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Diversity, complexity and change in parenting

Parenting during early and middle childhood and how it changes over time.

Written by:
Andrea Waylen and Sarah Stewart-Brown
Date published:

Health and social service workers often have to decide whether parenting is appropriate. Similarly, policy-makers planning services for families need information about parenting norms and detrimental parenting.

This report is intended to provide support for such decision-making, so as both to reduce the risks to children and avoid inappropriate censuring of parents. It examines parenting in Britain during early and middle childhood within different social and cultural groups. It also looks at how parenting develops and changes over time.

  • Part 1 reviews research from the last ten years, highlighting the important themes which emerge;
  • Part 2 describes specific aspects of parenting within these themes in early childhood using data from a sample based in and around Bristol.


This study examined parenting during early and middle childhood within different social and cultural groups in Britain, using a ‘parenting score’ derived from different measurements of parents’ relationships with their children. The study was based on parents’ reports of attitudes, feelings and behaviour recorded in response to specific questions relating to parenting. The study also assessed changes in parenting across time.

Key points

  • Parenting did not vary systematically according to the age, educational level or ethnic group of mothers or fathers.
  • As children got older, parents’ confidence in looking after them decreased. Parents were also more likely to perceive a lack of time for themselves and to dislike the mess surrounding their children.
  • Deterioration in financial circumstances predicted a modest reduction in parenting scores, but improvements in financial circumstances were not associated with improved parenting scores.
  • A reduction in the level of social support over time predicted a reduction in parenting scores, but there was no improvement in scores when social support improved.
  • The largest changes in parenting scores were associated with changes in the mother’s health:
    • deteriorations in physical or mental health were associated with a reduction in parenting scores
    • in contrast to all other variables, improvements in physical or mental health predicted increases in parenting scores.
  • Changes in marital status and housing tenure were not associated with changes in parenting scores, whether these circumstances improved, remained stable or deteriorated.


Parenting attitudes and behaviours are influenced by characteristics of parents and children as well as by family and social characteristics. Parent-child relationships change over time and through alterations in circumstance. Aspects of parenting which predict outcomes for children include sensitivity and attunement in infancy, parenting styles (including authoritative, authoritarian, neglectful and permissive parenting), the management of children’s behaviour and more general aspects of parent-child relationships such as warmth, rejection, hostility and support.

This study investigated aspects of parenting not covered in many other studies. These related primarily to the quality of relationship between parent and child, rather than more commonly explored facets such as discipline and opportunities for learning.

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