The Effect of the Family On Middle Childhood Development: children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The socialisation process of a developing child has categorically been proven to differ in accordance with that child’s family and their socio-economic background. If a child grows up in a household where both parents work hard to bring money into the home, that child will, invariably (but not always), grow up with a healthy work ethic and an understanding that money is earned through hard work. However, if a child grows up in a household where their parents don’t work, or are even criminally active, that child is much more likely to grow up with a belief that it is acceptable to acquire money through ill-gotten means. Our socialisation process is significantly altered by our perception of the world as presented by our families. This is never more prevalent than during our middle childhood developmental stage (classed as being between the ages of 6 and 12) as parents have more contact time with the child between these ages and will, invariably, exercise a certain amount of influence (Collins, 1984, p 184). The discussion of a family’s socioeconomic background refers explicitly to the ideas of family income, parental education level, parental occupation and social status within the community (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory). The purpose of this essay is to discuss their influence in terms of the family’s socio-economic background and how this can greatly affect a child’s development during their middle childhood.
To fully appreciate the importance of this stage of development, it is imperative that we, firstly, explore its significance in terms of a child’s overall development. Many social cognitive theorists see the middle childhood stage of development as a time where children begin to regulate their own behaviour without much external influences such as rewards or punishments (Rathus, 2011, p 425). This means that the child’s understanding of what is right and wrong, for example, is developed more acutely at this age; arguably then, their socialisation and the influence of their parents can greatly affect this important stage of development as it can alter their perception of good and bad behaviours. During middle childhood, children also become more aware of how other people may view the world (Rathus, 2011, p 425) meaning that their empathising skills develop exponentially during this time. Again, these are skills which are intrinsically learnt from observing the behaviour of others around us. If a family have a low socioeconomic status, the parent(s) may be working a lot and therefore will have less time to spend fawning over children; this could potentially affect the child’s ability to empathise with others. Another key area of development during this time is the increased focus on “abstract traits” with an emphasis being placed on social relationships: this includes things such as social acceptance and competency and the resulting level of self-esteem as a consequence. Firm parenting, during this time, is essential: “Authoritative parenting fosters self-esteem. Children with ‘learned helplessness’ tend not to persist in the face of failure.” (Rathus, 2011, p 425) So, although many consider earlier childhood to be more important in terms of development, middle childhood is equally as vital and therefore the influence of the family and its socioeconomic status are important factors to taking into consideration.
There are a number of factors which can affect the attachment between the child and their primary caregiver (parents or otherwise). These can include parent/carer abuse of drugs or alcohol, living in an area with a high crime rate, parental mental illness, domestic abuse at home or, most significantly to this essay, a low socioeconomic status which can be due to unemployment or any of the above factors too (Kerns, 2005, p 232). Our main source of socialisation is our family at home: “Between the time when children enter school and the time they reach adolescence, the family plays a crucial role in socialisation” (Collins, 1984, p 184), although the implication is that their influence is greater in earlier childhood. However, it is a fair assumption that if there are problems with the relationship between child and parent or carer, the problem would have been there from the earlier stage of development and would still be an issue in middle childhood. If a child has a decreased connection to their primary care giver, their level of socialisation is likely to suffer: it naturally follows as such. As children, we learn our key social and emotional skills through our interaction with other people, primarily our parents. If, for whatever reason, our parents are unable to provide us with a good example of how to empathise, care for, and interact socially with others, then our socialisation will suffer – as will our middle childhood development. Furthering this idea is the discussion that children from low socioeconomic family backgrounds are also less academically able: “The results of all these studies show clearly that the written register knowledge of the children, most of whom had not been read to extensively prior to kindergarten, is almost non-existent as compared with that of well-read to children at the start of kindergarten” (Wasik, 2004, p 109). The implication of this, albeit focused on earlier childhood, is that the academic development of children from low socioeconomic status families suffers as a result. Based on the assessment of the factors which define a family’s socioeconomic status, it is unlikely that these will have improved between early and middle childhood, and so it is fair to assume that this will continue to be an on-going factor in the child’s academic development.
Following on from this idea, another key area of socialisation is school life as experienced through relationships with teachers and their peers (Collins, 1984, p 184). If we can make the leap in assuming that the majority of children low socioeconomic families tend to struggle academically, this then means that these children will only ever socialise with other children of a similar ability level, socioeconomic background, and family life. Although it is extremely difficult to quantify such a notion, if children are primarily only socialising with other, similar children, then their chance of having higher aspirations are slimmed considerably. This is compounded when considering the lack of educational input at home: if we are socialised to think one way, we are unlikely to ever think alternatively as it becomes second nature: “It is this ‘automaticity’, consequent upon the ontogenic ‘wiring up’ of such a physical habitus during the process of childhood socialisation, that makes it second nature” (Loyal & Quilley, 2004, p 51). This socialisation theory demonstrates the one instilled in a child, learned forms of behaviour are very hard to retract - especially when the socialisation is compounded by it happening at both home and school.
However, developmental theorists, Aletha Huston and Marika Ripke, raise a question that asks whether middle childhood can be a time of change in a child’s socialisation direction: “Does middle childhood experience predict change in behaviour?” (Huston & Ripke, 2006, p 415). They also discuss whether the middle childhood development is affected by the context of family and socioeconomic background. Their answer is that yes, these factors do make some difference to the child’s development: “environmental contexts in middle childhood make modest but significant contributions to long-term developmental patterns above and beyond genetic heritage and early childhood experiences” (Huston & Ripke, 2006, p 415). This means that middle childhood is as vital to child development as the earlier, more emphasis-laden, stage. The implication for this is that the socioeconomic status of a family is an important factor in the middle childhood development stage. They address the connection between parenting and behaviour too: “Associations of parenting with child behaviour could also result from effects of children’s behaviour on teaching practices; for example, aggressive children may elicit punishment.” (Huston & Ripke, 2006, p 415-417). This is an interesting point that inverts the idea of the family’s effect on the child, by questioning instead the effect of the child on the family. They go on to clarify that whilst parenting does have a huge correlation with child’s development in the earlier stages, there are less immediately obvious patterns in middle childhood. However, one correlation that does seem to be of importance to their discussion is the one made between poverty socioeconomic status with home learning, emotional well-being and the family structure. The implication here being that in middle childhood, with the aforementioned emphasis placed on abstract traits, poverty and a lack of emotional support at home can affect the child’s self-esteem and ability to interact confidently.
When considering the effect of the child on the family or, more specifically, on the parent, it is prevalent to consider the latter half of the middle childhood development stage: “In the later years of middle childhood (ages 10 to 12), children evaluate their parents more critically than they do in the earlier years” (Rathus, 2007, p 449). This is obviously in reference to the increased arguments between the child and their parents or carers, upon reaching early adolescence. This phenomena is explained as maybe a reflection of “the child’s developing cognitive ability to view relationships in more complex ways” (Rathus, 2007, p 449). This throws new light on the argument for socialisation and the influence of the family (and its socioeconomic background) on the middle childhood child’s development: the child begins to question their parents’ choices, behaviours and ultimately, the socialisation that they themselves have been party to (however subconsciously). However, it is acknowledged that in the latter half of the middle childhood stage, social relationships begin to play a stronger role and so, if previous discussion is to be followed, their family’s low socioeconomic status and the prevailing lower academic ability, will still prevent the child from ever really aspiring to a greater standard of living – at least, not at this developmental stage. This is due to their school life being characterised by relationships with their peers from others low socioeconomic status families. That said, middle childhood children still place a lot of importance on their parents: “throughout middle childhood, children rate their parents as their best source of emotional support, rating them more highly than friends” (Rathus, 2007, p 449). Therefore, a family with a low socioeconomic status is still massively important in their child’s emotional development into an emotionally healthy adult. If the status of the family is low due to it being a single parent family, for example, there may be less emotional support than required and can, therefore, cause problems for the development of the middle childhood child.
A 1999 study, carried out by Blau assessed the relation between parental family background and the child’s ability, achievement in test scores and behaviour problems. His study focused on the annual family income, as well as the cumulative income of the mother between the years of 1979 and 1991 (Bornstein & Bradley, 2003, p 97), presumably on the basis that the matriarch is perceived as being the primary care giver, but his study showed that there was generally very little impact on the child’s development when considering income solely. This suggests that the real factors to consider in terms of the family’s socioeconomic status and the child’s development, are the emotional and social aspects, as opposed to the economic ones. It does not naturally follow that wealth breeds happiness and love, and this is demonstrated acutely here. A 1998 study by Duncan et al. also presents income and time spent working instead of parenting as being relatively unimportant during the child’s development, with the exception of the early developmental stages. These findings neatly correlate with the discussion of middle childhood as being a time driven by abstract concepts such as emotions, sociability and self-esteem: the child is less parent-centric and beginning to make their own decisions and control their own behaviour with less of a parental input.
The key discursive points in the discussion of the low socioeconomic status of a family and its effect on the development of the middle childhood child, seem to focus on the main idea that actually, the status does not dramatically affect the child’s development unless under extreme circumstances. The main areas of development during this stage, as discussed, mainly revolve around abstract concepts such as emotional well-being, self-esteem and ability to socially interact healthily and successfully. The biggest amount of damage that can be done, during this stage of development, is to create a sense of emotional deficiency in the child, which as discussed by Huston & Ripke, is a risk for families who exist below the poverty line. However, studies by Blau and Duncan et al. demonstrate that parents who work during their child’s middle childhood stage, do not directly affect the development of their child. Arguably, for parents, it is a balancing act between work and home, even though the majority of children begin forging their own path during this stage, largely due to the growing anti-parent feeling. Whilst earlier childhood is hinged upon the impact of the parents upon the child’s socialisation and development, middle childhood seems less affected by environmental factors such as the family’s socioeconomic status (unless in extreme situations of poverty, domestic abuse or parental drug or alcohol abuse), and with more impetus placed on the child finding their feet.
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