Like many couples I know, my husband and I do not tackle problems in similar ways. My recent pregnancy highlights this. I draw on my social side, observing and talking to parents I know about their experience. I focus on the most pressing challenge—the first six months—and figure I will create some space in my head for 6 months to 25 years later on down the road. Even then, I only ask about certain things, like how a family handles birthdays in light of being so close to Christmas, since we’re due December 20.
My husband, on the other hand, goes to books. He likes books; books contain facts. Just as much as going to a book is a reflection of his personality, so are the types of books he buys. Brain research. He’s only purchased books on infant and toddler brain research.
Many of us do not find brain research to be great summertime reading, but we are still looking to answer the same question—how do we build our family in the best way we can? The answer looks unique in every family. Just as my husband and I seek wisdom from different sources of wisdom, one family’s approach doesn’t match another’s, despite the common goal.
The good news is that new research from Search Institute suggests that the differences are just fine, and that assets, not specific approaches, are the key for a family’s success.
The Search Institute’s American Family Assets Study
So what is a family asset? Simply defined, it’s a trait, a concrete component a family might posses. The more assets a family has, the more likely its members are to display healthier behaviors. The presence of more assets is also linked to higher satisfaction among family members. Search Institute identified 21 unique assets in all, divided into 5 categories:
- nurturing relationships
- establishing routines
- maintaining expectations
- adapting to challenges
- connecting to community
Whereas past research sought to understand a strong family system through the lens of demographics, the American Family Assets Study goes beyond these factors alone. It included over 1,500 racially, ethnically, economically, geographically, and structurally diverse U.S. families, surveying one parent and one child age 10-15 from each family unit. The study found that assets can be robust in all types of families and are not necessarily dictated by education or income level of the parents or whether there are two parents in the home. In other words, family assets are available to be cultivated by any family.
What Difference Do Assets Make?
What’s the payoff for cultivating family assets? According to the Search Institute, “These assets are associated with positive outcomes for young teens and their parenting adults, explaining more of the differences in outcomes than many demographics and other individual and family characteristics explain.” Families with more assets tend to:
- sleep more
- exercise more frequently
- eat healthier than those with fewer assets
Children in these families tend to make better grades and be more involved in their schooling. Both parents and children of high-asset families are more socially responsible and civically engaged than members of low-asset families.
How Do Most Families Score?
The average American family with a 10-15 year old scores 47 points out of the 100 possible for the Family Assets Index. This represents the high end of ‘Fair,’ where the largest percentage of families fell on the measure (39%.) Since this score indicates a presence of fewer than half of the total assets, there is certainly room for growth in a majority of U.S. families. Overall, families are strongest in the category of nurturing relationships. Two of the top three family assets are from this category—affection and supporting “sparks” (meaning the interests and passions of each family member). Families tend to be weakest in adapting to challenges and connecting to community.
In other words, it seems like families do better at the things parents can control unilaterally, such as setting clear expectations for their kids or showing affection to children. Where families seem to struggle are the areas of life that require a mutual contribution from their children or engagement with the broader community.
For example, the single most common asset from this study was clarity of the parent’s expectations for youth, present in 84% of families. While certainly clear expectations are important, it is the most top-down, autocratic asset on the list, and it is far and away the highest reported. (Affection is number two, and there is a 13% gap between the two. The third most common asset, supporting interests and talents, is a full 20% less common than clear expectations.)
On the other hand, a more mutually-expressed asset, democratic decision making, was present for just over half of families (54%). There was also a 19% gap between adult and youth perceptions that all family members have a say in important decisions, suggesting that even when parents thought they were including their kids, their children did not experience that process as engaging them equally.
In reviewing the findings, the absence of one asset in particular is striking. Relationships with others (teachers, coaches, and others in the community) is least common, a strength for less than a quarter of families (22%). The broader category of Connecting with Community does not fair much better:
33% Neighborhood cohesion—Neighbors look out for one another.
22% Relationships with others—Family members need to feel close to teachers, coaches, and others in the community.
56% Enriching activities—Family members participate in programs and activities that deepen their lives.
45% Supportive resources—Family members have people and places in the community they can turn to for help.
It is unsurprising that within this category, the most common asset is participation in activities—between sports and arts, many kids have plenty to do. But again, enrolling a child in a program is a decision a parent can choose and implement alone. When a family needs to engage with community members, then the numbers decline.
The weakness in the area of community has implications for the church, precisely because the church is a community. More than buildings or programs, the church is meant to be a place of belonging and support, a place where people do life together.
As I reviewed the findings, I wondered: Would a family from my church answer any better than the typical American family? Would our church families as a whole break into similar percentages, or would any more of them fall into the ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ brackets?
The Early Adolescent Gap
Another challenge families may face has to do with a child’s developmental phase. The study found a decrease in overall score for families with children in early adolescence (ages 10-13). The scores recover for families with mid-adolescents (ages 13-15).
That the temporary decline in overall assets occurs at early adolescence is worth noting, since it corresponds to the age when many parents feel like their kids don’t want to spend as much time with them as before. While it’s true that adolescence is a season for developing independence, it does not mean that children need or even want less parental connection or support. Children often want that support to reflect this new season of their life, to show that their parents understand that they aren’t young children anymore. Managing the tension between a desire for new freedom and the desire for family support might contribute to this temporary decline.
What’s important is for parents to continue to seek out ways to develop assets in their changing family and to not be discouraged. A family could be doing the work to cultivate assets together throughout this time, but not see the fruits of that labor until a few years down the road when children have moved into a new developmental phase.
What does this mean for my family?
I didn't borrow my husband’s brain books to read poolside this summer. But as parents to be, we are considering together the ways we want to build strengths into our families. For one, we look at the list of 21 assets and can identify which ones might come naturally to one or both of us. I have a strong inclination for traditions while my husband has mastered managing daily commitments. We are having conversations about building assets into our family life in the future.
For families further down the road than us, there are always way to add assets into your regular lives together. The assets, as Search Institute says, are an ideal we aim for. Adding even one of them to our family is a positive. In other words, when it comes to assets, more is more.
You might start with a similar self-assessment: Which assets are present in your family? Which ones come naturally to you? From there you can consider ways to pull additional assets into the mix. The questions below, provided by Search, can serve as a guide.
- Think about your own family. What are some of the qualities and experiences in your family that you most value? Where do you see those qualities reflected in the Family Assets framework? What other qualities might you emphasize?
- Which of the Family Assets has been most important to your family? Talk about some of the ways it has made a difference for you.
- Everyone in a family contributes to building Family Assets. Look through the assets and identify ways that each family member has contributed to making three or four of the assets stronger in your family.
- Who are people and places outside of your immediate family who help your family build Family Assets? What do they do that is particularly meaningful? How might you show them that you appreciate their support for your family? How do you help build assets in other people’s families?
- Are there one or two of the Family Assets that you’d really like to work on in your family? What are concrete steps you can take together to strengthen that asset?