The influential child: It is not all up to the parents

Are all parents similarly affected by children's behaviors?

Just like different children evoke different responses from parents, different parents react differently to the same child behavior. Indeed, research indicates that the interplay between children's and parents' characteristics can produce unique contexts for development. Infant's irritability (assessed when infants were 10 days old) was associated with postnatal depression at two-months in high-risk mothers (Murray, Stanley, Hooper, King, & Fiori-Cowley, 1996). Mothers were rated as being at high-risk for postnatal depression based on a predictive index that included questions regarding the experience of pregnancy, previous mood disorder and the quality of close relationships. When these vulnerable mothers had irritable infants they were more likely to fall into depression.

Furthermore, having an infant with poor motor functioning (i.e., poor quality of movement and activity level rated as either hypo- or hyper-aroused) increases the likelihood of postnatal depression in both low- and high-risk mothers. One suggested explanation for this pervasive effect was that these infants are less responsive to parental attention, which limits opportunities for satisfying and rewarding parent-infant interactions. In contrast with poor motor functioning, fussing and crying, although frustrating, may still be seen as attempts of the infant to communicate various needs, and consequently be treated with more understanding and patience by mothers who have the emotional resources to do so. The study demonstrates how the effect of the child on the parent can be conditional. Irritable infants require more attention, and the question is whether their caregivers have the resources to handle the additional challenge they present

A study that also demonstrated this point examined the effect of maternal self-efficacy on the link between infants' behavior and parenting (Leerkes & Crockenberg, 2002). Self-efficacy is defined as the belief in one’s ability to achieve a desired outcome. Contrary to self-esteem it is not a global evaluation of the self, but rather an evaluation regarding a specific ability. The results of the study showed that infant distress to limitations (e.g., not being able to reach a desired item) had a negative impact on maternal sensitivity (how the mother reacted to her infant's cues), but only when maternal self-efficacy was low. It is possible that low self-efficacy causes the mother to be less persistent when encountering a difficult task like a frustrated (and frustrating…), crying infant (Leerkes & Crockenberg, 2002). It is easy to imagine how parents who already doubt their parenting skills would feel after failing to soothe their infant. The failure in reaching the desired goal of a relaxed and quiet infant exacerbates the feeling of incompetence. These contingent influences of the child stress yet again the bidirectional facet of parent-child interactions. Children's effects are not independent of their parents' characteristics.

Do children influence parents only through their behavior?

Children may affect the parenting style they experience even without doing anything. It may be thought that all parents view their children as beautiful and that they will not be affected by their children's looks. However, research findings burst that bubble by showing that parenting is affected by the attractiveness of the child (Langlois, Ritter, Casey, & Sawin, 1995). Mothers of newborn attractive infants were more affectionate (e.g., held the baby close, touched and patted the baby, kept eye contact with the baby) and less engaged in routine caregiving such as burping, cleaning and wiping.

Sex, a factor that children cannot control (adults have some more liberty in the matter), also affects parenting styles. Parents treat boys and girls differently from the very beginning (Witt, 1997). Girls are dressed in colors that are perceived as "girlish" (e.g., pink), and boys are dressed in colors that are perceived as "boyish" (e.g., blue), their rooms are decorated differently, and they are given different toys. Girls are usually brought up to be nurturing and thus they are provided with dolls and encouraged to pretend being mothers. Boys are usually brought up to develop mechanical orientations, so their social environment buys them robots and cars, and they are also encouraged to be tough, and perhaps even aggressive, thus they are provided with weapons and soldiers to play with.

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