Human Nature

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 373-398

First online:

Beyond the “Cinderella effect”

Life history theory and child maltreatment
  • Robert L. BurgessAffiliated withDepartment of Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University Email author 
  • , Alicia A. DraisAffiliated withDepartment of Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University

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A central thesis of this paper is that understanding the nature of child maltreatment is so complex that no one disciplinary specialty is likely to be sufficient for the task. Although life history theory is the guiding principle for our analysis, we argue that an evolutionary explanation adds precision by incorporating empirical findings originating from the fields of anthropology; clinical, developmental, and social psychology; and sociology. Although evolutionary accounts of child maltreatment have been largely limited to the role of the coefficient of relatedness, the prospective reproductive value of a child, and the residual reproductive potential of parents, a case is made for expanding this basic application. An explanatory model is presented that describes how ecological conditions as well as parental and child traits interact to influence the degree of parental investment. As shown in the model, these various “marker variables” alter parental perceptions of the benefits and costs associated with child care and promote low-investment parenting, which leads to disrupted family management practices and to a downward-spiraling, self-perpetuating system of coercive family interaction, increased parental rejection of the child, and even lower parental investment. Child maltreatment is the ultimate outcome of this downward trajectory of family relations.

Key words

Behavior genetics Child abuse Cost-benefit analysis Family management practices Life history theory Parental investment