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Researcher Spotlights: Margaret Kerr on taking the pressure out of parenting and promoting family resiliency

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Researcher Spotlights are Q&As that shine a light on School of Human Ecology faculty members’ unique scholarship and research interests.

Margaret Kerr, assistant professor of Human Development & Family Studies, examines emotional experiences in the context of parenthood. She studies how adults perceive and experience parenting and the factors that may influence those feelings, including attachment, parental burnout and societal expectations.

Kerr, also a specialist in vulnerable and underserved children with the UW–Madison Division of Extension, is especially interested in understanding in-the-moment emotional experiences of parents. She also studies how to help white parents engage in anti-racist parenting practices. Her ultimate goal is to promote family resiliency and social justice by developing and implementing ways to improve parents’ experiences and relationships with their children, along with skills that can help parents raise equity-minded children.

How did you become interested in your area of study?

I’ve always been interested in psychology, and I was also a nanny for a long time. Being a nanny is an interesting role because you get to observe from the outside how a family works. This made me interested in family dynamics and parent-child relationships. What got me into my graduate school in particular was an interest in positive psychology, which people in the field describe as “the study of what makes life worth living” — so, what are the good parts of life, and how do we bring that into the work that we do?

I also became interested in parent-child attachment because that’s what my graduate school advisor studied. I was particularly intrigued by how attachment informs how people parent. Upon diving into that topic, I realized that people were not paying much attention to parents themselves. As researchers, we focus a lot on the impacts of parents’ behavior and mental health on children, but we don’t focus as much on how parents feel about being a parent. Around 80 percent of people become parents eventually, which means it’s a very overlooked part of the human experience.

What’s your motivation for doing this type of work, and how does it impact human well-being?

First, I feel passionate about parents’ experiences and translating them into potential solutions. Especially now that I’m a parent, I see how little support U.S. parents get in this role — for example, a lack of affordable child care options while expecting parents to have full-time jobs and the other pressures we put on parents, particularly mothers. It’s just not sustainable. I’m very interested in pushing against that narrative and trying to help parents feel good about what they are doing instead of giving them a long list of things they should be doing.

Second, I’m motivated to incorporate social justice into all the work I do. One of my graduate students is interested in the experience of parenting for those who identify as queer, and it feels natural for me to take the work that I do and apply it to an audience that the field has largely overlooked. My social justice values also led me to my work in anti-racist parenting. I’ve been so excited to work on equipping parents with the skills needed to raise a more equity-minded generation of children. As I get further into my career, I feel more and more motivated to take the expertise that I now have and use it to support and amplify the voices of underrepresented or marginalized people and families.

Where do you see an opportunity to shift a conversation?

I want to shift the norms around fatherhood and how we talk about it. There’s so much stigma around fathering, like the false perceptions that fathers don’t want to be involved with their kids or that they’re not nurturing caregivers. I think this stigma comes from gender norms in parenting that I would really like to see shifted. There’s a lot of conversation about that right now, but I wish we could make more progress.

I also think we need to move away from this intense competitive attitude around our kids — the “My kid has to be the best” and “I have to give up everything for my kid” way that we’re parenting right now. Again, it’s something we’re having conversations about but most of us still buy into. It’s also rooted in whiteness in a way that perpetuates inequity, and I’d love to see people talk more about how the way that we parent perpetuates race and class inequities — the idea that “I have to have my kid in the best school,” “I have to have my kid in the gifted program.” It constantly gives a leg up to white, middle-class kids. It also leads to parental burnout because parents are sacrificing their own well-being to meet these unrealistic (and in my opinion, unnecessary) expectations of parenthood.

Along with that is beginning to talk to kids about race and racism at a young age and what that looks like, and equipping parents to have those hard conversations.

Are there any common misconceptions about your work?

It often feels like there is only one “right way” to parent, or that if you don’t do everything in a specific way, there will be serious consequences for your children. Our increased access to scientific information through technology has made this much worse (social media loves to tell you how to parent!). The reality is that most people’s children are going to turn out great and these micro decisions parents face every day are not going to make or break their child’s happiness or success. If we could channel all that energy into investing resources into kids who are facing poverty, trauma and systemic racism, the world would be a much better place.

What do you see as the most critical question currently facing your field?

I think we should be asking ourselves how Western culture can shift its focus from viewing raising children as an individual responsibility that parents (especially mothers) choose to take on and must excel at, to instead considering it all of our social responsibility to raise the next generation. In turn, we would need to align our social priorities and funding with supporting families with children.

Who are people who have influenced your work? How do you think about “paying it forward” as you gain experience in your field?

This makes me think about two of my undergraduate professors from Michigan State University (MSU), who took time out of their (what I now know to be!) very busy schedules to get me involved in research and help me to envision a future in academia. I am a first-generation college graduate and I had no idea how to navigate higher education, let alone graduate school. Without their influence and support, I most certainly never would have become a professor, especially at such a great university.

My way of giving back around this is to work toward exposing the “hidden curriculum” of higher education. The “hidden curriculum” is known as the parts of the curriculum that you have to know but aren’t explicitly taught. By helping other students figure out all the unknowns of academia, I feel like I’m giving these students what I was given when I was at MSU and that led me on this career path.

What else should the Human Ecology community know about you?

I like to crack jokes and be silly. Sometimes this job feels way too serious, and I’m always looking for ways to help us get out of our own heads and have a little fun!