Fathers provide ‘cautionary health tales’ for offspring
Some adults see their mothers and fathers as still influencing their own health – but in very different ways, according to a new study.
In interviews with 45 married couples, researchers found that mothers influenced their adult children’s health in the same way they had through life – by being there when they’re needed to help their child get through a health crisis.
But when it comes to dads – well, they’re most helpful by showing their adult children what not to do to stay healthy.
“Adults in our study sometimes talked about how they were affected by their fathers having really poor health behaviours, like smoking or heavy drinking,” said Alexandra Kissling, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University.
“They really wanted to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes.”
The researchers did in-depth interviews with 90 adults (comprising 45 married couples) who were between 40 and 60 years old.
The researchers asked participants not only how their own parents affected their health, but also about the influence of their in-laws.
Generally, adult children felt that mothers were a positive influence on their health, either by helping them when they were sick or by being counted on to be available if needed.
These results contribute to research on “intensive mothering,” which is the idea that mothers are responsible for their children’s welfare and consistently support them, Ms Kissling said.
“That level of caring never stops, and mothers are there to help their child even as adults,” she said.
Mothers-in-law were also deemed helpful, but their influence comes through the person’s spouse.
“In our sample, it was unlikely that a person would call up their mother-in-law and ask for her to take care of them at home after surgery, for example,” she said.
As for fathers and fathers-in-law, the study found that a common response from participants was that dads were “cautionary tales” when it came to health.
For these participants, fathers were seen as negative examples – a finding that aligns with research that suggests men take more health risks and have worse health behaviours compared with women.
“People discussed fathers’ and fathers-in-laws’ addiction to alcohol and drugs as negative health examples, which encouraged them to make healthier life choices during their adulthood,” she said.
Adults in the study who had to contend with their parents’ own health issues said that this negatively affected their health – particularly if they lived with their parents.
Do you think men exhibit worse health behaviours than women? What impact do you think your parents had on your health? What impact do you think you have on your children’s health?