The replacement of experiential explanations of the emergence of universal dispositions or individual variation with biological ones has occurred rapidly and with much less resistance than I would have expected, given the implications of this substitution. The reasons for the shift in perspective are multiple.
On the one hand, thousands of hours of observations of parents interacting with children have not yielded conclusions with the effect sizes investigators expected. Almost 20 years ago, Maccoby and Martin, following a thorough examination of the evidence on family socialization, concluded, “In most cases, the relationships that have appeared are not large. …The implications are either that parental behaviors have no effect, or that the only effective aspects of parenting must vary greatly from one child to another within the same family. ” How can we explain such a pessimistic conclusion?
One reason is that most of the research was relatively unsophisticated. Some investigators asked a mother how she behaved with her child. Others based inferences on less than an hour of observation in a laboratory waiting room. Neither source of evidence was likely to yield robust insights. More important, many psychologists expected to find a relation between what parents did and particular child outcomes and failed to appreciate that the child is always interpreting the actions of parents. The effect of every experience, for example a father's prolonged absence or a divorce, depends on how the child interprets the event. Rarely is there a fixed consequence of any particular event, even a traumatic one.
Most scholars now recognize that parents affect children in subtle and complex ways that are not revealed by crude methods. The assumption that the family has power is supported by the chapters in this Handbook, as well as by the fact that the profiles of children from different class or ethnic groups, all of whom watch the same television programs and attend the same movies, can be dramatically different. For example, Mexican American children are more cooperative and less competitive than African American or European American children living in the same town or city. Japanese children in California work harder in school than Mexican American children from the same region.
Few social scientists would argue with the claim that the experiences associated with a family's social status have a profound influence on development. Well-educated parents are generally more convinced than less well-educated ones that their child can develop internal controls on temptation. Less well-educated parents are more likely to believe that much of the control lies in the outside environment. Middle-socioeconomic parents expect that their decisions and actions have consequences and therefore have faith in their ability to control life events and to guide their children, through their agency, to the ego ideal they hold. Economically less-advantaged parents are vulnerable to believing that they are victims of forces beyond their control. That is one reason why children from families divergent in social-status background develop very different phenotypes. Emmy Werner's