Development Stages of Parenting and Family Life

The following theories are well-recognized in the family field as foundation for study. They do not reflect the full range of theory available to us today. For example, "systems theory" is a valuable approach utilized by many parenting and family professionals. The selections below do, however, reflect common theory base in research and literature and therefore serve as our theory base in Developmental Stages of Parenting and Family LIfe.


  • Ecological Theory: Nested Environments

    Ecological theory is best known for its diagram of nested environments, the micro, the meso, the exo, and the macro. 



Micro = individual or family environment 

Meso = interactions of micro environments 

Exo = an outer level that operates indirectly on the micro environment 

Macro = outermost level, such as national society 

The ecological model looks for interaction and interdependence among the environmental levels


  • Family Development Theory: Stage Theories

    Traditional stage theories describe family life in stages usually marked by children's ages. Over the 20th century, such theories were sometimes called Family Stages, Family Life Cycle, and Family Development.

    Perhaps the best known was the 8-stage model outlined by Duvall and Hill. Briefly, those stages were:

    1 - Married couples (no children)

    2 - Childbearing families (oldest child aged birth to 30 months)

    3 - Families with preschool children (oldest child aged 2?to 6 years) 

    4 - Families with school children (oldest child aged 6 to 13 years) 

    5 - Families with teenagers (oldest child aged 13 to 20 years) 

    6 - Families launching young adults (stage begins when oldest child leaves home and ends when youngest child leaves home) 

    7 - Middle-aged parents (stage begins with empty nest and ends at start of retirement) 

    8 - Aging family members (stage begins with spouses' retirement and ends at their deaths) 

    This 8-stage model was published in many textbooks for decades. It provided the base for many more stage models, some of which were created to correct what scholars called flaws in the original model. 


  • Six Stages of Parenthood: A Stage Theory from Parent's View

    In the early 1980s, Ellen Galinsky took a creative approach to stage theory. She looked at family life from the parent's perspective and developed a 6-stage model that described parent development.

    The six stages of parenthood (Galinsky, 1987): 

    1 - The Image-Making Stage 

    During pregnancy, parents "form and re-form images" of the upcoming birth and the changes they anticipate. This is a period of preparation. 

    2 - The Nurturing Stage 

    Parents compare image and actual experience during the time from baby's birth to toddler's first use of the word "no" (about age 18 to 24 months). This is a period of attachment and also of questioning. Parents may question their priorities and also how they spend their time. 

    3 - The Authority Stage 

    When the child is between 2 years and 4 - 5 years, parents decide "what kind of authority to be." This is a period of developing and setting rules, as well as enforcing them. 

    4 - The Interpretive Stage 

    Stretching from the child's preschool years to her approach to adolescence, this stage has the task of interpretation. In this period, parents interpret their own self-concepts as well as their children's. Parents also are concerned with interpreting the world to their children. 

    5 - The Interdependent Stage 

    During the child's teen years, families re-visit some of the issues of the Authority Stage, but find new solutions to them as parents form "a new relationship with their almost-adult child." 

    6 - The Departure Stage 

    When children leave home, parents evaluate not just their offspring's leave-taking but also the whole of their parenting experience. 


  • Life Course Perspective: Parental Roles Across Time

Life Course perspective is a broad term that reflects a way of thinking about people and families rather than a distinct theory with concepts and assumptions.

This is the "long view" of a person's life, looking for patterns but allowing for great variation among people. 

Our graphic follows a "trajectory" or general direction for a person's parenting experiences. We have labeled some roles along the way: protector, leader, partner, and protected. But they are meant as mere markers along the trajectory, not roles that every parent will take on.

Two parents (even in the same family) may define the roles differently. And we cannot assume that one definition is superior to another. What we do assume is that experience as parent will be highly individual and carry subjective meaning.

We also assume that parents will make many transitions as they travel the trajectory. Some transitions will be tied to events ?birthdays, graduations, weddings and divorces. And some transitions will occur so gradually that parents will recognize them as changes only in retrospect.