Daphne Blunt Bugental
University of California, Santa Barbara
Causal reasoning is a central component in the social life of humans. Our interactions with children (as with all our social interactions) are continuously influenced by our attributions concerning the reasons why they do things, the reasons why we ourselves do things, and the reasons why shared interactive events work out as they do. We speculate about the possible causes of events that have occurred in the past, ongoing events at the present time, and possible future events. In doing so, we facilitate our ability to understand, predict, and effectively function within relationships—including parent–child relationships.
Although many aspects of parenting relationships among humans are widely shared with non humans, attributional processes within social relationships are more distinctively human. Indeed, it may be that causal inference processes are only shared with our closest primate relatives (Boysen and Himes, 1999). Consideration of these higher level processes came to the fore late in the 1970s. Researchers had recently moved away from an exclusive focus on parent effects to include consideration of the role of child effects on parental practices (Bell, 1968). Within this new direction, it was soon recognized that child effects are qualified by the interpretation parents give to their children's actions (e.g., Bell, 1979; Sameroff, 1975).
Parents have the capacity to respond to identical social stimuli in different ways based on the causal inferences they draw. A crying infant, believed to be tired, may elicit parental sympathy and comforting efforts. The same infant behavior, if the child's needs have apparently been met, may elicit parental irritation or even anger. To some extent, parents rely on shared heuristics in drawing causal inferences about caregiving events; for example, explicit child disobedience accompanied by nonverbal cues suggesting defiance may be commonly seen as intentional in nature. At the same time, parents also show variability in the kinds of causal inferences they draw. In this chapter, we will consider the nature and reasons for variations in parental attributions across time, setting, and person.