Starting with the mother's reproductive health and behavior, the child's primary caregivers—be they parents or grandparents or foster parents—structure the experiences and shape the environments within which early development unfolds. A vast store of research, summarized in this chapter, has confirmed that what young children learn, how they react to the events and people around them, and what they expect from themselves and others are deeply affected by their relationships with parents, the behavior of parents, and the environment of the homes in which they live (Bradley et al., 1988; Collins and Laursen, 1999; Dunn, J., 1993; Hartup and Rubin, 1986; Maccoby and Martin, 1983). Even when young children spend most of their waking hours in child care, parents remain the most influential adults in their lives. We shall also see, however, that efforts to change the course of development by strengthening parenting have met with mixed success. Shifting parental behavior in ways that shift the odds of favorable outcomes for children is often remarkably difficult. This perplexing mismatch between the power of parenting and the difficulty of altering it in ways that are sufficient to affect development is one of the major dilemmas confronting developmental scientists and interventionists alike.

It is important to clarify that we use the term “parenting” to capture the focused and differentiated relationship that the young child has with the adult (or adults) who is (are) most emotionally invested in and consistently available to him or her. Usually this is a birth or adoptive parent (thus the use of the term “parenting ”), but sometimes it is a grandparent, a foster parent, or another primary caregiver. Who fills this role is far less important than the quality of the relationship she or he establishes with the child. The hallmark of this important relationship is the readily observable fact that this special adult is not interchangeable with others. A child may not care who cuts his hair or takes his money at the toy store, but he cares a great deal about who is holding her when she is unsure, comforts her when she is hurt, and shares special moments in her life.

Understanding Parenting

Parenting has been a centerpiece of developmental inquiry from the beginning of the field, reflecting the firm belief that childrearing makes the child. Only in the 1990s has this belief come under intense scrutiny, in debates over the influence of parenting relative to that of genetics and peers (Borkowski et al., in press; Harris, 1995, 1998; Rowe, 1994). While these debates have focused on children of school age and older (few dispute the significant role of parents during the earliest years of life), they have implications for the understanding of the more enduring influences of parenting

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