Mothers, Fathers, and Child Care
in a Changing World
Michael E. Lamb, Ph.D.
In the 1970s, there occurred an explosion of interest in the topic of socialization and socioemotional development in infancy, returning to prominence an issue that had fallen from favor in the preceding decades. Like the research and theorizing that dominated the earlier era of concern with this topic, most of the attention during the 1970s was on the family, inasmuch as many of the more important aspects of socialization were believed to take place early in life when extrafamilial experiences were few. Thus it was with parental— especially maternal—influences that psychologists were concerned.
In order to make their hypotheses testable and their models concise, however, students of socialization made a number of simplifying assumptions about the sorts of families in which children were being raised. Prominent among these was the assumption that "normal" socialization took place in the context of two‐ parent families in which fathers assumed responsibility for financial support while mothers eschewed employment in order to assume responsibility for the care of children, homes, and families. This simplifying assumption was never wholly satisfactory because it failed to take into account the many families that violated the supposed norm. Moreover, this "model" of the family has become increasingly unsatisfactory as the number of deviant families has continued to mount. Mothers are employed outside the home in the majority of American families today, for example, and the continuing rise in divorce rates means that many children spend at least part of their childhood in single-parent homes. Unfortunately, psychologists have only recently recognized that the "average" or "traditional" American family is no longer normative and that we must therefore consider the effects of various family forms more systematically and carefully than in the past. This realization has been achieved slowly, and there have thus been few studies designed to explore the effects of changing family forms. Scholars have been satisfied to assume that any deviations from traditional patterns of child care must have adverse consequences.
My goal here is to review the available evidence concerning the effects of new forms of family and child-care arrangements on the development of young children. To do this, I first review our current understanding of the ways in which socialization proceeds in traditional (mother as caretaker, father as breadwinner) two-parent families, summarizing the information without detailed analysis of specific studies and without discussion of topics regarding which much uncertainty remains.