Research studies consistently find that family factors influence children's development (e.g., National Research Council, & Institute of Medicine, 2000; Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, & Hetherington, 2000; Miller, 1998; Kirby, 1999). Considerable research indicates that parents are very important to children's development and that the types of influences that parents have are broad and occur throughout childhood (Borkowsky, Ramey & Bristol-Powers, 2000). Here we highlight some of the crucial elements of family functioning that affect children's development.
The relationship of the child with their parent(s) is a crucial predictor of children's development (Hair et al., 2002). This holds not only for the relationship of the child with their residential parents, but with their biological parents outside of the home (if any). Among young children, this is often referred to as “attachment,” while “connectedness” or “parent-child relationship” is often noted among school-age children. It is important to note that this relationship continues to be important throughout childhood and into the transition to adulthood, as well as throughout the life course (Peterson, Madden-Derdich, & Leonard, 2000). Parental warmth is a related aspect of family functioning, which has been found to be associated with more positive development for children (Demo & Cox, 2000).
The quality of the marital or partner relationship between the child's parents or parent and step-parent or partner has also been regularly found to affect children's development and contributes to the quality of parenting (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Amato, 2000; Simons & Johnson, 1996). In addition, marital satisfaction is a critical component of life satisfaction for adults as well (Bradbury, Fincham & Beach, 2000). This indicates that in addition to measuring family structure and whether or not the child resides with both biological parents, it is important to assess the quality of the relationship that exists between the residential parents. It is also important to assess the frequency of contact and the relationship between the child and an absent parent.
The issue of family or domestic violence represents a more extreme topic but it is an important extension of the construct of the quality of family relationships and interactions. Research consistently finds an association between exposure to family violence and poorer developmental outcomes for children and adults, though the magnitude of the effect on children of observing violence is described as small (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). At the low end, marital and family disagreements and conflict resolution can be issues, while, at the high end, physical abuse and injury are concerns.
Family routines represent another important element of family functioning (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992), for a variety of reasons. Families with regular patterns and habits may be more likely to provide for children's needs and also to create a sense of stability and trust. From the opposite perspective, turbulence has been found to undermine children's development (Moore, Vandivere & Redd, forthcoming). Turbulence in schools (Pribesh & Downey, 1999), child care (Howes & Hamilton, 1993), family structure (Cherlin, 1999), and residence have each been found to be associated with poorer outcomes for children.
Monitoring and supervision of children's friends and activities represent another aspect of family functioning that is important for children's development. However, in cross-sectional studies, high levels of monitoring are often found associated with problem behaviors, presumably because children with behavior problems are monitored more closely. Catsambis & Beveridge (2001) found that parental monitoring was particularly beneficial to students in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Of course, appropriate monitoring varies substantially by age, and measures need to address this. Likewise, gatekeeping, resource management, and networking are important functions that parents perform for their children that influence child outcomes (Furstenberg et al., 1999).
Parenting style is a categorization of parental approaches, which examines responsiveness and demandingness together (Darling & Steinberg, 1993). Authoritative parents are "high in both demandingness and responsiveness," while authoritarian parents are "high in demandingness but low in responsiveness;" indulgent parents are "high in responsiveness but low in demandingness;" and neglecting parents are "low in both responsiveness and demandingness" (Darling & Steinberg, 1993, p. 491).
Communication in the family represents another critical element of family functioning (Miller et al., 1998). This communication may occur between the parents, between parents and children, or among all family members. Positive constructive communication is regularly recommended for families; but it is important to note that both the quality and quantity of communication are important. A particular case of parent-child communication is communication about school. When parents communicate with their children about school and about their expectations for their children, children tend to perform better in school and have higher educational expectations themselves (Fan & Chen, 1999; Trusty, 1999).