When Gamini finished surgery in the middle of the night, he walked back through the compound into the east buildings, where the sick children were. The mothers were always there. Sitting on stools, they rested their upper torso and head on their child's bed and slept holding the small hands____He watched the children, who were unaware of their parents' arms. Fifty yards away in Emergency he had heard grown men scream for their mothers as they were dying____He turned away from every person who stood up for war. . . . He believed only in the mothers sleeping against their children, the great sexuality in them, the sexuality of care, so the children would be confident and safe during the night. (Ondaatje, 2000, p. 119)

This piquant passage is from Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. The story is set in war-ravaged Sri Lanka, a near armageddon of ethnic cleansing, brutal subjugation, and political intrigue. The passage conveys two basic beliefs about parenting. First, there is something elemental about parental caregiving, with near universal agreement as to its significance in children's lives. Second, the context in which parenting occurs shapes both its goals and its tactics. As a result, what children experience as part of their home life is enormously varied despite the fact that all children share many common needs for parental care.

Our research has been concerned with what parents do to help their children thrive, why and how they do it, what factors help determine what they do, and how it matters in children's lives. It is a journey of some 30 years. In some respects it has been a journey much like the journey a dog takes when tied to a tree. We have gone for a while in one direction, then for a while in a second, but ultimately we have circled back to one central issue: what children themselves experience as part of their care at home and how that pertains to their well-being. We have done so believing that these experiences exert significant influence on the character and quality of children's lives. In this chapter we describe a series of interconnected studies about children's experiences at home, how those experiences reflect the context of family life and the persons who act as parents, and how those experiences are reflected in children's behavior and development.

The chapter is organized around four questions concerning parenting: (1) What are the central tasks of parenting? (2) What difference does parenting make in the lives of children? (3) How does context affect parenting? (4) Why do parents invest in their children? Throughout we discuss issues pertaining to the measurement of parenting (a.k.a., the home environment) because it is through the process of measurement that answers about parenting are both realized and constrained.


It is at once both easy and difficult to describe the central tasks of parenting. Said simply, the central tasks of parenting are those actions parents must take to assure survival and promote optimal development in their offspring. But this banal response masks the true intricacies of providing care for children. There is now a 5-volume reference work on the issues and concerns of parenting that makes the complexities of child rearing abundantly clear (Bornstein, 2002). The fact is, what adults do in their role as parents has changed over the centuries, a function of technological, social, and economic adjustments. That said, the goal of parenting has remained essentially the same, to enable children to become competent, caring adults who are able to function well within society (Maccoby, 1992). For any place and any era, attaining the goal is no mean feat. This seemingly innocuous generic prescription requires a plethora of specific parenting actions carried out over a lengthy period of time fitted to a particular child's needs and executed within the boundaries of the resources and constraints present.

About a decade ago, we constructed a system for organizing the tasks of parenting (Bradley & Caldwell, 1995). It derives from systems theory, and is organized around the concept that the environment (parenting) helps to regulate the course of development (Sameroff, 1983). Central to our framework is the notion that optimal parenting (a facilitative home environment) is best conceived of as a set of regulatory acts and conditions aimed at successful adaptation and at successful exploitation of opportunity structures for children (Saegert & Winkel, 1990). Such a conception seems in keeping with ecological developmental theories that portray human beings as phylogenetically advanced, self-constructing organisms and the environment as a regulator (actually, coregulator) of complex developmental processes (Ford & Lerner, 1992). This framework is also consonant with the idea that children are conscious agents who are active in adapting to their environments (Lewis, 1997). Finally, it is consistent with recent notions about the value of building positive personal assets (Scales & Leffert, 1999). Starting from this basic notion, we identified six basic regulatory tasks (or functions) performed by parents: (a) sustenance/safety, (b) stimulation, (c) support, (d) structure, (e) surveillance, and (f) social integration.

The first three regulatory functions derive from what is known about human needs and arousal systems. Specifically, Maslow (1954) contended that human beings need environments that promote survival, provide information (including enlistment of attention), and affirm worth. For complex living systems such as human beings, the task of maintaining internal unity is quite complicated due to the large number of component subsystems involved and the elaborateness of their organization (Ford & Lerner, 1992). To deal with the child's individuality and complexity, parents must perform other functions to assure that the direct inputs designed to sustain, stimulate, and emotionally support the child are maximally fitted to the child's current needs, proclivities, and competencies; hence, structure, surveillance, and social integration.


From time immemorial, promoting the physical well-being of children has been considered the sine qua non of parental responsibility. Those acts and conditions designed to promote biological integrity we have organized under the joint class, sustenance/safety. Parents must provide adequate nutrients, shelter, and health care to ensure both survival and the level of biological integrity needed for physical and psychological development (Pollitt, 1988). As well, children face numerous potential threats of direct harm: from violence and natural disasters to dangerous objects and physical conditions (La Greca, Silverman, Vernberg, & Roberts, 2002; Peterson & Gable, 1998). In our analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we found that between one fourth and one third of children in the United States live in homes with potentially dangerous structural or health hazards (Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo, & Garcia Coll, 2001). Parents must afford protection from such conditions. Likewise, they must protect children from pathogenic conditions such as pollutants, passive cigarette smoke, and exposure to heavy metals (Evans et al., 1991; J. L. Jacobson, Jacobson, Padgett, Brummitt, & Billings, 1992; Tong & McMichael, 1992).

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