The Right Type of Busy


Dr. Jason Decaro is an associate professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in human development, evolutionary biology, and social epidemiology in East Africa, Central America, and the U.S. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University as a student of Dr. Carol Worthman, who is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor at Emory University. She received her  Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University and specializes in human reproduction, development, and developmental epidemiology.

In this 2008 research article, Decaro and Worthman examine the link between childrearing practices and the child’s emotional response to normative social challenges, particularly the cardiovascular response. They conclude that culture shapes family ecology and this has a measurable effect on a child’s developing cardiovascular response. Ultimately, patterns in cardiovascular function can be linked to long-term health and well-being.

Study Overview 

Specifically, the busyness of the mother’s schedule, rather than the child’s, was examined to see if there were any implications for the child’s respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) following the normative social challenge of a school grade transition. RSA is a natural variation in an individual’s heart rate that occurs during the breathing cycle. RSAs are described in terms of vagal tones,

image via Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

which refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Increased vagal tone corresponds to diminished heart rate and more variability. RSAs are pronounced in children and are thought to be indicative of mental health. Research also suggests that children with more significant maternal attachments demonstrated higher vagal tones and, therefore, more social integration and empathetic receptiveness.

Decaro and Worthman hypothesized that 1) maternal busyness in year 1  (prior to grade transition) will affect the child’s RSA the following year, 2) maternal busyness will be linked to high maternal and family function, and 3) maternal mood, family dinner frequency, and parenting stress will also predict the child’s RSA in the following year.


The study consists of 38 families from metro Atlanta, GA. All children attended Pre-K the first year and kindergarten or some other form of primary schooling in the following year. Each family was visited four time during the child’s Pre-K year and data on daily schedule and maternal and child busyness was collected. Parenting stress and depression inventories were collected and frequency of family dinner was also collected as a marker for family function. In the last interview, a continuously monitored electrocardiogram (EKG) was conducted on the children as a baseline for future physiological data (prior to school grade transition). During the monitoring, children were asked to engage in a non-threatening interaction with two puppets to simulate social transition and interactions in the following grade year.

Berkeley Puppet Interview
image via University of Oregon

During the second year (after school grade transition), each family was visited again 3 to 11 weeks after the transition and the same data was collected.

Results and Discussion 

The study found that, consistent with the first hypothesis, maternal busyness but not child busyness predicted the children’s parasympathetic regulations (RSA patterns) during the second year. The results showed a statically significant increase in children’s RSA in relation to maternal busyness, however, in married families only. (Remember that high RSA is a marker of low arousal). The study also confirmed the second hypothesis that high levels of maternal busyness correlated with positive maternal mood and less parenting stress. The results showed that increased maternal busyness correlated with lower maternal depression, as well as lower parent-child dysfunctional interactions/ parenting stress. The third hypothesis, however, was not confirmed by the study which showed that family dinner, parenting stress, and maternal mood were not predictors of children’s vagal regulation.

My Thoughts 

It was difficult for me to understand the psychological implications of the biomarker used in this study. My understanding is that vagal tones are thought to have a regulatory effect on social and emotional function. Therefore, a higher vagal tone, which we now see is observed in children whose mothers have low scores of depression and parenting stress, indicates that the child will exhibit less social inhibition and maybe deal with social normative challenges, like grade changes, better than children with low vagal tones. It would make sense then that RSAs and vagal tones are studied as a predictive measure. I did think that the RSA was interesting to learn about, especially in relation to child development. It plays into the parasympathetic nervous system and the idea of “rest and digest,” which is a fascinating topic.

I also feel like this article did a good job of explicitly stating its main points and using language that was easy for the reader to follow. A lot of the physiology was explained, too, which is important for biological anthropology.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think there is a disconnect in the results between married families and single mothers?
  • What does this study suggest about the state of a mother’s well-being and the well-being of her child?
  • Can you think of any confounding factors that may have played a role in children’s physiological response that were not mentioned in the study?
  • Are there any other biomarkers linked to early developmental experience that could be used?
  • What are some cultural beliefs that shape childrearing practices?


  1. Decaro, J. A., & Worthman, C. M. (2008). Culture and the socialization of child cardiovascular regulation at school entry in the US. American Journal of Human Biology, 20(5), 572-583. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20782
  2. Gray, H. (2012). Anatomy of the human body. London, England: Bounty.
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

10 thoughts on “The Right Type of Busy”

  1. This article was an interesting read. I had heard about vagal tones but did not know much about them. I was not aware they could be used to measure parasympathetic activity. I enjoyed this article and believe it’s an important contribution to neuroanthropology. It showed that family structure and culture have an influence on the biology and development of a child. I find it interesting that maternal busyness reflected positively with RSA activity. It is heard so often that mothers need to “slow down” and focus more on their children. Which is a pressure that seems to not really aim, as shown in this study, to improve the wellbeing of the children but rather enforce gender roles. However, it is also true as mentioned in the article that busyness is seen as a sign of success in middle-class American families. It makes sense that fulfilling this cultural model and having greater cultural consonance would make for lower maternal depression and thus have a positive impact on children.

    1. I appreciated the point made in class today about how “busyness” could instead be an indicator of other factors. This makes sense as mothers who are able to engage in more activities could very well be able to do so as a result of their economic status. There could certainly be more factors acting on the development of the child behind the concept of maternal busyness. It would be good to take into account the kinds of activities the mothers are doing and whether they are enjoyable.

  2. I always enjoy reading about the work the professors here at the University are doing. I think this study on parental busyness is an important contribution to the field because it offers insight on how the day to day life of a parent can affect the neurological development of their child in positive ways. Especially how the aspects of the parent’s life that don’t directly include the child can affect their patenting style and the levels of stress for both parent and child. I think that this information could be very useful in assuring new parents that being away from their child and still maintaining their own life will actually help rather than harm their child.

  3. My first thought in this study was about confounding variables. A lot of times studies don’t give such explicit location details in their methods section, but this one did and I am also from Metro-Atlanta (also, this study had a predominately White population, as does my hometown) so I kept trying to relate this to myself and my family growing up, which is not something I normally do. Maybe that’s why most studies are so vague? Either way, it definitely made me pay closer attention to the study and the results, so I thought it was very interesting that their results were so different for married and unmarried women. I also think they should have expanded their section about the father’s role in the child’s life (or an adult male role model) that would have helped explain this disparity.

    1. I have a much better understanding of vagal tones after our in class discussion! Hearing it explained in a different way is always helpful. Now I’m curious why this method isn’t used in more studies. It seems like a great marker of well-being, but I have never seen it used before and I wonder why that is. I also appreciated the discussion about how much a father influences parenting.

  4. While there are definitely some limitations in terms of the sample, I thought that this was an example of an extremely well designed and executed research. DeCaro successfully operationalizes both cultural and biological variables, and the connection between cultural variables (cultural models of parenting) and biological variables (RSA) is made clear in the context of environmental variables. I’m currently assisting DeCaro with RSA analysis for a pilot project that he and Pritzker are currently working on, and I might have the opportunity to help analyze data that follows up with this study, so this article was particularly interesting to me. I still don’t fully understand the physiology and implications of RSA though, so that’s something I need to learn more about.

    1. It’s interesting that, especially in biocultural research it seems, researchers have to conform to certain research standards in order to speak to larger data sets. Gender and racial categories are good examples, but also the use of the mother as the de facto head of the household. It’s part of a larger discussion regarding research and audience in general, but for this study it’s interesting (if that’s why it was done this way) because it was obvious to us as readers that it seemed like a large component of the bigger picture was missing.

  5. I think the difference between married mothers versus single mothers is that married mothers have more of a “cushion”. I think that having a husband helps mitigate a lot of the stresses that a single parent must deal with. For example, like we talked about in class, married mothers don’t have to worry about money as much. Married mothers are able to do their “mother duties” without having to worry about all of the logistical things that two parent families are better able to manage. A single mom has to do every single thing for her child while a married mom has some sort of support from her partner, whether that be financial, emotional, social, physical, etc.

  6. To answer your last question, I think that cultural beliefs shape child rearing practices and this influences the outcome of the child as well. The examples that are most salient in my mind now are those we just discussed in my linguistics class. In some cultures, children are considered soft beings that must be taken care of while others are considered beings that must be “toughened up”. Caretakers in certain cultures, such as in America, speak to the child and raise their level of agency beyond what a child is capable of. This means they consider every laugh and every sound as more important and meaningful than it really is. Other cultures practically ignore and disregard children until they reach a certain age, at which, they are considered actual beings with individual agency. Furthermore, they do not scaffold verbal learning in children and allow the child to utter whatever their request is without assistance to let him or her acquire and develop language independently.

  7. During this discussion we talked a lot about the exclusion of fathers from this study and that was something I hadn’t thought of a lot when reading the article. But after talking about it, I do think that the role of paternal business is one that should be considered in later studies. I think dads are really important and their role in a child’s life has a bigger impact on more than whether they have “daddy issues” later on in life. I would like to see more research done on the role of the father in an individual’s life.

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