Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Vol. E2, No.
Parenting Attitudes and Behaviors
in Rural Appalachian Mothers:
A Comparison Study
Marshall University School of Medicine
Cynthia A. Stifter
Pennsylvania State University
There is a general
belief, supported by considerable empirical data, that low socioeconomic
status (SES) constitutes a risk for less optimal parenting. However, in
a cross-SES comparison, economically-disadvantaged rural Appalachian mothers
were comparable to well-educated middle-class mothers on maternal self-efficacy,
significantly higher on responsive attitude to infant crying, and rated
either more optimal or comparable to the middle-class sample on mother-infant
interaction rated at two points during the first year.
It is generally assumed
that inadequate income is a risk condition for both parenting and child
development. For example, Elder's (1974, 1979) studies of parenting during
the depression years and more recent studies of economic hardship in the
agricultural midwest (Conger et al., 1992; Lempers, Clark-Lempers, &
Simons, 1989) show an association between financial hardship and less nurturant,
inconsistent parenting behavior. McLoyd & Wilson (1991) summarize evidence
that low socioeconomic status (SES) parents are subject to greater stress,
anxiety, and depression than higher SES parents and thereby are at risk
for providing less optimal parenting, stating "it is reasonable to conclude
on the basis of studies directly linking negative emotional states and
punitive, nonsupportive parenting that environmental and psychological
distress partially account for well-established social class differences
in parenting behavior" (p. 110).
As children grow,
adults largely cease to play with them, supervise them inappropriately,
and furnish no positive models for training in setting limits on impulses,
for establishing disciplinary controls, or for training in age-appropriate
relating to or talking with other adults . . . adults generally notice
the misbehavior of children, usually in public, only when the situation
is beyond the point at which an adult could have intervened to set the
training model for the child's more effective mastering of his feelings,
impulses, and relationships. Instead, misbehavior is allowed to come to
a head, and physical punishment is meted out swiftly and sternly as a consequence
(Looff, 1971, p. 15).
Low levels of parental
education, which often occur in conjunction with poverty and other risk
factors, have also been linked to less favorable social and academic outcomes
in several longitudinal studies (Dubow & Luster, 1990; Sameroff, Seifer,
Barocas, Zax, & Greenspan, 1987; Werner & Smith, 1992). Of particular
interest is Werner & Smith's (1992) finding that more parental education
was associated with more positive parent-child interaction during infancy.
Beyond the notion
that low SES constitutes a general risk factor, two issues merit attention.
First, it is important to note that parenting and child development show
a wide range of individual difference within low SES families. Thus,
while low SES does constitute a risk factor, less optimal parenting and
child development is not true of all low SES families. From the work of
Werner and Smith (1982, 1992), Rutter (1985, 1987), and Garmezy (1993),
it is evident that both risk and protective factors need to be taken into
account to explain individual differences. In particular, these studies
of resilience in high-risk environments reveal that basic temperamental
qualities of children and their close relationships with others function
as protective factors in long term adjustment.
Second, research which
has examined parenting and child development in samples defined as high-risk,
based on poverty or low SES, has tended to view all low SES groups as similarly
at risk, despite having diverse characteristics. There has been insufficient
attention in developmental research to cultural characteristics as potential
strengths or protective factors against the stress of poverty.
Among low SES families,
much of the research concerned with parenting and child development has
examined urban minority populations. Probably the least studied group of
low SES families are those living in rural areas. Yet recent data from
the Children's Defense Fund (1996) show that: all 10 states with the highest
rates of child poverty are rural, that 23% of rural children are poor,
and that only 1 in 10 poor children fits the common stereotype of a poor
child--African-American, urban, with a single mother receiving public assistance.
Thus, a large, high risk population--rural, poor, White families--has been
In this investigation,
we examine parenting in a rural Appalachian sample. Rural Appalachia has
been identified as a region with chronic high poverty and low levels of
education (West Virginia Human Resources Association, 1988). West Virginia,
the only state entirely within the Appalachian region, has the highest
poverty rate in the nation for white children, double the national average
(Children's Defense Fund, 1996).
A number of authors
point out that descriptions of the rural Appalachian culture have often
"blamed the victim" for chronic poverty in the region (Beaver, 1980; Lohmann,
1990; Peoples Appalachian Research Collective, 1971), without adequately
considering regional economic and social conditions (Duncan, 1992) or cultural
and family strengths (Beaver, 1980; Singleton, Ratliff, Carpenter, Davis,
& Brunner, 1990).
Information on parenting
and family characteristics in rural Appalachia is largely descriptive and
presents a mixed picture. For example, a panel of native Appalachian social
service and health practitioners listed among family strengths perseverance
through difficult times, making do with whatever resources are available,
pride, and being close-knit, protective, and caring about family and friends
(Singleton et al., 1990). Beaver (1980) states, "For Appalachian rural
families, familialism is still highly valued and depended upon. Reliance
on cooperative networks provides a variety of psychological, social, and
economic supports and outlets" (p. 33).
On the other hand,
frequently quoted observers from the War on Poverty era characterized parenting
in rural Appalachia in terms of negative stereotypes:
Mountain children are
reared impulsively, with relatively little of the conscious training found
in middle class families. Discipline is meted out with no concern about
how the child will react as a child. In such an adult-centered society,
children's feelings are not given great weight. When they misbehave, they
are punished--and it is always physical punishment, not just a scolding
or being sent to their rooms (Weller, 1965, p. 65).
However, without current,
methodologically sound, scientific studies on parent-child interaction
and factors influencing individual differences in parenting, evidence is
lacking to either verify or refute such statements. The purpose of the
present study was to compare low SES rural Appalachian mothers to a previously
studied sample of well-educated, middle class mothers in order to empirically
determine if differences in parenting could be documented.
The 94 low SES, rural
Appalachian mothers were participants in a longitudinal study of infant
and caregiving environment factors related to stability and change in infant
temperament from birth through 15 months (Fish, in press). These mothers
were recruited from prenatal patients at a community health clinic in a
rural West Virginia county. All patients who were not experiencing medically
high risk pregnancies, and who planned to remain in the area until their
child was 15 months old, were asked to participate in the study. Of the
121 women recruited during the last trimester of pregnancy (69% of those
approached), 116 had infants who met study criteria (singleton birth, normal
neonate). Over the course of the study, 17 mothers either moved (7) or
declined to participate (10) at some point. Data on 5 other infant-mother
pairs were excluded due to infant characteristics which might affect early
The demographic data
reflect low socioeconomic status. Almost three quarters of mothers reported
that their annual family income was less than $10,000, and 70% received
public assistance (either food stamps or Aid to Families with Dependent
Children or both). About half of the parents (55% of the mothers and 53%
of fathers) were high school graduates; nearly one fourth had a ninth grade
education or less. All parents were White.
The Pennsylvania sample
consisted of 67 mothers, living in or near a middle-sized university community,
who were participants in a longitudinal study of the physiological and
behavioral correlates of infant temperament from birth through 18 months
(Fish, Stifter, & Belsky, 1991; Stifter & Braungart, 1995). Mothers
were recruited on the maternity ward of a community hospital in central
Pennsylvania; 33% of those approached agreed to participate. Of 101 mothers
recruited, 22 moved or declined to participate at some point, and 12 were
not included due to missing data or technical difficulties.
Income data were not
collected in this sample; however, descriptive statistics on occupation
and education indicate that this was a middle class group. Although occupations
of both mothers and fathers ranged from professional to service/laborer,
in 80% of the families, one or both spouses held a professional or semi-professional
position. Further, fathers had completed an average of 4 years of college
education and mothers 3 years. Parents were 98.5% White; two parents were
In both samples, mothers
completed demographic, personality, and relationship satisfaction questionnaires
prior to substantive interaction with the infant, during a prenatal interview
for the rural Appalachian sample and neonatally for the Pennsylvania sample.
(Because some women in the rural Appalachian sample had low reading levels,
for that group, the questionnaires were completed in an interview format
with a research assistant reading the items, clarifying them as needed,
and recording the subject's responses.) In both samples, mothers were seen
with their infants for laboratory assessments, which included mother-infant
interaction, twice during the first year of the infant's life (at 4 and
9 months for the rural West Virginia sample and at 5 and 10 months for
the Pennsylvania sample). For both groups, the quality of mother-infant
interaction was coded for sensitivity and over-controlling/intrusive behavior
at each time.
of the Samples
parent measures. SES/demographic and work variables assessed included:
mother's and father's ages, years of education, and occupations; maternal
parity; and marital status and number of years married. We also asked mothers
if they currently smoked and if they planned to breast or bottle feed their
indicators assessed the broad traits of positive affectivity (extraversion)
and negative affectivity (neuroticism) with well standardized scales. These
traits have been related to individual differences in parenting in a number
of studies (e.g., Belsky, Fish, & Isabella, 1991; Fish, Stifter, &
Belsky, 1993; Mangelsdorf, Gunnar, Kestenbaum, Lang, & Andreas, 1990),
and psychological distress is often associated with low SES (McLoyd &
Wilson, 1991). Measures used were: the hostility, anxiety, and depression
scales from the neuroticism dimension and the warmth and positive
emotions scales from the extraversion dimension of the NEO-AC Personality
Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1985; McCrae & Costa, 1983).
Marital or relationship
satisfaction (those women living with a partner were treated in analyses
the same as those who were married) was measured with the Braiker and Kelley
(1979) index of relationship sentiments and activities. This is a 25-item
measure of two positive (love and maintenance) and two negative
(ambivalence and conflict) aspects of relationships. These measures have
previously predicted differences in mother interactional behavior (Fish
et al., 1993).
Measures of Parenting
parenting. Maternal self-efficacy was measured at 4-5 months
with an 18-item scale covering concepts such as feelings of competence
as a parent, support sought and experienced in the parenting role, and
ability to meet this infant's individual needs (Fish, et al., 1991). Internal
consistency was .75 in the rural Appalachian sample and .82 in the suburban
Pennsylvania sample. Mothers also completed the Crockenberg and Smith (1982)
10-item scale of parental responsiveness, which has been shown to predict
subsequent infant irritability and observed mother responsiveness (Crockenberg
& Smith, 1982; Crockenberg & McCluskey, 1986). A 5-item scale dealing
specifically with responding to crying was used in the comparison.
Internal consistency (coefficient alpha) for this scale was .67 for the
rural Appalachian sample and .76 for the Pennsylvania sample.
Parenting behavior was measured by rating the quality of mother interaction
from videotapes of infants interacting with their mothers in an unstructured
free play situation in project playrooms at two points in the first year
- 4 and 9 months in the rural Appalachian sample and 5 and 10 months in
the Pennsylvania sample. For both groups, mothers were seated on a blanket
on the floor, provided with a basket of toys, and asked to play with their
infant "the way you would at home."
Behaviors rated from
the videotapes were maternal sensitivity and over-controlling/intrusive
behavior. Differences in rated sensitivity and appropriate responsiveness
of mother interactional behavior have been linked to infant-mother attachment,
theorized to be an indicator of the quality of the infant-parent relationship
(e.g., Ainsworth, Blehar, Water, & Wall, 1978; Belsky, Rovine, &
Taylor, 1984; Grossmann, Grossmann, Spangler, Suess, & Unzner, 1985;
Smith & Pederson, 1988) and to children's early cognitive and verbal
abilities (Bornstein & Tamis-LeMonda, 1989; Hart & Risley, 1992;
Olson, Bates, & Bayles, 1984).
In the free play situation,
behavioral examples of sensitivity included contingent responses to the
infant's affect and actions, positive verbal encouragement of the infant's
efforts, providing assistance to allow the infant to achieve his/her goals,
and responding to the infant's focus by either sustaining interest in one
toy/activity or appropriately changing to another. Mother behavior rated
as over-controlling/intrusive was overly stimulating, poorly-timed, out
of synchrony with the baby's pace and signals, and often appeared to address
the mother's agenda at the expense of the infant's.
For each interval of
free play (15-seconds in the rural Appalachian sample and 30-seconds in
the Pennsylvania sample), both sensitivity and over-controlling/intrusive
behavior were rated on 4-point scales. Reliabilities (kappa) for sensitivity
at each age were .62 and .66 for the rural Appalachian sample and .61 and
.68 for the Pennsylvania sample. Reliabilities for over-control/intrusive
behavior were .75 and .73 for the West Virginia group and .71 and .72 for
the Pennsylvania sample. At each age, scores across all intervals were
summed to create total scores for sensitivity and over-control.
above in length of free play sessions and in the intervals coded necessitated
mathematical transformations before comparisons could be made. The duration
of the free play sessions ranged from 5 minutes (both times for the Pennsylvania
mothers and infants) to 8 minutes (second time point for the rural West
Virginia mothers and infants). Coding intervals were 15 seconds in one
sample and 30 seconds in the other. Appropriate formulas were constructed,
using proportions, to make the totals for all free play codes equal to
what would have been obtained for a 7-minute sample rated each 15-seconds,
which was the configuration for the rural Appalachian data at 4 months.
Thus, for example, the 5-month Pennsylvania data were multiplied by a factor
of 2.8. In other words, a Pennsylvania mother receiving a sensitivity score
of 20 scored for 10 30-second intervals would have received a sensitivity
score of 56 had she been rated for 28 15-second intervals.
Our first analyses
compared the demographic, personality, relationship satisfaction, and maternal
attitude measures with either t-tests or Chi Square analyses. Results are
reported in Tables 1, 2, and 3.
of rural West Virginia and suburban Pennsylvania mothers on demographic
data are presented in Table 1. In addition to highly significant differences
in education, it also can be seen that the rural Appalachian women were
younger1 (mean age 23.21 vs. 29.45), but more likely to have
other children. The Pennsylvania mothers were somewhat more likely to be
married or living with a partner and considerably more likely to be employed
outside the home.
Sample Comparisons on Demographics
WV Mean (SD)
PA Mean (SD)
* = p < .05, *** = p <
.001, *** = p < .0001
Comparisons of personality/emotional
outlook and relationship appraisals are found in Table 2. On personality
traits, presumed to be influenced by developmental history, and in terms
of satisfaction with spousal/partner relationships, all of the differences
found reflect more negative views on the part of the rural Appalachian
women. In particular, they were significantly higher on neuroticism (the
anxiety, depression, and hostility scales) and lower on extraversion (warmth
and positive emotions) and reported significantly more conflict and ambivalence
regarding their relationship with their partner than women in the middle
class Pennsylvania sample. These results support the prevalent view in
the literature that economically-disadvantaged mothers have a more negative
outlook than higher SES mothers.
Comparisons on Personality, Relationship
WV Mean (SD)
PA Mean (SD)
* = p < .05, ***** = p <
which reflected maternal attitudes and behavior by SES group produced mixed
results. As can be seen in Table 3, the West Virginia mothers were much
more likely to report that they smoked and much less likely to say that
they planned to breast feed their infant. However, on the response to crying
scale, the rural Appalachian mothers' reported that they would respond
to a crying baby significantly sooner, and there were no differences between
the groups on maternal self-efficacy.
Comparisons on Maternal Attitudes,
WV Mean (SD)
PA Mean (SD)
responsive attitude toward crying
**** = p < .0001
To compare mother
interactional behavior rated in the free play situations, we carried out
two repeated measures analyses of variance. The repeated measures ANOVA
on sensitivity with group as a between-subjects factor showed significant
effects of group [F(1,159) = 48.91, p < .0001], time [F(1,159)
= 6.54, p < .05], and the group by time interaction [F(1,159)
= 60.48, p < .0001]. The repeated measures ANOVA on over-controlling/intrusive
behavior with group as a between-subjects factor also showed significant
effects of group [F(1,159) = 26.95, p < .0001], time [F(1,159)
= 10.25, p < .01], and the group by time interaction [F(1,159)
= 41.68, p < .0001].
comparisons revealed that at the earlier time, low SES rural Appalachian
mothers were significantly more sensitive (t = 8.72, 99.40 df, p <
.0001, M's 51.82 and 34.77, SD's 8.55 and 14.29) and less
over-controlling/intrusive (t = 6.76, 84.41 df, p
< .0001, M's 4.35 and 15.88, SD's 5.77 and 13.08), whereas
at the later time there were no differences between the groups.2
Within groups, across time the rural Appalachian mothers significantly
decreased in sensitivity (t = 4.97, 93 df, p < .0001)
and increased in over-controlling/intrusive behavior (t = 10.40,
93 df, p < .0001). In contrast, the middle-class Pennsylvania
mothers increased in sensitivity (t = 5.57, 66 df, p <
.0001) and did not change significantly in over-controlling/ intrusive
The results of these
comparisons are shown in Figure 1.
To summarize: the
rural Appalachian mothers were clearly distinguished by poverty and low
levels of education and also by more negative personality traits and more
feelings of conflict and ambivalence about their intimate relationships.
In keeping with other studies linking education level with behavior, rural
West Virginia mothers were less likely to breast feed and more likely to
smoke, even during pregnancy. Overall, we found little evidence that low
SES and a negative outlook carried over to other maternal attitudes we
measured or to interactional behavior. Low SES rural Appalachian women
did not have lower maternal self-efficacy than the middle-class Pennsylvania
mothers. Further, they were higher in responsive attitude toward crying
and were rated as more sensitive and less over-controlling/intrusive with
younger infants and as having similar behavior with older infants to the
middle class group. However, across the first year, rural Appalachian mothers,
as a group, declined in sensitivity and increased in intrusiveness, whereas
middle-class Pennsylvania mothers increased in sensitivity and maintained
the same level of intrusiveness.
The results of this
study suggest we should not assume low SES has a negative impact on parenting
without considering the broader social context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Despite more negative responses to personality and marital satisfaction
measures, and despite having much lower levels of income and education,
the rural Appalachian mothers did not show less optimal maternal behavior
than the middle class mothers, and in fact, were rated as significantly
more sensitive and less intrusive with younger infants.
Consistent with the
large body of literature on the effects of living in poverty, the low income
West Virginia mothers did have more negative feelings about their lives
and relationships than well educated, middle-class mothers. But, unlike
the families studied by Elder (1974, 1979), Conger et al. (1992), and Lempers
et al., we did not find negative parenting, at least as compared to our
middle class sample. Rural Appalachian mothers were comparable to well-educated
middle-class mothers on maternal self-efficacy, significantly higher on
responsive attitude to infant crying, and rated either more optimal or
comparable to the middle-class sample on mother-infant interaction.
At least two explanations
for these findings seem plausible. First, unlike families who have experienced
a change in SES due to a depression or other economic reversal,
poverty is not new to rural Appalachian families (Peoples Appalachian Research
Collective, 1971). Further, many families are poor. In Lincoln County,
West Virginia, the study site, 45% of children live in poverty (1997, West
Virginia Kids Count Fund). Perhaps chronic and widespread poverty has less
effect on parenting than sudden reversals, even though it may relate to
more negative appraisals of self and partner.
In addition, since
low SES can hardly be viewed as advantageous, these results suggest to
us that some characteristics of the rural Appalachian mothers, either high
social support, which has been documented in this sample (Fish, in press),
or other cultural characteristics which we did not measure, act as protective
factors against the stresses of low SES--"buffering" parenting behavior.
Although we did not
measure general social support in the middle-class Pennsylvania sample,
we think it likely that, as residents of a university community with mostly
professional or semi-professional occupations, many of them are geographically
mobile and lack the close and frequent contact with parents and extended
family reported by the rural Appalachian women. In the West Virginia group,
91% had multiple family members living nearby, and the majority visit parents,
partner's parents, and other family members once a week or more. We also
observed informally that motherhood appears to be a very central role for
women in the rural Appalachian culture and one for which even young mothers
are well prepared in the extended family.
Our comparisons of
sample characteristics revealed only two differences which might be interpreted
as "advantages" for the rural West Virginia mothers. First, a higher proportion
of the rural Appalachian group were multiparous, and therefore, experienced
mothers. However, when we conducted a post hoc ANOVA with 4-month sensitivity
as the dependent variable and group and parity as factors, there was no
main effect of parity and no interaction with group. Thus, it seems unlikely
that more experience with infants explains higher sensitivity at that age
in the rural sample. The West Virginia women were also less likely to be
employed outside the home, either before or after the baby was born, and
some research (Stifter, Coulehan, & Fish, 1993) suggests that separation
anxiety in working mothers may negatively affect interaction with infants.
A post hoc comparison did show that in the Pennsylvania sample only, working
mothers tended to be more over-controlling/intrusive at the later observation
(t = 1.92, p = .06; M 14.66, sd 10.66) than
mothers not employed outside the home (M 10.04, SD 7.90).
However, working and nonworking mothers did not differ on interactional
behaviors in the rural Appalachian group.
It should be noted
that our findings are not inconsistent with the observations of Weller
(1965) and Looff (1971) that rural Appalachian parents are infant-centered,
but become less involved and more authoritarian as children grow. Specifically,
we found that rural Appalachian mothers were more sensitive and less over-controlling/intrusive
with 4-month old infants than 9-month-olds. However, additional study,
from a cultural-ecological perspective (Ogbu, 1981) is needed of the interactions
of parents in this population with toddlers and older children. The conclusion
of Weller and Looff that the child-centered attitudes and behavior of rural
Appalachian families are confined to the period before children begin to
develop motoric skills and seek autonomy, has not been tested empirically,
nor examined in sociocultural context (Chao, 1994).
has likely raised more questions than it has answered. In general, the
lack of longitudinal study of parent-child interaction in differing SES
and cultural groups limits understanding of how characteristics of the
child, including age/stage of development, interact with other factors
such as cultural group and specifics of socioeconomic status. For example,
how does SES interact with child age and sex? Is parental stress higher
or lower in a region of relatively widespread and chronic poverty such
as rural Appalachia than it is for higher SES parents who unexpectedly
become unemployed? These and other issues should be addressed in additional
study of low SES rural families.
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not a sample with large numbers of adolescent mothers. Only 12% were 18
the period of free play was longer for the rural Appalachian sample, we
also considered the possibility of a "warm-up" effect. To verify that the
rural Appalachian mothers were not rated more sensitive and less intrusive
at the earlier age because they had more time to get used to the free play
situation, we compared only the first 5 minutes of their interaction with
the Pennsylvania mothers' 5-minute sessions, using t-tests, and
obtained the same pattern of results with the same level of significance.
This study was
supported by grant MCJ-540615 from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau
(Title V, Social Security Act), Health Resources and Services Administration,
Department of Health and Human Services and by grant MH48395 from the National
Institute of Mental Health, Department of Health and Human Services to
the first author and grant MH 44324 from the National Institute of Mental
Health and a grant from the Pennsylvania State University Biomedical Research
Support Grant Program awarded to the second author.
wish to thank the mothers and infants for their participation and to acknowledge
the cooperation of the Lincoln Primary Care Center.
author: Margaret Fish, Dept. of Family & Community Health, Marshall
University School of Medicine, Huntington, WV 25755; phone (304) 691-1185;
e mail firstname.lastname@example.org