The parent-child relationship is the most primary intergenerational relationship in the family, and to some, the very relationship that defines a family. Recall the definitions of family we explored in chapter 1, some of which named an adult and a dependent as the necessary ingredients for family (e.g., Popenoe's definition). Unlike mate relationships, which are usually relationships of choice, children do not choose their parents. Regardless of whether parents consciously choose to have children, the parent-child relationship is one of obligation to some extent. Societal structure and the child's needs obligate parents to care for their child. Children are born dependent on their parents and require the aid of their parents longer than do most other animal species.
As we begin to review research on parent-child communication, one immediate question is who are the parents and children that are the subject of such research. Until the 1970s, most empirical research on parent-child communication was actually research on mother-child communication (Grolnick & Gurland, 2002). Parenting was a task reserved primarily for mothers, because divided sex roles, especially those typical of the mid1900s, encouraged fathers to place their primary focus on resource allocation in the workforce (Mintz, 1998). Mothers were thought to have a direct and exclusive influence on their children, for better or for worse. Mothers were lauded for providing children with secure bonds and proper socialization, and they were also blamed for problems the child developed. This view led to a trend termed “mother-blaming”—a term insinuating that people have overestimated the effect of mothers' behavior on children, when not all child problems stem exclusively from the influence of mothers (Grolnick & Gurland). Influences from peers, fathers, the family system, external events, genetics, and numerous other sources contribute to multiple and complex interactions between the child and his or her environment. Although research on mothering still dominates parenting research, family scholars have recently witnessed an intense focus on the role of fathers and the larger family system in parent-child interaction. Some suggest that fathers teach, model, or mentor children in ways that complement the skill repertoire of mothers (Furstenberg, 1998, p. 296). Others suggest that mothers and fathers may not be so different in their child-care competencies or even in their interactions with children (Gauvain, Fagot, Leve, & Kavanagh, 2002). The diversity of parent-child relationships is enormous, due to differences in age and sex (e.g., mother-infant, father-adolescent daughter), as well as other complex variables such as family structure, culture, and class. In this chapter,