Academic journal article Family Relations

Mother-Child Conversations about Peers

Academic journal article Family Relations

Mother-Child Conversations about Peers

Article excerpt

It is now widely acknowledged that the quality of children's peer relationships is an important marker of both current and future personal well-being (Asher & Coie, 1990; Parker & Asher, 1987). By preschool, interaction styles with peers are fairly stable, and preschool peer experiences predict the ease with which children make the transition to kindergarten and their subsequent classroom adjustment (Ladd & Price, 1987). Awareness of the importance of peer relationships has prompted researchers to search for the socialization origins of children's peer competence and interpersonal skills in early family experience. Although a considerable body of literature has established that parenting variables figure prominently in children's development of social competence, researchers have typically been concerned with general qualities of parent-child interaction such as warmth, responsiveness, and overall involvement (e.g., Belsky, 1980; Bullock, 1993; Pettit, Harrist, Bates, & Dodge, 1991). These findings suggest that the style of interaction that characterizes parent-child exchanges may communicate social messages to children about the ways that relationships work. At the same time, however, it has become increasingly evident that what parents say to their children about peer relationships may be as important as how they say it. That is, the substance or content of parent-child conversations about peers may provide children with critical social knowledge and skills (Pettit & Mize, 1993).

Two lines of research have examined the content of family talk that is relevant to peer relationships. Several investigations have focused on references to emotions in parent-child conversations. Through conversations with their patents, children are thought to develop a greater sensitivity to the feelings of others and thus to engage in more skillful interactions with peers (Dunn, Bretherton, & Munn, 1987; Dunn, Brown, & Beardsall, 1991; Eisenberg et al., 1992). Observational research by Dunn and colleagues (1987) has documented that by 2 years of age most children are talking with their mothers and siblings about feelings and that mothers' comments during these conversations usually are efforts to guide the child's behavior or explain another's emotions, rather than merely to take note of someone's feelings. Results of a follow-up study conducted when these same children were 6 years old showed that early family talk about emotions was predictive of later understanding of emotions even after controlling for children's verbal ability and the overall frequency of family conversations (Dunn et al., 1991). In a laboratory study in which mothers' conversations with their children were assessed while the pair watched a sympathy-inducing videotape presentation, emotion-based talk (e.g., the mother's expression of sadness and attempts at linking the child's own experiences to those of the protagonist in the video) was found to be associated with heightened levels of children's emotional responding (Eisenberg et al., 1992). Although these studies focus on only one aspect of mother-child conversations (i.e., their emotional references), they highlight the utility of examining more fully the content of mother-child communication and the messages mothers convey in this context.

A second line of research has been concerned with parent-child communications that occur as parents provide their children with guidance and assistance in peer-interaction contexts. This research typically has been conducted in laboratory playroom settings in which parents supervise their children's initial encounters with unacquainted peers (Bhavnagri & Parke, 1991; Finnie Russell, 1988; Russell & Finnie, 1990) or in analogue settings in which parents discuss hypothetical peer relationship dilemmas with their children (Mize, Pettit, Laird, & Lindsey, 1993). This research has shown that variations in the content of parent-child discussions occurring in the peer supervision context are linked to children's social adaptation. …

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