Parental Attitudes Toward
George W. Holden
M. Jeanell Buck
University of Texas at Austin
For much of the twentieth century, childrearing attitudes enjoyed the role of being the preeminent parenting construct. Researchers in the first half of that century believed that attitudes of parents held the key for unraveling the mystery of human development. How could childrearing attitudes reveal so much? Early investigators believed that childrearing attitudes determined parental behavior as well as more subtle family nuances such as the emotional climate (Darling and Steinberg, 1993). In turn, parental behavior was thought to determine child outcome in a unidirectional way (Holden, 1997). Consequently, the key for understanding development, it was believed in the 1930s through the 1950s, was to focus on childrearing attitudes.
What exactly is this psychological construct that was believed to be so powerful? Attitudes are a component of social cognition that refers to a tendency, internal state, or explicit evaluations of an “attitude object” (Eagly, 1992). This internal state biases or predisposes an individual toward reacting favorably or unfavorably to the entity or object. Although attitudes are closely related to other aspects of social cognition, such as knowledge and beliefs, attributions, expectations, and perceptions, attitudesrepresentadistinctclassofthoughts. Inthetaskofchildrearing, itisreasonabletoassumethat parents do indeed develop attitudes about such considerations as breastfeeding, “spoiling” an infant, use of corporal punishment, parental involvement, and a wide range of other topics. Therefore, it follows that attitudes should hold considerable importance in parenting as these thoughts presumably guide how parents think and rear their children.
Although childrearing attitudes continue to be widely investigated, over the past two decades they have been dethroned from their once lofty research perch. Researchers now have a more realistic understanding of what attitudes can and cannot reveal. But at the same time, childrearing attitudes are undergoing an identity crisis. Their stature as a fundamental childrearing construct has been chipped away by the oft-cited recognition of methodological problems, the uncertain relation they hold to behavior, and the apparent promise of new social cognition constructs.