Family Structure Effects on Parenting Stress and Practices in the African American Family

By Cain, Daphne S.; Combs-Orme, Terri | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Family Structure Effects on Parenting Stress and Practices in the African American Family


Cain, Daphne S., Combs-Orme, Terri, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The predominant approach to African-American parenting research focuses on disadvantages associated with single parenthood to the exclusion of other issues. The current research suggests that this does not represent the diversity in family structure configurations among African-American families, nor does it give voice to the parenting resilience of single mothers. We argue that rather than marital status or family configuration, more attention needs to be given to the inadequacy of resources for this population.

In the current study, we examined the parenting of infants by African-American mothers and found that mothers' marital status and family configuration did not affect parenting stress or practices. This suggests, then, that single mothers parent as well as their married, partnered, and multigenerational counterparts. It seems that the economic status and parenting perceptions of mothers contributed more to parenting stress than did marital status or family structure. Our study, then, challenges the accepted wisdom in our political and popular culture that has insisted upon the centrality of the nuclear family to all aspects of familial and even national health. Instead, we have shown that a true commitment to strong families and healthy children begins with a focus on the debilitating effects of poverty in the African-American community.

Key words: African-American, infant parenting, parenting stress

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Parenting an infant is a stressful occupation, even under ideal circumstances. Infants require constant attention and, particularly in the first few months of life, must have their every need met constantly (see Combs-Orme, Wilson, Cain, Page & Kirby, 2003, for a discussion of the essentials of parenting specific to infants). Thus it is clear that the full-time job of parenting an infant ideally involves more than one parent. Yet the reality is that many children grow up in homes that do not have two parents present. This is especially true in the African-American community, in which nearly 50% of children are born outside of marriage (or live at some time in a home without one parent or the other) (Andersen, 2000). This study seeks to identify the family structure circumstances that make parenting more or less stressful and successful, and thus seeks to contribute to knowledge that might support parents and families in their efforts to provide the best care possible for every child.

Current research on parenting practices within the African-American community is limited due to an absence of longitudinal research; a severe lack of attention to intragroup variability; a disregard for the inherent diversity in the African-American community; and a minimization of the staggering effects of economic deprivation, racism and social stratification on processes and functioning in the African-American home (Garcia-Coll, Lamberty, Jenkins, McAdoo, Crnic, Wasik & Garcia, 1996). When race is the focal point of research on parenting, between-group differences are paramount in analysis (i.e. European-American vs. African-American), and researchers typically employ a cultural-equivalent theoretical framework (employing theoretical shifts from Allen, 1978). This framework touts European-American, middle-class values and practices as the ideal or norm, and compares African-American values and practices to that norm. African-Americans that are more acculturated and exhibit the values and behaviors of the normed group are depicted as legitimate and are highlighted. However, much of the "race-comparative" research encourages the documentation of unfavorable outcomes of African-American children and families (McLoyd, 1990), and conclusions often concentrate on how African-American children are abnormal, deficient, or incompetent when compared to the middle-class European-American mainstream (Barbarin, 1993; Garcia-Coll, et al., 1996; McLoyd, 1990; Myers, Rana & Harris 1979; Washington & McLoyd, 1982). …

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