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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information about the research  summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the addresses below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at risk for learning problems and lower academic achievement (Jimerson, Egeland & Teo, 1999; McLoyd, 1990; Ramey & Campbell, 1991; Stipek & Ryan, 1997). Engaged parenting, however, can shield disadvantaged children from forces that undermine achievement (Luster & McAdoo, 1994; Ramey, 1999; Zaslow, Dion, Morrison, Weinfield, Ogawa & Tagbors, 1999). Some insight into the mechanisms by which engaged parenting might operate can be gained from Darling and Steinberg's (1993) integrative model of parenting. They posit that children's outcomes derive from parents' attitudes and behaviors, which in turn derive from their parenting goals and values. Parenting goals, according to Dix (1992), fall into two general categories: empathy and socialization goals. The former involves establishing a nurturing, responsive environment, while the latter aims to modify the child's academic achievement and social behavior. The apparent primacy of parenting goals in the Darling and Steinberg (1993) model suggests that parenting goals can be an especially powerful leverage point for interventions aimed at improving parental involvement. With this long-range goal in mind, we have recently conducted two tests of that model and begun to explore some of its ramifications.

Research Methods

In Study 1 (Bettler & Burns, 2003a), 220 Head Start students and their primary caregivers were examined. Fifty-three percent of the children were girls and 47% were boys; 83.2% were African American and 16% were white. The students were administered a brief test of cognitive ability, the Brigance Preschool Screen, before and after their first year of Head Start, and the parents completed an open-ended survey of personal and family goals. These goals were scored into categories of empathy or socialization goals or non-child-centered goals, using an approach derived from the scoring of the Thematic Apperception Test (Smith, 1992). With this method, a pair of raters achieved an acceptable level of inter-rater reliability for all goal categories.

In Study 2 (Bettler & Burns, 2003b), 290 largely middle class undergraduates at a Midwestern university completed surveys wherein they rated their parents, retrospectively, in various dimensions, including parenting goals, styles, and attitudes. These students were 57% women and 43% men, and 78% white and 16% African American. As an outcome measure, the participants rated their own school readiness upon entering the first grade. Several parenting goals scales and a retrospective school readiness scale were constructed for this project and all exhibited adequate internal consistency and reliability.

Research Findings

Links Between Goals and Outcomes
Both studies provide evidence on the links between goals and outcomes. Study 1, for example, found that the effect of empathy goals on gains in cognitive ability were mediated by socialization goals. As Dix (1992) had previously hypothesized, this suggests that a warm, nurturing relationship between parent and child is an important prerequisite to the effectiveness of parenting efforts in the realms of academics and behavior. Study 2 constitutes one of the few attempts to date to encompass the entire Darling and Steinberg (1993) model, verifying that outcomes in the realm of school readiness may indeed derive from parenting attitudes, and that these may indeed derive from parenting goals. Like Study1, this study provided evidence for the primacy of empathy goals, again suggesting that an emotionally responsive parenting environment is an important precursor to the success of more academic- or behavior-focused parenting efforts.

One of the interesting, but still somewhat speculative ramifications of our work is the apparent universality of parenting goals. Although a number of writers have suggested that parenting goals may be more universally held by parents across cultures or subcultures than are parenting styles (e.g., authoritarian vs. authoritative) (Brody, Stoneman & Flor, 1995; Kornadt, Eckensberger & Emminghaus, 1980; Ogbu, 1981), the studies described above provide some preliminary empirical evidence of this universality, at least across North American subcultures. Study 1 found that parents' goals were significant predictors of cognitive development in a sample of low-income children, while Study 2 found parenting goals to be significant predictors of school readiness in a sample of middle-class, mostly white college students. Further, in both samples empathy goals seemed to take some precedence over socialization goals. Thus, across two very diverse samples and across a variety of instruments and methods, goals have demonstrated a significant impact on socialization outcomes in the cognitive or academic realms.

Implications for Practice

On this empirical foundation, then, Burns and colleagues have begun to design a goal-based parenting intervention program for low-income families that may offer a number of advantages over existing approaches. First, it is based on the well-established social psychological notion that goals are important precursors for many concrete behaviors (Pervin, 1989). Second, the goal-based approach is notably devoid of any deficit assumptions that have long hampered parenting research (Slaughter-Defo, Nakagawa, Takanishi & Johnson, 1990). Third, the goal-based approach could provide a more culturally sensitive common language for economically disadvantaged or minority parents and predominantly middle-class educators to use in their shared efforts at increasing parental involvement. Finally, it could provide assistance in setting and implementing goals with disadvantaged parents, without presupposing those goals to be implemented in the preferred parenting styles or practices of the dominant subculture. In other words, a goals-based parenting intervention strengthens a critical link in the socialization chain, without dictating how every link in that chain should be forged.


Bettler, R. F., Jr., & Burns, B. (2003a). Parents' goals and children's early cognitive development. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Bettler, R. F., Jr., & Burns, B. (2003b). Preliminary analysis of parenting goals data.

Brody, G. H., Stoneman, Z., & Flor, D. (1995). Linking family processes and academic competence among rural African American youths. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 567–579.

Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 487–496.

Dix, T. (1992). Parenting on behalf of the child: Empathic goals in the regulation of responsive parenting. In I. E. Sigel, A. V. McGillicuddy-DeLisi, & J. J. Goodnow (Eds.), Parental belief systems: The psychological consequences for children (2nd ed., pp. 319–346). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jimerson, S., Egeland, B., & Teo, A. (1999). A longitudinal study of achievement trajectories: Factors associated with change. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 116–126.

Kornadt, H.-J., Eckensberger, L. H., & Emminghaus, W. B. (1980). Cross-cultural research on motivation and its contribution to a general theory of motivation. In H. C. Triandis & W. Lonner (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Basic processes (Vol. 3, pp. 223–32l). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Luster, T., & McAdoo, H. P. (1994). Factors related to the achievement and adjustment of young African American children. Child Development, 65, 1080–1094.

McLoyd, V. C. (1990). The impact of economic hardship on black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development, 61, 311–346.

Ogbu, J. U. (1981). Origins of human competence: A cultural-ecological perspective. Child Development, 52, 413–429.

Pervin, L. A. (1989). Goal concepts in personality and social psychology: A historical introduction. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 1-17). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ramey, S. L. (1999). Head Start and preschool education, toward continued improvement. American Psychologist, 54, 344–346.

Ramey, C. T., & Campbell, F. A. (1991). Poverty, early childhood education, and academic competence: The Abecedarian experience. In A. C. Huston (Ed.), Children in poverty: Child development and public policy (pp. 190–221). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Slaughter-Defoe, D. T., Nakagawa, K., Takanishi, R., & Johnson, D. J. (1990). Toward cultural/ecological perspectives on schooling and achievement in African- and Asian-American children. Child Development, 61, 363–383.

Smith, C. P. (Ed.). (1992). Motivation and personality: Handbook of thematic content analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stipek, D., & Ryan, R. (1997). Economically disadvantaged preschoolers: Ready to learn by further to go. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 711–723.

Zaslow, M. J., Dion, M. R., Morrison, D. R., Weinfield, N., Ogawa, J., & Tagbors, P. (1999). Protective factors in the development of preschool-age children of young mothers receiving welfare. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), Coping with divorce, single parenting and remarriage: A risk and resiliency perspective (pp. 193–223). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Robert F. Bettler, Jr., Ph.D.
Hanover College
PO Box 890
Hanover, IN 47243

Barbara Burns, Ph.D.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY 40292

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project