American parenting: My family is OK, yours is not

A new study suggests American parenting is full of culturally inflated views of our own families. Most parents in the US think their own kids and family are doing just fine, thanks. It’s the other families out there that are the problem.

John Overmyer/
American parenting is viewed by many parents as harder now than it was 50 years ago, according to a report released this month by University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Even before the heartbreaking shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, American parents were anxious about child rearing. 

According to a report that came out earlier this month from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, less than a quarter of US moms and dads believe this is a  great time to be bringing children into the world, and most say it is tougher to raise children today than it was 50 years ago. Fewer than 1 parent in 10 thinks the quality of American family life has improved since they were growing up.

RELATED: America's 4 family cultures – what's yours?

But in a twist, researchers found that most parents in the U.S. think their own kids and family are doing just fine, thanks. It’s the other families out there that are the problem.

“Given the chorus of cries from all quarters about family crisis, families in decline, the pernicious effects of technology, and the increasingly tenuous nature of contemporary family arrangements, there was really only one thing we did not expect to unearth in our investigation: That parents actually think their families are doing well,” researchers wrote.  

Better than well, actually. 

Based upon parents’ responses in the project (a national sample that was surveyed with rigorous academic standards, according to the researchers), only 1 out of every 20 American school children consumes alcohol. Even limiting the analysis to teenagers, parent answers suggest only 1 in 10 kids ever drink.  (Compare this to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 72 percent of all high school students have tried alcohol.) 

More than 7 in 10 parents report that none of their children are overweight.  And according to parents, 72 percent of American teenagers have “definitely not” had sex, while more than a third of the country’s school children are A students, while another 49 percent are either A/B or B students. Ninety-three percent of children have never been suspended, and two-thirds have received an award or certificate for outstanding performance in school, sports, music or the arts. 

Now, this last tidbit might be close to accurate.  We wouldn’t be the first ones to point out the “trophies for everyone” trend has pretty well taken over our child rearing culture. 

But for most of these statistics, there is a clear disconnect between parent perception and what researchers say is an accurate picture of child achievement.  

Carl Desportes Bowman, the director of survey research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the lead author of the family culture report, said he suspected the parents’ rosy view of their own families has to do with another national trend: one toward not just close families, but families where parents hope to be “friends” with their children. 

Nearly half of American parents put themselves on the “closest” end of a numerical scale that evaluated how close they were with their children; seven out of 10 American parents say “I hope to be best friends with my children when they are grown.” 

“There is so much emphasis on being close to your kids that it plays tricks with personal identity,” Bowman says.  

Now, some parents here might ask: what’s the problem with that?  Why not look at your kid in glowing terms? The researchers don’t confront this exactly head-on.  And sure, some less-than-objective love for your kid is natural.

 The issue, perhaps, is that when there is a wide-spread, culturally inflated view of one’s own family, everyone else's starts to look lousy in comparison. And this can’t be helpful for a society that, as this report showed, is quite divided about the moral questions of parenting, families and what values children should internalize. 

So next time - think a little closer about whether Johnny is really a straight A student who would never drink or have sex or text and drive.  A realistic view won’t make you a worse parent; it will just give you the empathy to deal with these issues on a macro level.

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