Most of the time, kids who grow up in two-parent households eventually figure out which person to turn to for what. Maybe mom is chiller about extending curfew, for instance; maybe dad’s less inclined to make you study if there’s something really, really good on TV.
Even when two co-parents have their own individual quirks and soft spots, though, they generally tend to settle into overall patterns, says Thomas Schofield, an assistant professor of family studies at Iowa State University – one may be more comfortable playing disciplinarian, the other more easily falling into the role of the nurturer.
Sometimes, that’s fine. But sometimes, when those two roles are more extreme, they can have lasting negative effects on a kid’s health, as Schofield and his colleagues found in a study recently published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
The study authors followed 451 two-parent families of kids who were in seventh grade in 1989. (The sample was pretty homogenous: All the families were white, English-speaking, and lived in rural or small-town Iowa, though the researchers have plans to conduct similar research in other communities.) They paid each family two visits: In the first, the family members – both parents, the kid, and maybe a similarly-aged sibling – filled out a series of questionnaires about the family’s economic status and the personalities of each person. In the second, which happened within two weeks, the families were videotaped as they interacted. The researchers used the information from the surveys and the tapes to rate each parent as harsh or warm.
It’s important to note two things about the scope of the research here: First, the study wasn’t looking at the effects of one-off incidents, or cases where parents play out a good-cop-bad-cop routine to a specific end. Instead, it analyzed parents in terms of their overall style, looking more broadly at the way they related to their kids.
And second, the study wasn’t looking for abusive parenting, per se – instead, they focused on what Schofield calls “the middle of the parenting bell curve.” Some of the harsh parents pinched or pushed their kids, but the researchers assessed harshness based on verbal hostility – “speaking in an antisocial or condescending way, coercing the child, trying to belittle them,” Schofield says. Nurturing parents, by contrast, were the ones who showed they were “willing to communicate in a way that shows the child, even if there’s not agreement all the time, that the child is valued and loved,” he says; this type of parenting was rated based on the degree to which the parent “listens to them, affirms them, tells them that their opinion matters.”
After the initial visits, the researchers followed up with the kids at age 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, and 20, each time recording two measures to determine their health: self-reports of overall physical state, and BMI.
The chain linking harsh parenting to health problems isn’t hard to follow: Growing up in that environment can be stressful, and chronic stress can manifest itself in all kinds of physical ways. Both of these things are well-documented. What’s less clear, though, is why having a counterbalance in the form of a more supportive parent seemed to make things worse.
One hypothesis, Schofield says, is that it creates an unhealthy level of inconsistency for the kid, which in turn exacerbates the stress. “It’s not actually that surprising when you think about all the literature out there saying that what humans hate more than anything else, what causes us more stress that anything else, is uncertainty,” he says. “People are just really, really prone to struggle when the environment is unpredictable. You shock a rat, and it’ll do better if you shock it every minute than if you shock it some minutes and not others, even if it’s getting more shocks. People are like that, too.”
The other possibility, he says, is that having such a strong contrast between parents also means that the emotionally supportive parent is still withholding that support in some ways. “If I was really harsh and my wife was really warm to the child, but she wasn’t doing anything about me being harsh, what kind of family dynamic is it that we’re looking at?” he says. “Normally a warm, supportive parent would be working with their spouse so the spouse is not mean and harsh. So we realized maybe what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg, and what’s underneath is a dysfunctional family dynamic.”
That’s not to say that a naturally stricter parent needs to force themselves into something warm and fuzzy; rather, Schofield explains, the study suggests that parents with different styles should work together to come up with some kind of middle ground, one where they create a consistently supportive environment even as they each stick to the roles that come more naturally. “In this paper we were saying, ‘Look, if you feel more comfortable being the disciplinarian, and your partner feels more comfortable being the supportive, nurturing one, you can’t put all the responsibility on your co-parent for making sure your child feels safe, stable, and secure,” he says. “Division of labor is great in lots of ways, but not in terms of making emotional climates in a house.”