Does the mother know her child the best? (in comparison to father)

It may sound as a cliché, but maybe this cliché holds truth: does the mother know her the child the best? A new study from TrygFonden’s Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS published in Review of Economics of the Household.shows that fathers are often as good. And this can have important consequences: when the mother’s rather than the father’s evaluation of the child’s well-being is emphasized in parental rights cases, schools or other places, it might not be best practice.

From the press release:

The researchers have taken the results from the so-called CHIPS-tests (Children’s Problem Solving), which test the child’s linguistic and cognitive level and psychiatric diagnosis, and have compared the results with the parents’ overall evaluation of the child’s academic and behavioural performance (the latter specified in a Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire). The test results from 6,000 Danish families, adjusted for variables such as gender, the parents’ age, educational background, work situation, income, psychiatric diagnosis etc., show that dad is just as able to evaluate the child’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills as mum.

“This is important knowledge not least in e.g. divorce cases, where the majority of parental rights cases are decided in favour of the mother – among other things based on the parents’ testimonies on the well-being and skills of their children,” says Nabanita Datta Gupta, one of the three people behind the study.

Mum’s mental problems affect her judgement

The study also shows that mothers who have mental issues often evaluate their children’s competences as being poorer than they actually are. At worst, this will give the children a lower self-esteem and a lack of confidence in their own abilities, according to the researchers behind the study. Another study from Aarhus BSS has previously shown that children of parents with mental illnesses are at a greater risk of attempting suicide.

“Many women who suffer from post-natal depression are never diagnosed, but their mental state still influences their life and also their ability to evaluate their children’s competences. Generally, our results indicate that parents should be regarded equally in clinical and school-related contexts, where the doctor and the teacher might as well hear the father’s evaluation of e.g. symptoms and well-being as the mother’s. Especially in Denmark, where fathers are typically very actively involved in looking after the child,” says Nabanita Datta Gupta and adds:

“The results are valid, because the parent’s subjective evaluations are compared to the objective measurements of the CHIPS test and the psychiatric diagnoses. Naturally, a lot of other factors are also important, but our research is an important contribution to the collected understanding of the parents’ ability to evaluate their children’s behaviour and competences”, she says.

Abstract of the study:

We investigate the degree of correspondence between parents’ reports on child behavioral and educational outcomes using wave four of a rich Danish longitudinal survey of children (the DALSC). All outcomes are measured at age 11 when the children are expected to be in fifth grade. Once discrepancies are detected, we analyze whether they are driven by noisy evaluations or by systematic bias, focusing on the role of parental characteristics and response heterogeneity. We then explicitly assess the relative importance of the mother’s versus the father’s assessments in explaining child academic performance and diagnosed mental health to investigate whether one parent is systematically a better informant of their child’s outcomes than the other. Our results show that parental psychopathology, measured as maternal distress, is a source of systematic misreporting of child functioning, that the parent–child relationship matters, and that mothers are not necessarily a better informant of child functioning than fathers. This last finding should not only be valid for Denmark but also for many other countries, where the father’s role in childcare has been growing.

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