Do Parents Who Share Child Care Duties Fight More Often?

A new study suggests that parents who share child caregiving duties may experience more conflict than those in which the mother is the primary caregiver.

Parents who share caregiving for their preschool children may experience more conflict than those in which the mother is the primary caregiver, according to findings published in Developmental Psychology.

Results showed that couples had a stronger, more supportive co-parenting relationship when the father spent more time playing with their child. But when the father participated more in caregiving, like preparing meals for the child or giving baths, the couples were more likely to display less supportive and more undermining co-parenting behavior toward each other.

“I don’t think this means that for every family, a father being involved in caregiving is a bad thing. But it is not the recipe for all couples,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “You can certainly have a solid co-parenting relationship without sharing caregiving responsibilities equally.”

The study was designed to test how a father’s involvement in child caregiving affected the couple’s co-parenting relationship. Participants included 112 Midwestern couples, most of whom were married, who had a 4-year-old child; at the beginning of the study, fathers and mothers filled out questionnaires that asked how often they were involved in play activities with their children and how often they were involved in caregiving activities.

The researchers then observed the couple for 20 minutes while they assisted their child in completing two tasks: drawing a picture of their family together, and building a house out of a toy building set. Because these tasks are a bit difficult for preschoolers and require the guidance of both parents, researchers were able to detect how much the parents supported each other or undermined each other in their co-parenting, Schoppe-Sullivan said.

The results showed that, in general, when fathers indicated they played more with their child at the beginning of the study, the couple showed more supportive co-parenting one year later. However, when fathers said they participated more in caregiving, the couples showed lower levels of supportive co-parenting one year later.

The gender of the children seemed to play a role, Schoppe-Sullivan said. Fathers playing with sons reduced undermining behavior more than did fathers playing with daughters.

“Having fathers involved in play activity is good for co-parenting, but might be especially good for boys,” she said. “But, fathers are more likely to get into conflicts with mothers when they are heavily involved in caregiving of boys.”

The findings in the study held true even when the researchers compared dual and single-income families, and when they took into account a wide variety of other demographic factors that may have affected the results, such as fathers’ education and work hours, family income, family size, and the length of the couple’s relationship.

“There might be some ambivalence on the part of mothers in allowing fathers to participate in day-to-day child care,” said Schoppe-Sullivan. “But fathers might be ambivalent too, and may not be happy about shouldering more of the caregiving. That may contribute to less supportive co-parenting.”

Source: Ohio State University