Middle Class Families in the Research Spotlight

Photo by Alvin Engler

Thanks to Ypulse (a great culture source for youth workers and parents) last week, I saw this Wall Street Journal article entitled “A Field Guide to the Middle-Class U.S. Family.” The article reports on the forthcoming work of UCLA anthropologists for the past decade.

These social scientists studied 32 U.S. families at home, by video, for a week in order to get a clearer understanding of American middle-class family dynamics. The families all had two working parents and 2-3 children between ages 7-12.  While this is perhaps a narrow slice of “middle-class American” families, it’s an interesting peak into at least a subsection of U.S. culture.

Not surprisingly, the researchers have been exploring what they found to be an intensely child-focused American middle class home.  According to the article, “Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own.” This is not necessarily new information, but it’s fascinating to see it highlighted in this study.  A few sub-points:

  • As opposed to many other global cultures, American children appear fairly helpless to contribute to the home or community in meaningful ways. The videos revealed “… parents focusing more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.”
  • This is largely because parents set low expectations for children’s participation.  In 22 of the families studied, kids typically resisted or altogether ignored parents’ requests for help around the house, and in the other 8 families the kids weren’t asked to help at all.
  • Kids are mostly oblivious to their parents’ emotions or perspectives, which researchers attribute to the “tendency in U.S. society to adapt to and focus on the children, rather than teaching children to focus on others.”
  • American parents also tend to put emphasis on a “structured and idealized way of being together” (eg giving that interaction specific names like “family time”) which creates higher expectations and pressure on both parents and kids for this time to be perfect (whatever the vision of “perfect” may be).

More on this study will be released in the coming year, but already these insights have implications for parents and youth ministries.  If nothing else, we can name and explore some of the phenomena that we notice (often in our own homes) that seem to be cultural forces seeping into our approach to parenting and “being family” together.

We might look at some of these findings and suggest they aren’t all bad. For example, making sure “family time” happens is certainly better than letting opportunities to be together slide away. But is it possible that our whole approach to time and relationship investment is too rigid and narrow in ways that end up harming us and our kids?

And with our U.S. tendency to make everything “about the kids” in sometimes-obsessive ways, is it possible we are training them to focus on themselves and their “needs” and achievements to the exclusion of others (even their other family members)? Interesting questions to chew on.