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Parents' and Stepparents' Satisfaction With Parenting: Relations to Parenting Evaluations

By Mark A. Fine *and Lawrence A. Kurdek *

As many of you may remember, in the fall of 1992, we surveyed SAA membership on issues regarding stepfamilies. As we promised we would do when we requested your assistance, this article briefly summarizes the results of our research. The purpose of our study was to determine how parents' and stepparents' beliefs and ideas regarding parenting are linked to their satisfaction with parenting. Specifically, we were interested in whether parents' and stepparents' evaluations of how well they parented were related to how satisfied they were with parenting. This is an important research issue because many stepfamily scholars have suggested that parents' and stepparents' beliefs and ideas may have an impact on the quality of life in stepfamilies.

With this purpose in mind, we examined two different aspects of parenting that have been identified as very important for children's development - control, which refers to monitoring and supervising the child; and warmth, which refers to showing caring to the child. For each aspect of parenting, we asked parents and stepparents to indicate how often (on a 1-7 scale) they currently engaged in control and warmth parenting behaviors (with a ‘target" child between the ages of five and 15 years) and also to indicate how often they should engage in control and warmth parenting behaviors.

We assumed that parents and stepparents who indicated that they currently engaged in control and warmth parenting behaviors much less than they believe that they should, had negative evaluations of their parenting performance and that those who reported that they are doing about as much as they should be doing have positive evaluations of their parenting performance. We also asked parents and stepparents how satisfied they were with their parenting experiences.

We had a very good response rate from the SAA membership. Our final sample included 100 stepfather/mother couples and 115 stepmother/father couples. Many other SAA members also responded, but did not meet criteria for being included in the study (e.g., the couple did not have a child that was between five and 15 years old or only one spouse participated). We were extremely pleased with the large number of stepmother/father couples who participated, because these couples are not often included in studies of stepfamilies. The sample was generally middle to upper-middle class.

Before examining whether parents' evaluations of their parenting performance were related to parenting satisfaction, we compared parents' and stepparents' beliefs about how often they were and how often they should control and show warmth toward their child or stepchild. As we expected, parents generally reported that they more frequently controlled and showed warmth toward their child than stepparents did toward their stepchild. In addition, compared to stepparents, parents indicated that they should control and show warmth more often. Thus, as is consistent with a frequently made recommendation in the stepfamily literature, stepparents reported that they do not and should not parent as actively as biological parents think that they do and should. With respect to the link between parenting evaluations and parenting satisfaction, we found that there was a strong association between parents' and stepparents' evaluations of how well they were parenting and how satisfied they were as parents. Parents and stepparents who believed that they were not showing as much warmth and control toward their child as they should were less satisfied with their parenting experiences than were those parents and stepparents who believed that they were parenting as actively as they should.

The design of our study does not allow us to determine precisely why parenting evaluations were related to parenting satisfaction. However, we have considered two possible explanations. First, it may be that parents who evaluate their parenting performance negatively may behave in such a way that they have increased levels of conflict and dissatisfaction in their relations with their children. For example, a stepmother who believes that she should show more warmth than she presently does may try to force closeness with her stepson before the stepson is ready to accept this gesture. This could lead to conflict that would detract from parenting satisfaction. The second possible explanation for the link between parenting evaluations and parenting satisfaction is that unpleasant experiences with parenting may lead one to evaluate one's parenting performance negatively. For example, a father who is dissatisfied with his parenting experiences because he experiences considerable conflict with his child may come to believe that he is not supervising the child's behavior as much as he should.

The results of this study begin to help us understand how the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas that parents and stepparents have about parenting may affect their satisfaction with the parenting experience. Based on the promising results of this initial study, we plan to conduct future studies to determine how parents' and stepparents' cognitions regarding parenting affect not only their parenting satisfaction, but also their parenting behaviors. We express our appreciation to all of you who participated in our study.

* At the time of publication of this article,Mark Fine is Professor of Psychology at the University of Dayton and Larry Kurdek is Professor of Psychology at Wright State University. Both are members of SAA's Research Committee.

This article was published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Winter 1993.

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