The Family - Some Good News at Last

FOR at least 20 years, doomsayers have been waiting to write an obituary for the American family. Armed with statistics and gloomy headlines about divorce, day care, child abuse, and teen pregnancy, they would have the public believe that a majority of families are "at risk." If they could, they might even rewrite Tolstoy to read: "Every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way."Now these would-be obit writers - among them sociologists, social workers, and journalists - will have to lay down their pens for a while longer. Two important new studies paint a refreshingly hopeful picture of family life. Major problems exist, to be sure, but the family is clearly not only alive but stronger than many might have dared hope. One report, "Speaking of Kids: A National Survey of Children and Parents," was issued last week by the National Commission on Children. Based on interviews with a total of 3,000 adults and 900 children, it is one of the most comprehensive studies ever made of how children and parents feel about family life. Although the survey notes that Americans are pessimistic about the general state of the family and the plight of children, the majority of children and parents interviewed report that their own family life is close and satisfying. Sixty-five percent of parents characterize their relationship with their children as "excellent," and 32 percent say it is "good." Similarly, most children report close relationships with their parents. Not surprisingly, the most positive responses come from children and parents in intact, two-parent families. By contrast, the study finds that children who live with only one parent often appear "disadvantaged" because of economic problems and tenuous or nonexistent relationships with their absent parents. Regardless of income, race, or marital status, parents share two concerns - time and safety. Almost 60 percent want more time with their children. And almost half say there is no safe place in their neighborhood for children and teenagers to gather, other than their own homes. The report emphasizes the "vulnerability" of children whose families "lack the emotional, spiritual, and material resources and support to do a good job of childrearing." Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia, chairman of the commission, states that as a nation we must "take immediate steps to address the devastating conditions that threaten the health and well-being of so many of our young people." Americans must also do more, he says, "to capitalize on the great strengths of our families and communities." The second study is a RAND report titled "New Families, No Families? The Transformation of the American Home." It outlines two possible scenarios for the family of the future. The first option, the "new family," is characterized by more egalitarian marriages and a high regard for the home as a precious resource. These "new families" will evolve, researchers say, to the extent that men and women can restructure their relationships in an age when "men increasingly expect wives to share the economic burden and wives increasingly resent putting in a double shift of employment and housework." The second possibility is the "no-family" era, with few people marrying and having children and many living outside of families. This trend reflects a distrust of marriage and a growing tendency among young adults to live independently. Although the study sees the home as both "an undervalued treasure that is at risk" and a battleground where the revolution in men's and women's roles is being fought, researchers express cautious optimism that the "new family" may prevail. They note that public approval of divorce when children are involved peaked in 1977. Approval of childlessness peaked in 1980. They also see evidence that husbands are helping more around the house. Neither of these surveys glosses over the general and specific problems of the American family in the '90s. But both reveal the institution responding to its challenges with more hope, energy, and creativity than has been generally assumed. In the words of Senator Rockefeller, parents - and, in fact, all Americans - should find at least some of this news "cause for great celebration."

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