Recent Child, Adolescent and Family Studies Research

Family Characteristics and Social Inequality

Examining Wealth Inequality
In a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project, IPR sociologist Christine Percheski and Duke University’s Christina Gibson-Davis examine wealth inequality among families with children in the United States. In the project’s first paper, which is forthcoming in Demography, Percheski and Gibson-Davis compare trends from 1989–2013 for wealth levels among “America’s dependents”: the elderly and households with children. They discover that the wealth gap between elderly households and households with children has substantially increased over time, growing most among the least wealthy households. In a second paper, Percheski and Gibson-Davis analyze trends in wealth by household structure for the nonelderly population. They find families with married parents have a substantially higher net worth than all other family structures, including married couples without children. Different investment patterns partially explain this, specifically home ownership. Families with married parents are far more likely to own their home, and home ownership is the primary way that people accumulate wealth in the United States.

IPR sociologist Christine Percheski
focuses on family demography,
economic inequality, and health
policy. Her research is particularly
concerned with understanding the
well-being ofAmerican women
and families with children.

Insurance for Immigrant Children
Though the percentage of all American children without health insurance has dropped slightly in the last decade, a high percentage of children in immigrant families are uninsured. Many studies have examined the correlation between lack of insurance and health outcomes, but in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, Percheski and Sharon Bzostek of Rutgers University take a new approach, comparing insured children with their uninsured siblings. In research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they estimate uninsurance rates for children with siblings in immigrant families. They find that 19 percent had no insurance and 33 percent had public insurance—either Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In families with mixed insurance coverage, 49 percent of the children had no insurance. Compared with their publicly insured siblings, uninsured children were six times more likely to depend on the emergency department for care and more than 12 times more likely to not have a usual healthcare source. They note that children born abroad are more likely to be uninsured, so expanding public health insurance to cover more children in immigrant families will likely improve children’s access to healthcare.

Fertility Rates Among American Indians
Since 1990, government statistics show a dramatic decline in the total fertility rates of American Indian and Alaska Native women. Is this decrease due to an actual change in fertility or to differences in who identifies as American Indian and Alaska Native? Percheski and Sarah Cannon, a former IPR graduate research assistant now at the University of Michigan, investigate in Demographic Research. Based on U.S. Census data from 1980–2010, they discover that the decrease can be attributed to a change in fertility patterns. They estimate a total fertility rate of 2.59 births per woman in 1980, which fell to 2.091 births per woman in 2010. The largest declines in fertility are concentrated among younger women. Percheski and Cannon also note that fertility rates among married and unmarried women have remained fairly stable, but the share of women who have ever been married has declined across birth cohorts. They conclude that the lower share of married women is driving the decrease in fertility.

Childhood Programs and Development

Mother-Child Interactions
IPR developmental psychologist Sandra Waxman is continuing to work among the Wichí, a remote indigenous population in Argentina’s Chaco rainforest. In a longitudinal investigation, Waxman is examining mother-child interactions from infancy through age 3. The Wichí are a unique research population, as the Wichí language is intact, unlike in most indigenous groups, and children learn it from infancy. This population also presents an opportunity to examine how interactions with the natural world influence cognition: Due to their remote setting, Wichí children have more opportunities to connect with nature than children who are typically studied. Waxman hopes this first-of-its-kind study will broaden the empirical research base on the intersection between core cognitive capabilities and the shaping role of the environment. Waxman is the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology.

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and Sandra Waxman
IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-
Lansdale (right) discusses her work on two-
generation programs for both parents and their
children with IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman,
an expert in linguistic and cognitive development.

Linking Language and Cognition
How do infants begin to understand language? Waxman and IPR graduate research assistant Danielle Perszyk outline the evidence about the early links between language and cognition in the Annual Review of Psychology. They explain that even before infants can recognize the sound of their own names, they have begun to link language and cognition. Within the first several months of life, infants prefer the sound of human language over almost any other sound. Waxman discovers that listening to language also promotes fundamental cognitive capacities, such as the ability to form object categories and learn abstract rules. Waxman explains that this is key: If listening to human speech boosts infant cognition and language development, then infants who hear little of it are at a disadvantage not only in language skills, but in fundamental cognitive capabilities.

Children's Biological Cognition
Children’s environments can influence how they think about the natural world, according to Waxman’s findings in the Journal of Cognition and Development. In a NSF-funded study of both urban and rural Native American children, as well as urban non-Native American children, Waxman examines how 4-year-olds played with a forest diorama. She finds that all of the children actively engaged with the diorama in both realistic and imaginative play, and Native American children talked at least as much as the non-Native American children—contradicting the widespread belief that Native American children are less talkative and have smaller vocabularies. Waxman also discovers that Native American children, whether residing in an urban or rural environment, were more than twice as likely as non-Native American children to take an animal’s perspective while playing. The study highlights the powerful role a child’s environment can have on their thinking, and it demonstrates the value of expanding research methods for assessing young children’s biological cognition.

Two-Generation Program Effects
IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, the Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, is continuing her work on CareerAdvance, a two-generation program that recruits parents of children enrolled in Head Start into a healthcare workforce training program. With developmental psychologist and IPR associate Terri Sabol and IPR research associate professor Teresa Eckrich Sommer, Chase-Lansdale uses a quasi-experimental design to examine the intervention’s effects. Compared with other parents of Head Start children, the parents who enrolled in CareerAdvance had significantly higher rates of certification and employment in the health sector. Enrolled parents also reported stronger career identity, and their psychological well-being increased, as measured by reported self-efficacy and optimism. Parents in the CareerAdvance program did have lower earnings over the course of the year, but they did not differ from the other parents in reports of material hardship or stress. According to the researchers, this study, supported by the Administration for Children and Families, provides a foundation for testing and scaling up new two-generation interventions. The researchers have also received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study a new model program in Massachusetts that focuses on formerly incarcerated fathers, mothers, and their children.

Costs and Benefits of Two-Gen Programs
Is a two-generation (two-gen) program that offers Head Start for children and career training for their parents a cost-effective way to boost outcomes? Sommer, SabolChase-Lansdale, and IPR postdoctoral fellow William Schneider examine average benefit-cost ratios in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. The researchers estimate the two-year workforce development program, based on the CareerAdvance model, costs $13,955 per person. This includes tuition, career coaching, conditional cash incentives, and six months of employment services. The total per participant benefit is estimated at $17,913 within the five years of beginning the program, based on the higher salary participants receive with career certification. The study finds that such a two-generation model is likely to break even on its investment after five years and have an eight-fold return on investment after 10 years. The researchers call for further model testing of two-generation programs, with the goal of achieving the greatest anti-poverty benefits for children and parents at the lowest cost. Other institutions are now starting research based on the team’s work. Chase-Lansdale presented at the launch of Cornell University’s Project 2Gen, which is developing partnerships with community, state, and national organizations and government agencies to support parents and children simultaneously.

Increasing Head Start Attendance
Sommer, Sabol, and Chase-Lansdale examine an innovative approach to increase Head Start attendance by promoting parents’ social capital. The program pairs parents with children enrolled in the same classroom who also live near one another. The researchers find that after one school year, paired parents had higher social capital, or more people in their social network. They were also more willing to ask for help from other parents. While the program did not increase children’s attendance overall,
it did improve attendance in winter, when average attendance typically dips below 80 percent. In the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, the researchers note that even a modest increase in attendance is meaningful for early childhood education programs, giving students exposure to the academic, social, and developmental programming they need to advance.

Health and Well-Being Across the Lifecycle

Assessing Parental Discipline
Understanding how harsh parenting increases a child’s risk of mental illness is key to prevention. This requires nuanced methods that capture the variations in perception and experience among diverse families. The Family Socialization Interview–Revised (FSI-R) is one available method. It uses a semi-structured interview to characterize methods of parental discipline used with young children. In Prevention Science, IPR clinical and developmental psychologist Lauren Wakschlag and her colleagues test the FSI-R in a diverse, high-risk community sample of 386 mothers and their 3- to 6-year-old children. Their findings support the FSI-R’s reliability and validity and suggest the interview could be a valuable complement to self-report and observational approaches. In particular, the test proved better than other methods at showing how harsh parenting is associated with children’s depressive symptoms. Wakschlag and her colleagues note that information about how parents discipline young children on a day-to-day basis might prove valuable for programs that are designed to identify, target, and modify parenting behaviors. The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Early Childhood Disruptive Behavior
Wakschlag continues to investigate how child disruptive behavior is associated with mental health. In The American Journal of Psychiatry, she and her colleagues review the evidence on irritability and callous behavior, two core examples of early disruptive behavior. Both irritability and callous behavior can be reliably detected in young children, predicting developmental impairments in multiple systems. Both are also linked to specific changes within the brain: Irritability is associated with disruptions in prefrontal regulation of emotion, and callous behavior is tied to abnormal fear processing. The researchers recommend that early childhood disruptive behavior be incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a neurodevelopmental condition. This could serve as the foundation for prevention efforts designed to prevent children from developing chronic mental disorders.

Effects of Having a Disabled Sibling
How does having a disabled sibling influence a child’s cognitive development? In an IPR working paper, IPR economists David Figlio and Jonathan Guryan, with IPR research associate Krzysztof Karbownik, are comparing the school outcomes of first- and second-born siblings who have a younger, disabled sibling with those in families where the third child is not disabled. They discover that when the youngest child is disabled, the middle child has a cognitive disadvantage relative to the oldest child when compared with the sibling outcomes in families without a disabled child. This suggests that, in addition to effects on all the children in a household with three children and the youngest disabled, the middle child will experience additional, negative effects from having a younger, disabled sibling. The researchers also provide evidence suggesting that the sibling spillovers are at least in part due to differences in how much time parents spend with each child and how much money they have to spend on them. Parents with a disabled child who requires additional attention will have fewer resources to share with their other children. Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics.

Effects of School, Life, and Family Contexts

Ellen Wartella
IPR associate Ellen Wartella (standing), a
communications studies researcher, reviews
research results with Elizabeth Diamond 
(center), an IPR summer undergraduate 
research assistant, and communications
researcher Alexis Lauricella.

Food Marketing to Children
Food companies are marketing less to children online, which advocates consider a win in the fight against childhood obesity. Websites that are aimed at children, however, commonly feature games promoting unhealthy foods, according to a recent study by communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella. In Health Communication, Wartella and her colleagues zero in on how food companies are marketing to kids online, and what this might mean for children’s eating habits. With support from the NSF, the researchers conducted a content analysis of 95 brand websites, discovering that games were a common feature in the 15 websites aimed at children. Almost half of these “advergames” included companion advertisements bordering the game, such as a McDonald’s logo, and had the primary goal of manipulating pieces of food. Previous research has shown these advergames to be even more effective than other forms of child-directed advertising, making them particularly worrying. In addition, brands used these games to promote the most unhealthy foods in the study, compared with other tactics such as static pictures. Wartella and her colleagues recommend further research on advergames. They explain that with a stronger evidence base, advocates can call for more detailed policies regulating the use of such gaming features. Wartella is the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication.

Monitoring Children's Internet Use
Many parents worry about their children’s use of technology, but they may lack either information or the tools to control their children’s home internet use. IPR economist Ofer Malamud designed and implemented a set of randomized interventions among 7,700 families in Chile to test how these alternative factors affected parents’ ability to monitor their children. One group of parents received weekly messages containing specific information about their children’s internet use. Households receiving these messages had a 6–10 percent lower intensity of internet use compared with households in a control group that received only generic messages. The effect persisted in the weeks and months after the intervention ended, suggesting that the temporary interventions led to permanent changes in children’s internet use. Another group of parents received weekly messages offering help installing parental control software, but Malamud did not find a difference in internet use between these households and the control group. Malamud notes that the absence of impacts for this group might reflect the obstacles low-income parents face in implementing technological solutions for monitoring and supervising their children.

The Effects of Violent Video Games
Are violent video games related to aggressive behavior and delinquency? IPR education researcher and statistician Larry Hedges joined a task force convened by the American Psychological Association to examine the existing literature. Looking at studies published from 2009–13, the researchers note that violent video game exposure is associated with increased aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, and decreased empathy. These results held true across both experimental and non-experimental studies and converged across methods and samples. Some research also demonstrated that the adverse effects of violent video games only lasted a short period of time. In American Psychologist, the task force concluded that playing violent video games is a risk factor for adverse outcomes. However, there were not sufficient studies to examine a potential link between playing violent video games and delinquency or criminal behavior. Hedges is the Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Social Policy and of Psychology.

Parenting and Child Health
Research shows that fathers tend to have more decision-making power than mothers, but mothers tend to focus more on children’s well-being. If this is the case, should policies aimed at improving children’s welfare target mothers or fathers? In the American Economic Review, IPR economist Seema Jayachandran examines village-level parenting classes for mothers to similar classes for fathers in Uganda. The classes covered prenatal nutrition, safe water and sanitation practices, and preventive healthcare for infants. Jayachandran shows that mothers attended the classes more regularly than fathers and were more likely to put what they learned into practice. This suggests mothers are a promising target for child health interventions.

Social psychologist and IPR associate Eli Finkel (left)
spoke about his recent book with author, journalist,
and advice columnist Dan Savage on September 26
in Seattle.

The All-or-Nothing Marriage
Marriages today are very different from those of the past. In his book,
The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work (Dutton, 2017), social psychologist and IPR associate Eli Finkel explains how today’s marriages are more focused on self-discovery and personal growth. However, building a marriage that meets modern expectations has become more difficult. Even though spouses are now less dependent on marriage for basic survival than in the past, partners expect each other to fulfill more roles than ever—for example, confidant, sexual companion, best friend, and co-parent. This places marriages at risk for disappointment. Finkel notes that marriages have proven particularly problematic for low-income couples: People without a college degree are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. Lower-income couples also report less satisfying marriages. There is bright news, though: Finkel argues the best marriages today are flourishing as never before, as people find greater personal fulfillment with their partners. He reviews the latest research studies to identify the ways in which more people can seek to enjoy such deeply fulfilling marriages.