This multimethod, short-term longitudinal study examined the effect of interparental marital adjustment on Chinese preschool children’s prosocial behavior, and further explored the mediating effect of child executive function in this process.
Although children from families characterized by high marital adjustment have been found to exhibit more prosocial behaviors, less is known about the longitudinal association between marital adjustment and peer nominations of child prosocial behavior and, more importantly, the cognitive mechanisms generating this association.
A total of 307 mothers and their 2–6-year-olds (151 boys, 156 girls) from mainland China participated in this study. Mothers were required to report on their marital adjustment (T1); their children were interviewed to nominate classmates who displayed more prosocial behaviors 5 months later (T2). In addition, child executive function abilities, including working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility, were assessed with three cognitive tasks at T2.
Mother-reported marital adjustment at T1 was positively related to peer nominations of prosocial behavior at T2, even after accounting for child gender and age. A latent construct of child executive function mediated this relationship. Specifically, better marital adjustment (T1) predicted greater child executive function (T2), which in turn was associated with more child prosocial behaviors (T2).
Executive function explains the association between marital adjustment and peer nominations of prosocial behavior in preschoolers. This finding suggests that preschool children’s prosocial behavior may be effectively promoted through efforts to improve marital adjustment and strengthen child executive function.