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The Ripples Felt From Fathers

The Ripples Felt From Fathers

Just as a pebble dropped in a lake sends rings of water far from the point of impact, parenting can create a ripple effect. By interacting with their children in certain ways, parents can set in motion later outcomes that are sometimes surprising.

Research by Nancy Hazen, professor of human development and family sciences, teases apart complex interactions within families to understand which interactions – say, pebbles – lead to problems for a developing child. By focusing on the whole family, including dads, Hazen is broadening our understanding of child development.

"A lot of research predicts that negative parenting leads to problematic, externalizing behaviors in children like aggression, cheating or property destruction," says Hazen. "Over many studies, we have found that the driving force behind many of these problems is competitive co-parenting."

Competitive co-parenting occurs when parents undermine each other or put their child in the middle of conflict. For the child, this interaction is confusing and distressing and can lead to later behavior problems.

Parents also affect their children through their one-on-one behavior. Emotionally distant fathers – like the dad who thinks playtime is sitting on a couch with a newspaper while the child plays separately – are linked to children who have a harder time regulating their emotions or persevering when faced with a task designed to be frustrating. The same is true for children who have fathers who play with them in an intrusive, over-stimulating way. For example, in an experiment, toddlers were assigned a task of trying to open a clear box and extract its contents, but the boxes wouldn't open. Children whose fathers were more engaged in challenging but sensitive play consistently turned to an adult for help. Children with emotionally distant or over-stimulating fathers were more likely to simply melt down.

This is the cover article for the Fall 2017 edition of Gearing Up, the School of Human Ecology newsletter. To read the full edition of the newsletter, click here.