Maternal and Paternal Parenting and Girls' and Boys' Attachment Security in Middle Childhood

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Current attachment security is presumed to reflect both early experiences and current relationships with attachment figures. However, few researchers have examined the parenting behaviors that are linked with attachment during middle childhood. The overall purpose of the present study was to investigate the relations among maternal and paternal parenting behaviors (sensitivity, encouragement of autonomy) and girls' and boys' attachment security with respect to their mothers and fathers.

It has been suggested that fathering becomes more important as children grow older and form relationships outside the family. In addition, the type of sensitivity that promotes attachment security with mother may differ from the type of sensitivity that promotes attachment security with father. A perspective on attachment that encompasses security in both attachment and exploration suggests that parents must both respond sensitively to child distress and support autonomy. It was hypothesized that mothers are more likely to act as a safe haven and respond to child distress, whereas fathers are more likely to act as a secure base for exploration.

Data from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD) were analyzed. Participants were restricted to "traditional nuclear" families. Data relevant to the current study were collected at laboratory and home visits when children were in Grades 3, 4, and 5. Parental sensitivity and respect for autonomy were observed in child-parent interactions in Grades 3 and 5. Parent-reported encouragement of autonomy was assessed at Grades 3 and 4. Child-reported felt security with respect to each parent, observed dyadic felt security, and parent-reported child attachment behaviors were assessed in Grades 3 and 5.

Structural equation modeling was used to test the study hypotheses. The model that emerged contained significant correlations between maternal and paternal sensitivity and between child-mother and child-father attachment at both Grades 3 and 5, stability of both sensitivity and attachment, and predictive relations only within Grade 5. Taken as a whole, the results point to the need to take a developmental pathways perspective and to examine the reciprocal relations between children and parents in middle childhood.