I have a precocious six-year-old son who is the light of my life (along with my four other children). Each night I tuck him into bed and give him a hug and a kiss. Last year he asked me one night how they kiss in other places in the world. So I thought wildly for a minute, and then suggested the old idea that among the Eskimos they rub noses as a sign of affection. He thought about this and then insisted after our nightly hug and kiss that I rub noses with him. After a few nights of this he asked again how they show affection in other places around the world, so I thought about it and said that in Italy they kiss each other on both cheeks. Kissing each other on both cheeks was added to our nightly ritual. It is now impossible for me to tuck this little boy into bed at night without a hug, rubbing noses, a kiss on both cheeks, an affectionate peck on the forehead, and then another hug. You’d think that this would get rather tiresome, but I actually look forward to it each day. No matter how our interaction has been that day, I know that will be a moment for us to feel and express a connection to each other that involves closeness, affection, and love. It’s a great “dad moment.”
Yesterday I met a colleague in the hall at work and he had his two little boys with him. As they started down the hall, a teacher of theirs from preschool the year before appeared out of a doorway. Instant recognition, yells of delight, and running. Those two little boys sprinted the length of the hall and threw themselves into the arms of their teacher and let her know how much they missed her. What a powerful sense of connection to each other.
How important is the connection that a parent feels to a child? And vice versa? How vital are those little moments of understanding and feeling understood, of sharing a laugh together or wrestling on the floor in a moment of play? Let me persuade you about the power of parental connections.
Understanding the Influence of Parent-Child Connection
Nearly ten years ago I was exploring the idea that I would study for my thesis research in graduate school, and found that I had to figure out the central question I wanted to understand. I was conducting a study with fathers about their relationships with both a special-needs child and another child in their family. I wanted to understand what really made father-child relationships work. Here is the question I came up with almost by accident: “How do fathers care for and connect with their children in different contexts?”
In my subsequent research, it became clear that connectedness between a father and child was a powerful influence on children and their well-being. But additionally, this concept was being explored in different ways by others as well. I’d like to share some of these findings and what it means for parents and their children.
One of the leading researchers in the world on parenting and the well-being of children is Dr. Brian Barber, currently at the University of Tennessee. He has studied the most important factors in parent-child relationships in cultures around the world, including in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa, India, the Middle East, China, and other places. Dr. Barber has also taught at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. He happens to be a Latter-day Saint. In the early 1990’s, Brian identified the sense of connection between a parent and child as one of three vital factors that provide stability and well-being to adolescent children. This influence has been found by him to be true for parents and children across diverse cultures and situations.
Speaking in 1999 at the first annual World Family Policy Forum at Brigham Young University on his research findings, Dr. Barber made the following observations about parent-child connection and its importance:
Extensive scientific research has been conducted on the parent-child relationship over the past sixty years. This research literature is voluminous, complex, redundant, fragmented, and, at times, confusing and/or contradictory. My aim has been to integrate it based on my belief that there are a limited number of essential aspects to the parent-child relationship that matter to child development, and that the more clearly and simply we can communicate these the better off we will be able to assist in improving this important relationship. . . .
My assumption has been that children in very different cultural settings have similar desires for and responses to, for example, emotionally supportive relationships with adults, like parents. The important scientific work that has been produced over the decades . . . can be integrated and synthesized into three central conditions of parenting that have been shown to be important to healthy child development. We refer to the first condition as connection, or the positive, stable, emotional bond between parent and child. We measure this by asking both parents and adolescents to report on the level of parental acceptance in the relationship. For example, how often the parent spends time with the child, how available the parent is to console the child, and how much the parent enjoys being with the child. We have theorized that children and adolescents who experience consistently high levels of connection with their parents will learn to trust adults, to value themselves, and to be willing and able to initiate social interaction with others outside of the home. . . .[i]
And what did we learn about connection and its importance? Dr. Barber summarized his research with parents and adolescents from six cultures across the world (the U.S., Colombia, Gaza, South Africa, India, and Australia). First, he showed that the more connection a child experiences with his parents, the more likely he or she is to trust others and seek out stable relationships with peers and adults outside the home. It’s as if the stable, positive connection between a parent and child gives the child a pattern to repeat in their relationships with other friends or adults they know and learn to trust. Second, he showed that the children who experience a strong parental connection are much less likely to experience anxiety or depression. So, it helps to balance a child’s emotional well-being.
Notice that the way in which a parent and child established this sense of connection was centered in things like spending positive time together, the parent providing emotional support to his or her child, and simply enjoying their time together. This reminds me of one of the great parenting truths uttered by my father. He told me once, “I think that in order to be a good parent you have to learn not only to love your children, but you have to like your children.” What a great idea. If God’s primary work for eternity is association with His children, perhaps we should consider that learning to enjoy being with our children is important to our own eternal work.
My interest in the power of connection between parents and children grew a couple of years ago when I reviewed findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This research study is without any doubt the most comprehensive and complex study ever done of youth and their behavior, and how they are influenced by parents, peers, and other influences. It is a gold mine of information and understanding. Conducted in the United States, it is a nationally representative study of 90,000 adolescents (survey), 20,000 parent and teen interviews, and related information. Known simply as the “Add Health” study, it is providing us with much new understanding of family relationships.
As I searched some of the findings from this study, what struck me was that there are common factors that protect children and adolescents from different challenges, whether it be depression or suicide or drug use. What are these factors? Perhaps the most potent discussed repeatedly is this: The power of parent and family connectedness.
In a Capitol Hill briefing in 1999, for example, Dr. Michael Resnick of the University of Minnesota discussed some of the things that protect kids from the risk of suicide or being violent toward others. He summarized, “It is connectedness to parents and family, a strong sense of connection to other adults”.[ii] Additionally, Dr. Robert Blum summarized things that protect adolescents from early sexual behavior or pregnancy and stated, “Independent of most of the factors-whether you’re poor or not, regardless of your ethnicity, independent of what your geography or family structure is-parent and family connectedness is powerfully protective.“[iii] So, in this national study it is seen repeatedly and in detailed ways that the connectedness between parents and their children is protective to children. It helps them to enjoy the stability and emotional security that they need to say no to temptations or challenges, while also giving them the ability to be secure in their relationships with others.
Are these findings repeated elsewhere? Definitely. I decided to work with a former graduate student friend of mine, Takashi Yamamoto, and a professor at Oregon State University, Dr. Alan Acock, to see if we could assess the influence of connection in fathers’ relationships with their adolescent children. To make a long story short, we analyzed survey data from interviews with 362 married fathers who had at least one adolescent biological child living with them. This research came from the National Study of Families and Households, one of the most extensive and continuous surveys of American family life, begun in the late 1980’s and continued since then. The findings from this study can be generalized due to the U.S. population in general. Incidentally, much of this survey was also implemented by a fine Latter-day Saint Scholar, Dr. Vaughn Call, who was at the University of Wisconsin and is now at Brigham Young University. One of the main concepts we analyzed was the influence of connection between fathers and their adolescent children on the quality of their relationship and the well-being of these teenagers.
Did we learn anything? Again, we found that the connection between a father and adolescent child profoundly affects the quality of their relationship and the child’s well-being. Fathers who regularly connect with their children through involvement in recreational activities, games, playing together, working on a project, helping with reading or homework, or in other ways have relationships of much higher quality with their children. Additionally, the stronger this connection is the better their children’s life tends to be in terms of their emotional stability and their relationships with others. Our summary of this research was this: “We have shown that it is not a father’s mere presence, but his connection to his children that is pivotal. It is important to recognize that strong connections can have beneficial effects, but the opposite is also true, poor connections can have adverse effects. Fathers, it seems, really do matter.”[iv]
So, here are brief summaries of findings from one international study and two national studies of parents and children. What makes the difference? The power of parental connections, which provide a pathway for blessing and protecting your children.
What Exactly Does Connection Involve?
It’s great to talk about how important something is, but it helps if we know a little more precisely what we are talking about. Let me share just a few ideas. I wrote something on this topic recently and summarized it as follows:
Connecting with one’s child involves both the sense of feeling emotionally and psychically connected with a son or daughter and a parent’s efforts to create and maintain a healthy, caring bond between himself or herself, the child, and others in the child’s life.[v]
Basically, this process of feeling connected involves both a parent’s efforts to draw close to and be involved with a child, as well as the child’s feelings of closeness to the parent. Dr. Brent Top, professor of church history and doctrine at BYU, and Dr. Bruce Chadwick, a professor of sociology at BYU, have also recently done valuable studies of these issues among LDS youth which I’ll summarize in a minute. But they have written:
Family connectedness can be defined as a child’s feelings of closeness to parents and siblings. It includes feelings of being loved and appreciated by parents and that his/her mother and father are genuinely interested in his/her life. Connectedness is the degree to which a child feels affection and mutual support within the family unit.[vi]
So, those are two views of what connection involves. Finally, Dr. Robert Blum summarized their understanding of connectedness in research from the Add Health study in this way:
We actually went out and asked groups of kids, “What is this sense of connectedness?” There was this clear understanding on their part of what it is. It isn’t that, “My mother or father is always there, is always available, is sitting at home.” But it’s that “she or he is available when I need them.” It’s that “my mother remembers that I had a test last Thursday and asks, ‘How did it go?'” “It’s that my father remembers that I had a date, not only that I had a date, but it was with Johnny and not Sam or Harry or Larry, and asks how my date with Johnny was.” “It’s that my mother has a message on the refrigerator door, ‘I’ll be home at 6:00, but there’s a snack in the refrigerator for you.” It’s concrete things that say: “You matter. I care, even when I’m not home.” It’s the neighbor who stops by who says, “Your mom asked me to come by after school and see how things are going.” Connectedness.[vii]
In its essence, connectedness between a parent and child is developed in the details of loving another person and the trust that develops in that relationship. It is a child trusting that you will be there to read a book each night.
It is a teenage son knowing that you will listen and say, “I know it can be tough.” It is a daughter appreciating the fact that you remembered her favorite kind of candy treat from the store was red licorice.
Parental Connections and LDS Youth
Now, does all of this apply to LDS families? Sure it does. As I mentioned, outstanding research in this area has been done by university professors Brent L. Top and Bruce A. Chadwick at Brigham Young University. From 1991 to 1995 they surveyed nearly 3,000 LDS teenagers (9th through 12 graders) and found that family connectedness is one of several powerful influences that parents have on their children’s religious development, friend relationships, and participation in negative activities.
In summarizing this research, these LDS researchers indicate:
Working out exactly how and why this parent-child connection works in such a powerful way is fascinating, but that I’ll leave for another time. What challenged my thinking in looking at this research with LDS youth and their families, which was drawn from around the U.S., was exactly how LDS youth expressed their feelings about various aspects of their interaction with Mom and Dad that related to feeling a sense of connection. I was a little disappointed at times. Let me give you the numbers from 636 LDS teens in the Pacific Northwest and 460 in Utah Valley about relations with their mother and father.
The following questions were asked and the numbers follow:
These were not all the questions asked, and understanding the meaning of such numbers should not be over-simplified. But I think, at a glance, these numbers do indicate one important reality: As Latter-day Saint parents, we do have some room for improvement in connecting with our children! Some children, especially as teens, are more challenging than others, so you must adapt to your own circumstances. But apply these thoughts to yourself. Do I smile often at my children? Do I believe in expressing my love to them and do I show it? Do I make it easy for my children to talk with me? Do I make my children feel better and not worse when they are upset? Do I make my children feel that they are the most important person in the world when they are with me?
That last question is a very interesting question. It challenges us as parents. Surely we will never be perfect parents, but if only 3 of 10 among our LDS teens feel that we, as their fathers and mothers, make them feel truly important in our lives when they are with us–we have some room to grow. On the other hand, it’s wonderful to know that many of our children perceive us as enjoying them and doing things for them.
Strengthening Your Parental Connections with Your Children
I could write another whole article on the practical steps to building connection with your children, but will summarize with a “Top Ten” list. This list is based on my own research with LDS parents, particularly fathers, and suggestions from Dr. Top and Dr. Chadwick. They are:
How important is parental connection? I think it is difficult to emphasize how important this quality is to parents and their children. It is, perhaps, the major way in which children and parents evaluate the nature and quality of the relationships they have with each other.
We know that our Heavenly Father emphasizes the connection that He feels toward us as His children. We have been told:
But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:14-16)
He will neither forget us nor forsake us. We are continually before His eyes, upon His mind, and within His heart. He is our Divine Parent. As parents, let us also follow His example and forge a lasting connection with our children that may extend into eternity.
[ii] Dr. Michael D. Resnick, “New Research on Violence: What Predicts? What Protects?” In Protecting Adolescents from Risk: Transcript of a Capitol Hill Briefing on New Findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (June 3, 1999), p. 11. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Youth Development.
[iv] Sean E. Brotherson, Takashi Yamamoto, and Alan C. Acock, 2003. “Connection and Communication in Father-Child Relationships and Adolescent Child Well-Being.” Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice About Men as Fathers (forthcoming).
[vi] Brent L. Top and Bruce A. Chadwick. ‘Rearing Righteous Youth in a Wicked World: How Faith and Family Can Counteract Negative Peer Pressures.” Unpublished presentation. Findings from this study are published in Brent L. Top and Bruce A. Chadwick, Rearing Righteous Youth of Zion, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998.