Who cares for the children?



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1Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). “Who cares for the children?” in Nuba, H., Searson, M., and Sheiman, D. L. (Eds.), Resources for early childhood: A handbook. New York: Garland, 113-129 (edited paper from an individual address to UNESCO, Paris, 7 September 1989).
This essay is …about two revolutions in our own day. The first revolution is taking place in society; the second is a revolution in science. Both revolutions have to do with…the dramatic changes that have been taking place in family life across the world, and the consequences of these changes for the development of human competence and character, both in present and in future generations. It is these consequences that are being illuminated by research conducted over the past two decades in the study of human development. It is the…recent body of research in this domain that is referred to as a scientific revolution.
The changes that have been taking place in contemporary family life are better documented for industrial nations, but they are no less and indeed perhaps even more profound in developing countries.…The underlying dynamics and ultimate effects of family change were strikingly similar around the globe. We have learned that the stresses being experienced today by families in both worlds have common roots and call for common strategies grounded in the basic requirements for survival and growth of all human beings in all human ecologies.
It appears that the more we learn about the conditions that undergird and foster the development of human competence and character, the more we see these same conditions being eroded and destroyed in contemporary societies.
Issue #1: What are the conditions and processes that undergird and foster the development of human competence and character from early childhood onward? These requirements appear to be universal, deriving from the basic biological nature of the species Homo sapiens, thus cutting across culture, nationality, and class.
What the scientific investigation of the past three decades reveals is that basic medical services and adequate diet, while essential, are not enough by themselves to ensure normal physical and psychological development, particularly for children of families who have been exposed to biological, economic, and social stress. Beyond health care and nutrition, certain other essential requirements must also be met. Those requirements are articulated below in the form of five propositions.
Proposition I. In order to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally — a child requires, for all of them, the same thing: participation in progressively more complex reciprocal activity, on a regular basis over an extended period in the child’s life, with one or more other persons with whom the child develops a strong, mutual, irrational emotional attachment, and who is committed to the child’s well-being and development, preferably for life.
What is meant by “progressively more complex reciprocal activity”? Perhaps an analogy will help. It is what happens in a ping-pong game between two players as the game gets going. As they become familiar with each other, they adapt to each other’s style. The game starts to go faster, and the shots in both directions tend to become more complicated, as each player, in effect, challenges the other — what in poker is called “raising the ante.” Who is “raising the ante” most — the child or the adult? The research evidence indicates that, in the beginning, it is the infant who is calling most of the shots, who is, so to speak, “teaching” the parents, or other caregivers.
Almost all adult human beings have been shown to be very adept learners in this situation, males no less than females — provided, of course, that they are willing and able to pay attention to the teacher, and go to school almost every day for quite a long time.
In contemporary societies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain regular attendance and the high level of alertness that learning requires. In short, while virtually everyone has the needed aptitudes, the learning process is not easy. Indeed, microphotographic studies of parent-infant interaction reveal it to be extraordinary and increasingly complex as the process evolves.
This…complexity is brought about in two ways. Not only does the same game become more complicated, but new games are added by both parties. This phenomenon is seen especially clear in early childhood.…Thus, at birth, infants are especially responsive to vestibular stimulation (being picked up and held in a vertical position close to the body), which has the effect of soothing the baby so that it begins to engage in mutual gazing. By three months, visual exploration extends beyond proximal objects, and it is the mother’s voice that is most likely to elicit responses, especially in the form of reciprocal vocalizations.
From about 6 months on, the infant begins actively to manipulate objects spontaneously in a purposeful way and to rearrange the physical environment. By now, both vocalization and gesture are being used to attract the parents’ attention and to influence their behavior. In addition, there is a growing readiness, across modalities, to initiate and sustain reciprocal interaction with a widening circle of persons in the child’s immediate environment.
The sequence reaches a new climax with the emergence of language as a medium of social interchange. By the age of two or three, it is the informal play between child and adult that becomes a major vehicle of cognitive, emotional, and social development.
Crucial to the establishment and maintenance of this progressive trajectory is the ready responsiveness by a familiar adult to the young child’s initiatives, as well as introduction by the adult of activity-engaging objects and experiences that are appropriate to the youngster’s evolving capacities. In the absence of such adult responsiveness and presentation of opportunities, general psychological development is retarded, particularly for children who have been exposed to biological, economic, or social stress.
…What is made possible by “progressively more complex reciprocal activity” is a process of mutual “education”; the child is “teaching” the adult, and the adult is “teaching” the child.…The kind of teaching that takes place in this context is quintessentially informal, and even unconscious. The…child is not “trying to teach” the caregiver to respond in a particular way: he/she is simply expressing an evolving repertoire of behavioral initiatives and reactions. Nor can the adult caregiver foresee what the young child will do and thus plan in advance how he/she will respond to the young child’s actions.

The most the adult can do is to be ready and willing to react, and to do something that will attract or hold the child’s attention. In sum, we are not dealing here with education in its traditional meaning of formal instruction.…Informal education is no less demanding than its formal counterpart; it too takes a long time. Neither the young child nor an adult caregiver can learn much from each other if they get together only now and then for short periods with frequent interruptions. Hence, the specification, as a second key element in Proposition I, of joint activity “on a regular basis over an extended period in the child’s life.”


Not just any person who repeatedly engages in progressively complex reciprocal activity with a child will be equally effective in furthering the child’s physical and psychological development. The final clause of Proposition I makes clear that the person must be someone “with whom the child develops a strong, mutual, irrational emotional attachment, and who is committed to the child’s well-being and development, preferably for life.”
What is meant by “an irrational emotional attachment?” There is a simple answer: “Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid, and vice- versa!” But what does “crazy” mean? It means that the adult in question regards this particular child as somehow special — especially wonderful, especially precious — even though objectively the adult may well know that this is not the case.
It is the illusion that comes with love, an illusion that flows in both directions. For the child, the adult is also special — someone to whom the child turns most readily in trouble and in joy, and whose comings and goings are central to the child’s experience and well-being. What is the relevance of such a mutual emotional relationship for processes of “progressively more complex reciprocal activity” between child and adult?
Research evidence indicates that such interaction requires high levels of motivation, attentiveness, sensitivity, and persistence on the part of both participants, and that these requisite qualities are more apt to arise, and to be sustained, in relationships characterized by strong mutual emotional attachment.
Moreover, once such a strong mutual attachment is established, it tends to endure for a long time, thus enhancing the likelihood of a continuing pattern of reciprocal interactions at successively more complex levels through the child’s life.…One reason why mutual attachments tend to endure for a long time is that the recurring patterns of reciprocal interactions that they encourage in turn enhance the intensity of the mutual emotional tie. In sum, it can be said that human development takes place in the context of an escalating psychological ping-pong game between two people who are crazy about each other.
Once the processes stipulated in Proposition I became established, they activate and enhance additional potentials for development. Prominent among these are responsive and active orientations not just toward persons but toward certain other features of the child’s immediate environment.
Proposition II. The establishment of patterns of progressive interpersonal interaction under conditions of strong mutual attachment enhances the young child’s responsiveness to other features of the immediate physical, social, and in due course symbolic environment that invite exploration, manipulation, elaboration, and imagination. Such activities, in turn, also accelerate the child’s psychological growth.
For young children, how available are objects and settings that meet the developmental criteria set forth in Proposition II? Consider, from this perspective, the wide array of manufactured toy games and play equipment produced in modern technological societies…Many of these products…hardly fulfill the requirements stipulated in Proposition II; specifically, they do not invite exploration, manipulation, elaboration, or imaginative activity on the part of the child. They fail primarily because they are so rigidly structured as to allow little opportunity for introducing any spontaneous variation.
Objects and settings that do meet the specified developmental criteria are by no means limited to products of modern technology.…They are as readily found in traditional and transitional cultures as in the so-called post-industrial societies. To cite a few examples: objects, in nature — both animate and inanimate, large and small — like domestic animals, stones and shells, trees and caves; objects that can be put inside one another, or used to build things (that can be torn down again); anything that can make rhythmic and musical sounds, such as pots, pans, and soup spoons; materials that can he used to draw, paint, or mold shapes and forms. More broadly, whatever induces sustained attention and evolving activity of body and mind, such as songs, dances, stories, dolls, and stuffed animals that become friends, picture books, and — of course — real books that can be read and then newly reimagined, and retold on one’s own.
The environment must include materials that are appropriate to the child’s developing physical and psychological capacities.… The youngster’s active orientation toward the physical and symbolic environment is powerfully mediated by prior and persistent patterns of interpersonal interaction in the context of a strong, enduring emotional relationship with one or more adults, almost always including the child’s parents.
These ongoing experiences remain a potent liberating and energizing force not only in relation to the physical environment but to the social world as well.…They enable the child to relate to other persons beyond the immediate family — including peers as well as other adults — and to involve them effectively in meeting the child’s own developmental needs. At a broader level, the child’s newly acquired abilities make it possible for him or her to benefit from experiences in other settings, most notably to learn in school.
…The informal education that takes place in the family is not merely a pleasant prelude but a powerful prerequisite for success in formal education from the primary grades onward. This empowering impact…appears to provide a basis…for the subsequent development of the capacity to function responsively and creatively as an adult in the realms of work, family life, and citizenship.
This does not mean…that the absence of early opportunities for interactive experiences in the context of a mutual emotional attachment precludes the possibility of later achieving adult effectiveness.…There are other routes to the acquisition of competence and character. The problem is that they are much less efficient, and much more expensive both in time and money.

…The research evidence indicates that, when the elements stipulated in Propositions I and II are provided on a continuing basis, the positive effects on children’s development are indeed substantial.…The research findings also reveal that the developmentally fostering processes of interaction between child and environment described in Propositions I and II operate efficiently only under certain conditions existing in the broader environment in which these proximal processes occur. The remaining three propositions deal with the nature of these enabling and disabling circumstances.


Proposition III. The establishment and maintenance of patterns of progressively more complex interaction and emotional attachment between caregiver and child depend in substantial degree on the availability and involvement of another adult, a third party who assists, and encourages, spells off, gives status to, and expresses admiration and affection for the person caring for and engaging in joint activity with the child.
It also helps, but it is not absolutely essential, if the third party is of the opposite sex from that of the person dealing with the child.
The …evidence in support of Proposition III comes mainly from studies of a phenomenon that is one of the main changes taking place in contemporary family life — the rapid rise in the proportion of single-parent households in both the developed and developing worlds. The overwhelming majority of such homes are those in which the father is absent and the mother bears full responsibility for the upbringing of the child. A large number of investigations of developmental processes and outcomes in families of this kind have now been conducted across a range of cultural and social class groups, including those in socialist countries and some developing nations as well. In general, findings lead to two complementary conclusions. First, the results indicate that children growing up in such households are at greater risk for experiencing a variety of behavioral and educational problems, including extremes of hyperactivity or withdrawal, lack of attentiveness in the classroom, difficulty in deferring gratification, impaired academic achievement, school misbehavior, absenteeism, dropping out, involvement of socially alienated peer groups, and especially the so-called teenage-syndrome of behaviors that tend to hang together — smoking, drinking, early and frequent sexual experience, a cynical attitude toward work, adolescent pregnancy, and, in the more extreme cases, drugs, suicide, vandalism, violence, and criminal acts. Most of these effects are much more pronounced for boys than for girls.
More intensive investigations of these phenomena have identified as a common predisposing factor the emergence of such problem behavior — namely, a history of impaired parent-child interaction and relationships beginning in early childhood.
Not all single-parent families…exhibit these disturbed relationships and their disruptive effects on development. Systematic studies of the exceptions have identified what may he described as a general “immunizing” factor: children of single-parent mothers are less likely to experience developmental problems in those families in which the mother experiences strong support from other adults living in the home, or from nearby relatives, friends, or neighbors, members of religious groups, and, when available, staff members of family support and child care programs. Interestingly enough, the most effective agent of “third party” support (in the minority of instances in which such assistance is provided) appears to be the child’s father. And what counted most was not the attention given to the child, important as this was, but the assistance provided to the mother herself by serving as a backup in times of crisis, doing errands, spelling her off, sharing responsibility for discipline, and providing needed advice and encouragement. It would seem that, in the family dance, “it takes three to tango.”
Developmental risks associated with a one-parent family structure are relatively small…in comparison with those involved in two other types of environmental context. The first, and most destructive of these, is poverty. Because many single-parent families are also poor, this places them and their children in double jeopardy.…Even when two parents are present, research …reveals that in households living under stressful economic and social conditions processes of parent-child interaction and environmentally oriented child activity are more difficult to initiate and to sustain. Much more effort and perseverance on the part of parents is required to achieve the same effect than in families living under more favorable circumstances, particularly when…the mother is the only parent, or…only adult, in the home.
…Research also indicates that when the mother, or some other adult committed to the child’s well-being, does manage to establish and maintain a pattern of progressive reciprocal interaction, the typically disruptive impact of poverty on development is significantly reduced. But the proportion of parents who, despite their stressful life circumstances, are able to provide quality care is, under present conditions, not very large. And even for this minority, the parents’ buffering power begins to decline sharply by the time children are five or six years old, and are being exposed to other impoverished and disruptive settings outside the home.
What is the impact of poverty on children’s development? The… consequences are similar to those for single parenthood in the absence of a third party, but the risks are substantially higher and the effects more pronounced, typically persisting well into adulthood (except in those as-yet-infrequent instances in which opportunities for continuing rehabilitative experiences become available). But it is not only the poor and single parent families… for whom developmental processes are now at risk.
In today’s world, the well educated and the well-to-do are no longer protected; over the past three decades other highly vulnerable contexts have evolved that cut across the domains of class and culture. Recent studies reveal that a major disruptive factor in the lives of families and their children is the increasing instability, inconsistency, and hecticness of daily family life. This growing trend is found in both developed and developing countries, but has somewhat different origins in these two worlds. Yet the debilitating effect on child-rearing processes and outcomes is much the same. Following are some examples from the so-called post-industrial world, which may be more familiar.
At the 1989 UNESCO seminar mentioned earlier, Urie Bronfenbrenner offered a description based on observations of the American scene.
In a world in which both parents usually have to work, often at a considerable distance from home, every family member, through the waking hours from morning till night, is “on the run.” The need to coordinate conflicting demands of job and child care, often involving varied arrangements that shift from day to day, can produce a Situation in which everyone has be be transported several times a day in different directions, usually at the same time a state of affairs that prompted a foreign colleague to comment: “It seems to me that in your country, most children are being brought up in moving vehicles.”
Other factors contributing to the disruption of daily family life include long commutes to and back from work; jobs that require one or the other parent to be away for extended periods of time; the frequent changes in employment; the associated moves for the whole family or those that leave the rest of the family behind waiting till the school term ends, or adequate housing can he found; and, last but far from least, the increasing number of divorces, remarriages, and re-divorces (incidentally, the most recent evidence suggests that the disruptive effects of remarriage on children may be even greater than those of divorce).
A parallel disorganization of family life in developing countries has been reported in a number of field studies.…Others have spoken of the breakdown of family traditions and of the reinforcing role of tribal customs and community life through the disruptive inroads of Westernization and urbanization.
What is the nature of the developmental outcomes of family hecticness?…The observed consequences are educational impairment and behavior problems, including long-term effects that also encompass children of the well educated and well-to-do.
It is obvious that to deal with such deeply rooted societal phenomena as poverty and the hectic pace of daily life will require nothing short of a restructuring of the social order. Nevertheless, the destructive impact of both these forces on the competence and character of future generations is so enormous that their elimination must be given the highest priority at the national and international levels.
There are now new grounds for believing that such a major undertaking could have considerable impact. The new element in the picture is the increasing recognition and concern on the part of national leaders worldwide with respect to two rapidly escalating economic problems.
The first is the enormous cost of providing for, or — alternatively and more frequently — neglecting the growing segments in national populations of so-called uneducables and of unemployables. The second relates to the quality and dependability of the available work force in an age of increasing economic competition not only among developed but also developing nations.
But this is neither the preferred nor the most potent dynamic that will bring success to the effort. The most powerful force is the new hope to families and nations across the world of seeing children, seemingly fated to a life of failure and pain, bloom into competent and caring human beings.
Proposition IV. The effective functioning of child-rearing processes in the family and other child settings requires establishing ongoing patterns of exchange of information, two-way communication, mutual accommodation, and mutual trust between the principal settings in which children and their parents live their lives. In contemporary societies, these meetings are the home, child care programs, the school, and the parents’ place of work.
Proposition V. The effective functioning of child-rearing processes in the family and other child settings requires public policies and practices that provide place, time, stability, status, recognition, belief systems, customs, and actions in support of child-rearing activities not only on the part of parents, caregivers, teachers, and other professional personnel, but also relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, communities, and the major economic, social, and political institutions of the entire society.
SAMPLE EXAM ITEMS
1. According to Bronfenbrenner, many adult human beings have been shown to be very adept learners in their activities with children. This statement is true for which of the following?

a. males


b. females

c. both males and females


2. According to Bronfenbrenner, which of the items listed below fits the following description? These little people are especially responsive to vestibular stimulation.

a. infants at birth

b. infants by three months

c. for little people from six months on

d. by the age of two or three

e. by the age of four or five

f. by the age of six or so
3. According to Bronfenbrenner, which of the following items is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of cognitive, emotional, and social development in little people?

a. introduction by the adult of activity-engaging objects and experiences that are appropriate to the youngster’s evolving capacities

b. the ready responsiveness by a familiar adult to the young child’s initiatives

c. a familiar adult gets together with the young child now and then for short periods of time

d. a and c

e. b and c



f. a and b


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