Families & the Community Q&A

Ask a Scientist: What Are Low-Income Parents, Fathers Getting Right?

By Lillian Mongeau — June 02, 2015 6 min read
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Fathers and low-income parents are often assumed to, at best, not be hurting their children’s development. In many cases though, the assumption is that these two parenting groups do more harm than good. Not true, says Natasha Cabrera, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, College Park. Cabrera, who holds a Ph.D in educational psychology, is also the director of the Family Involvement Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Before joining the Maryland faculty in 2002, Cabrera was a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Cabrera sat down to talk about her research on low-income parents and on fathers with Early Years. Excerpts from that conversation are below. Turns out, middle-class moms don’t have a corner on the good-parenting market.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you studying these days?

I’m interested in the overall question of: How do children fare in families? How do moms and dads influence children’s development via maladaptive or adaptive parenting? And I’m interested in understanding the parenting processes among low-income families. I come to the table as a researcher from a strength perspective, so I’m interested not so much on the deficits and the negative aspects of growing up poor, which are plenty, but I’m interested in what are the things that some parents are doing that are good for the children. In my studies I find there is a lot of stuff that is good: good parenting, responsive parenting, stuff that promotes well-being. I’m interested in bringing that perspective to the table.

Can you give me an example of a strength that lower-income parents often bring to the table?

Low-income moms and dads can be very responsive and nurturing and loving to their children. Those children tend to grow up securely attached, happy, engaged in learning, and stuff like that.

Another example might be parents who have routines in the home. You know, their bedtime routines or mealtime routines. Those routines in general are good for children’s self-regulation. They provide a context in which parents can promote development even if they’re poor.

So these are low-cost things that parents are doing, despite their lower socioeconomic status?

Right. We studied middle-class parents thinking it’s their thing, but in fact lots of parents do it. It’s much more challenging and difficult for low-income families, mainly because work structures are less conducive to set routines.

There are some families that are more disorganized; some families that are more stressed out; some families that have less coping or fear of coping mechanisms. That definitely happens.

That’s also true among middle-class families. We know less about the bad stuff that goes on in middle-class parenting, in which the likelihood of this stuff may be lower, but it has happened.

With low-income families, it’s the opposite. We always think there’s a deficit first, and we’re surprised to see there’s anything good happening.

Let’s talk about fathers, another group that can get a bad rap. You’ve done a lot of research on fathers. Tell us about it.

I stumbled upon fathers when I realized that a lot of the parenting research we have been doing did not really include them. We had conducted parenting research based on maternal feedback, on mothers’ participation in the research paradigms and designs. And a lot of it way back when a lot more men were working outside of the home than women, so it was easier to access mothers.

But as time has gone by and families have changed, the role of the father has been more central to understanding families. What is it exactly that fathers do? Are they the same as mothers? Do we need them, other than to pay [the bills]?

There are definitely men who are missing in action, but there are lots of men who are not, who are around, and are available. and have access to the children, and really love being with the children, and would like some support.

What kinds of support are fathers specifically looking for?

It’s a tricky question because often if you ask them they say, “No, I don’t need any [support]. I’m fine.” But when you ask them, “So do you have social support? Do your friends support you in your role?” Sometimes they say, “No, not really. It’s hard to be a dad.”

What are some of the positive impacts that dads can have on their kids that you’ve been able to measure?

Fathers have an important role to play in self-regulation. For example, rough-and-tumble play. They help the kids to regulate behaviors, to understand their own strength, to stop, which are all really good things when kids go to school and the teacher says, “Now we’re going to go outside,” or “We’ll start the activity.” Those kids who are more regulated, they have an easier time following directions in a classroom.

Wait, you’re saying that dads play-wrestling with their kids leads to self-regulation?

Yeah, it can help. In a rough-and-tumble situation you have a dad playing rough. Then he’ll say, “Okay, stop now. That’s getting too rough.” And that pushing the envelope, that making the child understand, “OK, there is now a need to stop,” it helps the kids to stop and switch the activity.

I’m not saying the mothers don’t do roughhousing, but they don’t do it as much as dads. Some people think it’s just an evolutionary thing. That’s not in my research. But in general what I find is when kids—boys and girls—are engaging with dad in this physical play, if dad is doing it right, there is a good opportunity to have kids control impulses and regulate their behavior.

This sounds like it could be a pretty complicated discussion in terms of the current discussions around gender identity and same-sex marriage. Have you run into any pushback from folks who say, “Look, we’ve got two moms raising these kids and they don’t need a dad. They’re just fine.”

I’m not saying that you only get self-regulation from a mom and a dad. The kids learn to self-regulate in other ways. I’m just saying if there’s a dad in the house, that man is going to engage the kids in ways that do help their development.

There are plenty of kids who grow up in two same-sex-parent households who do well. And you can have a father with a disability who doesn’t engage in rough-and-tumble play, and it doesn’t mean that that child is going to suffer. It just means maybe the parents provide other opportunities for the kids to self-regulate. But rough-and-tumble is one [thing dad can bring to the table]. There are plenty.

What are some things that keep fathers more involved with their kids, even when they don’t live with them?

If the fathers are prenatally involved; if, from the pregnancy, they wanted the baby, and they’re involved, and they understand they’ll become a dad, those fathers tend to be more invested in the relationship with the children and their partners, and they’re more likely to stick around. And early father involvement tends to create or develop some skills in kids.

So in a couple where they’re not married, a pregnant woman would do well to invite her partner to prenatal visits.

Exactly. Fathers begin to have this cognition that they are fathers, that this is my child, that I’m responsible for him. There is some literature and research showing there’s also biological changes that occur as fathers get closer to the children. Testosterone tends to go down in men.

Testosterone goes down while their partner is pregnant?

If the father has enough contact with the child and their partner.

Wow. That’s fascinating. I went to a baby shower this weekend and the husband was very involved. So it’s likely that his testosterone level had dropped slightly?

Tell him he’s less aggressive now so he doesn’t start eating his young. You find it much more pronounced in the animal world.

Thank you, this is all super-interesting.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Photo: Natasha Cabrera, courtesy University of Maryland.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.