Do Sensitive Parents Foster Kind Children, or Vice Versa? Bidirectional Influences Between Children’s Prosocial Behavior and Parental Sensitivity

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Bidirectional theories of social development have been around for over 40 years (Bell, 1968), yet they have been applied primarily to the study of antisocial development. In the present study, the reciprocal relationship between parenting behavior and children’s socially competent behaviors were examined. Using the National Institute of Child Health and Development Study of Early Child Care data set (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005), bidirectional relationships between parental sensitivity and children’s prosocial behavior were modeled using latent variables in structural equation modeling for mothers and fathers, separately. Children and their parents engaged in structured interactions when children were 54-month-olds, 3rd graders, and 5th graders, and these interactions were coded for parental sensitivity. At 3rd, 5th, and 6th grades, teachers and parents reported on children’s prosocial behavior. Parental education and child gender were entered as covariates in the models. The results provide support for a bidirectional relationship between children’s prosocial behavior and maternal sensitivity (but not paternal sensitivity) in middle childhood. The importance of using a bidirectional approach to examine the development of social competence is emphasized.

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