Research links fathers' job stress, other risk factors to parents' knowledge about children's daily experiences

July 06, 1999

University Park, Pa. --- Keeping up with the kids gets even tougher when fathers' job stress is combined with the additional challenges of dealing with a less than harmonious marriage and an active young son, say Penn State researchers.

On its own, work stress does not necessarily make parents less knowledgeable, but fathers' high job pressure in combination with certain other conditions, might interfere with parents' abilities to stay informed about who their children are spending time with and what they are doing on a daily basis, the research shows.

"The overriding message is that parents need to be knowledgeable about their children's activities, but won't be able to acquire the information on their own," say researchers. "Parents' knowledge of their children's daily activities is not just a matter of tracking or monitoring. Children must reveal information, a two-way process that can be jeopardized by certain circumstances within the family."

Published in the May edition of the national Journal of Marriage and the Family, the findings represent the first wave of data from an on-going project to examine how parents' work affects family life and, in turn, child and adolescent development, particularly the middle childhood years.

The Penn State Family Relationships Project, in the journal article, reports initial findings from a three-year study of approximately 200 working parents and the two oldest children in the family. The older children were either in the fourth or fifth grade.

Middle childhood -- after preschool and before adolescence -- is a crucial period as children increase participation in activities and with peers outside the family. It's a time when parental monitoring becomes more important but direct supervision less feasible, according to Project Co-Directors Ann C. Crouter and Susan M. McHale, both professors of human development, and Matthew F. Bumpus, a doctoral candidate in human development at Penn State. Bumpus is the lead author of the article, "Work Demands of Dual-Earner Couples: Implications for Parents' Knowledge about Children's Daily Lives in Middle Childhood."

Funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the new study focuses on the related concept of parental knowledge, which taps how much parents know about their children's daily experiences, whereabouts and companions.

The study supports existing research reflecting the prevailing influence of fathers' negative emotions and stress-related social withdrawal on the family, and suggests other risk factors that seem to hamper parents' knowledge about their children's activities, including the indirect effect of a sibling on overall awareness.

"We found that fathers' work demands were related to lower levels of parental knowledge, under certain conditions, with marital happiness being an important factor," Bumpus says.

High paternal work demands, in combination with a less happy marriage, were associated with lower levels of parental knowledge. "Happy marriages are more likely to be communicative marriages, and perhaps overworked spouses in positive relationships indirectly keep track of their children's daily lives via conversations," Bumpus explains.

The relation of the younger child's gender to parental knowledge surprised the researchers. In families with high job demands on fathers, parental knowledge about both children was higher if the younger siblings were female. The sex of the older child made no difference. Both parents in all work demand categories rated younger boys more active than younger girls.

"A possible explanation is that parents must work harder to track young boys, and boys don't tend to disclose information about themselves as easily as girls, says Crouter. "If parents are happy and the father is not in a particularly stressed situation, boys may spend more time with the family in a more relaxed atmosphere, making it easier for parents to find out what's going on."

In any event, the gender association is disconcerting, the researchers agree, especially considering research evidence that suggests boys are particularly susceptible to poor outcomes when inadequately monitored.

The researchers plan to continue studying the same families over the next few years, providing rare information about the effect of middle childhood family situations and experiences as the children transition into adolescence.
Dr. Crouter is at 814-865-2647; e-mail:
Mr. Bumpus is at 814-238-4584; e-mail:
Dr. McHale is at 814-865-2663; e-mail:

Penn State

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