Sept. 14, 2021

It’s complex to raise – and be – a kid in the 21st century

Postdoc exploring contemporary child development is one of three awarded federal postdoctoral fellowships
Audrey-Ann Deneault

Dr. Audrey-Ann Deneault, PhD, has always been interested in how our childhoods shape our adult lives. “Even before my studies, I put a lot of thought into how our early childhood experiences influence us later in life, notably with our peers and romantic partners,” she says. “I would get annoyed at unrealistic portrayals of parent-child relationships in media.”

Deneault has translated that curiosity into research that has earned her a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship that she will spend studying the complex mechanisms at play when it comes to child development, like diverse family structures and technology. Deneault will conduct her research as part of the Determinants of Child Development Lab in the Faculty of Arts, led by Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD.

Three UCalgary postdocs have been awarded SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowships: Deneault, as well as Dr. Sandra Becker, PhD, and Dr. Stephanie Chipeur, PhD. These fellowships support the most promising new scholars in the social sciences and humanities, and assist them in establishing a research base at an important time in their research careers.

“We are thrilled that three bold, creative UCalgary postdoctoral scholars have been awarded SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowships this year,” says Dr. Penny Pexman, postdoctoral program director. “They represent the next generation of researchers whose work will make a positive impact on the lives of Canadians.”

We spoke with Deneault about her SSHRC-funded research.  

Q: What is your research about? 

A: My research tries to understand the role of 21st century family relationships in shaping child development. Today’s families are more diverse, notably in terms family structure and ethnicity. Technology is more present than ever in our everyday life, and even in our social relationships. Fathers play a more important role in the family and are more involved in parenting.

Much of my research so far has sought to understand the role of fathers and other family members in child development. Most studies do not consider the contributions of fathers, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers in shaping children’s development. My goal is to understand how these different puzzle pieces fit together to promote or hinder positive child development. 

Lately, I am particularly interested in studying how fathering and father-child relationships come into play. If we want to promote children’s positive development, it is critical to understand all the sources of influence around them.

Q: What are you most curious about? Why?

A: I am really curious about “family systems”. The idea of systems is common in our everyday life (in our bodies, in nature, and in our communities), but systems thinking as applied to families has only started in the past few years.

Family systems basically refer to the multiple layers of relationships in the family and their influence on one another. Examples of systems include the mother-child relationship, the father-child relationship, the sibling relationships, and the co-parenting relationship. These systems coexist and consistently influence one another. This means that the quality of the co-parenting relationship, for example, can influence the quality of other relationships, such as the father-child relationships, and vice versa. Viewing families in terms of systems helps account for the complexity of 21st century families and its particularities (e.g., multiple caregivers, greater technology usage).

Although this makes a lot of sense from a theoretical standpoint, we still know very little about the different ways that family systems coexist and influence one another, and ultimately, influence the child.  

Q: What benefit will this research have for Canadian families?

A: This knowledge is critical at a societal level, as we try to understand how to support children in an increasingly complex world. For example, we know that children’s mental health problems have doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can parents support their children through these challenges? Our research can help inform future parenting-directed information, such as parenting classes, parent trainings, and parent websites. We can also inform public policy and show the importance of supporting parents through their children’s first years for the social and even financial well-being of our society.

Q: Is your research available for parents and family members to read?

A: I try to share our research findings to families and parents, so that they be beneficial right away for children. My priority is to make our findings readily accessible and easy to understand for everyone.

I write articles on The Conversation Canada on topics of interest to parents. I also created and manage ÉducoFamille, a French language website and social media account that publishes posts and infographics on child development research. ÉducoFamille tries to translate scientific research and make it accessible to Francophone and Francophile parents throughout Canada. I’m working to close the gap between scientific ideas and the everyday experiences of Canadian families.

Read Deneault’s work on The Conversation Canada: