A decades-long study published in Psychological Science confirms a heavy truth: Men who grew up in warmer, nurturing family environments are far more likely to themselves have secure attachments and more meaningful relationships throughout their lives.
The study began in 1938, where researchers studied men from Harvard University as well as inner-city Boston teenagers, using lengthy questionnaires and interviews to rate the quality of their home environments. Then, decades later, when these men were around middle-age, different researchers followed up with them to see how successfully they were each able to navigate negative emotions. In the most recent study with the same men, new researchers, including a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, set out to determine the now 80-year-olds’ attachments to their life partners.
Unsurprisingly, they found that, regardless of socioeconomic status, the men who were themselves raised in warmer family environments consistently used healthier strategies to deal with negative emotions in the middle of their lives, and also had a more secure attachment to their partners later in life.
These results suggest that our earliest experiences of the family system, and our environment, have a lifelong impact on our abilities to cope with the hardships of life in a healthy way, as well as our abilities to form deep, satisfying romantic relationships. This is huge.
If this is not a further wake up call to do right by our kids, I don’t know what is. No family is perfect: we know that well. We will make mistakes, and then make them again. But the thing I take away from this study is that if we are raising our kids with love- from us to them, and between spouses– we are doing the best possible thing for them and their future lives. We are demonstrating strong, healthy bonds, and we are also expressing to them that they are worthy of these things, too.
I can think of no greater measure of success than dealing with life’s hardships gracefully and having deep, meaningful relationships.
Marc Shulz, psychologist at Bryn Mawr College and co-author of the final leg of the study, concluded that there is a strong need for family services, such as family leave, to support parents as they create a healthy environment at home. “I think the take-home is that kids may not remember specific events, particularly early in their life,” Schulz says, “but the accumulation of loving, nurturing family environments really has an impact over a long period.”
The bottom line, the author says, is that it is incredibly important how we care for our kids. We completely agree. It’s not just about making sure they eat their vegetables and read for 30 minutes every night. It’s making sure that all relationships within a family unit are healthy, and that we are making and spending the time to intentionally love one another.
It’s perhaps the biggest way we can set our children up for success.
Rachel is a wife and mother living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s a fan of good coffee, wearer of gray t-shirts, and is constantly starting books she will never finish. Her family is her joy, and she loves to engage with other moms and dads on matters of parenting. Her blog posts have also been featured on the Today Show Parenting Blog and Scary Mommy.