Personality plays a major role in parenting.
Dictionary.com defines “maternal” as referring to behaviors related to mothers, mothering, and motherhood. Similarly, paternal refers to all behaviors related to fathers, fathering, and fatherhood. Gender-neutral terminology refers to parental as relating to parents and parenthood, irrespective of parents’ gender.
Are Maternal Abilities Innate to Women?
We tend to think of maternal instinct and maternal abilities as innate characteristics of women. In his book Do Fathers Matter? journalist Paul Raeburn considers this a historical view related to a period when middle-class women stayed home to raise their children while fathers worked outside the home.
Maternal instinct and abilities, along with paternal abilities, may be social constructs based on how parents interact with their children in most societies. Anthropology professor Barry S. Hewlett and colleagues studied the Aka Pygmy people of central Africa. In their society fathers spend the most time in close physical contact with their babies. Mothers are disciplinarians. He concludes there is no gender-specific innate care, except for breastfeeding.
Neurobiology of Parenting
J.E. Swain et al. studied parental attachment in mothers and fathers by using brain imaging and measuring levels of the hormone oxytocin. They found that cortical and limbic brain networks regulate parents’ responses to their infants. The brain areas are altered primarily by the oxytocin hormone.
Swain et al. report that parental brains respond to infants in areas related to “arousal/salience/motivation/reward/…instrumental caring, emotion response/regulation and integrative/complex cognitive processing.” How responsive the brain is in these areas exerts a long-term influence on the child’s attachment and relational development
The cry of and visual contact with a baby stimulate oxytocin-modulated brain pathways. Bick and Dozier discovered that oxytocin release in turn partly causes increased attention to a baby, whether one’s own or someone else’s. This is the case for both mothers and fathers.
Oxytocin levels increase in fathers the more they interact with their babies. Mascaro and colleagues also discovered that fathers have lowered testosterone levels the more interaction they have with their infants.
Psychology of Parenting
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth established how parenting gives rise to attachment styles. Parenting methods are transmitted across generations, creating common and repeating types of attachment. Ainsworth identified three attachment styles: secure attachment, insecure attachment, and avoidant attachment. Mary Main and Judith Solomon later described a fourth style—disorganized attachment.
The quality of the infant’s attachment is governed by parent-infant interactions. Affective aspects of relating are communicated, creating attachment styles that more or less follow people from infancy to adulthood. Hazan and Shaver studied the way early attachment styles influence adult relationships.
Why do parents raise children the way they do? Belsky offers that parents’ personalities should be considered the number-one influence on child-rearing. After all, Ozer and Benet-Martinez say, personality is responsible for how people navigate and respond to their worlds. This would include how they raise their children.
De Haan, Prinzie, and Deković assessed parents of grade-schoolers by self-report on the Big Five personality dimensions. Six years later they evaluated the parents’ ways of parenting by self-report from their teenagers. Their longitudinal study aims to show the effects of parents’ personalities on parenting behaviors. They found that parents’ sense of competence in their parenting role was associated with better child-rearing. Competence was associated with the personality dimensions of parental agreeableness and extroversion.
Some mothers make poor parents, as do some fathers. The converse is true that some fathers and some mothers make good parents. Fathers can be maternal. Their brains change to more closely reflect the workings of a mother’s brain, but only if she is a good mother, find Swain and colleagues.
Martin and Adams, in their clinical study of almost four thousand people in psychodynamic psychotherapy, found personality differences among parents. The differences affected their parenting abilities, irrespective of their gender.
They found that an omnipotent personality parent is good at giving empathy, structure and care to children. An impotent-personality parent, on the other hand, engages in role reversal and, on some level, expects children to meet his or her needs, emotionally and perhaps physically. An impotent-personality parent disrupts the delivery to children of what they need most—nurturing care.
In summary, a parent of either sex can nurture children. Nurturing is not tied to the gender of a parent. Nurturing is mediated by both oxytocin and testosterone. It is better to evaluate parents not by maternal or paternal labels but by their personality makeup and its effect on their child-rearing capabilities.
Ainsworth, M.D.S. et al., (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Belsky, J. The determinants of parenting (1984). A process model. Child Development, 55, 83-96.
Bick J, Dozier M, Mothers’ and children’s concentration of oxytocin following close physical interactions with biological and non-biological children. Developmental Psychobiology, 2010, 52:100-107.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment & Loss: Vol 1. Attachment, Basic Books.
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De Haan AD, Prinzie P, Dekovic M (2009). Mothers’ and fathers’ personality & parenting: the mediating role of sense of competence. Developmental Psychology. 45 (6), 1695-1707.
Hazan C, Shaver P.R, (1990) Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J of Personality & Social Psychology, 1987, Vol. 52 (3) 511-524.
Hewlett B.S. (1993). Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care. University of Michigan Press.
Main M, Solomon J (1986). Discovery of a new insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In Yogman M & Brazelton TB (Eds.) Affective Development in Infancy. Norwood, NJ. Ablex, pp.95-124.
Martin HB, Adams CBL (2018) Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships. Santa Barbara, CA. Praeger.
Mascaro JS, Hackett, PD, Rilling JK. Testicular volume is inversely correlated with nurturing-related brain activity in human fathers. Proceedings Natl Acad Sci USA, 2013 Sep 24. 110(39). 15746-15751.
Ozer D, Benet-Martinez V. (2006) Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology. 57, 401–421.
Raeburn P (2015) Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Reprint edition).
Swain JE et al. Approaching the biology of human parental attachment: brain imaging, oxytocin and coordinated assessments of mothers and fathers. Brain Research. Sep 11, 2014. pp.78-101.