Parental Roles

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In the opening years of the twenty-first century, most adults are or will become parents. The ages at which they start having children, as well as the number of children they have, differ significantly from earlier generations and from culture to culture, as do the social and economic conditions of parenthood. In this article, several major aspects of parenthood in the contemporary United States—and other industrialized nations—are discussed. First, several demographic patterns associated with parenting are reviewed. Second, the rewards and costs associated with parenting are examined. Third, changes in the responsibilities of parents, as defined by social perceptions of the nature of childhood, are discussed. In this section, special attention is given to gender differences in parenting styles. The fourth section examines the impact of the first child's birth on the parents. The paper closes with a discussion of parent-child relations in middle and later life.


Average Number of Births per Woman. One of the most dramatic changes in the nature of parenthood in industrialized nations has been the declinein the average number of births to each woman. In the United States, this number has decreased from seven births per woman to two, over the past 200 years. This downward trend has not been steady or consistent, however. During some periods, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rate of decline was much more pronounced, while at other times, most notably during the post-World War II baby boom (1946–1962), the number of births per woman actually increased. In 1936, the middle of the Depression, American women were giving birth to two children, on the average. At the peak of the baby boom, in 1957, the number reached 3.6 births per woman. For nearly twenty years following this peak, the birth rate dropped dramatically. Since the mid-1970s, the birth rate has been fairly stable. There are, however, racial and socioeconomic differences in fertility. In the United States, white women have the fewest births, followed by black and Hispanic women. White women aged 40 to 44 have given birth to an average of 1.9 children, while African-American and Hispanic women have had 2.1 and 2.6 children, respectively (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1999).

Reasons for the Declining Birth Rate. Why has the average number of births per woman decreased over the past 200 years? One major reason is that in the past women had little control over their childbearing. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, married women gave birth to as many children as they were biologically capable of having. This pattern persisted into the twentieth century for many women, although by the end of the nineteenth century many middle-class women were beginning to use birth control. Childbearing in the United States is now largely controlled through the use of various contraceptive methods and, to a lesser extent, through medically induced abortion. Most people have the number of children they want to have, and generally, they want no more than two children. Only a small percentage of couples want, and actually have, more than two children (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, pp. 183–184).

A second reason for the historical decline in childbearing is that children are no longer economic assets for their families. Through much of the nineteenth century, the labor of children helped families survive. Most Americans lived on farms, where children could help out in many ways. Even the children who lived in small towns and cities often worked at young ages to help support their families. When laws pertaining to child labor and mandatory education were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children became less valuable to their parents in economic terms. Today, children require large economic expenditures from their parents, as discussed later in this article. Most people have the number of children they think can afford, and thus, the number they have is much lower than in the past (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, p. 184).

A third reason for today's low fertility rate is the high number of women who are in the paid labor force. Economic need has led to a dramatic increase in the employment of mothers, married as well as divorced. In 1960, fewer than one in every five mothers of preschool children was employed. Today, over 60 percent are employed. The increased demand for substitute child care has become one of the most pressing social problems in industrial nations. Child-rearing duties decrease the amount of time and energy women can devote to their jobs; therefore, those who are career oriented may choose to forego childbearing altogether or to limit the number of children they have (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997).

Changes in the Characteristics of Parents. Social change in the twentieth century has not only reduced the average number of children born per woman in industrialized nations but has also seen a change in the marital status and age at which women begin to have children. The childbearing period seems to be expanding, as some women continue to become mothers in their teen years while others wait until they are in their late twenties, thirties, or early forties. Developments in reproductive biology have even made it possible for women who have gone through menopause (which typically occurs in the early fifties) to have babies. Teenage childbearing was fairly common in the post–World War II baby boom, but most of the teenagers who had babies during that era were married. Teen birth rates fell from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s then increased in the early 1990s. Today, the rate of teen childbearing is lower than it was at the beginning of the 1990s, but most teen births (71 percent) occur outside of marriage (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, p. 186). Another significant change in fertility is the increase in births to unmarried women. Today, American women spend fewer years in marriage because they are marrying at older ages and are more likely to get divorced. As a result, there is less time available to them to have children within the context of marriage. One-third of all births in the United States today are to unwed mothers. The rate is higher among blacks than it is among whites. Childbearing outside marriage actually varies widely among industrialized nations, from Japan, where only 1 percent of all babies are born to unmarried women, to Sweden, where the comparable figure is 53 percent.

As a consequence of the high out-of-wedlock birth rate and the high divorce rate, an increasing number of adults are engaging in solo parenting. In 1995, about twelve million American families—or about one-fourth of all families with children—had only one parent (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995). While the majority of single parents are women, men are also raising children alone. Today, about one-sixth of all single-parent homes are headed by men.


The demographic shifts that have occurred in industrial nations since World War II—particularly the increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock births—have increased the likelihood that children will have little or no contact with one of their biological parents during some period of their childhood. Only one in every four children of divorced parents who live with their mothers sees his or her father once a week; and close to half have little or no personal contact of any type with their fathers after divorce. Men's contact with their biological children from previous marriages is reduced when they remarry and become involved in the lives of stepchildren or have children with their new partner. Other adults, however, may step in to fill the gap in children's access to their biological parents. For instance, three-fourths of the children who live with their fathers share their homes with other adults. About one-third live in multigenerational households (with grandparents and other relatives), and another third live with their father and his intimate partner. Children in these homes may or may not benefit from the added financial and emotional resources that nonrelated adults can offer (Shehan and Seccombe 1996).

Single-parent families headed by women often have financial problems. Many live below the poverty level. A major contributing factor to this "feminization of poverty" is the fact that not all noncustodial fathers are ordered by the courts to pay child support after divorce, and, of those who are, fewer than half actually pay the full amount.


The major changes in family patterns that have occurred over the past twenty-five years have made government leaders from around the world very aware of family problems. Concerns about declining birthrates and the aging of the population have been widespread throughout industrial nations. Many governments have adopted "pro-family" attitudes and attempted to create more supportive environments for families. But industrial nations have differed significantly in the extent to which they have provided support for families. The U.S. government has been reluctant to assume public responsibility for care of children, instead passing laws that reinforce the private nature of child support obligations. According to one indicator of "family friendliness," the United States, along with Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Greece, is among the least generous of the industrialized nations in terms of its benefits packages for families with children (Gauthier 1999, p. 7).

As women's labor-force participation increased in industrialized nations in the 1970s, renewed attention was given to the provision of maternity leave plans. In most countries, these plans were upgraded, at least in terms of their duration, increasing by six weeks, on average across eighteen industrialized nations. Major increases in maternity pay also occurred in most countries. But in the United States, where only thirty states had provisions for maternity leave, no pay was mandated. In 1992, the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The legislation provides public and private employees in companies with fifty or more workers the right to take up to twelve weeks leave each year to care for a newborn or newly adopted child; or for a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent; or for their own serious health conditions (Gauthier 1999).


Since individuals are now better able to control their reproductive functions due to advances in contraceptive technology and access to legal abortion, it is important to examine why the majority of adults still choose to become parents. For most people, becoming a parent involves a decisionmaking process in which the anticipated rewards and costs of parenting are weighed. One major influence on this choice is societal pressure. While most societies encourage fertility among their members, the United States is considered to be particularly pronatalist, which means its dominant values and attitudes promote and encourage childbearing (Schoen 1997).

Rewards of Parenting. In earlier historical periods, children were valued in large part because their labor could greatly enhance a family's economic survival. Today, children may continue to have economic value for parents who view them as a type of old age insurance. A small minority of parents, typically those from rural areas, also see children's ability to participate in household labor as a valuable asset. Having children may also enable a family to maintain control over property or a family-owned or family-operated farm or business. For most families, though, children may be more of an economic liability than a benefit. Their primary value to their parents is emotional and symbolic. Understanding the noneconomic benefits of child rearing helps in understanding why most people choose to become parents when they are no longer forced to do so by biological necessity.

Studies of the value of children to their parents have identified many major rewards that child rearing provides. One reward is family continuity or personal immortality. The birth of children ensures that the father's family name will continue into the future, at least for one more generation, and may give the parents a sense of immortality, a feeling that part of them will survive after death.

Becoming a parent can also lead to a change in social identity. It bestows adult status, which carries with it implications of maturity and stability. In fact, for many people, parenthood is the event that gives them a sense of feeling like an adult. Having children may also produce a sense of achievement, not only for the physical fact of conception but also for the challenges of raising a child. Moreover, many parents also feel a sense of accomplishment through their children's achievements. Finally, during the child-rearing years, the legitimate authority that is attached to the parent role, as well as the resulting power and influence parents have over their children's lives, may increase parents' self-esteem, especially for those who have little control over other aspects of their lives.

The most frequently mentioned reward of child rearing involves primary group ties and affection. Children help their parents establish new relationships with their own parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and friends; such relationships can provide emotional support and practical assistance. Children are also expected to help prevent loneliness and to provide love and companionship for their parents. Many people regard childbearing as a sacred duty and may feel that by becoming parents they are fulfilling a divine commandment. Moreover, the physical and symbolic sacrifices involved in child rearing are perceived by some as a sign that parents are more virtuous and altruistic than childless adults (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, pp. 187–189).

The Costs of Parenting. There are also numerous costs associated with parenting. These costs are economic as well as social and emotional. Over the years, economists have estimated the direct economic costs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical and dental care, toys, recreation, leisure, and education) and the indirect economic costs (e.g., foregone savings and investments, lower standards of living, and loss of potential income for parents who leave the labor market to care for the child) of child rearing. The direct costs of raising a child to age 18 have risen by more than 20 percent in recent decades, after adjustments for inflation and for changes in family size have been made. In 1998, raising a child to adulthood, which includes sending her or him to a state university for four years, costs middle-income parents an average of $459,014; that's $301,183 in direct costs and $157,831 in costs associated with college education (Longman 1998).

Another important economic cost of parenthood that must be considered is the current or future family income that is given up when parents leave the labor force—or reduce their hours in employment—to care for children. Virtually all parents face some opportunity costs in having children. Using estimates and procedures developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which provides reports on the costs of child rearing annually—the following example of the opportunity costs encountered by parents is offered. A married woman with an annual salary of $23,600 who stays home to care for a child from birth until kindergarten age (at which point she reenters the labor force on a half-time basis) can expect to sacrifice nearly $1 million in lost income by the time that child reaches age 21 (Longman 1998). When opportunity costs are added to the direct costs of child rearing that were listed above, a middle-income couple can expect to spend slightly more than $1.45 million on one child by the time she or he completes college.

In the United States and other industrialized nations, however, parents receive some governmental subsidies for raising children. In the United States in 1998, each dependent child was worth a $2,650 deduction on his or her parents' federal income taxes. Parents are also able to take a tax credit for child care expenses—a maximum of $720 for one child in a low-income family to a maximum of $1,440 for two or more children (Longman 1998).

The presence of children may also be costly to adults through the restriction of their activities and the resulting loss of freedom. Parents are responsible for the mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social development of their offspring. Obviously, such responsibility may consume much of the parents' time and attention and may require a readjustment of lifestyle to take the children's needs and activities into account. Consequently, parenting may have negative effects on marriage. Studies have shown that the birth of children may hurt a couple's affectional and sexual relationship, due largely to frequent interruptions, a loss of privacy, and increased demands on time and energy. The birth of children often results in role segregation, which means that spouses engage in fewer joint activities as they attempt to fulfill their parental responsibilities (Walzer 1998).

When the Costs Outweigh the Rewards. For a small minority of adults in industrialized nations, the anticipated costs of having children outweigh the anticipated rewards, and they decide to have no children. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the proportion of childless marriages in the United States was only 5 to 10 percent. The rates of childlessness increased in the last decades of the century, however. In the late 1990s, nearly one in every five American women aged 40 to 44 (considered the final years of the childbearing period in women) was childless (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995, 1999).

The individuals with the highest education in our society are the ones least likely to have children, because they experience the highest opportunity costs associated with childbearing and child rearing. In the United States, middle-aged women with graduate degrees are three times more likely than those who drop out of high school to be childless. Two-income couples who earn more than $75,000 are much more likely than those who make less than $20,000 to be childless (Longman 1998).

Adults who choose to remain childless may believe that having children would interfere with their ability to achieve in their careers or in other types of public service. They may feel that caring for children would drain away the time and energy that could be devoted to other highly valued pursuits. Another important consideration for such adults is the expectation that the commitment to parenthood would reduce the time available to devote to their marriage. To voluntarily childless couples, marriage rather than children may be the primary source of affection and sense of belonging.


Views of children and childhood, and of parental responsibilities, have changed over the centuries. For most of human history, simple physical survival of children was the dominant issue in child rearing. Prior to the seventeenth century, parental love was rarely identified by child-rearing experts as a critical factor in the development of a child. In medieval societies, there was no recognition of any characteristics that distinguished children from adults; children merged naturally into adult society from about the age of 7. There were no boundaries separating the adult world from the world of children (Cunningham 1995). It wasn't until the sixteenth century that childhood was viewed as a period of innocence. Children were idolized and valued as a source of amusement or escape for adults. Later in the sixteenth century, and carrying over into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, childhood began to be seen as a time of immaturity and children were believed to need discipline and guidance as they prepared for adulthood. Parents were expected to provide physical care, consistent discipline, and a model for proper behavior.

At the close of the nineteenth century, during the Victorian age, awareness of the vulnerability of children and a belief in the sacredness of childhood emerged. Compulsory schooling, which removed children from the labor force, was introduced and drew a sharp line between childhood and adulthood. Once children were regarded as different from—and inferior to—adults, they became dependent on older persons for survival (Shehan 1999). In some segments of American society today, there is a belief that parents alone can—and should—meet all their children's needs. Parents are responsible not only for their children's physical well-being but also for their psychological adjustment. Often, flaws in a person's adjustment are traced to a lack of parental love or some other parental shortcoming.

The Mother Role. To many people, parenting is synonymous with mothering, and mothering is believed by many to be an instinct found in all women. While scientists have yet to find an instinctual motive for motherhood among humans, they have demonstrated a strong learned need among women to have children. Most women, given the choice to become mothers, would choose to do so, and most women who are already mothers would choose the role again (Genevie and Margolies 1987).

The belief that motherhood is necessary for women's fulfillment and for the normal healthy development of children has waxed and waned throughout our history, largely in response to economic conditions. When women's labor is not needed outside the home, the mother role is glorified and exalted; when women's labor is essential to the economy, the importance of the mother-child bond is downplayed (Margolis 1984). Earlier in our history, when our economy was agrarian, parenting was more of a joint venture. Child rearing was shared among a larger number of adults and the mother-child bond was not regarded as primary. Only after industrialization and urbanization changed the nature of work and family life did the role of mother in child development become preeminent. As will be discussed below, similar changes are under way in regard to the father role.

The Father Role. While the verb to mother is used to refer to the nurturance and care given to children, usually by women, the verb to father has a much more restricted meaning. To many, this simply refers to the male role in procreation. The responsibilities attached to the father role have traditionally been economic. To be a good father, a man had to be a good provider. Participation in the daily custodial care of the child was not expected, nor was companionship or nurturance. In recent decades, with the entrance of large numbers of mothers into the labor force, the expectations attached to the father role have begun to change. Men can no longer be good fathers simply by being good providers. They must also participate more fully in the daily care of their children and in the socialization process (Griswold 1993).

It appears that these expectations are being reflected in changed behavior. More fathers are attending childbirth education classes with their wives and are present at the births of their children, and the average amount of time men spend with their children has increased since the early 1970s. These changes support the argument that men are psychologically capable of participating in all parenting behaviors. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the extent to which Americans' ideas about the father role have changed since the 1940s can be found in the expert advice on parenting. In the first edition of his classic book about child care, which was published in 1945, Dr. Benjamin Spock reminded fathers that they need not be as involved in child care as mothers, at most preparing a bottle for the baby on Sundays. By the 1980s, Dr. Spock was admonishing fathers to take on half of all child care and housework tasks.


Some sociological studies have found that many couples experience the birth of their first child as a crisis. The changes brought about by the addition of a baby to a household are indeed extensive. Occupational commitments, particularly of the mother, may be reduced, and family economics must be reorganized as spending increases and earnings are reduced. Household space must be reallocated to accommodate the infant's lifestyle. The parents' time and attention must be redirected toward the infant. Relationships with kin, neighbors, and friends must be redefined to include the baby's schedule. The marital relationship itself may be disrupted due to the enormous demands for time, energy, and attention made by the baby. As a result, new mothers frequently report unexpected fatigue, confinement to the home and a sharp reduction in social contacts, and the loss of the satisfaction that accompanied outside employment. New fathers may feel added economic pressure (Walzer 1998).

The severity of the crisis experienced by new parents does not seem to be related to the quality of the marital relationship before the birth of the child or to the degree to which the child was planned and wanted. Instead, it may be the degree to which the parents had romanticized parenthood in conjunction with their lack of preparation for the role that leads to a feeling of crisis. As a result of the tremendous changes brought about by the presence of children and the burdens associated with child rearing, marital satisfaction appears to decline sharply around the time of the first child's birth and to remain low until children leave the home (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, pp. 213–214).


During the twentieth century, there was a steady increase in the number of young adults who returned to their parents' homes to live. When children return home to live with their parents, there are both advantages and disadvantages. Many of the problems are caused by the ambiguity of the situation. Parents may wonder whether they should establish and enforce rules governing their children's behavior (e.g., curfews, financial obligations, use of drugs and alcohol, and guests). Both parents and their young adult children are likely to revert to the roles they played when the children were adolescents. Young adults may revert to being emotionally, physically, and financially dependent on their parents but may find it stressful being "adult teenagers." Parents, too, are likely to feel stress when their young adult children return home to live. They are often forced to make major changes in their daily routines, and to take on unwanted burdens such as extra cooking, cleaning, and laundry when children return home. There can also be financial strains for the parents, associated with larger food bills and greater utilities costs. Conflicts between parents and their adult children may arise simply because of crowded household conditions. When adult children bring their furniture, sports equipment, pets, and clothing back home, the "empty nest" can become a "cluttered nest." But in spite of the problems that can arise when young adults live with their parents, both groups typically feel that the situation has many benefits (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, pp. 260–265).


The rewards of parenting can persist throughout life. Continued attachment to their children helps to minimize elderly parents' sense of isolation and loneliness. Children's readiness to take care of parents' needs helps to build a sense of security in old age and is important in day-to-day survival. However, elderly parents also want to continue to help their children. Their contributions to their adult children occur in many forms, from providing financial assistance to help with housework and care of grandchildren. Elderly persons derive a great sense of pride and satisfaction from their parental role, even when their sons and daughters are middle-aged adults with children of their own. Being recognized by their children for their value and competence as parents helps them to maintain high levels of self-esteem. When adult children provide aid and assistance to their elderly parents—especially if they take a condescending attitude toward their parents and make all decisions for them—the latter may find it demoralizing. The ideal situation is one where elderly parents and their adult children help each other and make decisions together. All things considered, the relationships between elderly parents and their adult children are very positive (Shehan and Kammeyer 1997, pp. 273–275).

(see also: American Families; Family Roles; Fertility; Socialization)


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Constance L. Shehan