ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s very common for a marriage or relationship to change in tone after having kids. From the moment their son or daughter enters the world, parents’ lives are incredibly different. In a very real sense, everything becomes about the family’s newest addition. As such, many mothers and fathers see their own connection and love start to wither away as they devote the majority of their attention to their newborn. A new study, though, finds that the level of love and affection between parents goes a long way towards influencing their kids’ decisions later on in life.
Researchers from the University of Michigan say that children born to parents who maintain a loving relationship typically stay in school longer and marry later in life. The influence of parents’ affection between each other on their kids’ long-term life decisions and outcomes is obviously a hard relationship to empirically analyze, due to the extensive data necessary to form a full picture. To conduct this study, unique data collected from families in Nepal was used.
“In this study, we saw that parents’ emotional connection to each other affects child rearing so much that it shapes their children’s future,” comments co-author and UM Institute for Social Research researcher William Axinn in a release. “The fact that we found these kinds of things in Nepal moves us step closer to evidence that these things are universal.”
More specifically, the research team used data originally collected for the Chitwan Valley Family Study in Nepal. That project originally began in 1995, and gathered familial information across 151 neighborhoods in the Western Chitwan Valley. Participating married couples were interviewed separately and asked about how much affection they had, and showed, for their spouse.
Here is an example of one such question asked: “How much do you love your (husband/wife)? Very much, some, a little, or not at all?”
The children of those parents were then followed for 12 years in order to track their educational and marital decisions later on in life. Children raised by parents who had said they loved each other “some” or “very much” consistently stayed in school longer and married later in life.
“Family isn’t just another institution. It’s not like a school or employer. It is this place where we also have emotions and feelings,” says lead author Sarah Brauner-Otto, director of the Centre on Population Dynamics at McGill University. “Demonstrating and providing evidence that love, this emotional component of family, also has this long impact on children’s lives is really important for understanding the depth of family influence on children.”
Nepal is an especially interesting location to analyze how parental relationships influence children. Traditionally, marriages are arranged in Nepal and divorce is very rare in general. However, since the 1970s on, more and more people in the area have been marrying for love.
The study’s authors say now they are focused on understanding why love between parents has such a profound impact on their children. They speculate that parents who are more affectionate with each other are likely more invested in positive outcomes for their kids. It’s also conceivable that home life in general is much more enjoyable for children when mom and dad are in harmonious agreement, making it less of a priority for the kids to “escape” home by getting married as soon as possible. Finally, children born to parents deeply in love may simply view their caregivers as role models and hold off on getting married themselves until they find the right person.
“Love is not irrelevant; variations in parental love do have a consequence,” Axinn concludes.
The study is published in Demography.