Parents’ shared warmth benefits preschoolers living in poverty

July 6, 2023
Concept photo of parents embracing their young child. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

Fathers and mothers in low-income homes can ensure that their preschoolers thrive with social behaviors and language skills by engaging in shared expressions of parental love or warmth, according to a newly published study.

Mothers and fathers who demonstrated similar or mutually agreed-on ways of being sensitive and warm in their parenting stimulated the child’s development, the findings showed.

Most poverty-related studies about child development focus on the adverse effects, ranging from poor health to higher emotional and behavioral problems. But the current study, published in Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science, focused on the factors contributing to the resilience of children growing up in poverty, as well as how fathers and mothers work as a team.

Researchers from the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, University of California-Berkeley and University of Nevada-Las Vegas examined parental responsiveness—which is the prompt and appropriate reaction to their children in everyday exchanges—among low-income families.

The study’s nearly 1,200 participants came from the Building Strong Families project, a racially diverse group of families from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Parental responsiveness was observed during short father-child and mother-child interactions with a book and a set of toys in separate bags.

Researchers gathered data on the preschoolers’ child behavior problems, prosocial behaviors (such as demonstrating empathy) and language skills.

Children had higher levels of prosocial behaviors and language skills when fathers and mothers engaged in shared parental responsiveness, said Shawna Lee, U-M professor of social work.

Lee and colleagues noted that the study sample only involved fathers who completed the parent-child observations. Thus, compared with those who are unavailable, fathers in this research may be highly involved in their children’s lives, irrespective of their resident status.

“As long as both parents engaged in shared parental responsiveness, their children benefited from it,” said Joyce Lee, OSU assistant professor of social work and the study’s lead author.

These findings would not be drastically different for other families, as well, she said.

“The literature shows that parental responsiveness is beneficial to children across different income levels,” she said. “Hence, we might expect similar patterns for middle-income families, for instance.”

The study is part of a larger research agenda that examines family relations and processes, especially those that include father involvement and engagement. Kaitlin Ward, research scientist at UC-Berkeley; Garrett Pace, UNLV assistant professor of social work; and Olivia Chang, U-M graduate student, also co-authored the study.