Family Relationships: Age 2–6

Family relationships are critical to the physical, mental, and social health of growing preschoolers. Many aspects of the family—parenting techniques, discipline, the number and the birth order of siblings, the family's finances, the family's circumstances, the family's health, and more—contribute to young children's psychosocial development.

Parenting

Different parents employ different parenting techniques. The techniques parents choose depend on cultural and community standards, the situation, and the children's behavior at the time. The techniques that parents use to relate to their children are characterized by degrees of parental control and parental warmth. Parental control involves the degree to which parents are restrictive in their use of parenting techniques, and parental warmth involves the degree to which they are loving, affectionate, and approving in their use of these techniques. Authoritarian parents demonstrate high parental control and low parental warmth when parenting. Permissive parents demonstrate high parental warmth and low parental control when parenting. Indifferent parents demonstrate low parental control and low warmth. Authoritative parents, however, demonstrate appropriate levels of both parental control and warmth.

Parenting styles have a definite impact on children. The authoritative style of parenting fosters open communication and problem solving between parents and their children. In contrast, authoritarian parenting may produce fearful and dependent children. Permissive parenting may result in rebellious children. And indifferent parenting may render hostile and delinquent children. In two‐parent families, in which each parent has a different parenting style, one parent's style often positively counterbalances the other parent's style. For instance, a woman's permissive style may counterbalance her husband's authoritarian style.

The willingness of parents to negotiate with their children in order to achieve common goals is highly desirable. This willingness does not imply, however, that everything within a family system is negotiable. Neither parents nor their children should be in charge all of the time; such a degree of control leads to unhealthy power struggles within the family. Parental negotiating teaches children that quality relationships can be equitable, or equal in terms of sharing rights, responsibilities, and decision making. Most negotiating home environments are warm, accommodating, and mutually supportive.

Siblings

Siblings are children's first and foremost peer group. Preschoolers may learn as much or more from their siblings as from their parents. Regardless of age differences, sibling relationships mirror other social relationships, providing basic preparation for dealing with people outside of the home. Only siblings may simultaneously have equal and unequal status in the home, and only siblings may provide opportunities (whether desired or not) for children to practice coping with the positives and negatives of human relationships.

Only children, or children without siblings, are not at a developmental disadvantage. Research confirms that onlies perform just as well as, if not better than, children with siblings on measures of personality, intelligence, and achievement. One explanation is that, like children who are first in the birth order, only children may have the undivided (or nearly undivided) attention of their parents, who in turn have more quality time to spend with their only children.

Family circumstances and social class

Without a doubt, family circumstances affect the development of young children, who tend to fare better in financially secure and intact households. Unfortunately, not all families have the resources to allow a parent to remain at home during the day or to purchase the best possible daycare services. In addition, not all families are able to access necessary health care. The long‐term emotional consequences of coming from a family with a low socioeconomic status may be significant.

To see how far‐reaching the effects of social class are on children's attitudes and development, sociologist Melvin Kohn studied differences in the parenting styles of working‐class and middle‐class parents. Kohn found that working‐class parents tend to stress outward conformity in their children, while middle‐class parents tend to stress self‐expression, motivation, and curiosity in their children. Kohn concluded that social class—where the attitudes and behavior of parents are passed down to their children—also plays a role in young children's psychosocial development.