What Unites and Divides America’s Parents
by David Gibson
America’s parents differ from each other in key ways. A three-year study of families conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture identifies four “family cultures” in America — four “worlds” in which children are raised. Each culture witnesses variations on the theme of parenthood.
The study asks: “What are the treasured hopes, deepest fears and most pressing challenges of today’s parents? Where do they turn for support?”
The institute released its study, “The Culture of American Families,” in mid-November. It tells a “complex story of parents’ habits, dispositions, hopes, fears, assumptions and expectations for their children,” explained James Davison Hunter, the institute’s executive director.
Most who mention this study focus principally on the parenthood differences it spells out related to discipline, faith, education and the influences of friends or the Internet, for example. But I was equally struck by the similarities among parents that it highlights.
According to Carl Desportes Bowman, the institute’s director of survey research, parents share some common aspirations and attitudes.
Notably, American parents of every kind want their children to become loving, honest and responsible adults of high moral character. “Though they may disagree about the moral frameworks that guide family values, parents do not disagree about the urgency of raising good kids,” the study notes.
American parents also converge in believing that these are difficult times for raising children. Most parents “say it is tougher to raise children today than it was 50 years ago,” the study notes.
There is a shared sense too “that the world, at least insofar as children are concerned, is a threatening place.”
But parents share something else that I find ominous. They do not rely much for support on the world around them. “As much as experts might assert that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ for most American parents the village is absent,” according to this study.
Most parents, Bowman said, are effectively “going it alone.”
Apparently today’s parents find support in their spouse or partner; single parents experience support in their extended family. But parents are not turning to neighbors for parenting support. Even so, most parents say they have the support they need.
Somewhat small numbers of parents turn to institutions like faith communities and after-school programs for support. Those who find support in these places consider it extremely important.
Four Family Cultures
The variations on the theme of parenthood witnessed in the four family cultures examined by this study are not presented merely as differing parenting styles. The “home cultures that are molding the next generation of American adults” differ in more basic ways than style.
“Much today is written about the impact of technology, the media, peer groups, consumption and schools on our nation’s children, yet the obvious is often overlooked,” the study comments. “Missing from this picture is the impact that interactions between parents and children at home make.”
The effort by this study “to identify ‘family types’” extends to “factors pertaining to different understandings of ‘the good.’”
The four family cultures identified by the study are labeled “the Faithful,” “the Engaged Progressives,” “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers.”
Each group seems complex in its own ways. But let’s look at each one very briefly for some basic values influencing its parents and their homes.
If “the Faithful,” representing 20 percent of parents, hold a morality handed down through Christianity, Judaism or Islam that gives them a strong sense of right and wrong, “Engaged Progressives,” representing 21 percent of parents, center their morality in personal freedom and responsibility.
— Engaged Progressives hope their children will become “responsible choosers.”
— The Faithful are confident their “children will imbibe and perpetuate the truths” in which they have been nurtured.
Engaged Progressives are described as the least religious of the four family types, while “the Faithful” talk regularly with children about faith.
The values and commitments of the other family cultures — the Detached and the American Dreamers — fall between those of the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives.
The study locates 19 percent of parents in the Detached type of family culture. “Their parenting strategy is to let kids be kids and let the cards fall where they may,” the study says. These parents “are skeptical about the old certainties of the Faithful, but just as skeptical about the designs and self-assurance of Engaged Progressives.”
Economically speaking, the Detached “have fewer resources than either the Faithful or Engaged Progressives.” For them, “laissez faire parenting …is a natural response to a generalized lack of certainty and a weak sense of parental efficacy.”
Finally, the 27 percent of parents who are American Dreamers are “more religiously involved than the Detached,” but also “more affirming of a live-and-let-live morality.”
The study found that American Dreamers, about half of whom are black or Hispanic, “are engaged parents” and “have high hopes for what their children will eventually become in the realm of character and otherwise.”
Each family culture combines moral beliefs, bedrock values and the stories families tell of themselves with aspirations, dispositions and practices that help form “the world children inhabit.” In this environment children develop morally, intellectually and emotionally.
I said I found it noteworthy that this study underscores certain similarities among American parents. Also noteworthy, however, is its insistence that American parents differ in ways that truly matter, particularly for parents seeking “roadmaps” to follow “in raising their kids morally.” The study states:
“What first becomes clear is that parents have diverse, even contradictory, views of what constitutes the ideal family life. Whether the issue is sex before marriage, birth control, living together before marriage, same-sex marriage, the role of the mother or even eating together as a family, the ‘Culture of American Families Survey’ finds that Americans disagree very fundamentally about family values.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.