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Increased Emphasis on Genetics

The next point is related. The child characteristics that affect parenting are in part a function of the child’s previous socialization history. But they are also in part a function of the child’s genes. The last 20 years or so of research in behavior genetics have indicated clearly that genes make a substantial contribution to individual differences on a wide range of developmental outcomes—certainly a stronger contribution across a wider range of outcomes than had previously been suspected. It was for this reason that J. R. Harris (1998) could argue that correlations between parents and children were primarily genetic rather than environmental in origin. Even if this strong view is not accepted, it is clear that parent-child relations cannot automatically be assumed to have an environmental basis. It is also clear that genetic differences among children are one contributor to differences in how parents treat children.

Increased Emphasis on Context

The final change that I identify is in a sense the broadest in scope. It is the realization that any particular parental practice cannot be studied in isolation; rather it can be understood only once contextual factors of a variety of sorts are taken into account.

As an example, let us consider an instance of physical punishment—say, a mother who spanks her child for a misbehavior. What factors might be important in determining the effects of the spanking? Here is a partial list of considerations. How old is the child? Spanking may well have different effects at age 4 than at age 1, and different effects still at age 14. What is the misbehavior that led to the spanking? Is it something whose wrongness the child is likely to admit (e.g., running into the street) or is it something for which the seriousness of the transgression is more in dispute (e.g., failure to clean one’s room)? Is spanking a rare or frequent action on the mother’s part? Does it occur in isolation or is it accompanied by reasoning that explains why such a severe punishment is being administered? Is the quality of the overall relationship between mother and child generally warm and supportive or is it more cold and distant? Do the father or other disciplinary agents respond similarly to such a transgression, or does the child receive different messages from different adults? And is spanking a generally accepted, expectable consequence within the cultural or subcultural group to which the family belongs, or is the mother’s response a departure from the cultural norm?

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