B4409 - Cooperative childrearing in middle childhood and biosocial pathways to adolescent wellbeing - 11/09/2023

B number: 
Principal applicant name: 
Emily Emmott | University College London (United Kingdom)
Title of project: 
Cooperative childrearing in middle childhood and biosocial pathways to adolescent wellbeing
Proposal summary: 

Are non-parental caregivers important for children and young people’s wellbeing, even in societies with strong nuclear family and intensive parenting norms? This mixed-method project uses the “Children of the 90s” cohort study to investigate the role of alloparents (non-parental caregivers) in England, examining the biosocial pathways between different forms of local childrearing systems and adolescent outcomes.

CONTEXT: Western family structures are often described as nuclear, and in the UK, this is coupled with intensive parenting norms. Childrearing is seen as a private matter, and parents (particularly mothers) are predominantly viewed as being responsible for raising children. From an evolutionary anthropological perspective, this way of raising children is highly unusual: anthropological studies from across populations show that non-parental caregivers (alloparents) are ubiquitous and crucial contributors to childcare, although who helps and how they help vary. Humans have therefore been hypothesised to have evolved a unique system of “cooperative childrearing,” co-evolving with an extended period of dependence through childhood and adolescence. In essence, it takes a village to raise a child.

CURRENT CHALLENGE: Despite intensive parenting norms, families in the UK exist within varied and complex systems of support. However, while evolutionary theory points to the importance of non-parental caregivers, much of our knowledge around raising children centre on parenting with particular focus on early years. There is limited focus on alloparenting, and few studies investigate the impact of alloparental care in middle childhood despite the reliance on continued after-school/weekend childcare for many families. It is therefore unclear how families exist within local systems of childrearing, and how these systems impact children and young people’s health and wellbeing. A comprehensive understanding of the wider childrearing system is crucial to design effective policy and practice impacting parents, children, and young people.

PROJECT AIMS: This project extends the focus of childrearing from parenting to incorporate alloparenting, building a comprehensive understanding of childrearing systems in middle childhood and their pathways to adolescent wellbeing in England (UK).
Specifically, this project aims to (1) identify and classify the different typologies of childrearing systems beyond parenting within England, and (2) investigate the biosocial pathways between alloparenting, markers of stress, and adolescent outcomes including affect (anxiety/depression), socio-emotional development, and health-related risky behaviours. We use data from Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (“Children of the 90s”) which uniquely holds detailed data on alloparenting during middle childhood (age 6-12), together with biomarkers of stress/inflammation (cortisol, c-reactive protein, interleukin-6). We apply an innovative combination of quantitative and qualitative methods by quantitatively identifying typologies of caregiving (latent class analysis), deepening our understanding of these typologies by using the longitudinal data to constructing life history case studies, then test the hypothesised causal pathways through structural equation modelling.

PROJECT BENEFITS: By extending the focus of caregiving to incorporate alloparents and taking an innovative mixed-method approach, this project contributes to an in-depth understanding of middle-childhood caregiving systems and their impact on young people within a parent-focused culture; and, in doing so, we improve our understanding of human childrearing systems more broadly. Overall, this project will: improve cross-disciplinary knowledge around optimal childrearing practices in middle childhood; contribute to methodological development by applying a novel combination of mixed methods to longitudinal cohort data; and contribute knowledge towards effective policy and practice development for children and families in England and beyond.

Impact of research: 
Impact 1: Address cross-disciplinary conflict around optimal childrearing practices in middle childhood. Much of the literature on caregiving and childhood development is informed by Bowlby and Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory from developmental psychology, which assumes the importance of responsive parenting by a primary caregiver (usually the mother). While Attachment Theory as originally proposed concerned caregiving in infancy, it has increasingly been applied to later life stages, bringing with it the assumption that high levels of alloparenting (and less parenting) may lead to negative consequences for children and young people. This directly conflicts with recent developments in evolutionary anthropology where cooperative childrearing is acknowledged as extended and ubiquitous in humans, and lack of alloparents are predicted to lead to poorer child outcomes under most circumstances. By testing the impact of alloparents on adolescent outcomes, this project contributes knowledge to address this conflict, with potential for cross-disciplinary impact. Impact 2: Contribute to methodological development by applying a novel combination of mixed methods to longitudinal cohort data. This project offers a novel combination of established methods, latent class analysis to quantitatively identify clusters of different childrearing systems in the data, and narrative life history case construction/analysis44 to better-understand what the different childrearing systems mean in terms of life experiences. This will be followed by careful hypothesis generation of causal pathways via directed acyclic graphs, followed by testing of these hypotheses through Bayesian structural equation modelling. The combination of these methods will maximise the validity of our findings through robust data analysis, while offering a deeper understanding of the causal pathways/mechanisms. By incorporating a qualitative element, this project will reveal the value of longitudinal cohort data beyond the traditional quantitative approach. Through knowledge-sharing, this project will help build the skills and capacity of mixed-methods researchers in the UK. Impact 3: Contribute knowledge towards effective policy and practice development in England and beyond. Aspects of current policy and practice impacting parents, children, and young people in England are not always effective or optimal. Increasingly, researchers have raised issues around designing policy and practice around Western middle-class assumptions of care which conflict with lived-experiences of families, including recent calls to "close the gap between official guidelines and reality". Thus, by detailing local childrearing systems in England, and by detailing the biosocial causal pathways between caregiving and adolescent wellbeing outcomes, this project contributes crucial information which is required for effective policy and practice development and implementation.
Date proposal received: 
Wednesday, 30 August, 2023
Date proposal approved: 
Monday, 11 September, 2023
Anthropology, Addiction - e.g. alcohol, illicit drugs, smoking, gambling, etc., Behaviour - e.g. antisocial behaviour, risk behaviour, etc., Mental health, Qualitative study, Statistical methods, Biomarkers - e.g. cotinine, fatty acids, haemoglobin, etc., Childhood - childcare, childhood adversity, Parenting