Early Childhood Education

Parents and Parent Involvement


Parents provide children with the care they need to survive and become culturally competent. Attachment, the emotional tie between a child and caregiver, is universal, but the goals and patterns of child-rearing vary both between and within cultures. The parental role may be carried out by someone other than the biological parent (i.e., adoptive or grandparent). Developmentally appropriate practice calls for effective partnerships between early childhood educators and parents.



Human evolution has resulted in behavioral systems in both children and their caregivers that prepare children for life in their particular culture. Newborns arrive with the capacity to cry when they feel discomfort, attend alertly to a human face, and root and suckle on a breast to get nourishment. These capacities in babies are universal and seem to be designed to engage responsive care from an adult. As they grow older, children further rely on parents to engage them in learning language, solving problems, and relating to others. Parents typically provide this care and guidance based upon cultural models. They respond to the baby’s cries, nourish them, and guide them in learning skills in accordance with implicit cultural goals for child-rearing. In all cultures, parents are typically the primary caregivers for young children. But there is considerable variation in how these caregiving activities are carried out and how they are shared between parents and with other members of the society—older children, extended family, professional caregivers. For example, among the Kung San in South Africa, babies are in constant contact with their mothers and feed frequently. Conversely, Dutch mothers tend to establish a strict feeding schedule very early in a child’s life. And many American parents let their babies sleep in separate rooms. Middle-class American mothers talk with their young children about everyday events, asking questions that they already know the answers to. Economically disadvantaged American Appalachian mothers ask questions of their children that they need the answers to. Language is used to tell stories rather than engage in school-like discourse.

The variation in parental behavior is based upon implicit cultural goals and environmental demands. For example, the constant contact of Kung San infants with their mothers not only protects them from the various threats in their environment but also prepares them for close, interdependent relationships necessary in a small social group that share limited resources. Reflecting different cultural goals, parenting practices that encourage sleeping in separate rooms and didactic conversation among middle-class American families prepare children for independence and success in school (LeVine, 1988).

Although based primarily in culture, parenting style and capacity are also related to specific familial and societal forces. Socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, substance abuse, migration and immigration, war, disability, and other factors influence how parents care for their children. Two parents may share the parenting role, or fathers may take primary caregiving roles for children’s care. Extended family involvement may be constant and expected or parents may be entirely disconnected from relatives.

There is no singular script or prescription for how to be a good parent. Children born with various characteristics, economic and social factors, and changing cultural values as well as individual parental dispositions all conspire against singular guidance about childrearing. Parents, whether in traditional societies or postindustrial societies, have always looked to others for guidance. In traditional societies such sources included extended family and community leaders. Increasingly they look to other sources—media (television and magazines), the books of experts, pediatricians, and early childhood educators (Small, 1998).


Parent Involvement

Early childhood educators require children and their parents to adapt to the policies and practices of their programs, but when early childhood educators work with a child, they are also joining a system of care around that child. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1986) maintained that it is in the best interest of the child for the various people—parents and others who care for children—to do so consistently. The child grows and learns best when these caregivers communicate with each other and share similar child-rearing patterns and goals. The focus of this partnership is the well-being of the child, but often there are disagreements between parents and other caregivers. Differing implicit and culturally based beliefs about child-rearing and the meaning of children’s behavior are both natural and inevitable. This may require substantive communication and negotiation. Furthermore, parents may have ambivalent feelings about leaving children in the care of others for a variety of reasons, including the need to maintain an adequate income. Exchanges between parents and others who care for their children may be charged with deep emotions.

The role of early childhood educators is to protect, care for, and support the cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development of young children. To do this well, they must work in alliance with parents. The goal of healthy development of young children is best met when the primary influence on that development is effective. As the primary source for that development is the child’s parents, the early childhood educator’s role must include supporting the competence and well-being of parents (Shpancer, 2000). Many early childhood programs, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, have parenting education as a central program component. Close relationships with parents and other family members is a hallmark of early childhood programs in Italy (New and Mallory, 2005).

Contemporary theories of child development as well as recent research supports the premise that forming and sustaining effective and authentic partnerships with parents is the foundation of high quality early childhood education (Turnbull, Turbiville, and Turnbull, 2000). Practices that support such partnerships may include the following:

• transition into the program that allows for forming strong relationships between parents, teachers, and children together;

• regular and ongoing teacher-parent communication about the children’s health, behavior, and progress;

• honest, timely, and open communication about developmental or behavioral concerns;

• parental participation in decision making about caregiving practices, curriculum, and overall program policy;

• parental participation in program activities (e.g., volunteering in the classroom, field trips, sharing particular skills);

• opportunities, as appropriate, for teachers to visit children’s homes;

• attention to family culture in program planning;

• specific activities that encourage the participation of fathers;

• referral and collaboration with programs that address family support needs such as housing, substance abuse counseling, and health care; and

• parent meetings and support groups.

Effective teacher-parent alliances have benefits for children and parents as well as for the continual development of early childhood educators. Parents, as the primary force in the development of children, are essential partners with early childhood educators not only because they provide information about their children but also because they bring a rich and complex cultural understanding to the care of children. When teachers learn from parents they deepen their view of childhood and the care of children.

Further Readings: Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoints: The essential reference. New York: Perseus Books; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). Contexts of childrearing: Problems and prospects. American Psychologist 34, 844-850; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology 22, 723-742; Goodnow, Jacqueline J., and W. Andrew Collins (1990). Development according to parents: The nature, sources, and consequences of parents’ ideas. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Harkness, Sara, and Super Charles, eds. (1996); Parents’ cultural belief systems. New York: Guilford Press. LeVine, R. A. (1988); Human parental care: Universal goals, cultural strategies, individual behavior. In R. A. LeVine, P. M. Miller, and M. M. West, eds., Parental behavior in diverse societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 3-12; New, R., and B. Mallory (2005). Children as catalysts for adult relations: New partnerships in home-school-community relations in Italian early childhood education. In O. Saracho and B. Spodek, eds., Contemporary perspectives in early childhood education: Families and communities. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, pp. 163-179; Shpancer, N. (2000). The home-daycare link: Mapping children’s new world order. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 17, 374-392; Small, M. (1998). Our Babies, ourselves: How biology and culture shape the way we parent. New York: Anchor Books; Turnbull, A., V. Turbiville, and H. R. Turnbull (2000). Evolution of family-professional relationships: Collective empowerment for the 21st century. In J. Shonkoff and S. Meisels, eds., Handbook of early childhood intervention. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 630-650.

John Hornstein