. Custody is frequently sought by other relatives, including grandparents, uncles, aunts, or others, such as stepparents or foster parents.

In the event that a child is illegitimate, the unwed mother has a primary custody right that traditionally could not be defeated by the father. However, the Supreme Court has recognized the unwed father's interest in his child and the potential ability to obtain custody or visitation rights (Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 103 S. Ct. 2985, 77 L. Ed. 614 [1983]).

In many families, grandparents play an important role in the upbringing of children. When the parents of a child separate and divorce, many of these grandparents continue to play an active role in the children's lives. Every state has enacted legislation that allows a court to grant visitation rights to grandparents if the grandparents meet certain criteria. Such criteria often require that the visitation is in the best interests of the child, that one of the parents is deceased, and that the grandparent has cared for the child for a significant period of time prior to filing the petition.

In Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 147 L. Ed. 2d 49 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a grandparent visitation statute in the state of Washington, which allowed a court to grant visitation rights to any person at any time if it was in the best interests of the child, was unconstitutional. Noting that this broad statute placed a substantial burden on the traditional parent-child relationship, Justice sandra day o'connor held that the statute denied parents substantive due process. However, the Court did not hold that all grandparent visitation statutes are unconstitutional, leaving this determination to the state courts. State legislatures have since struggled to draft grandparent visitation and custody statutes that remain constitutional under this decision.


Generally a parent is responsible for support of a minor child. This responsibility encompasses the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as education and medical care. A parent who is unable to provide such support is excused. However, that parent must demonstrate an earnest effort to become employed so that he can fulfill his financial responsibility.

At common law, the child's father had the primary duty to support the child. The law now recognizes that both parents have an equal responsibility for the support of a child.

Parents are not entitled to use money that belongs to the child (for example, an inheritance) for the child's support. Although a parent is allowed to petition the court to release a certain amount of money for the child's expenses, courts are generally unwilling to honor such requests unless warranted by the circumstances. It is, for example, proper to release funds to support a child whose only other means of support would be through public welfare.

State and federal governments have become more active in requiring parents to support their children. If parents live apart, whether by reason of divorce or separation, or if they have remained unmarried, various remedies are available to enforce court-issued child support orders. State statutes generally provide criminal misdemeanor penalties for a default on support obligations, but courts typically use the contempt power as an enforcement vehicle. Civil contempt is imposed to encourage payment by jailing for an indeterminate time a parent who is able to pay. The parent is free to leave jail as soon as the parent makes the payment. Criminal contempt is imposed as punishment for default, the sentence being for a specific period.

States have also set up child support collection systems that use stronger enforcement methods to ensure compliance. If a parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, his tax refunds and wages can be garnished, and his driver's license can be revoked.

The federal government has sought to ensure that child support is paid. The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (18 U.S.C.A. § 338) makes willful failure to support a child in another state a federal crime. Prosecution is available for unpaid support exceeding $5,000 or for obligations unpaid longer than one year. Penalties range from imprisonment to fines. First offenses are misdemeanors; repeat offenses are felonies. In addition, federal courts may make the payment of child support a condition of probation.

State governments have also sought to ensure that parents who are recipients of child support payments receive these payments. The Texas attorney general, for example, oversees a child support division, which is responsible for ensuring that child support payments are received and distributed properly. The division determines what is required on a case-by-case basis, but generally noncustodial parents must submit child support payments directly to the division, which then distributes this money to the custodial parent. If the noncustodial parent fails to make the child support payments, the division may locate the parent and take a number of remedial actions, including suspension of state licenses. Other states employ similar systems.

The general rule is that no one is obligated to support a child to whom the person is not related. A number of states, however, currently require a stepfather to support his wife's children if he lives with them. A child whose natural father does not contribute to her support might be allowed to receive welfare benefits unless she is adopted by the stepfather.

A parent's support obligation does not end merely because the parent is not living with the child. Upon divorce or legal separation, child support agreements arrange for the child's continued support. An identified father must aid in the support of his illegitimate child, even if they have never lived together.

The duty of a parent to support a minor child sometimes continues even when the child becomes a parent, such as the case of a 16-year-old girl who has an illegitimate child but continues to live with her parents. The unwed father, however, would have primary responsibility for support of his child provided he acknowledged the child as his or the court orders him to provide support following an action to establish his paternity.

The common-law rule is that a parent has no obligation to support an adult child. Similarly, an adult child has no duty to support parents or grandparents. Some states, however, have altered this rule by enacting statutes that impose financial responsibilities upon people for their poverty-stricken relatives. Certain laws require parents to provide support for a child who is incapable of earning a living because of a mental or physical disability regardless of whether the child has reached the age of majority. Similarly, other statutes require children to support parents who would otherwise be dependent on public welfare.

Child's Earnings and Services

At common law, a father had the right to the earnings of a child. State statutes have modified this principle to give either a primary right to a child's earnings to the custodial parent or an equal right to both parents. The right to a child's wages stems from the parental duty of support and, therefore, can be destroyed if a parent neglects or deserts the child. States, however, also have enacted laws that place a child's earnings in trust until the child reaches the age of majority. These laws were originally passed in the 1930s to protect child actors and entertainers who earned large sums of money. Before these laws were passed, some of the parents of these children had squandered their children's incomes.

The issue of the services of a child, which range from performing simple household tasks to working in the family business, ordinarily arises when a child has been injured. A parent may sue the individual who caused the child harm and claim damages for both medical costs and loss of the child's services.

Wrongful Death and Wrongful Life Actions

A child is entitled to start a wrongful death action against anyone who causes the death of his parent. Parents may also sue for the wrongful death of children, although at times their economic value to the family is arguable. Parents may recover, however, for the loss of companionship or for their mental pain and suffering upon the loss of the child.

Some state laws prevent parents from recovering for the death of an adult child who is either financially independent or married. Ordinarily the parent who brings suit for wrongful death must be a legal parent, whether natural or adoptive. A parent who has neglected or failed to support a child generally cannot sue for wrongful death.

wrongful life cases arise when parents object to the birth of an unwanted or unplanned child. Cases have involved faulty sterilization, failure to diagnose a pregnancy, or, in the case of a pharmacist, dispensing the wrong birth control pills. In a majority of states, the courts refuse to entertain such suits, partly on grounds of public policy and partly on the theory that the benefit of having and keeping the child outweighs any damage. Other courts have allowed recovery, some holding that the probable enjoyment the child will bring must be offset by the cost of having and raising the child. Compensation for the cost of pregnancy and the pain and suffering of pregnancy and childbirth has been upheld.


Emancipation is a legal occurrence by which a child acquires the freedom attached to adulthood earlier than at the statutory age. There are no set procedures by which emancipation may be accomplished. Generally, enlistment in the armed forces, marriage, or becoming self-supporting will effect emancipation. Typically, the inquiry takes place after the fact, and if the child is found to be independent of the parents, emancipation has probably occurred, and the court will be more likely to recognize this emancipation.

An agreement may be made between the parents and the child whereby the child leaves the parents' home and establishes an independent life. Once this happens, the parents relinquish the right to custody and supervision of the child. Another important meaning of emancipation is that it ends the parental obligation of support.

Another important legal consideration relates to the effect of commercial dealings of persons who, but for emancipation, would have been minors. Once a nearly absolute defense, modern law has significantly restricted the effect of minority as a legal defense to contractual obligations to third parties. Thus, an emancipated 16-year-old girl who signs a contract to buy a car cannot avoid the terms of the contract by later pleading that she was underage and could not legally bind herself.

The issue of emancipation has declined in importance because most states have made 18 years the age of majority. The most serious questions concerning emancipation involved the age spread from 18 to 21 years.

Responsibility of Parents for Injuries

At common law, parents were not responsible for torts their children committed against third parties. When they had neglected their duty of supervision, parents could be held liable for their own negligence. This largely remains true, although many state statutes now hold parents vicariously liable for torts committed by their children, for a limited amount.

Another exception to parental immunity from liability for their child's torts is the "family purpose doctrine," which allows third parties to recover from parents when they were injured by children driving the family car. This doctrine is based on the idea that the child is acting as the parent's agent or authorized representative.

To promote family unity, a number of states have refused to permit lawsuits between parents and children for harm caused by negligence. Some states have rejected this doctrine, however, particularly in the event of automobile accidents. In such cases, it was perceived as unjust to allow strangers to obtain insurance benefits when family members were precluded from doing so. A majority of states, however, still regard a parent as immune from legal actions for exercising parental authority and also for injuries stemming from negligent supervision.

In Loco Parentis

Persons may act in loco parentis, "in place of the natural parents," in relation to the child in certain situations. Ordinarily, no one is responsible for a child's control or support unless that person is the parent, whether natural or adoptive, or has otherwise agreed to take care of the child. The question of whether a person acting in place of the parent has these responsibilities is contingent upon whether the person intended to undertake them. A college, for example, may act in loco parentis when it houses its students in college-supervised dormitories and imposes rules and regulations on student behavior.

further readings

Pardeck, John T. 2002. Children's Rights: Policy and Practice. New York: Haworth Social Work Practice Press.

Postman, Neil. 1982. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte.

Purdy, Laura M. 1992. In Their Best Interest? Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Richards, Janet Leach. 1999. "Children's Rights v. Parents' Rights: A Proposed Solution to the Custodial Relocation Conundrum." New Mexico Law Review 29 (spring).

Walker, Nancy E., Catherine M. Brooks, and Lawrence S. Wrightsman. 1999. Children's Rights in the United States: In Search of a National Policy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.


Adoption; Child Care; Child Labor Laws; Children's Defense Fund; Children's Rights; Descent and Distribution; Family Car Doctrine; Family Law; Fetal Rights; Fetal Tissue Research; Garnishment; Gault, In re; Guardian ad Litem; Guardian and Ward; Health Care Law; Illegitimacy; Infancy; Infants; Juvenile Law; Organ Donation Law "Should Dying Babies Be Organ Donors?" (In Focus); Paternity; Schools and School Districts.

Parent-Child Relationships

views updated May 23 2018

Parent-Child Relationships





Of all the interpersonal relationships humans develop across their life spans, none is more enduring or important than the parent-child relationship. The nature of the parent-child relationship is a primary factor underlying ones personality, social, and cognitive development. Although there is little debate among family researchers regarding the importance of the parent-child relationship to later adult life, the attributes of a good parent-child relationship are still debated.


Throughout most of human history, parents have been concerned primarily with their children internalizing parental values and cultural norms. Thus, parenting was heavily focused on teaching children to be obedient to parental authority and the social and religious order through strict discipline and harsh punishments for disobedience. Most parent-child relationship research has focused on explaining the ways in which parents achieve these goals.

Behaviorists in the early part of the twentieth century argued that children learn how to behave in a culturally normative way through a series of punishments for unwanted behaviors and rewards for desired behaviors. These reinforcers were posited to lead to the development of behavioral habits in children. The major behaviorists of the time instructed parents not to show too much affection to children because they would develop habits of dependence and weakness. Behaviorists admonished parents who did not maintain firm control and a strict regiment of rules and structure.

Many schools of thought emerged that directly challenged these ideas of emotional distance and harsh punishment. For example, psychodynamic theory was based on the idea that children are born with innate drives and impulses for pleasure and self-fulfillment that may conflict with parental goals. Psychoanalysts suggested that parents learn to channel the energy from childrens unmet desires instead of repressing them. This led to the idea that parents should be less rigid, more accepting of childrens behavior, and emotionally available to children.

Based primarily on psychodynamic thought, Benjamin Spock (19031998) wrote the most influential parenting book in history, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1945). In it, Spock advocated unconditional love, allowing children freedom to explore their surroundings, and limited use of parental authority. Spock, as well as other psychodynamic theorists, stressed increasing disciplinary reasoning and reducing parental power assertions such as spanking.

The research by Kurt Lewin (18901947) in the 1930s on group atmospheres was also influential to later ideas of effective parenting. In one of the most important studies, Lewin and colleagues examined the effects of autocratic, laissez-faire, and democratic leadership styles on preadolescent boys motivation and behavior. Autocratic leaders were trained to have a rigid structure in which they made all the decisions with little input from group members. Laissez-faire leaders were trained to not provide any structure or direction: The boys had complete freedom to work on their group projects as they saw fit. The democratic leaders were taught to provide structure, make suggestions, and list the goals, but seek input from the boys for most decisions. The results showed that the boys in the democratic group were more motivated and more cooperative, they produced a better final project, and they were more likely to work in a constructive manner when the leader left the room. The boys in the autocratic group produced an adequate final project, but when the leader left the room, chaos ensued. Those in the laissez-faire group produced the worst group project and displayed little interaction or cooperation.

Alfred Baldwin later applied these ideas to parents in the 1940s. In a longitudinal study, Baldwin found that parents he described as emotionally warm and who allowed their children a great deal of freedom had children with the best intellectual development. He argued that emotionally detached, authoritarian parenting was detrimental to children. Separate research into the authoritarian personality around this same time echoed these same concerns.

Probably the most ardent opponents of the behaviorist approach to child rearing were the attachment theorists. Based on ethology, cybernetics, and psychodynamic principles, the groundbreaking theory developed by John Bowlby (19071990) and Mary Ainsworth (19131999) in the 1950s and 1960s made it explicitly clear that the best parent-child relationship is one in which there is mutual trust, respect, and an emotional bond. Furthermore, the attachment theorists argued that a mothers degree of responsiveness to her infants needs and demands dictated the nature of the relationship. Highly responsive mothers tended to have infants who formed secure attachments with them. Less responsive mothers tended to have infants with ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized attachments. A large body of research has shown that those with secure attachments to their primary caregivers tend to have better relationships with others, perform better in school, and are on the whole better adjusted than those with nonsecure attachments.

These different strands of research and theory on authoritarian parenting, psychodynamic theory, attachment theory, and other influential work in humanistic psychology all came to the same basic conclusionthe best parents are emotionally responsive to their childrens needs and desires. This new trend in parenting led to the common belief that parents should be less concerned with discipline and child obedience and instead focus on the emotional climate of the relationship, accepting children for who they are, and not stifling their individuality. Although Spock and other psychodynamic theorists warned against spoiling children by avoiding disciplinary encounters and even picking up crying infants too much, and Lewin clearly warned against laissez-faire leaders, many in the general public took this to mean that punishment should give way to unconditional acceptance of child behavior.

This new focus on parental responsiveness and child freedom was in stark contrast to the behaviorist and religious fundamentalist focus on structure, order, and firm discipline. At the heart of this controversy were differing socialization goals. The authoritarians goals were to have children comply with rules of existing social structures, as well as develop an emotional resiliency that would allow them to handle the challenges of life. Those who focused on parental responsiveness were more concerned with developing childrens self-esteem and agency, as well as their cognitive development. Thus, they were fearful of stifling childrens potential, whereas authoritarians were fearful of creating emotionally fragile and disobedient children. The political controversies surrounding these opposing views remain as virulent today as ever. However, the influential research on parenting styles by Diana Baumrind and similar models have helped to rectify much of the controversy in mainstream research.


Probably the most influential research-based parenting theory to date, Baumrinds authoritative model revolutionized the study of parenting when it was first proposed in the 1960s. Based on several studies, principles from behaviorism, psychodynamic theory, attachment theory, Lewins leadership styles, and critical theoretical contributions from Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin (1983), Baumrind argued that there were four dispositional parenting styles, distinguished by their levels of parental demandingness and parental responsiveness.

According to Baumrind, parental demandingness refers to the degree to which parents facilitate structure in their childrens lives, have control of the parent-child relationship, monitor childrens behavior and whereabouts, use firm and consistent discipline, set high maturity demands for their children, and are willing to confront noncompliance by children. Based on concepts from attachment theory and psychodynamic theory, Baumrind defined parental responsiveness as the degree to which parents are warm, emotionally connected, and supportive of their children, as well as the amount of freedom and decision-making they allow children, their use of disciplinary reasoning, and their tendency to acquiesce to their childrens needs and demands. Baumrind examined both major parenting dimensions simultaneously in defining the authoritarian, permissive, authoritative, and neglectful parenting styles.

Authoritarian parents are defined as being high on demandingness but low on responsiveness. Thus, authoritarian parents attempt to maintain firm parental control by confronting disobedience and restricting the amount of decision-making and general freedom a child has. Authoritarian parents do not usually reason with children or explain the rules, believing that a child should accept the rules without necessarily understanding them. Many have equated this style with certain behaviorist and religious fundamentalist views of parenting.

Permissive parents represent the antithesis of the authoritarian parents. They are low on demandingness and high on responsiveness. They attempt to be emotionally connected and have a warm relationship with their children, and they tend to be accepting of childrens impulses and behaviors. Permissive parents also assert very little direct power to get their children to comply with their authority. Instead of direct confrontation, permissive parents often use various forms of psychological control as a means of getting their children to comply. Many have equated the permissive style with Spocks model of optimal parenting.

Authoritative parents essentially combine the best attributes of the authoritarian and permissive parenting ideas. They are high on both demandingness and responsiveness. They value independence in their children, but maintain firm control. Authoritative parents attempt to achieve the goals of behavioral compliance as well as psychological autonomy and agency by judiciously allowing freedom and decision-making in their children, and by giving them age-appropriate maturity demands and structure.

Neglectful parents are low on both demandingness and responsiveness, and they have chaotic and dysfunctional relationships with their children. Whereas the other parenting styles develop primarily from parents child-rearing goals and philosophy about what is best for children, the neglectful parents behavior is more a consequence of social circumstances than of philosophy. Neglectful parents tend to have the most children, the least income and education, and more mental health problems than other parents. Consequently, most of their parenting can be explained by dire social circumstances that prevent them from fulfilling their parenting duties.

As Baumrind predicted, European American youth with authoritative parents are more competent, well-adjusted, and high achieving, and less likely to use illicit drugs or engage in risky behaviors compared to those with nonauthoritative parents. In authoritarian homes, boys tend to be aggressive, and girls tend to be low in independence and dominance. Those with permissive parents tend to have problems with self-confidence, impulse control, and achievement. Not surprisingly, those with neglectful parents are at risk for virtually every negative outcome researchers have measured.


The research on parenting styles has shed much light on the most effective parenting strategies for European American youth, but the research on other groups is less clear. For instance, European Americans are more likely to have authoritative parents than Asian Americans, and Asian Americans are more likely than European Americans to have authoritarian parents, even though Asian Americans have higher overall academic achievement. Furthermore, some studies in the 1980s and early 1990s found no relation between parenting style and African American youths academic achievement. Others found that authoritarian parenting was not as detrimental to Asian American and African American youth as it was for European American youth.

Based on these findings, many suggested that the effects of parenting styles could only be understood in a specific cultural context. Often referred to as the cultural specific model, its proponents argue that African American youth may do better with authoritarian parenting because firm parental control is adaptive in the more dangerous inner cities. Similarly, Ruth Chao (1994) proposed the idea that Baumrinds authoritative model was not a good description of the optimal parenting strategies for Asian American youth because it did not take into consideration the important cultural traits of filial piety, communalism, or other beliefs about expressions of emotion. The basic premise of the cultural specific approach to parenting styles is that the cultural context gives parenting behaviors meaning, so it is not the specific behaviors that matter, but the meaning that youth ascribe to the behaviors.

Counter to this perspective, the cultural equivalence model suggests that the effects of parenting styles are consistent across cultural groups. According to this model, all children, regardless of their ethnic background, gender, or other demographic factors, have the need for warmth, support, connection to others, structure, and autonomy. Consequently, the authoritative parenting practices such as reasonable behavioral control, provisions of emotional support and warmth, and psychological autonomy are important for all children. More recent studies in Asian countries and with African Americans lend support to this idea, finding that those Asian and African American youth with authoritative parents perform better in school and in other areas compared to those with other types of parents.

In conclusion, the study of parent-child relationships has changed dramatically since the beginning of the twentieth century, but many of the same controversies remain. Ultimately, the parenting goals of the authoritarian and the permissive groups are both desirable. Modern parents must find a balance between getting children to conform to parental authority and control their impulses and encouraging them to develop a sense of independence, agency, and critical thinking abilities. However, the empirical evidence is strikingly clear: Both the traditional authoritarian and more modern permissive methods for achieving those goals are limited. A combination of demandingness and responsiveness is best for achieving most pro-social parental goals. Although differences among cultural groups might lead to some variation in effective strategies for rearing children, given childrens universal needs for both affection and direction, authoritative parenting is most likely an optimal strategy for rearing all children.

SEE ALSO Ainsworth, Mary; Attachment Theory; Authority; Baumrind, Diana; Behaviorism; Bowlby, John; Child Development; Children; Developmental Psychology; Leadership; Lewin, Kurt; Norms; Parenthood, Transition to; Parenting Styles; Peer Influence; Spock, Benjamin


Baldwin, Alfred L. 1955. Behavior and Development in Childhood. New York: Dryden.

Baumrind, Diana. 1971. Current Patterns of Parental Authority. Developmental Psychology 4: 1103.

Baumrind, Diana. 1996. The Discipline Controversy Revisited. Family Relations: Journal of Applied Family and Child Studies 45: 405414.

Bretherton, Inge. 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28: 759775.

Chao, Ruth K. 1994. Beyond Parental Control and Authoritarian Parenting Style: Understanding Chinese Parenting through the Cultural Notion of Training. Child Development 65: 11111119.

Dobson, James. 1992. The New Dare to Discipline. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Grusec, Joan E., and Paul D. Hastings, eds. 2007. Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research. New York: Guilford.

Lamborn, Susie D., and Amanda J. Felbab. 2003. Applying Ethnic Equivalence and Cultural Values Models to African-American Teens Perceptions of Parents. Journal of Adolescence 26: 605622.

Lewin, Kurt, Ronald Lippitt, and Ralph K. White. 1939. Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates. Journal of Social Psychology 10: 271299.

Maccoby, Eleanor E., and John Martin. 1983. Socialization in the Context of the Family: Parent Child Interaction. In Socialization, Personality, and Social Development. Vol. 4 of Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. Paul H. Mussen and E. Mavis Hetherington, 1101. New York: Wiley.

Spock, Benjamin. 1946. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce.

Steinberg, Laurence, Sanford M. Dornbusch, and B. Bradford Brown. 1992. Ethnic Differences in Adolescent Achievement: An Ecological Perspective. American Psychologist 47: 723729.

Jelani Mandara

Parent-Child Relationships

views updated May 17 2018

Parent-child relationships

The relationship, over the full extent of a child's development, between parent and child.

Of the many different relationships we form over the course of the life span, the relationship between parent and child is among the most important. Not surprisingly, students of child development have devoted considerable attention to the parent-child relationship, in order to understand how it develops and functions over the lifespan. Among the many questions researchers examine are those concerning normative changes in the parent-child relationship over the course of development (e.g., How does the parent-child relationship change during adolescence?), the impact of variations in the parent-child relationship on the child's behavior and functioning (e.g., Which types of discipline are most effective during the preschool years?), and the effects of the parent-child relationship on the parent (e.g., How are adults affected by parenthood?).


A baby cries, a parent feeds her; a baby snuggles, a parent hugs her. Day after day, night after night, mothers and fathers feed, burp, wash, change, dress, and hold their babies. Out of these interactions, feelings and expectations grow. The baby feels distressed and hungry, then satisfied; the parent feels tenderness, joy, annoyance, exhaustion, pleasure. Gradually, the baby begins to expect that her parent will care for her when she cries. Gradually, parents respond to and even anticipate their baby's needs. These elements form the basis for a developing relationship, a combination of behaviors, interactions, feelings, and expectations that are unique to a particular parent and a particular child.

By the end of the first year, most infants who are cared for in families develop an attachment relationship, usually with the primary caretaker. This relationship is central to the child's development.

Developmental psychologists have studied attachment in infancy mainly by watching how infants react when they are separated from, and then reunited with, their caregiver (usually one of the infant's parents). An experimental laboratory procedure called the Strange Situation is the most common assessment. Researchers have been particularly interested in understanding individual differences in the quality of attachment is inferred from behavior in the Strange Situation. The majority of children develop a secure attachment : when reunited with their caregiver after a temporary absence of several minutes, they greet her in two distinctive ways. If distressed, they want to be picked up and find comfort in her arms; if content, they smile, talk to her, or show her a toy. In contrast, some children with an insecure attachment want to be picked up, but they are not comforted; they kick or push away. Others seem indifferent to the caregiver's return, and ignore her when she returns.

The quality of the infant's attachment seems to be predictive of aspects of later development. Youngsters who emerge from infancy with a secure attachment stand a better chance of developing happy, competent relationships with others. The attachment relationship not only forms the emotional basis for the continued development of the parent-child relationship, but can serve as a foundation upon which subsequent social relationships are built.

Researchers disagree about the origins of a secure attachment relationship. One account focuses on the way caregivers behave toward their infants. According to this view, the key element is the caregiver's sensitivity in responding to the infant's signals. Secure infants have mothers who sensitively read their infant's cues and respond appropriately to their needs.

Another perspective emphasizes the temperament of the infants. A secure attachment is more easily formed between a caregiver and an infant with an easier disposition, or temperament, than between a caregiver and an infant who is characteristically negative, fearful, or not especially sociable. In this respect, security of attachment may reflect what the infant is like rather than how the caregiver behaves. Most likely, the early parent-child relationship is the product both of what the infant and caregiver bring to it.


When children move from infancy into toddlerhood, the parent-child relationship begins to change its focus. During infancy, the primary function of the parent-child relationship is nurturance and predictability, and much of the relationship revolves around the day-to-day demands of caregiving: feeding, sleeping, toileting, bathing. The attachment relationship develops out of these day-to-day interactions.

As youngsters begin to talk and become more mobile during the second and third years of life, however, parents usually attempt to shape their child's social behavior. In essence, parents become teachers as well as nurturers, providers of guidance as well as affection. The process of socializationpreparing the youngster to function as a member of a social groupimplicit during most of the first two years of life, becomes explicit as the child moves toward his or her third birthday.

Socialization has been an important focus of research in child development for well over 60 years. Initially, researchers focused on particular child-rearing practicesincluding types of discipline and approaches to toilet training and weaning in an effort to link specific parenting practices to aspects of the child's development. Findings from this research were inconsistent and not especially informative. Over time, such efforts gave way to research that emphasized the overall emotional climate of the parent-child relationship, instead of discrete parenting practices.

A number of studies conducted during the past 30 years have pointed to two overarching dimensions of the parent-child relationship that appear to be systematically linked to the child's psychological development: how responsive the parents are, and how demanding they are. Responsive parents are warm and accepting toward their children, enjoying them and trying to see things from their perspective. In contrast, parents who are low in responsiveness tend to be aloof, rejecting, or critical. They show little pleasure in their children and are often insensitive to their emotional needs. Demanding parents maintain consistent standards for their child's behavior. In contrast, parents who are insufficiently demanding are too lenient; they exercise minimal control, provide little guidance, and often yield to their child's demands. Children's healthy psychological development is facilitated when the parents are both responsive and moderately demanding.

During toddlerhood, children often begin to assert their desire for autonomy by challenging their parents. Sometimes, the child's newfound assertiveness during the "terrible twos" can put a strain on the parent-child relationship. It is important that parents recognize that this behavior is normal for the toddler, and that the healthy development of independence is facilitated by a parent-child relationship that provides support and structure for the child's developing sense of autonomy. In many regards, the security of the initial attachment between infant

and parent provides the child with the emotional wherewithal to begin exploring the world outside the parent-child relationship.


Many researchers study the ways in which responsiveness and demandingness interact to form a general tone, or climate, in the household. Using this sort of approach, experts have identified four main parenting styles that typically emerge during the preschool years: authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and disengaged. Although no parent is absolutely consistent across situations and over time, parents do seem to follow some general tendencies in their approach to childrearing, and it is possible to describe a parent-child relationship in terms of the prevailing style of parenting employed. These descriptions can be used to provide guidelines for both professionals and parents interested in understanding how variations in the parent-child relationship affect the child's development.

Authoritative parents are both responsive and demanding; they are firm, but they discipline with love and affection, rather than power , and they are likely to explain rules and expectations to their children instead of simply asserting them. Authoritarian parents are also highly demanding, but they are not less responsive; authoritarian parents tend to be strict disciplinarians, frequently relying on physical punishment and the withdrawal of affection to shape their child's behavior. Indulgent parents are responsive, but not especially demanding; they have few expectations of their children and impose little discipline. Disengaged parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They may be neglectful or unaware of the child's needs for affection and discipline.

What makes a parent more likely to use one style as opposed to another? Ultimately, the parenting style a parent employs is shaped by many factors: the parent's developmental history, education, and personality , the child's behavior, and the immediate and broader context of the parent's life. Thus, the parent's behavior vis-à-vis the child is influenced by such things as work, marriage, family finances, and other factors likely to affect the parent's behavior and psychological well-being. In addition, systematic comparisons of parenting practices among families living in different circumstances teach us that parents in different cultures, from different social classes, and from different ethnic groups rear their children differently.

Nevertheless, research has shown that aspects of children's behavior and psychological development are linked to the style of parenting with which they have been raised. Generally speaking, preschoolers with authoritative parents tend to be curious about new situations, focused and skilled at play , self-reliant, self-controlled, and cheerful. Children who are routinely treated in an authoritarian way tend to be moody, unhappy, fearful, withdrawn, unspontaneous, and irritable. Children of permissive parents tend to be low in both social responsibility and independence, but they are usually more cheerful than the conflicted and irritable children of authoritarian parents. Finally, children whose parents are disengaged tend to have a higher proportion of psychological difficulties than other youngsters.

School age

During the elementary school years, the child becomes increasingly interested in peers, but this should not be taken as a sign of disinterest in the parent-child relationship. Rather, with the natural broadening of psychosocial and cognitive abilities, the child's social world expands to include more people and settings beyond the home environment . The parent-child relationship continues to remain the most important influence on the child's development. Generally speaking, children whose parents are both responsive and demanding continue to thrive psychologically and socially during the middle childhood years.

The parenting styles that first become apparent during the preschool years continue to influence development across middle childhood. Over the course of childhood, parents' styles tend to remain the same, and their effects on the child quite similar. Children of authoritative parents tend to be socially competent, responsible, successful in school, and high in self-esteem . The authoritarian style, with its perfectionism , rigidity, and harsh discipline, continues to affect children adversely, with these youngsters generally rated lower than their peers in appropriate social assertiveness, cognitive ability, competence, and self-esteem, but higher in aggression . Children of permissive parents also tend to be more aggressive than their peers, but also more impulsive, less self-reliant, and less responsible. Children raised in disengaged homes continue to have the most difficulty, and show more behavior problems.

The natural tendency is to think of the parent-child relationship as a one-way street, with the parent influencing the child. But in actuality the relationship is reciprocal and bi-directional. During the school years especially, the parent-child relationship is influenced not only by the child's parents but by the child. In most families, patterns of interaction between parent and child are well established by the elementary school years. Overly harsh parenting, for example, often leads to aggressive behavior in children, leading children to join antisocial peer groups, further heightening their aggressiveness. This, in turn, may provoke harsher parenting, leading to further aggressiveness in the child, and so on. Authoritative parenting, in contrast, helps children develop self-reliance and social competence , which, of course, makes it easier for parents to rear their child in an authoritative, reasoned fashion. Continued authoritativeness on the part of the parent contributes to increased competence in the child, and so on. Rather than trying to solve the "which came first" puzzlethe parenting or the child's characteristicsit is more useful to think of parenting as a process and the parent-child relationship as one part of an intricate social system.

Much research has examined how the child's development is affected by such factors as divorce , remarriage, and parental (especially, maternal) employment. As a rule, these studies show that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a more important influence on the child's psychological development than changes in the structure or composition of the household. Generally speaking, parenting that is responsive and demanding is associated with healthier child development regardless of the parent's marital status or employment situation. If changes in the parent's marital status or work life disrupt the parent-child relationship, however, short-term effects on the child's behavior are likely to be seen. One goal of professionals who work with families under stress is to help them re-establish healthy patterns of parent-child interaction.


Early adolescence marks an important turning point in the parent-child relationship. As the child enters adolescence, the biological, cognitive, and emotional changes of the period spark transformations in the parent-child relationship. In many families, the transition into adolescence coincides with the parent's transition into mid-life, and this, too, may introduce additional challenges into the family system that spill over into the parent-child relationship.

Early adolescence is a time during which the child's urges for independence may challenge parents' authority, as the young adolescent strives to establish a sense of emotional autonomy, or individuation. And much like toddlerhood, many parents find early adolescence to be a difficult period requiring a fair amount of adaptation . But, as is also the case with toddlerhood, research shows that most families are able to cope with these adaptational demands successfully. Adolescents fare best, and their family relationships are happiest, in households in which parents are both supportive and are accepting of the child's needs for more psychological independence.

Although the significance of peer relationships grows during adolescence, the parent-child relationship maintains its importance for the psychological development of the child. As in previous eras, authoritative parentingparenting that combines warmth and firmness seems to have the most positive impact on the youngster's development. Research shows that over time, adolescents who have been reared authoritatively continue to show more success in school, better psychological development, and fewer behavior problems than their counterparts from other types of homes. Youngsters whose parents are disengaged continue to show the most difficulty.

It is widely assumed that conflict between parents and children is an inherent feature of family life in adolescence, but systematic research on the so-called "generation gap" indicates that the phenomenon has been exaggerated in the popular media. Early adolescence may be a time of heightened bickering and somewhat diminished closeness in the parent-child relationship, but most disagreements between parents and young teenagers are over fairly mundane matters, and most teenagers and parents agree on the essentials. Nevertheless, the increased frequency with which these squabbles occur may take its toll on parents'mental health , especially on the mothers'. This period appears to be temporary, however, and most parents and adolescents are able to establish a comfortable working relationship by the beginning of high school. Indeed, by late adolescence most children report feeling as close to their parents as they did during elementary school.


Many adults maintain an active relationship with their parents. As adults, they can now relate to each other as equals, although the feeling of one being the parent and the other a "child" (even though the child is now an adult) endures in some relationships. Increasingly, adult children are sandwiched between the demands of caring for their own children and their aging parents, who may need more assistance as they get older and physically weaker. In some families, the adult children take care of their parents, much in the same way that their parents took care of them when they were younger. This situation has brought both stress and joy as parents and adult children struggle to redefine their relationship.

Laurence Steinberg Ph.D.

Further Reading

Bornstein, M., ed. Handbook of Parenting. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995.

Parent-Child Relationships

views updated May 23 2018

Parent-child relationships


The parent-child relationship consists of a combination of behaviors, feelings, and expectations that are unique to a particular parent and a particular child. The relationship involves the full extent of a child's development.


Of the many different relationships people form over the course of the life span, the relationship between parent and child is among the most important. The quality of the parent-child relationship is affected by the parent's age, experience, and self-confidence; the stability of the parents' marriage; and the unique characteristics of the child compared with those of the parent.

Characteristics of the parent

Parental self-confidence is an important indicator of parental competence. Mothers who believe that they are effective parents are more competent than mothers who feel incompetent. Also, mothers who see themselves as effective also tend to believe their infants as less difficult to handle. Parental age and previous experience are also important. Older mothers tend to be more responsive to their infants than younger mothers. In addition, parents who have had previous experience with children, whether through younger siblings, career paths, or previous children, are often times better able to cope with parenthood.

Characteristics of the child

Characteristics that may affect the parent-child relationship in a family include the child's physical appearance, sex, and temperament . At birth, the infant's physical appearance may not meet the parent's expectations, or the infant may resemble a disliked relative. As a result, the parent may subconsciously reject the child. If the parents wanted a baby of a particular sex, they may be disappointed if the baby is the opposite sex. If parents do not have the opportunity to talk about this disappointment, they may reject the infant.

Children who are loved thrive better than those who are not. Either parent or a nonparent caregiver may serve as the primary caregiver or form the primary parent-child love relationship. Loss of love from a primary caregiver can occur with the death of a parent or interruption of parental contact through prolonged hospitalizations. Divorce can interfere with the child's need to eat, improve, and advance. Cultural norms within the family also affect a child's likelihood to achieve particular developmental milestones.

Cultural impact

In some countries, childrearing is considered protective nurturing. Children are not rushed into new experiences like toilet training or being in school. In other countries, children are commonly treated in a harsh, strict manner, using shame or corporal punishment for discipline . In Central American nations, toilet training may begin as early as when the child can sit upright.

Childhood in the United States stretches across many years. In other countries, children are expected to enter the adult world of work when they are still quite young: girls assume domestic responsibilities, and boys do outside farm work. In addition, in Asian cultures, parents understand an infant's personality in part in terms of the child's year and time of birth.

Impact of birth order

The position of a child in the family, whether a firstborn, a middle child, the youngest, an only child, or one within a large family, has some bearing on the child's growth and development. An only child or the oldest child in a family excels in language development because conversations are mainly with adults. Children learn by watching other children; however, a firstborn or an only child, who has no example to watch, may not excel in other skills, such as toilet training, at an early age.


As babies are cared for by their parents, both parties develop understandings of the other. Gradually, babies begin to expect that their parent will care for them when they cry. Gradually, parents respond to and even anticipate their baby's needs. This exchange and familiarity create the basis for a developing relationship.

parent-infant attachment One of the most important aspects of infant psychosocial development is the infant's attachment to parents. Attachment is a sense of belonging to or connection with a particular other. This significant bond between infant and parent is critical to the infant's survival and development. Started immediately after birth, attachment is strengthened by mutually satisfying interaction between the parents and the infant throughout the first months of life, called bonding. By the end of the first year, most infants have formed an attachment relationship, usually with the primary caretaker.

If parents can adapt to their babies, meet their needs, and provide nurturance, the attachment is secure. Psychosocial development can continue based on a strong foundation of attachment. On the other hand, if a parent's personality and ability to cope with the infant's needs for care are minimal, the relationship is at risk and so is the infant's development.

By six to seven months, strong feelings of attachment enable the infant to distinguish between caregivers and strangers. The infant displays an obvious preference for parents over other caregivers and other unfamiliar people. Anxiety , demonstrated by crying, clinging, and turning away from the stranger, is revealed when separation occurs. This behavior peaks between seven and nine months and again during toddlerhood, when separation may be difficult. Although possibly stressful for the parents, stranger anxiety is a normal sign of healthy child attachment and occurs because of cognitive development . Most children develop a secure attachment when reunited with their caregiver after a temporary absence. In contrast, some children with an insecure attachment want to be held, but they are not comfortable; they kick or push away. Others seem indifferent to the parent's return and ignore them when they return.

The quality of the infant's attachment predicts later development. Youngsters who emerge from infancy with a secure attachment stand a better chance of developing happy and healthy relationships with others. The attachment relationship not only forms the emotional basis for the continued development of the parent-child relationship, but can serve as a foundation for future social connections. Secure infants have parents who sensitively read their infant's cues and respond properly to their needs.


When children move from infancy into toddlerhood, the parent-child relationship begins to change. During infancy, the primary role of the parent-child relationship is nurturing and predictability, and much of the relationship revolves around the day-to-day demands of caregiving: feeding, toileting, bathing, and going to bed.

As youngsters begin to talk and become more mobile during the second and third years of life, however, parents usually try to shape their child's social behavior. In essence, parents become teachers as well as nurturers, providers of guidance as well as affection. Socialization (preparing the youngster to live as a member of a social group) implicit during most of the first two years of life, becomes clear as the child moves toward his or her third birthday.

Socialization is an important part of the parent-child relationship. It includes various child-rearing practices, for example weaning, toilet training, and discipline.

Dimensions of the parent-child relationship are linked to the child's psychological development, specifically how responsive the parents are, and how demanding they are. Responsive parents are warm and accepting toward their children, enjoying them and trying to see things from their perspective. In contrast, nonresponsive parents are aloof, rejecting, or critical. They show little pleasure in their children and are often insensitive to their emotional needs. Some parents are demanding, while others are too tolerant. Children's healthy psychological development is facilitated when the parents are both responsive and moderately demanding.

During toddlerhood, children often begin to assert their need for autonomy by challenging their parents. Sometimes, the child's newfound assertiveness during the so-called terrible twos can put a strain on the parent-child relationship. It is important that parents recognize that this behavior is normal for the toddler, and the healthy development of independence is promoted by a parent-child relationship that provides support for the child's developing sense of autonomy. In many regards, the security of the first attachment between infant and parent provides the child with the emotional base to begin exploring the world outside the parent-child relationship.


Various parenting styles evolve during the preschool years. Preschoolers with authoritative parents are curious about new experiences, focused and skilled at play , self-reliant, self-controlled, and cheerful.

School age

During the elementary school years, the child becomes increasingly interested in peers, but this is not be a sign of disinterest in the parent-child relationship. Rather, with the natural broadening of psychosocial and cognitive abilities, the child's social world expands to include more people and settings beyond the home environment. The parent-child relationship remains the most important influence on the child's development. Children whose parents are both responsive and demanding continue to thrive psychologically and socially during the middle childhood years.

During the school years, the parent-child relationship continues to be influenced by the child and the parents. In most families, patterns of interaction between parent and child are well established in the elementary school years.


As the child enters adolescence , biological, cognitive, and emotional changes transform the parent-child relationship. The child's urges for independence may challenge parents' authority. Many parents find early adolescence a difficult period. Adolescents fare best and their parents are happiest when parents can be both encouraging and accepting of the child's needs for more psychological independence.

Although the value of peer relations grows during adolescence, the parent-child relationship remains crucial for the child's psychological development. Authoritative parenting that combines warmth and firmness has the most positive impact on the youngster's development. Adolescents who have been reared authoritatively continue to show more success in school, better psychological development, and fewer behavior problems.

Adolescence may be a time of heightened bickering and diminished closeness in the parent-child relationship, but most disagreements between parents and young teenagers are over less important matters, and most teenagers and parents agree on the essentials. By late adolescence most children report feeling as close to their parents as they did during elementary school.

Parenting styles

Parenting has four main styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive (indulgent), and detached. Although no parent is consistent in all situations, parents do follow some general tendencies in their approach to childrearing, and it is possible to describe a parent-child relationship by the prevailing style of parenting. These descriptions provide guidelines for both professionals and parents interested in understanding how variations in the parent-child relationship affect the child's development.

Parenting style is shaped by the parent's developmental history, education, and personality; the child's behavior; and the immediate and broader context of the parent's life. Also, the parent's behavior is influenced by the parent's work, the parents' marriage, family finances, and other conditions likely to affect the parent's behavior and psychological well-being. In addition, parents in different cultures, from different social classes, and from different ethnic groups rear their children differently. In any event, children's behavior and psychological development are linked to the parenting style with which they are raised.

Authoritarian parents

Authoritarian parents are rigid in their rules; they expect absolute obedience from the child without any questioning. They also expect the child to accept the family beliefs and principles without questions. Authoritarian parents are strict disciplinarians, often relying on physical punishment and the withdrawal of affection to shape their child's behavior.

Children raised with this parenting style are often moody, unhappy, fearful, and irritable. They tend to be shy, withdrawn, and lack self-confidence. If affection is withheld, the child commonly is rebellious and antisocial.

Authoritative parents

Authoritative parents show respect for the opinions of each of their children by allowing them to be different. Although there are rules in the household, the parents allow discussion if the children do not understand or agree with the rules. These parents make it clear to the children that although they (the parents) have final authority, some negotiation and compromise may take place. Authoritative parents are both responsive and demanding; they are firm, but they discipline with love and affection, rather than power, and they are likely to explain rules and expectations to their children instead of simply asserting them. This style of parenting often results in children who have high self-esteem and are independent, inquisitive, happy, assertive, and interactive.

Permissive parents

Permissive (indulgent) parents have little or no control over the behavior of their children. If any rules exist in the home, they are followed inconsistently. Underlying reasons for rules are given, but the children decide whether they will follow the rule and to what extent. They learn that they can get away with any behavior. Indulgent parents are responsive but not especially demanding. They have few expectations of their children and impose little or inconsistent discipline. There are empty threats of punishment without setting limits. Role reversal occurs; the children act more like the parents, and the parents behave like the children.

Children of permissive parents may be disrespectful, disobedient, aggressive, irresponsible, and defiant. They are insecure because they lack guidelines to direct their behavior. However, these children are frequently creative and spontaneous. Although low in both social responsibility and independence, they are usually more cheerful than the conflicted and irritable children of authoritarian parents.

Disengaged parents

Finally, disengaged (detached) parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They may be careless or unaware of the child's needs for affection and discipline. Children whose parents are detached have higher numbers of psychological difficulties and behavior problems than other youngsters.

Parental concerns

Child's development is affected by family conditions such as divorce, remarriage, and parental employment. The parent-child relationship has a more important influence on the child's psychological development than changes in the composition of the household. Parenting that is responsive and demanding is related to healthier child development regardless of the parent's marital or employment status. If changes in the parent's marital status or work life disrupt the parent-child relationship, short-term effects on the child's behavior may be noticeable. One goal of professionals who work with families under stress is to help them reestablish healthy patterns of parent-child interaction.

Discipline is also a concern of parents. Children's behavior offers challenges to even the most experienced and effective parents. The manner in which parents respond to a child's behavior has an effect on the child's self-esteem and future interactions with others. Children learn to view themselves in the same way the parent views them. Thus, if the parent views the child as wild, the child begins to view himself that way and soon his actions consistently reinforce his self image. This way, the child does not disappoint the parent. This pattern is a self-fulfilling prophecy. While discipline in necessary to teach a child how to live comfortably in society, it should not be confused with punishment.


Adolescence A period of life in which the biological and psychosocial transition from childhood to adulthood occurs.

Coping In psychology, a term that refers to a person's patterns of response to stress.

Culture A test in which a sample of body fluid is placed on materials specially formulated to grow microorganisms. A culture is used to learn what type of bacterium is causing infection.

Discipline In health care, a specific area of preparation or training, i.e., social work, nursing, or nutrition.

Family Two or more emotionally involved people living in close proximity and having reciprocal obligations with a sense of commonness, caring, and commitment.



Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Reason and Love. Riveside, NJ: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Post, B. Bryan, et al. For All Things a Season: An Essential Guide to a Peaceful Parent/Child Relationship. Mountain View, OK: M. Brynn Publishing, 2003.


"Parenting." MedlinePlus. Available online at <>(accessed December 18, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE

Parent-Child Relationships

views updated May 18 2018


In two significant articles on parenting, W. Andrew Collins and his colleagues, writing in American Psychologist, and Eleanor Maccoby, writing in Annual Review of Psychology, both noted that an enormous body of literature supports the important role of parents in shaping the development of children. Collins and his colleagues and Maccoby were responding in part to the contention of Judith Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, that parental influence on child development may not be as great as the influence of genetic predispositions and the influence of peers. Maccoby persuasively argued that such a contention is out of date in view of genetic studies suggesting that experiences children have with parents and others can modify genetic influence and of the substantial body of literature showing the importance of parent-child relationships for a child's development. This large body of literature suggests that it is the quality of the parent-child relationship that is particularly important in understanding the course of the child's development; and that the parent-child relationship is co-constructed by the parent and the child, not something that comes from the parent alone. In this article, consideration is given to what aspects of parent-child relationships are associated with the development of competence and well-being in children and how the parent-child relationship changes over time and with development. Also considered are the factors that contribute to these qualities of parent-child relationships.

Infancy and the Preschool Years

In infancy and the preschool years amazing growth occurs in the child's capacity for self-control and self-regulation and in the internalization of standards for behavior. In his important book Emotional Development, Alan Sroufe noted that there is wide agreement among developmental psychologists about the role that a parent or caregiver plays in helping the child achieve self-control and self-regulation. The parent or caregiver helps the child develop her own self-regulation by soothing distress, enhancing alertness, and allowing the child the experience of self-regulation by sensitively responding to the child's signals of need for soothing or increased stimulation. Children who have experienced chaotic and inconsistent parenting do not have the experience of regulation to guide their own efforts, nor the confidence in the caregiver (and consequently in themselves) required for self-regulation. Additionally, children who have been pushed to independence at too early an age because the parent is emotionally unavailable or too strict tend to adopt rigid regulatory strategies, which they attempt to use on their own. They do not learn to turn to parents or others to help them with regulation. Sroufe noted that children whose interactions with their parents have been characterized by sensitive, responsive care from the parent—as opposed to overstimulating, intrusive care—have been found to be better able to handle frustration, be less hyperactive, have longer attention spans during the preschool years, and do better academically and emotionally in the early elementary years. In toddler-hood, willing compliance with parents is associated with parent interaction behaviors that are well coordinated with the child's. Children who have a secure, trusting relationship with their parents (having experienced responsive care) show greater self-reliance in the classroom, and less inclination to fall apart under stress, a greater curiosity and willingness to make a strong effort in the face of challenge, and greater flexibility and complexity in their play. Additionally, children with secure relationships with their parents have peer relationships characterized by greater commitment and emotional closeness, and by more positive emotions such children are also more empathic and supportive with other children when the partner is injured, distressed, or less able, but are assertive with aggressive partners.

Middle Childhood

Andrew Collins and his colleagues, in Handbook of Parenting, noted that in middle childhood (generally considered to be from ages five to ten), parents and children spend less time together and that cognitive changes on the part of children greatly expand their capacity for solving problems and gaining necessary information on their own. Other researchers have found that parental monitoring of their children's activities and whereabouts seems to be particularly important, as poor monitoring has been linked to antisocial behavior in middle childhood and adolescence. The effectiveness of monitoring depends on an attentive, responsive, warm relationship between the parent and child. Parents are more effective at monitoring when children are willing to be monitored and actively help parents know where they are and what they are doing. This occurs more often when the relationship between the parents and child is warm and close.

Attentive, responsive relationships between parents and their children in middle childhood are associated with the development of self-esteem, competence, and social responsibility in the child. Children generally perceive parents as sources of support, and children's perceptions that there are available adults with whom they can talk and discuss problems are correlated positively with prosocial behaviors and attitudes such as empathy and understanding of others. Parents' use of explanations that emphasize the impact of children's behavior on others is associated with helpful, emotionally supportive relationships toward others. These interchanges that benefit children occur within the context of involved, sensitive, and responsive relationships in which parents are willing to instruct and children are willing to receive the instruction. In contrast, parents' indifferent, unresponsive behavior toward children is associated with antisocial behavior in children. Antisocial tendencies in children place them at risk for peer rejection and school failure during middle childhood and for later involvement in antisocial behavior as adolescents and young adults.


Grayson Holmbeck and his colleagues, also writing in Handbook of Parenting, noted that the amount of warmth and responsiveness in the relationship between parent and child continues to be important in predicting positive outcomes during the adolescent years and even into the adult years. Warm and responsive relationships between adolescents and parents are associated with a variety of positive outcomes, including self-esteem, identity formation, socially accepted behavior, better parent-adolescent communication, less depression and anxiety, and fewer behavior problems. The challenge during adolescence is that warm, responsive, and involved relationships must be maintained at a time when the asymmetries in power that characterized earlier parent-child relationships are shifting to more equality.

The shift to more equality is driven by the adolescent's more sophisticated social cognitive skills and broader contacts with the environment outside the family. The transition to adolescence involves biological, cognitive, social cognitive, emotional, self-definitional, peer relationship, and school context changes for the adolescent. Cognitive changes may result in more confrontations between parents and adolescents, as adolescents increasingly begin to question and debate parental rules and expectations. Andrew Collins and Brett Laursen have noted that although parent-child conflict typically increases during adolescence, the conflict can serve as an important signal to parents that parenting behaviors need to be modified in response to the changing developmental needs of their children. Thus, parent-adolescent conflict can serve an adaptive function, as conflict can be an impetus to change. Conflicts that occur in the context of generally warm, supportive family relationships may be more likely to help an adolescent's development progress.

Factors that Affect Parent-Child Relationships

Parent-child relationships do not occur in a vacuum, and the context in which the relationships develop are likely to affect the nature of the relationships. Such factors as birth order, financial and emotional stress, social support, gender of the parent, infant temperament, and parent personality may influence qualities of the parent-child relationships and the impact of that relationship on the child's development. Marc Bornstein, in Handbook of Parenting, noted that mothers of first-borns engage with, respond to, stimulate, talk to, and express positive affection for their babies more than mothers of later-borns, even when there are no differences in first- and later-born behavior. Other researchers have found that financial and emotional stresses negatively affect the well being of parents and adversely affect their attentiveness and sensitivity to their children. Bornstein found that mothers who are supported emotionally by their husbands or other adults are less restrictive and punitive with their infants than are mothers without good social support. Mothers and fathers may provide different kinds of relationships and experiences for their children. Ross Parke suggested in his book Fatherhood that the relationships boys have with their fathers or available male figures may be particularly associated with the boys' competence with their peers. Infant temperament clearly influences adults. Having a baby who is easily soothed leads mothers to perceive themselves as more competent parents. Parental personality and functioning also has been found to be important in predicting parent-child relationships. Levels of parent psychopathology are related to qualities of the parent-child relationship and the child's adjustment. The interactions between depressed mothers and their infants are characterized by less positive and more negative emotions, less infant vocalization, and more passivity on the part of the infant.


A large body of literature and theory converges on the notion that it is the relationship between the parent and child that is critical for the positive development of children. Specifically, a common theme during childhood is that the way in which parents are able to sensitively regulate their parenting behavior based on the developmental needs of their children is a critical determinant of positive outcome. Additionally, the context in which the parent-child relationship occurs is important in affecting the qualities of that relationship.



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Martha J.Cox