In low-income families, shared parental responsiveness helps kids

When both mothers and fathers in low-income families are responsive to the needs of their children, good things happen, a recent study found.

And the good news is that this shared parental responsiveness was found in many families studied, said study co-author  project and included a racially diverse sample of 1,173 families from low-income contexts. Data were collected in eight cities across the United States between 2005 and 2011.

Trained researchers observed mothers and fathers in each family separately as they interacted with one of their children, whose average age was between 3 and 4.  They measured parental responsiveness on several dimensions, including the ability to respond appropriately to the child’s behavior, demonstration of positive feelings toward the child, and quality of the parent-child relationship.

The researchers found that the more that both parents showed higher levels of responsiveness, the better that the children were rated by their mothers for pro-social behavior, such as showing affection to other children.

Children in the study were also given a test for receptive language – the ability to recognize words. This test has been shown to relate to early school readiness.

Findings showed that shared parental responsiveness was related to higher scores on this test, Lee said.

“It was very exciting for us to see that when low-income parents engage in this mutually agreed upon way of positively parenting, there are clear benefits to their children,” she said.

Another positive finding was that it didn’t matter if the father lived with the mother and child – as long as both parents showed responsiveness, the child reaped the benefits.

“There is often this belief that if the father is not in the home, he must be absent and that’s terrible for the child,” Lee said.

“That’s not what we found. Parents can still coordinate how they respond to their children and work together for the good of the child.”

The results suggest ways to support low-income families to help them raise their children – even if the father is not living with them.

“Parenting programs could prioritize specific strategies for promoting shared parental responsiveness among mothers and fathers who are no longer romantically involved,” Lee said.

“That can help foster the well-being of their children.”

Co-authors on the study were Shawna J. Lee and Olivia D. Chang of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan; Kaitlin P. Ward, who did this work while at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California-Berkeley; and Garrett T. Pace of the School of Social Work at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Support for the study came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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