Judith Kleinfeld: Good parents tend to raise good spouses

By JUDITH KLEINFELDFebruary 24, 2013 

When our children were teenagers, we faced the perennial problem of curfews. According to our children, their friends got to stay out late and came home when they felt like it.

We said we wanted our children home by midnight but we gave them a reason: Too many drunks were on the road late at night. But we also wanted them to drive carefully so we told them, "Don't worry if you're a little late. We don't want you to rush home to make a curfew."

Neither of us could go to sleep until we heard them pull into the driveway. But the children were safe and we just ignored it if they got in a half hour or so late.

Such a parenting style turns out to have powerful effects on children, according to new research by Robert Ackerman and his colleagues ( "The Interpersonal Legacy of a Positive Family Climate in Adolescence," published in Psychological Science in 2013.)

Good parenting when the child was an adolescent predicted good marriages twenty years later!

To measure the quality of parenting, Ackerman brought 208 families into his laboratory and videotaped them as they talked about a family conflict. The children were participating in a longitudinal study, the "Iowa Youth and Families Project," which started when they were seventh graders and is still going on.

Some families talked openly about the family conflict, made their children feel the parents weren't angry with them, and understood the children's viewpoint. These families came up with a cooperative solution.

In other families, the parents got angry when they talked about the family conflict, did not try to see things from their children's viewpoint, and just laid down the law.

The effects of the positive parenting style showed up soon afterwards--- in the way the children treated the people they dated. The children of the nurturing parents showed far more warmth to their dates.

By their early thirties, most of the children had married. The researchers asked them questions about the quality of their marriages -- how often, for example, they had gotten angry with their partners and criticized them during the previous month.

Next the researchers videotaped the couples as they talked together about the quality of their marriages, the problems in their relationships, and their future plans.

Those adults who had grown up in the nurturing families were more satisfied with their marriages and showed less hostility toward their spouses.

Their spouses also expressed more satisfaction with the marriage and showed less hostility to them.

Why did this happen?

Most likely, the children had observed their parents' marriage and how their parents had treated them as children. When they created their own marriages, they imitated what their parents had done.

Another possibility is that they had better judgment in choosing their spouses, looking for partners who were warm and nurturing like their parents.

They might also have created strong marriages because they related to their spouses in a warm and concerned way that increased their spouses' love for them.

The results of such positive parenting shows up right away. Children in such families are far more apt to have control over their emotions, studies show.

Good parenting affects boys more than girls, according to other research. Emotionally, boys are the more vulnerable sex. A parent's divorce, for example, hits boys a lot harder than girls. Boys typically clam up after the stress while girls seek help and talk it through.

This is not to say that good parenting is a magic bullet that prevents divorce. We all know people who grew up in nurturing families, made the wrong choice of spouse, and divorced.

Still, it's interesting to know that good parenting affects the marriages of your own children. Your children's marriages, in turn, may affect the marriages of their own children, and on and on. The legacy of good parenting may go through the generations.

Judith Kleinfeld is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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