The term coparenting refers to the support that adults provide for one another in the raising of children for whom they share responsibility (McHale 1995). Joint parenting of children has been the norm in families cross-nationally since the earliest human societies, with children's grandmothers or other female family members (rather than fathers) most often the ones sharing everyday parenting responsibilities with children's biological mothers. Surprisingly, most of what is known about coparenting is due to studies of shared parenting in nuclear family systems headed by a mother/wife and father/husband. Perhaps more surprisingly, it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s when clinically oriented family researchers first began grappling with the correlates and consequences of shared parenting in divorced families that a field of coparenting studies even came to exist at all. Early work on coparenting in families of divorce was followed about a decade later by initial reports of interadult parenting dynamics in families that had not undergone the divorce process (Belsky, Crnic, and Gable 1995; McHale 1995)—and from this point on the field of empirical coparenting studies has taken firm root.
According to the family theorist and therapist Salvador Minuchin, effectively functioning coparenting partnerships are those which assure that children are receiving adequate care, control, and nurturance, as defined by prevailing cultural mores. Effective functioning in the family's executive subsystem (Minuchin 1974) also provides children with a sense of predictability, stability, and security in the family (McHale 1997). To provide such predictability and stability, however, it is important that coparenting partners support one another and be "on the same page" with respect to family rules, practices, and discipline. Rebecca Cohen and Sidney Weissman (1984) maintain that supportive coparenting partnerships are only made possible when parenting adults acknowledge, respect, and value the roles and tasks of the partner.
Unfortunately, many parents who may parent alone successfully find it difficult to coordinate successfully with coparenting partners (McHale 1997). Gayla Margolin and her colleagues capture this distinction in noting that "a parent may display excellent child management skills and a high level of emotional responsiveness to a child but still be disparaging of the other partner to the child" (Margolin, Gordis, and John 2001, p. 5, emphasis added). This distinction between parenting and coparenting practices is an important one; equally important is a similar distinction between marital and coparenting relations (Belsky, Crnic, and Gable 1995; McHale 1995). Coparenting relationships exist even when marital relationships dissolve (Cowan and McHale 1996), and coparenting relations often involve blood or fictive kin who are not married partners at all. Supporting these important conceptual distinctions, studies substantiate that coparenting processes explain variability in children's behavior not accounted for by marital or parenting indicators (Belsky, Putnam, and Crnic 1996; McHale, Johnson, and Sinclair 1999; McHale and Rasmussen 1998; McHale, Rao, and Krasnow 2000a).
Typologies of Coparenting
Coparenting partnerships exist in all kinds of families. Although most published studies have investigated coparenting dynamics in families headed by heterosexual married or divorced European-American couples, this circumstance is gradually beginning to change. Growing literatures exist on coparenting in mother-grandmother-headed families, step-families, and families headed by gay and lesbian partners (see McHale et al. 2002a, for a more detailed review). However, most empirical typologies of coparenting that have appeared in the literature describe coparenting dynamics in nuclear middle-class families.
Coparenting dynamics have been characterized along dimensions such as whether the children's father is actively engaged as a parent or not ( Johnson 2001; Ogata and Miyashita 2000); whether the coparenting process itself between parenting partners (whomever they may be) is supportive or oppositional (Belsky, Putnam, and Crnic 1996; McHale 1995; Schoppe, Mangelsdorf, and Frosch 2001); whether the family's interactive process allows engagement and enjoyment among all family members (parenting partners included) or whether it is intensively child-focused (McHale et al. 2001b); and whether there is daily, meaningful caregiving involvement by grandparents, extended family, or fictive kin (McHale et al. 2002a).
Although attempts to describe families along multiple coparenting dimensions are relatively uncommon, findings have identified families where the parenting partners are connected and effectively "on the same page"; families where the coparents are nonsupportive and antagonistic; and families where the coparents are disconnected from one another (and where, often, one parent is also disconnected from the child; McHale 1997; McHale et al. 2000b). Beyond these essential types, certain studies hint at other family types, including families whose focus is principally on the child with little positive connection between the adults (McHale et al. 2002b), and families where regular coparenting disputes are balanced by high family warmth and support (McHale 1997; McHale, Kuersten, and Lauretti 1996). Of course, sampling issues in studies of coparenting must always be carefully scrutinized. As James McHale and his colleagues (2002b) caution, statistical techniques can only detect family types actually represented in the researcher's sample; they cannot describe types of families whom, for whatever reason, have not found their way into research studies.
Coparenting and Children's Adjustment
Numerous studies have linked coparenting indicators to children's socioemotional and academic adjustment. Supportive and harmonious coparenting relationships are tied to preschoolers' social (McHale, Johnson, and Sinclair 1999; McHale, Kuersten, and Lauretti 1996; Schoppe, Mangelsdorf, and Frosch 2001) and academic competence (McHale, Rao, and Krasnow 2000a). Among older children, supportive coparenting has also been linked to well-developed self-regulatory abilities (Abidin and Brunner 1995; Brody, Flor, and Neubaum 1998). By contrast, unsupportive or discordant coparenting has been associated with adjustment difficulties in children. For example, competitive and conflictual coparenting is linked with poor self-regulation and disinhibition among toddlers (Belsky, Putnam, and Crnic 1996), and with acting out and internalizing behavior among both preschoolers (McHale and Rasmussen 1998) and school-age boys (McConnell and Kerig 2002).
As has been true with most coparenting research, studies substantiating associations between coparenting and child adjustment have typically involved samples of predominantly Caucasian, middle-class families. To date, only limited data are available on coparenting in non-Anglo cultural or ethnic groups. Nonetheless, those few studies that have engaged African-American or Asian families have suggested similar patterns of linkage between quality of coparenting and children's well-being. For instance, Gene Brody's studies with rural, African-American families show that supportive, nonconflictual coparenting is associated with adolescents' self-regulation and, in turn, with their academic performance (Brody, Stoneman, and Flor 1995). Research on urban Chinese families suggests that mothers who report more collaborative coparenting rate their preschoolers as more successful academically, while conflictful coparenting is linked to problems with acting out and anxiety (McHale, Rao, and Krasnow 2000a). Among Japanese families, involvement in daily child-related activities by fathers has been linked to greater child empathy (Ogata and Miyashita 2000).
Notwithstanding these intriguing results, much remains to be learned about the relationship between coparenting and children's development in populations besides European-American ones. To advance this field, researchers will need to shed Western notions of mothers and fathers as the functional coparenting partners to include other caregivers such as grandparents, older children, and extended family members. The evidence is clear that such individuals play pivotal caregiving roles in families within Vietnamese (Kibria 1993), Asian-Indian and Malaysian (Roopnarine, Lu, and Ahmeduzzaman 1989), Native-American, Hispanic-American (Coll, Meyer, and Brillon 1995), and other cultures.
Some exemplary studies have already been conducted. For example, Brody's work illustrates that African-American mothers who receive parenting support from grandmothers are more likely to engage in no-nonsense parenting (control, restraint, and punishment combined with affection); such parenting, in turn, aids children's self-regulation, academic, and social competence (Brody, Stoneman, and Flor 1995). At the same time, however, mothers are less involved in children's schooling when grandmother-mother co-caregiving conflict is high. Benefits of intergenerational support are also suggested by research with British Hindu and Muslim families. In one study children living in extended family environments with a co-caregiving grandmother showed better adjustment than children living in nuclear families (Sonuga-Barke and Mistry 2000). However, the presence of extended family co-caregivers may promote child adjustment only to the extent that such family members support, rather than undermine, the children's parents.
Factors Contributing to Supportive or Antagonistic Coparenting Partnerships
Numerous studies of coparenting dynamics in two-parent families have indicated the importance of the marital partnership in supporting cohesive, respectful coparenting relations. Marital-coparenting linkages have been established both concurrently (Belsky, Crnic, and Gable 1995; McHale 1995), and longitudinally (Lewis, Cox, and Owen 1989; Lindahl, Clements, and Markman 1998; McHale and Rasmussen 1998). Data also indicate, perhaps not surprisingly, that features of parents' personalities likewise affect the developing coparental partnership (McHale and Fivaz-Depeursinge 1999). For example, personal attributes such as whether parents remain calm and unfettered, or retaliate when criticized by others, or whether they experience threat and jealousy when those they love also bond strongly with others besides them, may directly affect how they negotiate the challenges of shared parenting. Second, personal strengths or resources (such as self-restraint or flexibility) possessed by one or both parents may help to protect or buffer the coparental relationship from the potentially negative effects of marital discontent. For example, difficult though it may be, a flexible, resilient parent may consciously squelch active anger they are feeling toward the marital partner in order to support that partner's parenting ministrations, in the child's best interests.
Other motives can be important, too. Parents who grew up in families characterized by divisive coparenting relationships may be motivated to rectify this state of affairs in their new families. Unfortunately, as McHale has argued, if two parents each work fervently to create a different, better climate in their new family, but have different visions for how they would like those new and better families to function, they may unwittingly set into motion the same state of affairs in the new family as existed in the old one (Cowan and McHale 1996; McHale, Kuersten, and Lauretti 1996; McHale and Fivaz-Depeursinge 1999).
Because studies of the determinants and consequences of coparenting coordination are a relatively recent phenomenon, efforts to alter or forestall the development of coparental difficulties are rare. However, one exemplary program of research has been concerned with strengthening coparental partnerships in two-parent families with young children. Philip and Carolyn Cowan, whose creative interventions with couples during the transition to parenthood had shown some salutary effects on early coparenting mutuality (including enhancement of fathers' psychological involvement with babies and mothers' satisfaction with division of family labor), described an innovative couples group intervention specifically concerned with coparenting dilemmas of families with preschool-aged children.
Preliminary results from this intervention study indicated that participation in a sixteen-week couples group dealing with how family strains affect coparenting had far-reaching effects for both parents and children. Among the benefits of this intervention were greater marital satisfaction, more effective father-child interaction, and significant improvements for children on a number of academic and social adjustment indicators (Cowan and Cowan 1997).
See also:Conflict: Couple Relationships; Discipline; Family Life Education; Fatherhood; Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children; Marital Quality; Motherhood; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles; Spanking; Substitute Caregivers; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Transition to Parenthood; Triangulation
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melanie c. mcconnell
easter dawn vo
james p. mchale