Study Finds There Is No ‘Typical’ Family. Does Even Homework Have to Change?

It’s not exactly breaking news that the “Father Knows Best” era of male-breadwinner families is over. Yes, there are some—about 22 percent of families, according to a study released today. But they’re not the norm.

The provocative question asked by the new study—prepared by University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen for the Council on Contemporary Families—is whether there is a norm. And the answer it comes up with is “no.”

Of 100 representative children, Cohen writes, “the single largest group of children—34—live with dual-earner married parents, but that largest group is only a third of the total, so that it is really impossible to point to a ‘typical’ family.”

Rather, what Cohen calls “an explosion of diversity” has led to a hodge-podge of family make-ups: those with a female-breadwinner and stay-at-home dad, those headed by a single-mother, or single father, those with unmarried parents living together, those consisting of children and their grandparents and more.

It’s worth noting that 56 percent still live with married parents, so that’s something of a norm no matter who’s working. Still, Cohen makes his point that family structures have changed in more ways than many people realize.

And what of it? The Council on Contemporary Family’s director of research, Stephanie Coontz, lives in Olympia, where she used to teach history and family studies at Evergreen State College. SW asked her today what she thinks the implications of this research are.

She talked about the need to revise policies based on family assumptions that no longer hold true, and some of her most interesting thoughts delve into how this affects even such mundane matters as homework.

By e-mail, she wrote: “Educators and policy-makers need to stop assuming that every child has two parents in the home, one of whom can be home when the kids get out of school and has plenty of time to help with homework, attend parent-teacher conferences, and take the kids to sports practice, and the other of whom has good enough wages and health benefits to buy all the extra school supplies, purchase enrichment lessons in art and other subjects the schools no longer offer, and afford a home in a safe neighborhood.

Asked to explain what she thinks schools should be doing differently, she again brings up homework and the need to rethink how it is assigned. She says much of it requires parental supervision or help, which is stressful for working parents. [One might observe that even when parents don’t have to help with homework, they are inundated with requests to fundraise, volunteer, sign mounds of back-to-school forms with drop-dead deadlines and otherwise be “involved” in their children’s education.]

As an antidote, she suggests homework assignments like one she developed a few years back with a teacher that had kids read to a parent who was getting dinner ready. “Single parents loved it,” she said, because they could interact with their kids while doing what they needed to do. On the other hand, couples didn’t like it because they wanted to talk to each other during that time, leading Coontz to muse that schools need to develop different types of assignments to fit different families’ needs.

History may even provide a model, if we reach back further than the ‘50s. Coontz recounts that “when my mom worked in the shipyards during World War II, the government-funded child care centers would actually have the kids help prepare a dinner that they could take home to mom.”

Now those are the kind traditional family values that are worth bringing back!

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