J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225
The Dialectics of Parenting: Changes in the Interplay of Maternal
Behaviors during Early and Middle Childhood
Robert H. Bradley1 ● Masumi Iida1 ● Amy Pennar2 ● Margaret Tresch Owen3 ●
Deborah Lowe Vandell4
Published online: 16 June 2017
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017
Abstract Parent and child relationships continuously
evolve, part of an ongoing dialectic that derives from
developmental changes in both parent and child. The focus
of this study is on changes in the strength of association
among four types of parenting behaviors considered
important for children’s development: supportive presence,
respect for autonomy, stimulation, and hostility.
Mother–child interaction was observed for 1229
parent–child dyads at 36 months, 54 months, 1st grade, 3rd
grade, and 5th grade using similar observational paradigms.
The association between respect for autonomy and supportive
presence was strong at age three and continued to be
strong over time. The association between respect for
autonomy and stimulation was modest but also showed little
change from age three to 5th grade. Respect for autonomy
was negatively associated with maternal hostility, but the
relation was complex. It was stronger at 54 months than
36 months but then became weaker through time. Supportive
presence showed a moderate relation with stimulation
at age 3 but the association became weaker over time.
Supportive presence showed an expected negative association
with hostility, a relation that changed little over time.
The relation between hostility and stimulation also became
weaker over time. In effect, there appears to be a shifting
pattern of relations between maternal behaviors during early
and middle childhood, one that reflects an evolving dialectic
in the mother–child relationship.
Keywords Parenting ● Supportive presence ● Hostility ●
Respect for autonomy ● Interpersonal dialectics ●
Parent–child relationships have been a focus of scientific
studies for a century. Based on their review, Collins and
Russell (1991) concluded that parent–child relationships are
constantly being reorganized, “prompted by pressures on
both parents and children to adapt to pronounced physical,
behavioral, and social changes in offspring” (p. 102). This
dialectic leads to gradual shifts in how parents interact with
their children, with movement toward greater acceptance of
the child’s autonomy as the child grows older (Kucynski
et al. 2015). Even so, there tends to be some stability in
parent cognitions and parent motivations (Bornstein and
Lerner 2015); and identity control theory and selfdetermination
theory suggest that parents will continue to
want to assert at least some authority during parent–child
encounters (Grolnick et al. 2007; Joussemet et al. 2008;
Koepke and Denissen 2012).
Research indicates moderate stability in parenting behaviors
such as sensitivity, negativity, intrusiveness, and
emotional support from early childhood to adolescence
(Else-Quest et al. 2011; Feldman 2010; Laursen et al. 2010;
Newton et al. 2014; Pianta et al. 1989; Wang et al. 2013).
By contrast, there is little research on how particular classes
of parenting behaviors tend to be organized during each
developmental period (i.e., the strength of association
* Robert H. Bradley
1 Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA
2 Merrill-Palmer Institute, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI,
3 The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, USA
4 University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
between specific classes such as support for autonomy,
stimulation, hostility); much less how the organization of
these discrete classes of behavior changes from one developmental
period to another. It may be that there is only
moderate stability in the strength of relations between particular
classes over time just as there tends to be only
moderate stability in the level of each. It is important to
document normative adjustments in the organization of
parenting behavior because, as Darling and Steinberg
(1993) argued, the influence of any given class of behavior
depends on its connections with other classes of behavior.
Schroeder and Mowen (2014) found evidence of shifts in
overall parenting style during adolescence, shifts that connected
to delinquent behavior in children. Moilanen et al.
(2014) also observed some shifts in overall parenting style
during early adolescence; but their findings also revealed
that the strength of correlations between more discrete
classes of behaviors that compose parenting style showed
changes as well. This latter shift is important. As Hoeve
et al. (2009), in their meta-analysis of parenting style and
delinquency noted, it is often useful to focus on more discrete
classes of behavior in that their relations with other
behaviors can be different than is the case for overall style.
Both parents and children are active agents in social
encounters. Both parties are conscious of their own behavior
and interpret messages from the “other” in every
encounter (Bugental and Johnston 2000). The combination
leads each party to initiate various forms of behavior during
a given encounter. In these encounters parents may well be
torn between conflicting parenting functions (e.g., exercising
authority, providing guidance, fostering a positive
relationship, promoting a sense of security, arranging
opportunities). Social Relational Theory suggests that as
members of a dyad change, such as generally happens as
children become more competent and autonomous, the
nature of engagement between the two members of the dyad
is also likely to change (Ben-Ari 2012; Kucynski et al.
2015). In that regard, parenting behaviors that co-occur
quite often during one era of a relationship (e.g., high
supportive presence may often be accompanied by high
guidance or stimulation during infancy) may co-occur less
frequently during a later era. Changes in the co-occurrence
of two types of parenting behavior seem likely when the
function of one type of behavior becomes less relevant for
the child (i.e., the child’s skills or proclivities have changed)
or for the purposes of relationship maintenance (i.e., the
dyadic relationship has evolved to one of greater equality).
The co-occurrence of two types of behavior may also shift if
parents perceive that the child’s needs have changed as a
consequence of evolving skills and opportunities for
engagement in the broader environment, societal demands
for performance, or extra-familial supports for particular
skills (Dailey 2008).
As children develop, they are better able to interpret the
impact of their behavior and to self-regulate. As children
enter middle childhood, they tend to utilize their parents less
to solve problems and to help them engage in everyday
tasks (Kerns et al. 2006). As this process moves forward,
parents tend to interpret the child’s behavior differently and
respond accordingly. When children are young and have
limited intellectual and self-regulatory competence, there
would likely be reasonably strong correlations between
parenting behaviors such as supportive presence, provision
of stimulation, and respect for autonomy, as all may derive
from the parent’s general level of investment and positive
feelings toward the child. As children gain skill and have
greater understanding of their surroundings, parents may
intrude less into children’s behavior and parents may be less
inclined to provide guidance and stimulation during an
activity. Thus, the correlation between the parent’s supportive
presence and stimulation might decrease.
Those who study social relationships point to the fact the
human motivations are complex; thus, it can be difficult to
predict the exact direction a relationship will take over time
or how partners in a relationship will change how they
behave during a given type of encounter. Kucynski et al.
(2015) claim that contradiction is a basic process in the
evolving dialectics of parent–child relationships. Accordingly,
it can be difficult to predict whether parenting practices
that are highly associated when children are young will
become even more strongly related or grow weaker as children
age. As Ben-Ari (2012) noted, during any given social
encounter oppositional forces can come into play. When
children are young and have limited capacities to understand
and control their behavior, one would expect that parents
who show high levels of supportive presence and respect for
autonomy for a child would also evince low levels of hostility
toward the child. However, parents would likely have
greater expectations regarding appropriate behavior for an
older child. In some cases parents may actually become less
consistent in what they do vis a vis a child, believing that
children are less dependent on such consistency. Meanwhile,
the child’s increasing sense of autonomy could lead to more
challenging behavior. Such behavior could easily challenge
the parent’s sense of identity (Koepke and Denissen 2012)
and create a perception of disrespect (Grolnick et al. 2007;
Laursen et al. 2010), thereby promoting conflict (Collins
et al. 2006; Laursen et al. 2015). As a consequence, parents
may be more inclined to express disapproval when a child’s
behavior does not meet expectations. Such a shift in the
dynamics of the relationship could reveal itself in a decreased
co-occurrence of parenting behaviors indicative of sensitivity
(e.g., a parent could cycle between being quite supportive
during most of an encounter but then react negatively if
directly affronted during the encounter). The research is not
yet clear on this issue.
J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225 3215
The contradictory forces that can come into play in
parent–child relationships make it difficult to offer strong
hypotheses as regards shifts in the strength of relations
between particular parenting practices as children move
through childhood. These difficulties granted, Belsky and
Jaffee’s (2006) model of parenting would seem to offer a
useful framework to guide analyses pertaining to potential
shifts in associations between the four parenting behaviors
at issue in this study. Their model includes macro- and
micro-system (contextual) factors, parent personality and
personal history, and child factors. Within this framework,
the question then becomes how might particular aspects of
context, parental personality, parental history and child
behavior/characteristics come into play with respect to a
particular type of parenting behavior; in effect, what might
motivate more or less of a particular behavior or set of
behaviors? A factor that helps determine what a parent is
likely to do in any given situation is the actual affordances
of the setting or activity in which a behavior takes place
(i.e., the immediate micro-context; Chemero 2003).
Depending on what a setting/activity demands from both
parent and child and what it allows both to do, changes in
the likelihood of particular parenting behaviors directed
toward the child across early and middle childhood could be
small or quite substantial.
From the vantage point of macro-context, there are
cultural variations in what parents from different societies
or groups tend to do with children, both generally and with
respect to particular settings (Trommsdorff 2006). Even
within societies there are subgroups in which life circumstances
both internal and external to the family motivate
different tendencies in parental behavior (Garcia Coll
et al. 1996; Krishnakumar and Buehler 2000). For most
families, these contextual influences remain relatively
stable. Thus, one would expect that their influence on
particular parenting behaviors would also remain relatively
stable during early and middle childhood. However, relationships
between parents could change; and research
shows that the quality of the marital relationship can affect
parenting behavior (Erel and Burman 1995). The Belsky
and Jaffee model also includes attention to parental characteristics
(mental and physical health, competence, personal
dispositions), with research showing that such
characteristics can play an instrumental role in what parents
do as parents (Prinzie et al. 2009). For the most part,
these personal factors would also tend to be stable as
offspring move through early and middle childhood; albeit,
for some parents there could be changes (e.g., in health).
According to Interdependence Theory, a parent who is
committed to her/his relationship with a child will want to
continue fostering mutual trust and will tend to continue
enacting prosocial behaviors toward the child over time
(Rusbult and Arriaga 1997).
Interdependence theory has long been used as a framework
for understanding how partners in a relationship are
likely to behave during a given encounter (Kelley and
Thibaut 1978). In well established relationships, the behavior
of each person during an encounter depends on: (a) the
extent to which each person is dependent on the partner and
on their joint effort toward a given end; (b) the degree to
which the partners mutually vs. unilaterally need each other
for emotional and instrumental support; (c) the extent to
which partners’ preference for a given outcome are aligned;
and (d) the degree to which one member of the dyad is
dependent upon the other to achieve a given outcome
(Russbult and Buunk 1993). When there is deep investment
in a relationship, as is often the case in parent–child relationships,
parents are likely to balance their own needs with
the perceived needs of the child. Parents will appraise a
given situation (and the child’s behavior in that situation)
based on what they believe the child understands about the
situation and is likely to do in the situation (Holmes 2002;
Kelley et al. 2003). As children age and become more
competent and independent, parental expectations for the
child’s behavior are likely to change. Accordingly, there is
likely to be some transformation in how the parent evaluates
particular behaviors and attempts to exert control and provide
particular types of support during a given encounter
(Rusbult and Arriaga 1997). There is evidence, for example,
that parental communications directed toward children
during ordinary activities tend to move from ones that
provide direction and guidance to ones that involve bilateral
discussions and negotiation of strategies as children move
through middle childhood into adolescence (Kreppner
Self-Determination Theory offers another set of principles
that seem useful in understanding how parents are
likely to behave during encounters with children and how
their behavior might change as children grow older. Specifically
parents bring to joint activities with children their
own ongoing needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness.
In the process of fulfilling those needs parental
behavior is directed so that it fits the circumstances present
in a situation and the perceived needs, competencies and
proclivities of the child (Joussemet et al. 2008). To some
degree, this requires exercising various levels and types of
control in the situation (Grolnick et al. 2007; Joussemet
et al. 2008). For young children, whose own capacities to
take care of themselves and to manage the requirements of
the situation are limited, a parent is less likely to enact their
own propensities to direct children’s behavior so that the
goals of the activity are achieved in favor of allowing some
room to deal with the exigencies that present themselves
(e.g., the child is tired or not feeling well, the child wanders
off-task, etc.). Kucynski et al. (2015) describe this trade-off
as “inner dialectics” that result from contradictions within a
3216 J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225
person deriving from two simultaneously held but opposing
ideas (e.g., I respect my child’s autonomy but I also want to
keep my child safe). In such cases, the parent may continue
to be instrumentally and emotionally supportive to a child,
but have less chance to encourage the child’s self-direction
(respect for autonomy) or provide stimulation directly
connected to task accomplishment.
As children become more competent and self regulated
(i.e., more likely to be attentive and ready to deal with the
affordances of an activity) but not yet highly autonomous,
parents are more likely to enact their proclivities (e.g., offer
overall control in the situation while providing guidance
and support for the child’s engagement in the activity). As a
child moves into middle childhood and becomes even more
competent and inclined to act more independently, a parent
is more likely to back off somewhat and let the child
manage his/her own behavior. In a simple sense this could
change the dialectics from a supportive parent being also
highly stimulating to a supportive parent who is less consistently
stimulating, given the likely perception that the
child doesn’t need as much guidance and information now
in most situations. By the same token, there could be a kind
of ambivalence between wanting to consistently show
support yet let a child manage his or her own behavior
(Kucynski et al. 2015). This could actually result in a parent
offering direct support for the child’s behavior less frequently
and sometimes jumping in to re-direct a child’s
behavior only after the child has made some type of error.
This reactive behavior might sometimes be more negative
(physically or psychologically controlling) than the parent
would be if they took more full control in managing the
activity (Grolnick et al. 2007). In effect, when one considers
the set of behaviors that are often thought to compose
parental sensitivity (supportive presence, respect for
autonomy, low hostility), relations between the more positive
components (i.e., respect for autonomy and supportive
presence) and the negative component (i.e., hostility) may
not be so tight as when children are younger and less likely
to challenge the parent’s own sense of autonomy and
competence (Joussemet et al. 2008) and sense of identity
(Koepke and Denissen 2012). To summarize, for the components
of a broad aspect of parenting behavior like sensitivity,
one may first see a strengthening of ties between
components as children move through early childhood,
followed by a weakening of ties between the positive
components (respect for autonomy and supportive presence)
and the negative component (hostility) as they move
through middle childhood.
For purposes of guiding practice related to parenting, it is
important to determine whether particular parenting practices
become more strongly or less strongly linked over the
course of children’s development. The aim of this study is to
examine shifts in the strength of relation between four key
classes of parenting behavior during early and middle
childhood (stimulation, supportive presence, hostility, and
respect for autonomy—the latter three often considered as
components of parental sensitivity; Kochanska et al. 2008;
Landry and Smith 2011). Such shifts could help clarify
what appears to be a declining impact of parenting on
children’s competence and behavioral adjustment beginning
in middle childhood (Bradley and Corwyn 2013). Partly to
control for the impact of setting conditions on parent
behavior, we standardized the observational paradigm so
that the affordances for behavior would be similar across
ages. Partly to control for the impact of child characteristics
on parent behavior (Russell and Saebel 1997), we included
two child factors in the models as covariates: (1) gender and
(2) competence; and we included child negative behavior as
a predictor. As stipulated in the process model of parenting
(Belsky and Jaffee 2006), parental characteristics and conditions
present in the family context are also likely to
influence how a parent behaves in a given situation, partly
because those factors help determine how the parent’s own
needs are being met. To address these issues, we are
including maternal education and maternal depression as
predictors in the models, as research shows that both tend to
be implicated in parenting practices (Davis-Kean 2005;
Lovejoy et al. 2000). We are also including paternal presence
in the home in the models, given research showing
that maternal parenting is associated with the level of support
received from fathers (Erel and Burman 1995). We also
consider maternal ethnicity/race as a predictor given
research showing their potential influence on parenting
(Garcia Coll et al. 1996; Trommsdorff 2006).
Data came from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and
Youth Development (SECCYD), a prospective longitudinal
study of 1364 children enrolled at birth in 1991 from hospitals
near 10 data collection sites in the United States.
Recruited families had a healthy newborn and varied by
socioeconomic level, sociocultural background, and family
composition (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network
The sample consisted of 1229 families for whom
mother–child observational data were available at
36 months. Data collection prior to school entry was based
on child age. The actual mean age for children at age 3 data
collection point was 37.5 months (SD = .99); the mean age
for the age 54 month data collection was 56.01 months (SD
= 1.14). Data collections for the NICHD SECCYD moved
from an age based protocol prior to school entry to a school
J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225 3217
year based protocol after children entered kindergarten. In
the U.S., children are eligible for kindergarten at age 5.
Therefore, most children are between 6.5 and 7.5 years old
during the spring of Grade 1 (M age = 83.78 months, SD =
3.66). Accordingly, they are between 8.5 and 9.5 years old
in the spring of Grade 3 (M= 107.87 months, SD = 3.72)
and between 10.5 and 11.5 years old in Grade 5 (M=
131.81 months, SD = 4.01). Data were available for 425
families at all four waves, and 167, 128, and 109 families
for any three, two, or one of the waves, respectively. Fiftyone
percent of children were male, and 12% ethnic-minority
(7% African American). Compared to the overall NICHD
SECCYD sample, the sample used for the current study was
more likely to be older, European American, more highly
educated, and have higher incomes. Approximately half of
both mothers and fathers in the sample held at least a
Bachelor’s degree, and 82% of households had an incometo-
needs ratio above 2.0. As prior longitudinal studies using
the NICHD SECCYD have shown, samples at later ages
tend to include a higher proportion of high SES families;
albeit, over time more families had experienced some form
of household instability (Vandell et al. 2010).
Children in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and
Youth Development were followed from the birth to age 15.
Data collection procedures were designed by an investigation
team composed of all site PIs, co-PIs with specific areas
of expertise, personnel from NICHD, and statistical experts
engaged by NICHD. Data were collected in the child’s
home, in non-parental child care arrangement settings, in
schools, and in university-based laboratories using a common
set of procedures at all ten data collection sites.
Training for all data collection procedures was done at a
common location and all data were submitted to a single
separate data analysis laboratory for purposes of data
management. Videotapes of the mother–child interaction
data used for this study were submitted to a common central
lab for purposes of scoring (Vandell et al. 2010).
Mothers’ parenting behaviors (respect for autonomy, supportive
presence, stimulation of cognitive development,
hostility) were assessed during 15-min videotaped
mother–child observations. At 36 months the “three boxes”
procedure was followed. The first box contained washable
markers, stencils and paper; the second box contained dress
up clothes and a cash register; and the third box contained
Duplo blocks. Mothers were told to play with the child
using the materials in each box in the order of the numbered
boxes. At the 54-month lab visit, dyadic mother–child
interactions involved three activities, with the objects placed
in separate boxes: an Etch-A-Sketch task, a construction
task using blocks, and puppets for free-play. During the
Grade 1 assessment, the interaction tasks included working
together to draw a picture of a house and a tree using an
Etch-A-Sketch (with the mother controlling one knob and
the child the other), a patterned block activity that involved
using colored blocks of different parquet shapes to fill in
geometric frames, and a card game. At Grade 3, mothers
and children engaged in an errand-planning task in which
the child determined with mother the best route around a
town map to accomplish 11 errands (e.g., return book to
library). At Grade 5, mothers and children engaged in a
problem-solving task that involved construction of a bungee
jump for an egg. The materials used as part of the task
included a frame, an egg, panty hose, 40 pennies, a ruler,
scissors, paper towels, pages from a newspaper, masking
tape, and a plastic storage box. Parenting behaviors (supportive
presence, respect for autonomy, stimulation of
cognitive development, hostility) were coded using a 7-
point Likert scale (1 = very low to 7 = very high). At each
of the five time points, the same operational definition for
each construct was used to guide the coding. Reliability
estimates for parenting behaviors, via calculation of the
intra-class correlation (ICC) coefficient, ranged from .70 to
.89 over the five assessment periods. Child negativity was
also rated from the videotaped interactions at each age on
the same 7-point scale (1 = very low; 7 = very high).
Reliability estimates ranged from .74. to .89. Although the
overall study protocol allowed for adults other than mothers
to participate in the mother–child interaction paradigm, only
data from mothers were used for this particular study.
Maternal and family variables
During the 1-month home interview, mothers reported their
educational attainment and ethnicity. Because of the limited
number of participants who were ethnic minorities, the
sample was coded 1 = white vs. 0 = other for this study
(consistent with other studies using the NICHD SECCYD
data; Vandell et al. 2010). At every wave, mothers reported
whether the child’s father lived in the home. Maternal
depressive symptoms were assessed at every wave using the
Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD,
Radloff 1977) as well.
Child competence was assessed using the Applied Problems
and Letter-Word Identification component scores from
the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement and Cognitive
3218 J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225
Batteries (1990) at first grade. A composite score was formed
by averaging the standardized scores from the two subtests.
Multilevel modeling (Bolger and Shrout 2007; Kenny et al.
2006) was used to investigate the associations between two
distinct mother behaviors over time. We used multivariate
multilevel modeling to account for residual dependency,
which arises from the nesting structure of the data. More
specifically, we modeled using mother’s parenting behaviors
from the five repeated observations. The coding of
time ranged from 0 to 4, where 0 corresponds to age
36 months (the first wave examined in the study). Times 1,
2, 3 and 4 represent 54 months, 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades,
Each model had two levels: level 1 (within mothers) and
level 2 (between mothers). The level 1 equation modeled
one of the maternal behaviors during the mother–child
observations (e.g., supportive presence) as a function of the
other maternal behavior (e.g., respect for autonomy), the
interaction of the maternal behavior and time, parenting
behaviors, the interaction of parenting behaviors and time,
controlling for level 1 covariates (maternal depression,
father presence). All parenting variables were withinmother
centered (Raudenbush and Bryk 2002). Each pair
of parenting behaviors was examined separately; therefore,
we ran a total of six models: (1) respect for autonomy
predicting supportive presence, (2) respect for autonomy
predicting hostility, (3) respect for autonomy predicting
stimulation, (4) supportive presence predicting hostility, (5)
supportive presence predicting stimulation, and (6) hostility
predicting stimulation. For pairings #2 and #4, the model
also included a curvilinear interaction term (e.g., respect for
autonomy × time2) as these were the only models for which
a curvilinear relation seemed likely (i.e., complex relations
between positive and negative aspects of parental socioemotional
behavior seem likely as parent–child relationships
involve more contradictory motivations as children
gain more self-regulatory competence). The level 2 equation
included the level 2 covariates (child sex, child competence).
All analyses were modeled using the MIXED procedure
in SAS (v9.2, 2003). For each model of mothers’
parenting behavior, the random effects of the other parenting
variable were tested using the nested comparison likelihood
ratio (Singer and Willett 2003). Degrees of freedom
were based on Satterthwaite estimations.
Mothers generally showed moderate to high levels of
respect for autonomy (Ms = 4.6 to 5.3 on a 7-point scale)
and supportive presence (Ms = 4.5 to 5.3) and moderate
levels of stimulation (Ms = 3.4 to 4.5). By contrast, mothers
showed very little hostility, with almost all parents rated in
the low range (Ms = 1.2 to 1.5). The distribution for hostility
was positively skewed with SDs ranging from 0.6 to
Tables 1–6 summarize results for relations between the
four parenting behaviors (see also Figures 1–3). Consistent
with expectations, mothers’ respect for autonomy showed
strong associations with their supportive presence (γ = 0.59,
t(2609) = 21.10, p < .0001) (Table 1) and stimulation (γ =
0.35, t(4150) = 10.07, p < .0001) (Table 3). The association
between respect for autonomy and supportive presence
increased from 36 months to grade 5 (γ = 0.02, t(3340) =
2.06, p < .05), however, the association between respect for
autonomy and stimulation did not show much change from
36 months to grade 5. Respect for autonomy also showed a
robust negative association with expressed hostility (γ =
−0.23, t(3598) = −8.52, p < .0001) (Table 2). However,
there was a curvilinear relation between the two over time,
with the association strengthening between 36 and
54 months then growing weaker from 54 months through
5th grade (γ = 0.03, t(4229) = 3.58, p < .001). Supportive
presence showed a strong association with stimulation (γ =
0.67, t(2274) = 22.68, p < .0001), but one that grew weaker
with time, as expected (γ = −.10, t(3658) = −7.92, p
< .0001) (Table 5). Supportive presence also showed a
robust negative association with hostility (γ = −0.21, t
(3282) = −8.86, p < .001); but, somewhat contrary to what
we expected, the association did not change much over time
(Table 4). Finally, hostility showed an expected negative
Table 1 Multilevel analysis results for respect for autonomy and
γ se 95% Confidence
Intercept −0.031 0.249 −0.529 to 0.467
Respect for autonomy 0.589*** 0.028 0.535 to –0.643
Time −0.040*** 0.009 −0.058 to −0.032
autonomy × time
0.023* 0.011 0.003 to 0.043
Child sex 0.064 0.046 −0.036 to −0.154
Child negativity −0.120*** 0.015 −0.150 to −0.090
Father lives at home 0.195*** 0.044 0.109 to 0.281
Maternal education 0.143*** 0.010 0.123 to 0.163
0.434*** 0.047 0.342 to 0.526
Maternal depression 0.004* 0.002 0.000 to 0.008
Child competence 0.012*** 0.002 0.008 to 0.016
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225 3219
association with stimulation (γ = −0.33, t(3996) = −6.70,
p < .0001) (Table 6). It was an association that became
weaker with time, also as expected (γ = 0.07, t(4268) =
3.47, p < .001).
In each model where maternal respect for autonomy was
examined in relation to other maternal behaviors, child
negativity was a significant factor in the models, particularly
so in the model involving maternal hostility (γ = 0.19,
t(3501) = 16.84, p < .001) (Tables 1–3). Likewise, child
negativity was a strong factor in the model relating maternal
supportive presence and maternal hostility (γ = 0.19,
t(3451) = 16.95, p < .0001) (Table 4); and in the model
linking maternal stimulation and maternal hostility
(γ = −0.09, t(3996) = 6.70, p < .0001) (Table 6). However,
child negativity was not significant in the model linking
maternal supportive presence and maternal stimulation
(Table 5). It was also the case that most other maternal and
child factors included in the models (maternal education,
father presence, maternal race, child competence) were also
significant in all models (see Tables 1–6). The only
exception was maternal depressive symptoms. It was only
significant in the model that examined relations between
maternal respect for autonomy and maternal supportive
presence (γ = 0.004, t(3596) = 2.02, p = .04) (Table 1).
Relationships between parents and children tend to be
complex, with each adapting to the behavior of the other
and an evolving perception of what the other needs and
wants. In the process, both parent and child engage in a
pattern of behavior that is consistent with their own personality
(Belsky and Jaffee 2006; Koepke and Denissen
2012). Findings from this study reveal both consistency and
change in relations between four key parenting behaviors
through early and middle childhood. On the one hand, there
was a strong and consistent relation between two positive
aspects of maternal sensitivity (respect for autonomy and
supportive presence) as each derives from contextual conditions
and parental characteristics and beliefs that tend to
remain stable for most mothers. The continuing strong
relation between these two behaviors is not surprising in
that it reflects a mother’s general disposition to positively
engage her child. Generally speaking, the behavior of
children, although it may change somewhat in response to
Table 2 Multilevel analysis
results for respect for autonomy
γ se 95% Confidence bands
Intercept 3.291*** 0.163 2.972 to 3.610
Respect for autonomy −0.226*** 0.027 −0.279 to −0.173
Time 0.089*** 0.021 0.048 to 0.130
Respect for autonomy × time −0.059* 0.029 −.116 to −0.002
Time × time −0.030*** 0.005 −0.040 to −0.020
Respect for autonomy × time × time 0.025*** 0.007 0.011 to 0.039
Child sex −0.020 0.030 −0.079 to 0.039
Child negativity 0.186*** 0.011 0.164 to 0.208
Father lives at home −0.150*** 0.031 −0.211 to −0.089
Maternal education −0.050*** 0.007 −0.064 to −0.036
Maternal race/ethnicity −0.144*** 0.031 −0.205 to −0.083
Maternal depression −0.002 0.002 −0.006 to 0.002
Child competence −0.004*** 0.001 −0.006 to −0.002
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
Table 3 Multilevel analysis results for respect for autonomy and
γ se 95% Confidence
Intercept −0.653** 0.245 −1.133 to −0.173
0.353*** 0.035 0.284 to 0.422
Time −0.249*** 0.012 −0.273 to −0.225
autonomy × time
−0.018 0.014 −0.045 to 0.009
Child sex −0.026 0.045 −0.114 to 0.062
Child negativity −0.068*** 0.019 −0.105 to −0.037
Father lives at home 0.284*** 0.050 0.086 to 0.382
Maternal Education 0.143*** 0.010 0.123 to 0.163
0.373*** 0.046 0.283 to −0.463
Maternal Depression 0.003 0.002 −.0.001−0.007
Child Competence 0.013*** 0.002 0.009−0.017
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
3220 J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225
the kinds of conditions observed for this study, would not
likely affect degree of co-occurrence for these two aspects
of maternal behavior. Moreover, to partially address the
issue of child impacts on parenting behavior, we included
both child negativity and competence in the equation. On
the other hand, as expected, the consistency of relations
observed between respect for autonomy and supportive
presence throughout early and middle childhood was not
observed for most of the other pairs of maternal behavior.
Somewhat contrary to expectations, the relation between
respect for autonomy and stimulation remained relatively
constant from 36 months to 5th grade. Relations between
the two were moderate. Although the bivariate relation
between the two appears a little lower at 5th grade, for
stimulation the interaction of respect for autonomy and time
was not quite significant. Interestingly, child competence
was positively associated with respect for autonomy and
stimulation. Perhaps mothers derive an overall sense of their
children’s abilities and how likely their children are to
benefit from instrumental support in ordinary daily activities.
Thus, mothers may be predisposed to allow more able
children to engage in most activities without too much
control but also to provide what appears to be useful
information to the child during the course of the activity—a
Table 4 Multilevel analysis
results for supportive presence
γ se 95% Confidence bands
Intercept 3.294*** 0.164 2.973 to 3.615
Supportive presence −0.210*** 0.024 −0.257 to −0.163
Time 0.054** 0.020 0.015 to 0.093
Supportive presence × time −0.028 0.027 −0.081 to 0.025
Time × time −0.021*** 0.005 −0.031 to −0.011
Supportive presence × time × time 0.011 0.007 −0.003 to 0.025
Child sex −0.020 0.030 −0.078 to 0.038
Child negativity 0.183*** 0.011 0.061 to 0.205
Father lives at home −0.158*** 0.030 −0.217 to −0.099
Maternal education −0.049*** 0.007 −0.063 to −0.035
Maternal race/ethnicity −0.145*** 0.031 −0.206 to −0.084
Maternal depression −0.001 0.002 −0.005 to 0.003
Child competence −0.004*** 0.001 −0.006 to −0.002
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
Table 5 Multilevel analysis results for supportive presence and
γ se 95% Confidence
Intercept −0.682** 0.240 −1.152 to −0.222
Supportive presence 0.668*** 0.029 0.611 to 0.725
Time −0.221*** 0.011 −0.243 to −0.199
presence × time
−0.099*** 0.013 −0.124 to −0.074
Child sex −0.027 0.044 −0.113 to 0.059
Child negativity −0.003 0.018 −0.038 to 0.032
Father lives at home 0.280*** 0.048 0.086 to 0.374
Maternal education 0.143*** 0.001 0.141 to 0.145
0.377*** 0.045 0.289 to 0.465
Maternal depression 0.001 0.003 −0.005 to 0.007
Child competence 0.013*** 0.002 0.007 to 0.017
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
Table 6 Multilevel analysis results for hostility and stimulation
γ se 95% Confidence
Intercept −0.493* 0.244 −0.971 to −0.015
Hostility −0.326*** 0.049 −0.422 to −0.230
Time −0.289*** 0.012 −0.313 to −0.265
Hostility × time 0.074*** 0.021 0.033 to 0.115
Child sex −0.021 0.044 −0.107 to 0.065
Child negativity −0.088*** 0.020 −0.127 to −0.049
Father lives at home 0.289*** 0.050 0.191 to 0.387
Maternal education 0.141*** 0.010 0.121 to 0.161
0.368*** 0.046 0.278 to 0.458
Maternal depression 0.003 0.003 −0.003 to 0.009
Child competence 0.013*** 0.002 0.009 to 0.017
* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225 3221
kind of “Matthew effect” that remains fairly constant over
By contrast, the relation between supportive presence
and stimulation did shrink across time. As expected, as
children became more competent and independent as they
grew older, mothers’ provision of guidance or information
during the tasks observed was not as frequently accompanied
by manifest socio-emotional support. A number of
factors might come into play as regards the declining level
of association between maternal provision of stimulation
and manifest socio-emotional support. For example, such a
finding would seem to comport with the idea that mothers
may become more ambivalent about actively directing a
child’s behavior as the child develops greater capacity for
self-direction and has less need for direct assistance. In
effect, advances in child competence may give rise to some
contradictory impulses on the part of parents; that is, the
parent wants to continue to show support but they also
recognize the child’s increased capacities for self-directed
engagement in tasks (Kucynski et al. 2015).
Interestingly, the evolving dialectic between maternal
behaviors connected with sensitivity and stimulation also
were manifest in the gradual weakening of relations
between maternal hostility and stimulation. During early
childhood the relation was moderate (around r = −.35).
However, the relation dropped to lower than r = −.20 by
5th grade. This suggests that a mother’s tendency to display
hostile behavior (generally low levels were recorded during
the episodes observed) was less and less connected to her
propensity to offer information and direction to the child.
What the overall findings seem to suggest is that a mother’s
disposition to provide stimulation is somewhat less connected
to her general propensity to be supportive of the
child during middle childhood than during early childhood.
This comports with the idea that parental expectations
pertaining to child behavior change as children move
through middle childhood and into adolescence (Collins
et al. 2006). In effect, the dispositions pertaining to enacting
various types of parental behaviors in particular kinds of
situations becomes more and more differentiated (an evolving
We attempted to structure our analyses of maternal
behavior in accordance with the general principles of parenting
behavior outlined by Belsky and Jaffee (2006). More
specifically, we included markers of parental characteristics,
child characteristics, and family context in the models. Not
surprisingly, we observed positive associations between
maternal education and three of the four parenting behaviors
examined (respect for autonomy, supportive presence, and
stimulation). Likewise, we observed a negative association
between maternal education and maternal hostility (Davis-
Kean 2005). On the other hand, we found very little association
between maternal depressive symptoms and maternal
behavior—likely because we had very few cases of clinical
depression and mothers who were depressed at the time
observations were scheduled would less likely show up.
The measures of child characteristics showed expected
relations with maternal behavior. Specifically, when children
expressed negative behavior during the observations, it
was associated with higher levels of maternal hostility and
lower levels of maternal stimulation. As noted by others,
when children display disruptive and challenging behavior,
more conflict is observed between parent and child (Collins
et al. 2006; Laursen et al. 2015). The findings are consistent
with classic notions from interdependence theory about
intimate interpersonal relationships (Kelley et al. 2003).
Members of a dyad routinely appraise the behavior of the
Fig. 2 Correlations with supportive presence
Fig. 3 Correlations with hostility
Fig. 1 Correlations with respect for autonomy
3222 J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225
other in light of what they know about a given situation and
what they believe their partner will think and do.
Individual motivations and behavioral tendencies
undergo transformation as the interaction proceeds. Interestingly,
every form of positive maternal behavior was
higher for more competent children. As well, the level of
maternal hostility was lower—another manifestation of a
“Matthew effect” evidenced by these patterns of association.
This finding was not surprising in that prior research has
shown that children higher in academic competence also
tend to manifest better self-regulation and that parents tend
to provide more autonomy support for such children
(Grolnick and Ryan 1989). A concern is what happens
when children are not so competent. Rather than the most
needy getting the greatest level of support, those that
already have the greatest skills tend to get more. (Stanovich
It is noteworthy that father’s presence in the home was
associated in ways that would be predicted with all four of
the maternal behaviors, especially given that multiple predictors
of parenting are included in the models. What
accounts for this relation is not fully clear from the current
study. However, it is likely that paternal presence and
support of the mother (and the family more broadly) would
enable a mother to invest more fully in her children.
Research by Green et al. (2007) showed that mothers with
more social support were less anxious and spent more time
interacting with their children. Having a father present in
the home also tends to be associated with better health and
fewer behavioral difficulties for children (Gardiner et al.
2015; McLanahan et al. 2013). Broadly, a meta-analysis
conducted by Erel and Burman (1995) revealed direct
influences between the quality of the marital relationship
and the quality of the child’s relationship with the parents.
As children grow older, their perceptions of who they are
and what they can do (i.e., their identity) typically undergo
transformation. The “inner dialectics” connected to this
transformation can involve lots of contradictory impulses,
some of which motivate conflicts (or at least negative
exchanges) in relationships with parents (Kucynski et al.
2015; Steinberg and Morris 2001). Research shows that
there is greater lability in perceived closeness and perceived
conflict during the movement through middle childhood and
into adolescence (Marceau et al. 2014; Shearer et al. 2005).
Complementary reworking of the parent–child relationship
is an ongoing process that often pushes parents (especially
mothers) to maintain some control over what transpires
during encounters with their children (Grolnick et al. 2007;
Koepke and Denissen 2012). Reworking can also occur
when parents are trying to promote autonomy while at the
same time challenging children to be more productive
(Dailey 2008), especially as children move through middle
childhood and into adolescence and quit utilizing the parent
as much to make decisions and solve problems (Kerns et al.
2006). As a result, mothers may sometimes act in ways that
are commanding, demanding or even mildly harsh even as
they continue to try to offer support to their children. Such a
movement in the dialectics of parent–child interaction may
well explain the diminishing relations observed between
expressed maternal hostility (again, relatively low levels)
and the three positive parenting behaviors observed in this
study. The manifestation of greater sensitivity was less
connected with less expression of hostility as children
moved through middle childhood. A simple linear pattern
was observed for relations of hostility with both stimulation
and supportive presence; whereas, a more complex curvilinear
relation was observed with respect for autonomy. In
the latter case, there was a small strengthening of the
negative relation with hostility during the period from
36 months to 54 months, followed by a gradual decline in
the association through grade 5. Perhaps the initial
strengthening occurs as a consequence of mothers becoming
less fearful that the child might get hurt and more
comfortable with the child’s capacities for self-regulation.
Specifically, when children are very young mothers are
likely to somewhat torn between the roles of mother as
protector and mother as instrumental supporter of the child.
Thus, they might react occasionally in ways that appear
slightly harsh in an effort to protect a child from harm or to
get the child focused on the task at hand.
Findings from this study are consistent with a shifting
dialectic in mother–child interaction over the course of early
and middle childhood. In some ways this perhaps reflects a
normative process of distancing that occurs in parent–child
relationships as children become more autonomous (Ben-
Ari 2012). Better characterizing the shifting dynamics of
parenting behavior is important, both for those involved in
parent education and those involved in counseling parents
who may have children who present difficulties. Knowing
more about when things happen, how often they happen,
under what conditions they happen, and whether they
change over time gives more precise direction for those
engaged in prevention and intervention efforts. In that
regard, it would be useful for researchers examine shifting
dynamics in parent–child interactions for fathers as well
mothers, and it would be useful to examine possible shifting
dynamics in parent–child interactions during conditions that
have different affordances than those present in the observations
used for this study.
Although study findings are consistent with theory and
research pertaining to shifting dialectics in parent–child
interactions, the study has limitations that must be
J Child Fam Stud (2017) 26:3214–3225 3223
considered in any interpretation of the findings. First, the
sample did not contain very many families that lived in
adverse conditions or families where mothers have clinical
levels of depression. Given that family context is a factor in
determining parenting (Belsky and Jaffee 2006), the associations
observed may not apply to high-risk families.
Second, although an effort was made to use observational
paradigms that had many of the same affordances (e.g.,
there were none specifically designed to promote contentious
behavior), the affordances were not identical at all
measurement points. Thus, some of the estimates could be
somewhat in error. This second limitation acknowledged,
there were not major differences in the mean scores for most
parenting variables across time and relations between key
parenting variables were more like than unlike over time,
with greater shifts following patterns that seemed to follow
Author Contributions R.B.: One of the investigators for the original
NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Was
PI for one of the ten data collections sites, so trained and supervised
data collection staff. Conceptualized current study and helped supervise
data analysis for study. Prepared original text for manuscript and
helped in rewriting text based on input from others. A.P.: Conducted
data analysis under supervision of Bradley and Iida and prepared
original text for Methods and Results sections. Reviewed and offered
recommendations for revision of manuscript. M.I.: Designed data
analysis and supervised Pennar in execution of analyses. Read and
made recommendations for revision of all manucscript sections. M.O.:
One of the investigators for the original NICHD Study of Early Child
Care and Youth Development. Helped design the mother–child
interaction data collection paradigm and supervised the lab that scored
videotapes of all MCI data for the parent study. Reviewed and offered
recommendations for revision of all sections of manuscript. D.V.: An
investigator for the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth
Development. Was PI for one of the data collection sites, so helped
train and supervise data collectors at the site. Helped design the
mother–child interaction tasks. Read and offered recommendations for
revision of the manuscript.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no competing
Ethical Approval All procedures performed in studies involving
human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of
the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964
Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical
standards. The study was conducted as part of a collaborative agreement
between the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development and ten collaborating institutions of higher learning.
Data collection protocols were reviewed and approved by a steering
committee approved by NIH and reviewed by institutional review
boards at the 10 collaborating institutions.
Informed Consent Informed consent was obtained by all individual
participants included in this study.
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Journal of Child & Family Studies is a copyright of Springer, 2017. All Rights Reserved.
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