Reactive Covariance

Keeping these constraints in mind, what is the nature of evidence linking variability in individual temperament to the characteristics of the individual's environment? In regard to the question of reactive covariance, particularly during the first 2 years of life, some individual longitudinal studies have recorded evidence suggesting that variability in infant temperament influences subsequent parenting behavior. For example, Van den Boom and Hoeksma (1994) have found that over time mothers of irritable infants show less visual and physical contact, less effective stimulation, less involvement, and less responsivity to positive signals from their infants as compared to mothers of nonirritable infants. Similarly, in a controlled laboratory study, Lounsbury and Bates (1982) have reported that adult raters expressed more irritation at the cries of difficult temperament infants than they did to the cries of easy temperament infants. Going beyond parenting per se, Guerin et al. (2003) have reported that higher levels of fussy difficult temperament in infancy are related to higher levels of family conflict through adolescence. However, other well-designed, large sample studies have reported few significant relations between early infant temperament and later caregiver interaction patterns (Pettit & Bates, 1984; Worobey & Blajda, 1989). These complex and inconsistent patterns of findings have led reviewers to conclude that there is a gap between the level of theoretical attention given to processes like reactive covariance and the degree of empirical validation of the operation of these processes, at least for the first several years of life (Crockenberg, 1986; Slabach et al., 1991).

There are a number of reasons why links between infant temperament and subsequent caregiver behavior patterns have not been consistently demonstrated. Some researchers have questioned whether parent report measures of infant temperament are the best approach for dealing with this question (Seifer, Schiller, Sameroff, Resnick, & Riordan, 1996). There is also the possibility that existing methodological practices may limit our ability to detect existing links between infant temperament and caregiver behavior. Methodological factors may be particularly important for the many studies in this area that use single short-term observations of caregiver-infant interaction. Average within week stability of single short term observations of mother-infant interactions is r = .35, a value which clearly raises doubts about the representativeness of measurements of caregiver behavior patterns toward infants which are based on single short-term observations (Wachs, 1987a). Going beyond only measurement issues, there also is the issue of whether or not reactive covariance between infant and temperament and later caregiver behavior is best assessed by point to point correlations over two time periods. If we look at trajectories of caregiver behavior over time across such dimensions as soothing (Van den Boom & Hoeksma, 1994) or teaching efforts (Maccoby, Snow, & Jacklin, 1984), results suggest a pattern of declining involvement by parents toward their more fussy difficult infants. Thus, depending on the time point chosen, we could see either differences or no differences in parent reaction to fussy difficult infants.

However, measurement and methodological issues are not the whole story, given evidence suggesting that, for some caregiver dimensions like physical contact stimulation or responsivity to fussing, there is little difference in maternal behavior toward irritable versus nonirritable infants, even when maternal behaviors are looked at across time (Van den Boom & Hoeksma, 1994). One hypothesized possibility is that reactive covariance is more likely to be found for infants with extreme temperament traits, who are viewed as being more likely to have an influence over their environment than are infants with less extreme temperament traits (Clarke & Clarke, 1988). Unfortunately, evidence on this hypothesis is sorely lacking. In one of the few studies in this area Sullivan and McGrath (1995) have found that correlations between infant and caregiver behaviors shown for extreme temperament infants are not found when a full sample is studied, including both extreme and nonextreme temperament infants. Unfortunately, since the correlations were taken concurrently, it is difficult to determine if the pattern of results reflects extreme temperament infants being more likely to influence their environment or environment being more likely to influence the behavior of extreme temperament infants. Support for the extreme temperament hypothesis is seen in the results of a study by Fox et al. (2001), who reported that infants who showed very high levels of negative reactivity at 4 months of age were significantly less likely to be placed in out of home daycare during their first two years than infants with initial high levels of positive reactivity or infants who were low in reactivity. The latter two groups did not differ, suggesting the possibility that the likelihood that reactive covariance will occur may depend not only on the intensity of the temperament trait but also on the characteristics of the trait.

More probable as an explanatory framework is evidence documenting how reactive covariance patterns between infant temperament and subsequent caregiver behavior patterns can be moderated by a variety of nontemperamental infant and adult characteristics (Slabach et al., 1991). For example, trajectories of caregiver response patterns toward their difficult infant have been shown to be moderated by factors such as infant gender (Maccoby et al., 1984), maternal substance abuse (Schuler, Black, & Starr, 1995), and maternal attitudes about how responsive they should be toward their infant (Crockenberg & McCluskey, 1986). Similarly, level of environmental chaos in the home has been shown to moderate the relation between infant difficult temperament and lower parental self-efficacy beliefs, with this relation occurring significantly more often in low chaos as opposed to highly chaotic homes (Corapci & Wachs, 2002). The overall pattern of findings supports a hypothesis that infant temperament is a necessary but not sufficient condition for producing variability in subsequent caregiver behavior patterns. This means that if we are to understand the processes underlying reactive covariance between infant temperament and caregiver behavior it is essential to go beyond temperament per se, and look at temperament as part of a larger system involving linked contributions between other aspects of the system such as nontemperamental child characteristics, home characteristics, and caregiver preferences and attitudes.

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