New research provides evidence that a parent’s focus on different time frames is associated with important parenting behaviors and experiences. The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, indicates that those who are more focused on the present tend to experience greater parental distress and exhibit more negative parenting behaviors compared to those who are more focused on the future.
The authors of the new study sought to explore the concept of future orientation, which refers to how much importance individuals place on the potential long-term consequences of their behaviors, and it’s relationship with parenting.
Previous research has found that people who prioritize future consequences tend to make better decisions regarding their health, finances, and education. On the other hand, those who focus more on immediate outcomes tend to experience negative social, emotional, and health outcomes. But how future orientation is related to parenting had not been previously studied.
“From a research perspective, I’ve been interested in behavioral economics (including a focus on decision-making and time horizon) as a framework for understanding addictive behaviors for many years,” explained Julia W. Felton, an associate scientist at the Center for Health Policy & Health Services Research at Henry Ford Health.
“Specifically, my work largely focused on how early environments characterized by scarcity and instability reinforce a pattern of decision-making more focused on meeting immediate needs relative to long-term planning. This, in turn, is associated with longer-term negative outcomes, including substance use. It wasn’t until I had children myself, however, that I saw how important temporal horizon was to parenting.”
“In particular, I noticed that my husband (who grew up in poverty) and I (who grew up with greater financial stability) thought about parenting very differently,” Felton continued. “My husband tended to prioritize the ‘now’ and would say things about how the future would work itself out, while I was very concerned with how our behavior as parents in the moment would impact the kids’ longer-term future.”
“While, like most parents, we eventually came to an understanding on norms for our own family, I continue to see this play out in a million, small ways. For instance, when it’s getting late and the kids need to go to sleep (which happens fairly regularly), my husband is fine with not brushing their teeth so we can all go to bed faster, whereas I worry that the small benefit of a few extra minutes of sleep isn’t worth setting a pattern of poor dental hygiene that could have long-term negative effects.”
The researchers conducted a series of two studies to examine the relationship between future orientation and parenting outcomes.
Study 1 aimed to develop and establish the psychometric properties of a measure called Consideration of Future Consequences Scale – Parenting (pCFC). The measure is designed to capture two main aspects of time orientation: immediate orientation (focus on short-term outcomes) and future orientation (consideration of long-term consequences).
Participants responded to various statements on a 5-point rating scale that ranged from (1) “not at all like me” to (5) “very much like me.” Example items include “I act in ways that will be better for my child even if the benefits will not be seen for many years” and “All of the things I do as a parent are in response to things that are going on with my child right now. The future will take care of itself.”
The researchers sought to validate the new measure by examining its relationship with parenting constructs such as parental distress and both harsh and positive parenting behaviors. For Study 1, the researchers recruited two samples of parents in 2019 and early 2020 using Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced data collection tool.
The sample consisted of mothers who were over 18 years old, had children aged 0 to 3, were English speakers, and were living in the United States. Quality checks were performed to ensure valid data, including screening for completion by a single IP address and evaluating response patterns. The final sample included 196 mothers.
Study 2 aimed to replicate the findings of Study 1 and extend the research by including both mothers and fathers of older youth aged 6 to 17. This study also focused on parents from low-income households to explore the impact of low-resource and unstable environments on parenting time orientation. The final sample included 202 parents.
The researchers found that parents who focused more on immediate outcomes and had less consideration for the future tended to experience more stress and aggravation in their parenting. They also displayed more negative parenting behaviors. On the other hand, parents who had a stronger future orientation showed lower levels of negative parenting and higher levels of positive involvement with their children.
“This was one of the first times that my research questions were so directly impacted by own personal experiences,” Felton told PsyPost. “To see what I was experiencing as a parent play out in the data was gratifying and somewhat surprising. I never want to fall into the trap of assuming that my own personal experiences are the same as someone else’s, but it was interesting to see how these relations appear to be similar among different populations.”
The study also showed that parents’ future orientation and their parenting behaviors were connected, even when taking into account factors like parental depression, distress, and child behavior problems. This suggests that how parents think about the future can influence their parenting practices independently of other factors.
“This is one of the first studies, to our knowledge, to look at time horizon as a predictor of parenting behaviors,” Felton said. “As we continue to grow this area of research, I hope that we (as a society) can continue to devote resources to understanding the complex, joyful, terrifying, hopeful and frustrating endeavor that is everyday parenting.”
But the study, like all research, has some caveats. The study was cross-sectional, meaning it couldn’t establish causal relationships, and relied on self-report measures from parents. Additional research could address these limitations and further explore the complex relationships between time orientation, parenting, and other factors like personality traits.
“In the future, we are very interested in looking at how early environments — in other words, the communities and families people grew up in – may influence parenting time horizon over the course of the child’s life,” Felton said. “We also know that parenting can look very different for kids at different developmental periods. By looking at these relations longitudinally we may be better able to understand how time horizon impacts parenting and what the longer-term effects of this may be.”
The study, “Parental future orientation and parenting outcomes: Development and validation of an adapted measure of parental decision making“, was authored by Julia W. Felton, Lauren E. Oddo, Morgan Cinader, Troy Maxwell, Richard Yi, and Andrea Chronis-Tuscano.