Shaping Kinder Kids Through Parental Example

Children absorb much from their environments. Although the impact of parental conflicts and fights on children has been greatly studied, the impact of positivity has yet to fully be explored. 

In this episode, Under the Cortex features Brian Don from the University of Auckland who recently published an article on this topic in APS’s journal Perspectives on Psychological Science

APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum chats with Don about his new theory, the Interparental Positivity Spillover theory. Don shares his thoughts on how this theory suggests that when kids witness their parents engaging in warm and positive interactions, it could have a positive effect on the children themselves. 

Send us your thoughts and questions at  [email protected].

Unedited transcript

[00:00:00.000] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

The behavior of parents greatly influences their children. While discussions often center around the negative consequences of parental conflicts, it is equally important to consider the positive effects of family dynamics on children. What are the ways in which children thrive and benefit from healthy parental behaviors and positive family interactions? This is Under the Cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. To speak about the new approach to how we study family dynamics and the Influence of parental positive behavior on children’s wellbeing and behavior, I have with me Brian Don from University of Auckland. He is the author of an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science examining the relationship between Interparental positivity and well-being of children. Brian, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:01:11.710] – Brian Don 

Thank you very much for having me. 

[00:01:13.560] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

I want to start right away. I’m curious, what got you into studying family dynamics in the first place? 

[00:01:21.860] – Brian Don 

When I attended graduate school, I was really interested in studying relationships. I’ve always been fascinated by intimate relationships in particular and just studying the dyadic processes that make intimate relationships healthy. But I attended graduate school at Kent State University with Dr. Kristin Mickelson. She studied the transition of parenthood. Really, what that’s all about is about this two-person relationship, adding a third member in the form of a child, and how did two people navigate that transition. While I wasn’t as focused on parenthood when I started graduate school, doing graduate school with Kristin really got me interested in how does having a third member of the family influence the dynamics of that dyad and of that relationship. 

[00:02:12.980] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

When we hear stories about how children get affected by their parents’ behavior. The focus is generally on negative behavior. In your paper, you shift the focus to positive behavior. What was your motivation for this choice? 

[00:02:29.760] – Brian Don 

Well, we know that parents’ negative interactions have maladaptive consequences for their kid. This is especially true based on research on emotional security theory. This theory basically specifies that interparental conflict threatens kids’ fundamental need to feel safe, secure, and protected within their family unit. But what we felt with this theory was that if you only focus on that need for safety, security, and protection, you’re actually missing something critical about what the kid needs to grow into being healthy, secure, and develop into what they truly can be. And so there’s multiple theories within psychology that suggests that kids need more than just to be safe from threat. So there’s theories like attachment theory, self-determination theory, and even broad net build theory, which all suggests that people in general and not just kids, need more than to just be safe and secure. And the way we were thinking about this, and a metaphor that I like to use is that if you think about what do you need to do if you were trying to encourage the healthy development of a plant, if you were a gardener, and if you were to focus solely on protecting your garden or protecting your plant from threat, you just kept the garden safe from bad weather or you kept the garden safe from pests, but you didn’t focus at all on nourishing the garden. 

[00:04:06.890] – Brian Don 

You didn’t give it water, you didn’t give it soil, you didn’t give it sunlight. All you did was protect it from threats, then the garden would fail to thrive because it didn’t have the nourishment that it needed to actually grow. When we looked at this literature and saw that it was really focused on conflict, to me, that left out a really critical piece, which was kids need nourishing environments in order to thrive and in order to develop in a healthy manner. That was really the impetus for shifting the conversation and shifting the focus to these potential interparencial positive interactions that could help nourish kids. 

[00:04:51.530] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. We will go into the details, but in your paper, you discuss your theory titled Interparencial Positivity Spillover Theory. What led you developing this idea? I know you gave me a brief answer in the passing, but I would like to delve into the details of your theory a little bit. 

[00:05:13.700] – Brian Don 

It started with me working in graduate school, as I mentioned. I started working on the transition to Parenthood there. That’s how I got on to the Parenthood stuff. But then I worked in my postdoctoral fellowship with Sarah Aljo and Barb Fredrickson, who are two of my co-authors on the paper. What they were really focused on, Sarah Aljo in particular, is focused on positive interactions in adult relationships. She studies interactions like gratitude interactions, capitalization interactions, which is sharing good news in relationships or sharing positive events. How does that influence partners beneficially in the context of relationships? She studies things like shared laughter. Then Barb Fredrickson is really focused on positive emotions and the function of positive emotions. I had not been exposed to any of that work before. I started thinking about these relationship and parenting dynamics combined with these positive interpersonal processes dynamics. Finally, when I went to my second postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF, I started working a little bit on some of this interparental conflict and kids’ work. I put all of that stuff together and said, Wait a second, I think that there’s this gap in the literature, which is using some of this stuff on positive dynamics and positive emotions and melding that together with what’s been done on the conflict stuff. 

[00:06:45.620] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

What are the key tenets of your theory? 

[00:06:50.860] – Brian Don 

There’s a number of key tenets. I think the very first one is that parent interactions have an influence on kids. We are similar to the conflict literature in that we say, it’s not just about the parent-child interaction. What happens between parents has an important influence on kids. But second, we say that these positive interparental interactions have a unique influence on the children above and beyond the influence of conflict. One of the reasons we say that is because we know that conflict and positive interactions are not one-to-one in these relationships, that actually parents could have a decent amount of conflict but still have a high degree of positivity. And also we know that parents could have little to know of either of these interactions in their relationships. So we say that these are unique in terms of influencing kids. One of the third, and this is really the key point of the theory or one of the key ideas in the theory, is that when parents engage in positive interactions, it spills over into kids in three ways. So when parents engage in these interactions, it spills over in the form of positive emotions, it spills over in the form of enhanced perceptions of the parents, and it spills over in the form of social learning, especially in the form of imitation or emulation of the parents’ behavior. 

[00:08:25.540] – Brian Don 

Those three things together, those are collectively constitutive interparental positivity spillover. 

[00:08:34.080] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, I would like to repeat it for our listeners one more time. Children get affected in three ways. One is positive emotion, second, social learning. The third, enhanced perception of the parents, which I am personally interested in. I have a pre-teen at home, and it’s good to know that I can change your perception. 

[00:08:57.810] – Brian Don 

Absolutely. That’s what we’re theorizing. It is important to note that we haven’t tested this yet, so we hope that it’s the case. We’re actually in the process of testing this now, or I’m starting a study to test this. But based on a lot of theory and a lot of prior work, we do think that this is likely the case. 

[00:09:18.620] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

One can hope, right, as a parent? 

[00:09:22.200] – Brian Don 

Absolutely. Based on the conflict literature, too, we know that that has some important influences on kids. We strongly suspect that this will be true in the positive case as well. 

[00:09:34.410] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Can you give us an example then? How this might play out for a child, a child who has parents who engage in more positive interactions compared to a child who sees more conflict? 

[00:09:47.440] – Brian Don 

I’ll start with the child who sees more conflict. When children are in families who are frequently engaging in destructive forms of conflict. Actually, what’s really important about the conflict literature is that there is a lot of good research showing that there are more destructive forms of conflict as opposed to more constructive forms of conflict. Destructive forms of conflict are things like anger and hostility, even verbal and physical aggression. Those are obviously really harmful, both for the individuals in the relationship and for the child. If we have a child who is seeing a great degree of conflict in their parents’ relationship, their feelings of safety, security, and protection within their family is going to be threatened. That’s going to result in these response processes, things like their negative emotional reactivity, their internal representations of their family are going to be threatened. So they’re going to feel like their parents’ relationships and the family relationship is really insecure. And then they’re going to try to either get away from the conflict or try to solve the conflict between their parents. All of this is going to result in negative behavioral, social, physical zoological outcomes for the child. 

[00:11:18.720] – Brian Don 

And so what we can see is this is really maladaptive for kids to be embedded in this environment where parents have this hostile, angry, destructive conflict. So we could compare a child who is experiencing or who is seeing a great degree of positivity in their relationship. So we use the example of a child named Jamal in our paper. Let’s say that Jamal’s parents are frequently engaging in gratitude interactions. They express their appreciation to each other a lot. When they have something good that happens in their life, they They really effusively express their joy to each other, and the partner responds really enthusiastically. That’s a capitalization interaction. They share laughter a lot with each other. Jamal is going to, according to our theory, frequently experience positive emotions. He’s going to view his parents in a positive light as a result of that. He might actually imitate his parents, so he might start expressing gratitude more. He might share his good news with his friends in his daily life as a result of those seeing his parents do that. What that is going to do, according to the theory, is result in his improved mental health and emotional outcomes. 

[00:12:45.070] – Brian Don 

It’s going to improve his social outcomes. It will improve his physiological and his cognitive outcomes because he has this accumulated spillover that occurs across the course of everyday life. 

[00:12:58.430] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Following up on that, you already mentioned it, but your theory clearly predicts widespread positive impacts of witnessing parental positive interactions from things that might be more directly expected, like the child’s well-being, to more conceptual Actually, different outcomes, like physical health and academic success. Your paper talks about it. My question to you is, what makes emotions and not even their own direct emotions, such a powerful catalyst in this equation? 

[00:13:32.010] – Brian Don 

Yeah. This is a basic tenet of what’s called family systems theory, which is what happens between any two people within a family system is going to influence any other individual within that family system. When parents engage in an interaction, what happens in that interaction, according to the family systems theory, will then have spillover effects influence any other people within that family system. And that’s just a fundamental idea from family science. Now, why emotions in particular? Well, there’s a lot of theory and evidence suggesting that positive emotions have important effects for cognition. They have important effects for social behavior. They have important effects for coping with stress and for mental health. And they have important influences for physical health. So positive emotions really have these profound influences for lots of different domains. The one other thing I would add to that is this positive perceptions of the parents that are being generated from this interaction. This is also, we think, an attachment security prime. It’s telling the child, Oh, my parents are probably safe to interact with in the future. My parents are warm and loving and caring. We know that priming attachment security also has these really widespread effects on social well-being, on emotional well-being, even on cognition. 

[00:15:16.990] – Brian Don 

Especially if you repeatedly do this across the course of time, we think that this is going to accumulate into that warm and nourishing environment that is critical for a lot of child outcomes. 

[00:15:29.830] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. I want to take the discussion to a different point slightly. Culturally, not everyone engages in positivity in the same way, right? There could be vast cultural differences in not only how positivity is expressed, but the degree of positivity that is deemed to be appropriate, especially with children, with younger people. How would your theories stand against these cultural differences? 

[00:16:00.630] – Brian Don 

Yeah. So I think this is one of the most fascinating and most important directions for our theory to go and to test and to explore, because there’s no doubt that culture plays a huge part in how emotion is constructed and expressed and experienced, especially in the context of families and interpersonal relationships more generally. So we take a broad stance, a very, very broad stance in the paper that we believe that the form of positive interparental interactions is probably different, differently expressed across different cultures, and is even different across different families within particular countries and cultures. And this is because we know things about display rules and affective ideals and numerous other cultural constructions and norms that influence how and why and when positivity is expressed in these interparental relationships all across the world. But having said that, I do think that interparental positivity is expressed in some form or another in most cultures across the world. Because kids will tend to be raised within a cultural milieu that they understand and can probably interpret, that the ideas of our theory that there should be spillover, and that spillover should have benefits for the kid, should largely be generally true, even if the form or the particular amount is different across the different cultures. 

[00:17:55.160] – Brian Don 

So I think that’s one of our exciting things to test is, how does interparental positivity look different? And are the basic tenets of the theory pretty much the same, even if the form is looking different across different cultures? 

[00:18:12.860] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. And also, Children are very culturally and socially perspective, so they will know what is positive, what is negative in their own culture. What might seem as not a clearly positive behavior from another culture’s perspective might be very clear for the child. 

[00:18:32.780] – Brian Don 

Exactly. I will just say, really importantly is that a lot of the research that has been done on positive interpersonal interactions has been done in the Western industrialized rich democratic societies that is very problematic for existing research. We need to do more research in more diverse, more globalized cultures so that we can understand the question that you’re asking about. 

[00:18:59.890] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. What are your first steps that you will take to test your theory? Because now we are excited, and I’m sure our audience is excited about that, too. What is coming up? 

[00:19:15.610] – Brian Don 

I’m currently seeking funding and looking to test the first laboratory-based test of the theory. What I think we need to do first is to test does an initial viewing of an interparental positive interaction spill over into the kids’ positive emotions, positive perceptions of the parents, and imitation of parents’ positive behavior? To do that, I’m planning to conduct a triatic study of a parent dyad and their child, and have the parents engage in a positive interaction versus a control interaction, and to examine whether those positive interactions are stimulating that spillover that we believe is there. And then by first examining that short term interaction and seeing if that interaction spills over into the children, we can then move into the field, to the longitudinal space, and see across the course of time if frequent spillover in parents’ relationships does result in that long term accumulated benefits that we believe is so important for children. 

[00:20:30.290] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

When you have your results, when you get to test these great ideas, how do you think practitioners might make best use of your findings? 

[00:20:42.710] – Brian Don 

What has been so successful in the emotional security theory literature, and I’ll just say we’re so lucky to have the emotional security theory literature be so developed and so just excellent in terms of they They’ve taken this large body of work on interparencial conflict and translated it into useful and practical implications. What they did with their findings is they translated it into a psychoeducational intervention. And what they did was they created essentially a series of educational materials, trainings, and brought couples in to teach them about the importance of interparencial conflict the importance of communication, and taught them how to effectively engage in conflict over the course of, basically, I think it was an eight-week training. And what they found was that this successfully helped couples engage in conflict and improved family outcomes across the course of time. So what we hope to do is create a similar psychoeducational intervention where you’re essentially teaching couples and parents how to engage in these types of positive interaction, and you’re also teaching them just about the importance of the interaction. While we need the data first to show that this really is valuable for parents, I don’t think that it hurts to learn about gratitude interactions and capitalization interactions and shared laughter and to emphasize the importance of positivity in the context of parenting relationships. 

[00:22:27.910] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, Brian, thank you Thank you very much. This was a great conversation. 

[00:22:32.680] – Brian Don 

Thank you very much. 

[00:22:34.560] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Brian Don from University of Auckland. If you want to know more about this research, visit 

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