Stepfamily parenting style

Cinderella Effect: the Startling Truth of Stepfamily Parenting Style

Named after the popular fairy tale, the Cinderella effect has anything but a happy ending. Statistics suggest a strong correlation between stepparents and higher incidences of child abuse cases. Hence the Stepfamily parenting style.

Stepparent relationship or stepfamily parenting style

A variety of different evolutionary and social theories offer explanations for the connection, though the very emotional nature of stepparent relationships or stepfamily parenting style makes such issues difficult to discuss.

Cinderella effect

The Cinderella effect was first summarized in the early 1970s by P. D. Scott, a forensic psychologist who made a shocking observation about a small sample cases in which a child was killed out of anger: 52 percent of them were committed by the child’s stepfather.

Further evidence compiled from official reports of child abuse cases and homicides, clinical data, and victim reports showed that non-biologically related parents are up to 100 times more likely to be abusive than biological parents. A stepfamily parenting style came to be. The strongest evidence supporting the Cinderella effect appears in households with both genetic and stepchildren. In two separate surveys of abuse cases, parents in such households exclusively targeted their stepchildren with abusive behavior: 90 percent in one survey, 86 percent in the other.

Studies have also suggested that stepparents are less likely to display positive behaviors toward their children than biological parents, including investing time in those children’s education and do have a different and defining stepfamily parenting style.

But why?

Evolutionary Explanation for Child Abuse Cases by Stepparents

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, evolutionary psychologists, suggest and evolutionary basis for the Cinderella effect. Citing the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness and parental investment theory. They expect parents to discriminate in favor of their genetic children and invest less time in children in their care that aren’t biologically related as a means of insuring their genetics are passed on to future generations. There seems to be  biological bassis for the stepfamily parenting style.

Parallels exist in the animal kingdom. Daly and Wilson cited lions in their famous example. Adult male lions entering a pride have been known to kill cubs fathered by other males. This serves two purposes: they guarantee more of the pride’s limited available attention for their own cubs and speed up the timeline for female fertility.

This phenomenon is a bit more complicated in humans and may be an extension of mating behavior. Since humans risk losing their partners by refusing to tolerate children unrelated to them but related to those partners, they invest the minimum time and resources necessary to meet their partner’s expectations. This explains the tendency of abusers to spare their biological children and have a different stepfamily parenting style.

Stepchild to stepparent relationships are also strained: children are less likely to approach their stepfathers for advice and support than their genetic fathers.

Alternative Theories and Criticisms

While the evolutionary theory is the forerunner for explaining the existence of the Cinderella effect, these theories provide alternative explanations for the effect:

The selection theory offers bias in the individuals involved as an alternative to Daly and Wilson’s evolutionary theory. It argues that the people most likely to become stepparents, divorcees, are more likely to be violent. They are more likely to have aggressive impulses, self-esteem issues, and emotional disturbances, and these biases, rather than evolutionary relationships, predispose them toward abuse. Child abuse cases that result in the child’s death have been correlated to parental factors such as lost custody battles, prior convictions for violent crimes, drug abuse, and mental health concerns. The stepfamily parenting style is more defined by the identity of a person more likely to become a stepparent.

The social theory suggests that stepparents are less likely to invest in unrelated children because such investment costs time and resources that could be directed toward their biological children. The stepfamily parenting style is now influenced by economic reasons. Further, stepparents are less likely to feel bound to their stepchildren by attachment or parental love, which are both factors in the emotional mechanisms that allow parents to tolerate the costs of investment in their children.

Other alternate explanations for the Cinderella effect or the stepfamily parenting style point to additional stress inherent in step families. In cases of sexual abuse, the normative theory posits that the strong social taboo of incest is overcome by the lack of genetic consequences to relationships with unrelated individuals.

Research about the Cinderella effect using runaway and juvenile detention data has shown that the correlation between stepfamilies and abuse transcends the trends in social and economic backgrounds. Critics, however, argue that the stepparent relationship isn’t necessarily the defining factor in the higher occurrence of child abuse cases in those situations. Other factors include the family’s social and economic situation, the child’s age, and disabilities.

Daly and Wilson expect parents to discriminate in favor of their own children over unrelated children in their care. Evolutionary theory provides the scientific framework for that expectation, though a variety of other explanations complement and compete with it. Despite this understanding, the higher rates of child abuse cases in step families is a painful reality for parents.

Stepfamily parenting style
Cinderella Castle at night with moon
mother and child

Female hormones influence the initial bond between mother and child

It is necessary for a newborn’s survival to have a mother who cares for it and looks after its well being. Ask any mother if they love their child and you may get some strange reactions because it is expected for a mother to inherently love her offspring. What you may not know is that female hormones are responsible for much of that loving feeling between mother and child that is created when your baby is born. It is very much about chemistry.

What female hormones are responsible for strengthening the bond between mother and child?

There are several female hormones responsible for this biochemical attachment process between mother and child, but the main culprit is oxytocin.

Oxycotin  has many different effects on the mother and ramps up when it’s time for labor to begin. Pitocin, the synthetic form of oxytocin, is a tool used by doctors to mimic oxytocin production and induce labor.

Females aren’t the only ones experiencing a hormone surge

Vasopressin is produced by both the mother and the father, but the effects are greater in males. The father experiences an increase in this hormone from closeness and touch, and it is responsible for increasing the desire to protect and care for the mother and child.

Prolactin is also present in both the mother and father and promotes caregiving behaviors, conditioning the mother and father to feel rewarded by family relationships and activities beneficial to the livelihood of their offspring.

Pheromones also play an important role in the bonding process, of which the bond between mother and child. Fathers become sensitive to their pregnant partner’s pheromones and instinctually prepare for creating the hormones necessary to promote attachment between mother and child. Mothers are encouraged to hold the baby on their chest, with no blankets or clothing separating them, because “skin-to-skin” contact increases the hormones that bond them to each other. These pheromones also help your baby to learn to survive and adapt to the world around it.

All of these hormones work together to orchestrate an intense bond between parent / mother and child.

The bonding between mother and child that occurs also leads to feelings of stress and unhappiness when mother and child are separated. The baby may even become physically uncomfortable if a strong bond between mother and child has been established and may exhibit symptoms similar to withdrawal when separated from its mother.

Why do mother’s bodies create these female hormones?

When a woman gives birth, she will experience the largest singular rush of oxytocin in her life. These female hormones are instruments used in many different aspects of a woman’s life, but they are integral keys to childbirth and motherhood specifically. In addition to starting uterine contractions and facilitating childbirth, when the nipples are stimulated oxytocin is produced stimulating lactation and milk ejection (Ott and Scott 1910). Both the mother and child experience oxytocin surges every time the baby breastfeeds, fortifying their bond.

Why is Oxytocin so important in building the bonds between mother and child?

Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone“, and for good reason. Most studies have been performed on animals, but recently scientists are focusing more on how this hormone impacts humans and reproduction.

One of the first discoveries made about oxytocin was that it was proven to stimulate uterine contractions (Dale 1906). Sir Henry Dale, the scientist who discovered this effect after injecting a pregnant cat with Oxytocin, named the hormone after the Greek words meaning “swift birth”.

Forty-seven years later, Vincent du Vigneaud was able to sequence and synthesize oxytocin, making it the first polypeptide hormone to be lab created (Du Vigneaud 1956). Both scientists were awarded a Nobel prize with Dale winning in 1936 and Vigneaud winning in 1955.

Oxytocin and maternal behavior

Beyond that, oxytocin plays a part in what is called “maternal behavior”. In one study, rats and sheep were given oxytocin suppressors to impede their natural female hormones and the rats failed to demonstrate typical maternal behaviors. A cerebrospinal fluid infusion was administered to sheep which had never reproduced, and the sheep exhibited maternal behavior to lambs of no relation to them (Kendrick 2004).

Additionally, studies that measure the levels of oxytocin in mothers before and after birth show that mothers with higher oxytocin levels during pregnancy exhibit more maternal behaviors postpartum.

Not surprisingly, the same female hormones that are responsible for you feeling inseparable from your mate in a new relationship are the same hormones responsible for helping create the bond between mother and child. While oxytocin plays a part in so many of our bodies’ different physiological functions, its importance cannot be understated when it comes to childbirth and inciting the necessary initial bond between a mother and child.

The American Psychological Association’s Science Watch had two great quotes from scientists about oxytocin that warn us not to oversimplify a chemical formula:

“Oxytocin is not the love hormone,”

says Larry Young of Emory University.

“It’s tuning us into social information and allowing us to analyze it at higher resolution.”

Shelley Taylor of the University of California in Los Angeles adds:

“It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.”

mother and child
The Artist’s Mother, Umberto Boccioni, 1915

One of the many misconceptions of biology is the passivity in maternal mothers

The ideal of the maternal mother

One of the many characteristics of the ‘ideal maternal mother’ is her passivity. When we look at art depicting maternal mothers this quality is often shown. This state of maternal calmness has been taken for passivity. It is with certainty one of the many myths about maternal motherhood.

The french evolutionist, Paul Topinard, student of Paul Broca, taught that males have

all of the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow [and are] . . . constantly active in combating the environment and human rivals, and thus need] . . . more brains than the woman whom he must protect and nourish . . . the sedentary women, lacking any interior occupations, whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive (quoted in Gould, 1981:104).

Passivity means insouciance, calmness and peacefulness. Although it is clear that those characteristics are quite beneficial for newborns, babies and maternal women, it is wrong to think this is natural beyond the lactation period. And often comparisons with the animal kingdom are given to illustrate . There are indeed the male hormones and males might be more aggressive because of them. This does not imply that maternal females are more passive.

Passivity and primal choice

There is also cultural belief that males in the animal world males are really the more active sex and more interested in sex. More so that males will decide when and who and how, make the primal choice. The male doings are far more visible. And it is all about how males are rivaling for the possession of certain female. But  Charles Darwin himself actually agreed to the contrary. But our society was not ready to hear this at the time and so he was far less known for this discovery than for his others.

It is true that the male is often showier both in behavior and in looks. But it is really female animals that are often the active sexual pursuer. In certain species they are insatiable ones. They very often make the choice or the primal choice. They will decide who they prefer as father of the offspring. They will device their own selection criteria and that can be the looks of the male, but with other species the choice will be made after the inspection of nests or territories, or after a chase to check out the vigor and healthy perseverance of a male. It can also be the quality of the food the male provide during courtship or she will simply go for the more aggressive or powerful male of the group.

The research and studies are overwhelming in this area. Their subjects are all over and vary from chimpanzees, African wild dogs, Uganda kobs,  bongo fireflies, baboons, weaver birds, pigeons, marmots, chac-mas, rhesus monkeys, porcupines, roadrunners, jumping spiders, mountain goats, bower birds, squirrels, guppies, those most popular of aquarium fish to the most aggressive of all apes, the gorillas and many more.

In all these cases the female is the more active and in many cases males apparently have no choice but to play subordinate and even take on infantile behavior to have a share of the sexual satisfaction. One could say, males are an enormous but wonderful breeding experiment run by the females. The female choice was long dismissed as minor, even nonexistent however it seems that females are running the show and decide in most cases in what direction evolution takes off and which offspring will form the next generation. They do have the primal choice.

Passivity is also a lack of initiative. It is resignation or some kind of submission to people around them and outside influences; it is also unresisting capitulation. However babies and young children have many demands that come in a constant flow and to react to theirs can be a handful. Can we now say that any form of passivity might even endanger our species.

Poor mother and children during the Great Depression. Oklahoma, 1936, by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
natural instinct

Natural Instinct – How to understand the word ‘Natural’

Natural Instinct

The word Nature or Natural can have many different meanings. And, these words are often used when people talk about motherhood or natural instinct. So here is my attempt to unravel natural instinct. I think it is best to understand what the meaning of nature or natural in natural instinct is and how people use them.

First meaning

For example Nature can mean that something is biologically determined, as a natural instinct, a natural tendency or impulse. We also say that it is natural to breastfeed, because it is in our nature. For example, we say that women are naturally good with children because women have a motherly instinct, a natural instinct. So in this first sense Nature is innate, always elementary.

Second meaning

The second meaning of Natural is that it is unchanged or untouched and is still close to nature. It can be seen in a positive sense: it is not artificial, not processed, but even organic. It can also mean simple, innocent and naive. It can be negative if we mean rough, unrefined, unsophisticated and indigenous. Societies not belonging to the western world were described in this sense. Women as a sex have been more associated with this meaning.

Third meaning

A third meaning is when it is often done, or when it is the way most people do it. For example, people say that wishing best for your children is natural. In this sense, it is classic, archetypal or prototypical. It can be measured even by a statistical norm. This meaning may even shift from ‘what is done’ to ‘what should be done’. Natural can be used as an adverb (naturally) and become ‘necessarily’ or ‘by definition’ or ‘intrinsically’ or ‘inherently’, and then get a normative character. It is something that has become so normal, that it will be expected and if it is not there, it will become abnormal.

Meanings of Natural Instinct

Now that we know the meanings of the words natural, nature and naturalness, we can now read any meaning into natural instinct. The writer may have meant something else, however. Or the writer may not want to express something, but wants us to believe it. We can often not deduct the meaning from the context. When we read that something is natural, specifically natural for women or natural instinct, to behave in a certain manner, we often do not know what is meant. Is it biologically determined or a natural instinct (the first definition), or are women not so changed by society as men and they are closer to nature (second sense), or is it a behavior that is done by most (third) or should be done (fourth meaning). Natural instinct seems more tricky now, doesn’t it?

Here you you will find more about qualifying characteristics of natural instincts.

natural instinct
By Arup Malakar CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
being a mother

Is there a biological instinct for becoming or being a mother?

Are we primed or urged into being a mother? One would think so.  The immediate answer is yes. If not our species would not continue. However, we can easily see today is that women are giving more thought to having children and being a mother then ever before. So in point of fact, the immediate answer might be wrong. Let us have a look at how the experts define the words.

Defining the word ‘Instinct’

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“The words instinct and instinctive have borne a variety of meanings in the many different contexts in which they have been used. (…) For example, instinct can refer to reflexive or stereotyped behaviour, to an intuitive hunch, to a congenital aptitude or disposition, to a deep-seated impulsion (e.g., “maternal instinct”), to ways of acting that do not appear to have involved learning or experience in their development, or to knowledge that is inborn or subconsciously acquired. The concept of instinct is complicated by the fact that it ranges across behavioral, genetic, developmental, motivational, functional, and cognitive senses.”

Darwin was also well aware that the term instinct was used in several different senses. At the beginning of the chapter “Instinct” in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin declined to attempt to define the term:

“Several distinct mental actions are commonly embraced by this term; but everyone understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests. An action, which we ourselves require experience to enable us to perform, when performed by an animal, more especially by a very young one, without experience, and when performed by many individuals in the same way, without their knowing for what purpose it is performed, is usually said to be instinctive. But I could show that none of these characters are universal.”

Prudency with ‘Instinct’

Darwin was prudent with the word ‘Instinct’ and so was Freud. Although Sigmund Freud wrote in German, he used the German word Instinkt infrequently (here is an interesting article on Helen Deutsch, a colleague of Freud). He instead relied upon the term Trieb. While Instinkt generally refers to an automatic, unlearned response to a specific stimulus and hence is close to the English reflex, Trieb connotes urge, impulse and desire—what in motivational psychology is called drive. Freud took early on the biological view that there are two basic instinctive forces: self-preservation and reproduction. In 1915 Freud published a paper titled Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” where the self-preservation instinct virtually disappeared and sexual appetite dominated.

Even today, behavioral scientists, if they use the word instinct at all, generally restrict its use to specific patterns of behavior of animals. They rarely use it for being a mother.

Urge for being a mother

So we know from Freud we need to dissociate sexual appetite and urge for being a mother. Women today have no longer children as an outcome of sexual intercourse.  This dissociation can best be illustrated with figures on delaying pregnancy. Figures published in the beginning of the 21st century by the UK Office for National Statistics indicate that the pregnancy rate for women aged 40 and over has risen by more than 40 per cent in the last decade. Over the same period, pregnancy rates for women under 30 fell by nearly 15 per cent. (Laurie Taylor & Matthew Taylor, What are children for?, 2003, Short books, UK, p.52). If there was a biological instinct that told women to desire children or being a mother, then somebody must have changed the hour of alarm with a couple of decennia.

Not only are women delaying their motherhood but they decide also to have less children. To replace the European population couples need to have 2.1 children. Spain leads the way in Western Europe with a rate of 1.22 per woman, followed closely by Italy with 1.25 and Greece with 1.30. The UK has 1.64. Although France is proudly leading with 1.89, in general the northern countries have a higher rate than the southern. This is not at all surprisingly because the northern countries give women with children a different social role and much more support, not only with childcare.  Being a mother  or the social role at least is defined differently. The fertility rate across Europe is now 1.5. Without any changes in the current rates, and without  massive immigration, the population of the European Union will shrink from its current 375 million to 75 million by 2200.

Women have changed and will continue to change in the next decennials without a doubt. They chocked us before. To delay childcare or to only want a singleton must have come close to bravery considering the social condemnation. Being a mother of only one child has become much more acceptable : one family out of five in the US has a singleton. Women will continue to chock traditional audiences when voluntarily having children alone, with another woman or not at all. They will continue to divorce men because he was unsupportive in family life and childcare, the number one divorce reason nowadays.

Maybe nature has only foreseen sexual desires to make sure our species continue. Once a baby is born, nature has foreseen physiological reactions to make sure it gets fed and survives. But anything beyond becomes much more blurry.

being a mother
Nursing area sign by Pete Unseth. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
maternal bonding

On maternal bonding : how the real mother can be utterly ignored

Maternal bonding…

Whenever you do some reading of maternal bonding, motherhood and attachment you will come across the name Konrad Lorenz, a world famous ethologist, this is a zoologist who studies the behavior of animals in their natural habitats. He is also a Nobel Prize winner.

maternal bondingWhen he discovered that newly hatched birds would follow him rather than their own mother if they first lay eyes on him. The real mother would be utterly ignored. Being a mother would not be relevant. He called it ‘pragung’ (German), which became ‘imprinting’, in English and later on bonding.

Now I repeat that the research done on maternal bonding by Konrad Lorenz was only done on birds because in some literature the insinuation towards men is sometimes shamefully clear.

More research on Maternal Bonding

Other men (and no women here) have imprinted before Lorenz. In ancient Greece Pliny the Elder wrote in A.D. 27 of a goose that followed his friend Lacydes faithfully (Naturalis Historia, x). In the 7th century, St. Cuthbert, the protector of birds and other wildlife must have left numerous imprints on winged friends. One of the biographers of Cuthbert, the monk Reginald, wrote that his bird friends were submitted ‘as if they were his slaves’. But again bird research. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More described the same phenomena in his Utopia.

And after Lorenz came many more researchers on maternal bonding who became passionate at imprinting geese, ducks, chicks, pheasants, partridges, plovers, moorhens, terns, doves, pigeons, eagle owls, and corncrakes.

Modern Bonding Science by Whitman and Spalding

C. O. Whitman (Craig 1908) turned the imprinting to another use with nonprecocial (precocial species hatch with eyes open and are more quickly independant), or altricial (hatch with eyes closed) species. He first crossed two species of pigeons, he would then rear the young of one species with foster parents of the other species. He proved that when fully grown, pigeons with foster parents of a different species preferred to mate with that species rather than of their own species.

Now, it is important to take the matter of bonding not too leisurely. It is a precise event that does not occur haphazardly. Because you need to get at it early. In 1873, a gentleman called Douglas Spalding would be the first to say that the imprinting needs to occur within a certain time frame. He came to that conclusion when he hooded chickens for 3 days. If he unveiled the hood within 3 days they would follow him, after 3 days they would be extremely fearful (and here the comparisons with humans was luckily for some, never made). Being a mother was also a question of timing.

Eckhard Hess of the University of Chicago -although his research te can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g., se studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).  Techniques in bird research were more advanced and were uninterrupted for 25 years- came to a similar conclusion.

So we can take this bonding information or imprinting as a fact. This is for birds at least the case. But bonding and maternal bonding is not the same. We generally believe maternal bonding exists because scientists have proven bonding with birds. However, it has gone beyond the bird research. People generalized quickly. People see it now as a well known fact that early life experiences play a decisive role in the formation of an animal’s or a person’s affectional system (e.g.,  studies by Dr Bowlby in  1951; Dr. Harlow in 1958; Dr Harlow in 1962 again).

And… the bird research shows that the bonding was not maternal bonding at all. In most cases a man (often the gender of the researcher at the time) was ‘mother’.

Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1997 another book “King Solomon’s Rig: New Light on Animal’s Ways”, and it is a real gem of a book. The father of ethology knows off course a thing or two about the study of animal behavior, but it is not a ‘scientific book’ and still provides a surprising amount of fascinating information in a small, short book, with wonderful drawings and cute stories.

maternal bonding