The latest issue of The Journal of Communication and Religion (November 2008, Volume 31, Number 2) contains an excellent analysis of the importance of opposite-sex parent relationships. The common sense conclusion is backed up with social science data and affirmed by a peer-reviewed scholarly article: girls need a dad, and boys need a mom.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that communication is an essential building block for all family relationships — family interactions are the crucible for attitudes, values, priorities, and worldviews. Beyond the shaping and modeling of these essential personal characteristics, the family shapes an individual’s interpersonal system and self-identity.
Further, stable homes include specific talk about religion and support for children’s involvement in religious activities. These families create high-quality relationships by specific communication behaviors, such as openness, assurance, and dependency. Those same characteristics, not incidentally, are powerful predictors for marital success or failure.
The authors, G.L. Forward, Alison Sansom-Livolsi, and Jordanna McGovern, stress the fact that a family is more than merely a group of individuals who live under the same roof. They cite numerous studies indicating that parents play a crucial role in a child’s personal and social development. In fact, a child’s relationship with his or her parents is the single most important factor in predicting that child’s long-term happiness, adjustment, development, educational attainment, and success. Beyond that general information, studies indicate that girls get better support from the family than do boys. Girls feel closer to their parents, perhaps because parents converse with and express emotion more readily with daughters than with sons. In general, mothers spend far more time with daughters than with sons. Likewise, fathers spend more time with sons than with their daughters. Yet, father-daughter and mother-son relationships tend to have greater impact on a child’s future intimate relationships than their relationship with the same-sex parent.
All of this information has greater significance today then ever before because family structures are changing more rapidly than at any previous time. The National Center for Health Statistics reported in 2006 that 48 percent of all marriages in the United States ended in divorce. Other studies indicate that cohabitation, delayed marriage, serial marriages, and numerous blended family structures are affecting relationships and expectations between family members. Studies conclude that after a divorce mothers are less affectionate and communicate less often with their children. Long term erosion of family relationships is common, with the father-child relationship being the most endangered relationship following family turmoil.
The survey, given to students at two private, church-related universities in Southern California, asked students to evaluate their family’s relationship satisfaction, religiosity, and communication behaviors with the opposite-sex parent. Specifically, the study looked at the openness, assurance, dependency, and religiosity between the student and his or her mother or father.
Dependency — The authors define dependency as the attachment and emotional bonding that provides security that continues throughout a child’s lifetime. Healthy dependence is essential for autonomy. Ironically, parent-child dependency provides the foundation that enables the child to separate from the parents as he or she matures and becomes an adult. Social and emotional growth stems from a secure attachment — having a safe haven with parents enables a child to move away from their secure base to explore autonomy and independence as an adolescent and emerging adult. In other words, the more secure the base, the easier it is for a child to leave the nest; they know that the parents are there and feel secure enough to transition into a confident adulthood.
Openness — When parents and children openly and comfortably share their thoughts and emotions, the transition into healthy adulthood is easier. Further, such openness assists the child in decision-making. Greater interaction leads to fewer family problems. Parents who express love, offer frequent praise, and encourage give-and-take produce adolescents who are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors when alone or with friends.
Assurance — A child’s self-esteem is strongly linked to parental assurance of worth. A vote of confidence from parents is particularly significant to adolescents. In fact, the ability to communicate assurance to a child is identified as a key to parental success. Successful parents give a child a sense of worth and lovability; coercive parents imply untrustworthiness and incompetence. These communication patterns especially affect girls; a father’s open encouragement and supportive attitude makes a daughter feel confident and creates a greater sense of personal worth.
Religiosity — The authors cited numerous studies that link religious beliefs and practices to a strong family unit and noted the fact that the most noticeable impact of religiosity is during adolescence. The majority of studies found an inverse relationship between religiosity and high-risk adolescent behaviors (drinking, drug use, sexual activity, depression, etc.). Other studies indicate a strong relationship between the family’s religious belief and practice and a teen’s emotional health and family well-being. This is especially true of teenage boys.
While family communication and interaction is critical to high-quality relationships for children and adolescents, this study suggests that the opposite-sex parent is especially important in making children feel validated and encouraged. This is true of boys as well as girls, but it is especially true of daughters. Fathers have the greatest impact on their daughters’ vitality as an adolescent college student. Daughters with a strong relationship with their father are more self-confident, self-reliant, and are more successful in school and career than those who have distant or absent fathers. Finally, the study validates the old adage, “The family that prays together, stays together” — even during those stressful adolescent and teen years.