A large longitudinal study conducted by a team at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina shows that for rural low-income families, cumulative risk factors can negatively affect parenting quality and child development, learning and behavior. This study is important because nearly 20% of children in United States families are located in rural communities and rural families are understudied. The Family Life Project followed 1292 children from low-income rural families over a 10-year period, and the results have been published as a monograph (The Family Life Project: An Epidemiological and Developmental Study of Young Children Living in Poor Rural Communities (2013). Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Martha Cox, and The Family Life Project Key Investigators, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Volume 78, Issue 5, Pages vii–vii, 1–150.)
Family Risk Factors and Assessing Parenting Quality
The Family Life Project developed an index they termed "cumulative risk" that included measures of maternal education, income, work hours per week, job prestige, household density, neighborhood safety, and the degree to which the parents were consistently partnered. They studied the extent to which cumulative risk predicted children’s physical and social development and school performance. In addition to studying cumulative risk, researchers spent time in each family's home. They developed an observational parenting assessment tool, similar to the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) and were able to determine parental sensitivity and support, as well as how harsh and controlling the parents were. Then using mediation analyses they investigated the relationships between cumulative risk, parenting quality and child outcomes.
Results suggest that cumulative risk was important in predicting all three major domains of child outcomes and that positive and negative parenting and maternal language complexity were mediators of these relations. Maternal positive parenting was found to buffer for the most part risky families in predicting behavioral competence. Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Martha Cox, page 1
Commenting on their work for the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute website Vernon-Feagans summarized the team’s findings:
Overall, our findings indicated that the environment of poverty begins to shape child development very early in ways that have important implications for the child’s ability to regulate emotion, attention, and behavior, as well as to use language in ways that school demands.
These results are consistent with studies of urban children showing that parenting buffers the negative impact of poverty on hippocampal development. According to the Urban Institute’s 2013 extensive review of the literature, entitled The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development: A Research Synthesis by Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta
1) Instability often indirectly affects children by first affecting the well-being of their parents. Instability can lead to poor maternal mental health, negative parenting, and lower quality home environments.
2) Unstable homes frequently lack the emotional and material resources that children need for healthy development.
3) For parents who effectively cope with difficult transitions, positive parenting can buffer children from the negative effects of instability.
Parenting Assessment Can Help Improve Parenting Quality
So, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are growing up poor in a city or in a rural area; the stresses of poverty impact child development. The good news is that quality parenting can buffer the negative impact of poverty, for both rural and urban children. We also know that quality parenting can be learned; there are a number of evidence-based programs that are shown to improve parenting. With a valid and reliable parenting assessment tool like KIPS, programs can:
1) Identify early those parents who are most in need of support;
2) Guide services to match each parent’s individual strengths and needs;
3) Provide specific and actionable feedback to improve parenting skills.
4) Prove that their services are increasing parenting quality, which so delights those who control the purse strings.
For more on the value of assessing parenting in addressing the impact of poverty and other risk factors see our paper, Building a Strong Program for Families and Staff By Assessing What Matters to Children: Their Parents’ Behavior.