Fathers' Early Emotion Talk: Associations with Income, Ethnicity, and Family Factors

By Garrett-Peters, Patricia; Mills-Koonce, Roger et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Fathers' Early Emotion Talk: Associations with Income, Ethnicity, and Family Factors


Garrett-Peters, Patricia, Mills-Koonce, Roger, Zerwas, Stephanie, Cox, Martha, Vernon-Feagans, Lynne, Journal of Marriage and Family


Contextual, mother-, child-, and father-level variables were examined in association with fathers' emotion talk to infants during a shared picture book activity, in an ethnically diverse, low-income sample (N = 549). Significant main effects included the rate of emotion talk from fathers' romantic partners (i.e., the infant's mother), infant attention and distress, and sensitive parenting. Significant interactions were also found. Higher income African American fathers referred to negative emotions more than non-African American higher income fathers. In addition, African American fathers who demonstrated more negative and intrusive parenting referred to positive emotions more than non-African American fathers who demonstrated negative and intrusive parenting. Our findings support family systems theory and, specifically, the interdependence of individuals' behaviors within the family unit. Interaction effects are discussed with respect to cultural variation in beliefs about parenting behaviors and the cultural experience of African Americans, including the Black cultural experience and the minority experience.

Key Words: African American, emotion talk, fathers, infancy, low-income.

According to a social -constructivist perspective, the family context is important to children's developing understanding of aspects or features of the environment that are worthy of attention and thus potentially important for successful social adaptation (Vygotsky, 1978). By talking about some concepts more than others (e.g., emotions, relationships), families place greater salience on concepts that are important to their social worlds. Children, in turn, internalize the importance of these concepts as they learn to engage with others (Nelson, 2005).

Families who frequently talk about emotions may foster their children's attention to and processing of emotional features in the environment, which has implications for children's emotion understanding, empathy, and own emotion talk (Dunn, Brown, & Beardsall, 1991; Garner, 2006). Few studies, though, have attempted to understand the characteristics of family members who regularly expose their children to emotion concepts and words and potentially scaffold their children's emotional development (for an exception see Jenkins, Turrell, Kogushi, Lollis, & Ross, 2003). In addition, most previous studies of emotion talk in the family have relied heavily on mothers, even though fathers provide unique contributions to children's emotional development (Aldrich & Tenenbaum, 2006; McDowell & Parke, 2005). The majority of studies with fathers have focused almost exclusively on reactions to or expressions of emotions, whereas relatively few have examined fathers' talk about emotions. Moreover, these studies have focused largely on older children despite research suggesting that unique features of father contributions may be most influential during infancy and toddlerhood (Leaper, Anderson, & Sanders, 1998).

In the present study, we sought to understand the multilevel factors that influence fathers' tendencies to highlight emotions through talk during a typical interaction with their young, preverbal children. Rather than focusing on total amount of emotion talk, we measured fathers' references to both positive and negative emotions. Previous research suggests that parents may differentially focus on negative versus positive emotions, which can potentially bias children's developing social schémas to focus on negative emotions (and vice versa; Belsky, Spritz, & Crnic, 1996; Goldberg, MackaySoroka, & Rochester, 1994). To elicit emotion talk from fathers of preverbal children, we used a picture book interaction during which fathers and their infants jointly looked at a wordless picture book of baby faces showing different emotions. By examining fathers' talk to young, preverbal children who are unable to directly elicit emotional discourse from their fathers (e. …

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