The Intergenerational Transmission of Parenting:
Introduction to the Special Section
Birkbeck University of London
University of California, Davis
Deborah M. Capaldi
Oregon Social Learning Center
Long-standing interest in the intergenerational transmission of parenting has stimulated work focused on
child maltreatment, harsh parenting, and warm–supportive rearing. In addition to documenting signifi-
cant, even if modest, continuity in parenting across generations, research in this area has addressed
questions of mediation and moderation. This special section extends work in this general area, with 2
studies further chronicling intergenerational transmission and 3 further illuminating mechanisms through
which parenting in 1 generation is repeated in a subsequent generation. Lacking, however, is high-quality
work highlighting the conditions under which parenting is not transmitted across generations.
Keywords: parenting, intergenerational transmission, continuity, discontinuity
Why do parents parent the way they do? That is a question that
has long interested developmentalists (Belsky, 1984), especially
those studying parenting and parent– child relationships, as well as
service providers seeking to prevent or remediate problematic
parenting or to promote growth-facilitating child rearing. One
long-standing hypothesis is that the nature and quality of parenting
are intergenerationally transmitted, with parents in one generation
parenting in a manner similar to that which they themselves
experienced while growing up (Serbin & Karp, 2003). Indeed,
various theoretical perspectives embrace this proposition, includ-
ing life-course (Elder, 1981), attachment (Bowlby, 1969), and
social-learning (Bandura, 1977; Patterson, 1998) theories, even if
they differ in terms of mechanisms presumed to account for the
intergenerational transmission process.
As the articles in this special section make clear, there is no
shortage of evidence that parenting is indeed transmitted across
generations. Perhaps the earliest and best known is that pertaining
to child maltreatment (Belsky, 1978, 1980; Cicchetti & Rizley,
1981). Clinicians dealing with and scientists studying abusive and
neglectful parents have long contended that persons who seriously
mistreat their offspring were themselves seriously mistreated as
children (Spinetta & Rigler, 1972). Yet it is widely acknowledged
that much of the database seeming to substantiate this claim is
severely limited because of its retrospective nature. And this is
because reports by adults of how they were treated in their families
of origin are prone to memory errors of omission (i.e., not remem-
bering) and commission (i.e., falsely remembering), as well as to
distortion based on current life circumstances (e.g., Belsky, 1980,
1993; Kaufman & Zigler, 1989; van Ijzendoorn, 1992). One re-
view addressing just this issue of the validity of adult retrospective
reports of adverse childhood experiences concluded that “little
weight can be placed on the retrospective reports of details of early
experiences or on reports of experiences that rely heavily on
judgment or interpretation” (Hardt & Rutter, 2004, p. 260).
As it turns out, evidence that harsh parenting or high levels of
family discord are intergenerationally transmitted also emerges
from investigations that do not rely upon retrospective reports of
child rearing and family relations while growing up. Some of the
earliest such evidence emerged from the longitudinal follow-up of
English girls who had been institutionally reared as children due to
high levels of conflict and dysfunction in their families of origin
(Dowdney, Skuse, Rutter, Quinton, & Mrazek, 1985; Quinton &
Rutter, 1984; Quinton, Rutter, & Liddle, 1984). When compared
with family-reared individuals from the same neighborhoods in
which they grew up, the women with institutional-rearing histories
were much more likely to show insensitivity to their 2- to 4-year-
old children and were more prone to exhibit irritability and to more
frequently use spanking as a disciplinary practice. Other early
work that prospectively examined the intergenerational transmis-
sion process was carried out by Caspi and Elder (1988), who found
that angry, aggressive, and hostile parenting experienced by
women growing up during the Great Depression predicted their
own angry and hostile parenting 30 years later. Huesmann, Eron,
Lefkowitz, and Walder (1984) similarly reported that parental
aggression toward the child predicted the child’s own aggressive
parenting 2 decades later.
More recently, Oregon Youth Study investigators studying boys
growing up in the highest crime-rate areas of a medium-sized city
from age 9 followed them up approximately 12 years later, at
Jay Belsky, Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social
Issues, Birkbeck University of London, London, United Kingdom; Rand
Conger, Family Research Group and Department of Human and Commu-
nity Development, University of California, Davis; Deborah M. Capaldi,
Oregon Social Learning Center, Eugene, Oregon.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jay
Belsky, Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues,
Birkbeck University of London, 7 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3RA,
United Kingdom. E-mail: email@example.com
Developmental Psychology © 2009 American Psychological Association
2009, Vol. 45, No. 5, 1201–1204 0012-1649/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0016245
which time some of them had children of their own. The more
these fathers, as boys, had experienced poor parental supervision
and harsh discipline, the more they provided their toddlers with
harsh, inconsistent discipline (Capaldi, Pears, Patterson, & Owen,
2003). Conger, Nellpl, Kim, and Scaramella (2003) obtained sim-
ilar results for angry and aggressive parenting behavior for a
subsample of rural Iowan adolescents followed up 5–7 years later,
when some of them had become parents.
Several recent prospective studies further indicate that it is not
just angry–aggressive– hostile parenting that seems to be intergen-
erationally transmitted. Chen and Kaplan (2001) observed that in
a large, random sample of 13-year-old Houston schoolchildren
who were followed up in their 30s, the experience of good par-
enting in early adolescence, defined in terms of consistent disci-
pline and parental acceptance, predicted the provision of construc-
tive parenting in adulthood (i.e., monitoring, communication,
involvement, positive affection, inductive discipline). Similar re-
sults emerged in a study of adolescent girls (age 13–18) growing
up in Rochester, New York, whose parenting was studied when
they were 20 –22 years old (Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant, Lizotte,
Krohn, & Smith, 2003). More recently, Belsky, Jaffee, Sligo,
Woodward, and Silva (2005) observed the parenting of New
Zealand women followed since age 3 as they interacted with their
own 3-year-olds. These mothers were more likely to behave in a
warm, sensitive, stimulating manner if, during early childhood,
their own mothers did not hold authoritarian child-rearing attitudes
(i.e., undue emphasis on obedience, strict discipline, and unyield-
ing edicts as to how the child was to behave); if, during the
middle-childhood years, the emotional climate of the family was
marked by cohesion, positive expressiveness, and low levels of
conflict (i.e., positive family climate); and/or if, during the early
adolescent years, they experienced a trusting, openly communica-
tive, and nonalienated relationship (i.e., positive attachment) with
No matter the extent of evidence chronicling intergenerational
transmission, it remains indisputable that the parenting experi-
enced in one generation is by no means inevitably repeated in the
next. Indeed, Kaufman and Zigler (1987) estimated the actual rate
of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment to be only
30% (plus or minus 5%), given a range in rates between 7% (Gil,
1971) and 70% (Egeland, Jacobvitz, & Papatola, 1984) chronicled
at the time in the literature. There are certainly grounds for
questioning these estimates (Belsky & Jaffee, 2006), however, as
they are based on the parenting of only a single very young child.
Thus, the work that Kaufman and Zigler (1987) and others (e.g.,
Oliver, 1993) based their estimates upon (e.g., Egeland et al.,
1984; Hunter & Kilstrom, 1979) could not take into account any
mistreatment of the target child at an older age or the mistreatment
of siblings of the child.
All this is not to say that there is anything close to a one-to-one
correspondence between parenting in adjacent generations. In the
aforementioned study by Belsky et al. (2005), for example, mea-
sures of parenting, parent– child relationships, and family climate
obtained in early childhood, middle childhood, and early adoles-
cence accounted for only 15% of mothers and 3% of fathers
observed parenting, once effects of child behavior were taken into
account. Somewhat similarly, Conger et al. (2003) found that
14%–16% of the variance in self-reported and observed parenting
was accounted for by parenting experienced during adolescence.
Men and women did not differ, however, in the extent to which
intergenerational transmission processes appeared to shape their
parenting. Finally, Capaldi et al. (2003) reported that the poor
parenting of mothers and fathers accounted for 14% of the vari-
ance in the poor parenting provided by their sons as young fathers.
Mediating and Moderating Mechanisms
These observations raise the most interesting questions that are
the central focus of this special section: Why do some parents
repeat the parenting they experienced while growing up, whereas
others do not? And what factors and processes account for both
continuity and discontinuity with regard to the intergenerational
transmission of parenting? Indeed, is it possible to elucidate the
psychological, behavioral, and/or social processes that mediate or
moderate predicted continuities across generations, thereby ac-
counting for the uncoupling of and thus “lawful discontinuity” in
generational forces? The latter term refers to the ability to predict
and explain why usual expectations do not obtain (Belsky, Fish, &
Isabella, 1991) and, in the current case, why parenting in one
generation does not predict parenting in another.
It should be appreciated that some considerable progress has
already been made with regard to mediating and moderating mech-
anisms vis-a`-vis the intergenerational transmission of parenting.
With regard to mediation, Caspi and Elder (1988) found in their
aforementioned work that cross-generational linkages in hostile
parenting were a result of second-generation parents’ unstable,
undercontrolled personalities and conflicted marriages. These find-
ings are consistent with Capaldi et al.’s (2003) evidence that it was
via men’s own antisocial behavior that poor parenting experienced
in childhood came to predict the administration of poor and harsh
discipline when the men themselves were parents. Adding to these
mediational findings is Chen and Kaplan’s (2001) work showing
that in the case of supportive parenting, intergenerational trans-
mission proved to operate via positive relations with friends and
Turning to moderation, Egeland et al. (1984) discovered that it
was supportive relationship experiences that were responsible for
“breaking the cycle” of child maltreatment across generations.
Those mistreated children who did not mistreat their own offspring
had experienced supportive close relationships somewhere along
their life-course journey, some with a therapist, others with a
romantic partner, including a spouse. Such evidence was inter-
preted through the lens of attachment theory, with the inference
being that a kind of corrective emotional experience had enabled
the individual to revise the internal working model of self and
other and it was this experience that was responsible for a history
of maltreatment not being repeated in a subsequent generation.
Quinton and Rutter (1984; Quinton et al., 1984) called attention
to relationship factors as well when it came to accounting for why
some girls who had grown up in residential institutions due to their
experience in dysfunctional families parented so much better than
their own parents, whereas others did not. In particular, a good
relationship with a partner, based as it was on a seemingly thought-
ful and well-planned selection of a mate, appeared to make the
difference. And this, the research showed, itself seemed to be a
function of girls’ experience in school. In particular, girls with
positive, self-efficacy-inducing experiences, relative to those with-
out such experiences, proved more planful in their mate selection,
1202 BELSKY, CONGER, AND CAPALDI
and this led to better parenting. At least one research team ques-
tioned the schooling explanation: Belsky, Youngblade, and Pensky
(1990) wondered whether relative physical attractiveness might
have played an important role in determining which of the girls
ended up in well versus poorly functioning intimate relationships,
thus breaking the intergenerational cycle, and reported some evi-
dence to this effect.
Five New Studies
The series of articles presented in this special section extends
work on the intergenerational transmission of parenting in two,
but, disappointingly, not three, ways. To begin with, the first two
studies provide new evidence of parenting in one generation being
repeated in the second generation, though without addressing
meditational mechanisms or moderating factors. Kovan, Chung,
and Sroufe (2009) used parenting experienced—and observed—at
24 months to predict (observed) parenting provided to own toddler
at the same age. After controlling for later parenting and other
background factors, these investigators found not insubstantial
intergenerational transmission in the high-risk Minnesota sample
that could not be accounted for by stability of life stress or even IQ
across generations. Having studied a sample drawn from high-risk
Seattle neigborhoods, Bailey, Hill, Oesterle, Hawkins, and the
Social Development Research Group (2009) reported that both
monitoring and harsh discipline experienced around 13.5 years of
age predicted the same kind of parenting some 14 years later when
children were adults rearing 9-year-olds. They also reported that
intergenerational continuity in harsh discipline accounted for some
of the transmission of externalizing problems across generations.
The next three articles included in this special section also
provide evidence of the intergenerational transmission of parenting
but move beyond its documentation to illuminate mediation,
though not moderation. Indeed, this lacuna was the disappointment
mentioned earlier: Even though the call for papers for this special
issue specifically highlighted the desire to publish work on mod-
eration (i.e., the conditions under which transmission does and
does not transpire), no papers addressing that important develop-
mental issue were submitted or were judged of sufficient quality
for inclusion here. Clearly, more work is needed in this area.
Shaffer, Burt, Obradovı´c, Herbers, and Masten (2009) studied a
normative sample beginning when children were 10 years old and
then as parents some 2 decades later. They observed not only that
parenting quality was intergenerationally transmitted but that this
process could be at least partially accounted for by the social
competence that the children manifested in young adulthood (be-
fore parenting was measured); this proved so even after they
discounted childhood social competence. Moreover, this medita-
tional mechanism proved invariant across gender and ethnic mi-
Neppl, Conger, Scaramella, and Ontai (2009) reported that the
harsh and positive parenting that rural Iowan adolescents experi-
enced predicted, respectively, the harsh and positive parenting
provided to their own preschool children. Of special note is the
discovery that although externalizing problems mediate the inter-
generational transmission of harsh parenting, it is academic attain-
ment that mediates the cross-generational linkage of positive par-
enting. It should be noted that these intergenerational processes
could not be attributed to child effects on parenting.
Finally, Kerr, Capaldi, Pears, and Owen (2009) focused on
fathers who grew up in a high-risk neighborhood in a moderate-
sized city in Oregon. Evidence indicated not only that constructive
parenting experienced when these fathers were 9 –12 years of age
forecast constructive parenting practiced during their own off-
spring’s early and middle-childhood years but that this intergen-
erational transmission was mediated by the father’s positive ad-
justment during adolescence and eventually exerted a long-term
influence on the children’s problem behavior.
Collectively, it is indisputable that the articles selected for this
special section advance understanding of the intergenerational
transmission of parenting, especially of some of the meditational
pathways involved. This is not to say, of course, that little remains
to be discovered or that the work presented here is not without its
limits. Perhaps most noteworthy with regard to the former is, as
already noted, the need for more work addressing factors that
moderate the intergenerational transmission process, thereby illu-
minating “lawful discontinuity,” or when and why parenting ex-
perienced in one generation is not repeated in the next. But given
the fact that none of the studies presented in this special section or
even cited in this introductory essay were positioned to discount
genetic explanations, the need for future work investigating ge-
netic mediation must be highlighted. Such research seems impor-
tant, given evidence that parenting is heritable (e.g., Plomin, Reiss,
Hetherington, & Howe, 1994), which is not to say that it is entirely
transmitted across generations via genetic means. There will be
more to say on this and other issues raised— or not raised—in the
studies reported in our concluding commentary (Conger, Capaldi,
& Belsky, 2009).
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Development Research Group. (2009). Parenting practices and problem
behavior across three generations: Monitoring, harsh discipline, and
drug use in the intergenerational transmission of externalizing behavior.
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Received March 21, 2009
Revision received March 30, 2009
Accepted April 13, 2009 䡲
1204 BELSKY, CONGER, AND CAPALDI