, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 373-398

Beyond the “Cinderella effect”

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Abstract

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.

Robert L. Burgess is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. His current work focuses on convergence between evolutionary biology, behavior genetics, and developmental psychology. Alicia A. Drais is a doctoral candidate in the same department and is currently exploring intergenerational patterns in families and aggression.