Attitudes toward children: distinguishing affection and stress

Lukas J. Wolf*, Vlad Costin, Marina Iosifyan, Sapphira R. Thorne, Alexander Nolan, Colin Foad, Elspeth Webb, Johan Karremans, Geoffrey Haddock, Gregory R. Maio

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Adults' views and behaviors toward children can vary from being supportive to shockingly abusive, and there are significant unanswered questions about the psychological factors underpinning this variability.

The present research examined the content of adults' attitudes toward children to address these questions.

Ten studies (N=4702) identified the factor structure of adults' descriptions of babies, toddlers, and school-age children and examined how the resulting factors related to a range of external variables.

Two factors emerged − affection toward children and stress elicited by them − and this factor structure was invariant across the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa. Affection uniquely captures emotional approach tendencies, concern for others, and broad positivity in evaluations, experiences, motivations, and donation behavior. Stress relates to emotional instability, emotional avoidance, and concern about disruptions to a self-oriented, structured life. The factors also predict distinct experiences in a challenging situation − home-parenting during COVID-19 lockdown − with affection explaining greater enjoyment and stress explaining greater perceived difficulty. Affection further predicts mentally visualizing children as pleasant and confident, whereas stress predicts mentally visualizing children as less innocent.

These findings offer fundamental new insights about social cognitive processes in adults that impact adult-child relationships and children's well-being.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Personality
VolumeEarly View
Early online date2 Jun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Jun 2023


  • Attitudes
  • Children
  • Individual differences
  • Intergroup processes
  • Prejudice


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