How mothers and fathers view each other as co-parents to their children plays a key role in how well-adjusted their children become, a new study suggests.
The researchers found that, in a sample of low-income couples, children do best when both parents view their co-parenting relationship as extremely positive and worse when both parents view their relationship as poor.
However, children’s outcomes differed when couples viewed their co-parenting relationship as moderately good, but mothers and fathers had different views of each other as co-parents, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, lead author of the study. , professor of psychology in Ohio. State University and the chairman of the board of the Council on Modern Families.
“The best outcome for children was when both parents viewed the joint relationship with their parents as positive. But children were almost as well adjusted when relationship quality was moderate and mothers were less positive about it than shared parenting in relation to fathers,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
Children’s outcomes suffered, however, when fathers were less positive about co-parenting, the study found.
The study was published online recently in the journal Child Development.
Previous studies have shown that parents with better co-parenting relationships are more effective as parents and their children are more well-adjusted — for example, they have fewer behavioral problems and better social relationships with others. But most previous research has been done in white, middle-class families and has relied solely on mothers’ perspectives on co-parenting.
Participants in this new study were 2,915 low-income couples in seven US states who participated in the Supporting Healthy Marriages program. All couples had a child under 5 years of age.
Participants were asked about their relationship as parents with their partner — in other words, how they related to each other as parents.
“Co-parents in high-quality relationships provide emotional support to each other and support each other’s parenting decisions,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
Eighteen months after the couples reported their relationship together, they were asked to report on their child’s social competence and behavior.
Based on reports from mothers and fathers about their co-parenting relationship, the researchers identified four co-parenting groups. The largest — 43% of the sample — were parents who both saw their co-parenting relationship as extremely positive.
The next largest group (32%) were parents who both saw their relationship as moderately positive, but mothers were less positive about fathers’ co-parenting.
“Their children were almost as well-adjusted as the parents who were both positive about the relationship with each other,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
The fact that these two groups made up the majority of the sample was an important finding, Schoppe-Sullivan said.
“Low-income couples often face a variety of challenges that can make parenting more difficult than it is for middle-class couples, so it’s encouraging that three-quarters of them were in co-parenting relationships led to good outcomes for their children. ” he said.
The next largest group (16%) were those who reported a moderate-quality joint relationship with parents, but fathers were less positive than mothers. The fourth group (9%) consisted of couples who reported low quality joint relationships with parents, with mothers particularly critical of fathers.
These two groups had children who were less well adjusted than the children in the other groups.
One question the study raises is why children are less well adjusted when fathers are less positive than mothers about their coparenting relationship.
Data from the study can’t answer that definitively, Schoppe-Sullivan said. But the study showed that psychologically distressed fathers were more likely to be in the “less positive fathers” group than in other groups.
Distressed fathers may push mothers to push them away from parenting duties, which can lead to fathers developing further psychological problems and being less happy about their role as a parent.
“This can lead to more conflict between parents, more disagreements about parenting decisions and less positive engagement between fathers and their children,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
“All of these may play a role in their children’s poorer adjustment.”
When mothers are less positive than fathers, it may indicate that mothers feel that fathers are not contributing enough to raising children, she said. Since it is common for mothers to feel this way, it may not lead to as much conflict between parents as when fathers are less positive, and this may be why children are relatively well adjusted.
Overall, the results suggest that professionals working with parents may want to pay special attention when fathers are less positive than mothers about their co-parenting relationship, she said.
Co-authors of the study, all from Ohio State, are: Jingyi Yang, a doctoral student in psychology; Junyeong Yang, doctoral student, and Minjung Kim, assistant professor, both in education studies. and Yiran Zhang, doctoral student, and Susan Yoon, associate professor, both in social work.