Truly it is Love that passeth knowledge

Truly it is Love that passeth knowledge
10 November 2009

There is much pulling and pushing, but the point of intersection between child development science and practical efforts to prevent impairment remains the family home.

Activity concentrates on malleable “parenting skills,” with the result that the quality of the relationship between parents and its impact on child well-being is coming under renewed scrutiny.

The opposite potential – that a difficult or demanding child will strain any parental partnership – has been studied, too, but important research by Director of the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of Otago, Gordon Harold, suggests that the first effect is more common and more powerful: deteriorating relations between partners are likely to produce poor child outcomes to a greater and more damaging degree.

When Harold presented his research at a seminar at the London Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, last month, he shared a platform with US intervention experts Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan, whose work at the University of California is notable for linking an interest in parenting skills directly to argument about the quality of the relationship between parents.

As the husband and wife team pointed out that day, there has been more preparedness in the US to take account of the attributes of a healthy marriage. In the UK the emphasis has been much more on parenting education.

On both sides of the Atlantic, relatively little attention has been paid to fathers – as partners or as parents.

Last year, Alan Hawkins and colleagues from Brigham Young University published a meta-analysis of studies of whether marriage and relationship education works. Their article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology considers the impact of marriage education programs on relationship satisfaction. The analysis drew on over 130 evaluations, but notes a scarcity of information on couples experiencing economic hardship.

For the Cowans, the question is not only whether such interventions can reverse the natural deterioration of relationships over time, but also whether such a turnaround would translate into better child outcomes.

They find in all kinds of ways that it does. For example, their studies have established that a mother’s insecure attachment affects parenting, except in families where a father’s good attachments compensate.

They have tried to convert such simple insights into practical knowledge. For example, in a recent edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family they consider the benefits of a new intervention designed to promote paternal engagement among low income families.

Their evaluation by random allocation of 289 couples from primarily low income Mexican American and European American families explored the benefits of a 16-week intervention for groups of fathers and followed their progress for up for 18 months.

Results were mixed. It was possible to use the father-only groups to boost their engagement in family life, which improved their relationships with their spouses and reduced their children’s problem behavior. Encouragingly, the benefit was consistent across minority ethnic groups and various family structures.

But a control group of couples who attended a single information-sharing meeting showed more consistent and longer term positive impact.

The Cowans repeatedly report differences between learning to be a parent, and parents learning to understanding their feelings.

They closed their presentation to the Tavistock Centre with a video of a girl who had lived with parents who were not hitting it off. “You have to show your love,” she said. “That’s what I have learned. You not only have to love but you have to show it”.

• For coverage of Gordon Harold’s Tavistock Centre seminar presentation, see They do not mean to, but they do

Hawkins A J, Blanchard V L, Baldwin S A and Fawcett E B, “Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2008, 76, 5, 723-734

Cowan P A, Pape Cowan Carolyn, Pruett M K, Pruett K and Wong J J, “Promoting father’s engagement with children: preventative interventions for low income families,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663-679, 2009.


Gordon Harold

Gordon Harold is Director of the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research focuses on children’s psychological development, looking at the genetic and neurobiological origins of different pathways, the role of family and applications of research to policy and practice.
He has completed several longitudinal studies on how families influence children’s psychological development, as well as designing a parent education program and practitioner assessment tool aimed at helping families experiencing inter-parental conflict. 

Philip Cowan

Philip Cowan is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California. Family systems and children’s development are at the heart of his research and over three decades he and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan. have conducted several large-scale longitudinal studies of families and interventions to support them. For instance, the Becoming a Family Project followed a group of first-time parents, from late pregnancy until their child completed their first year of school. 

Carolyn Pape Cown

Carolyn Pape Cowan is professor emerita of psychology at the University of California. Along with her husband, Philip Cowan, she is co-director of three longitudinal preventive intervention studies - Becoming a Family, School Children and their Families, and Supporting Father Involvement. She has published widely on family relationships and transitions, as well as trials of preventive interventions. 

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