5.14: Family Life

Family Tasks: One of the ways to assess the quality of family life is to consider the tasks of families. Berger (2014) lists five family functions:

  • Providing food, clothing and shelter
  • Encouraging learning
  • Developing self-esteem
  • Nurturing friendships with peers
  • Providing harmony and stability

Notice that in addition to providing food, shelter, and clothing, families are responsible for helping the child learn, relate to others, and have a confident sense of self. Hopefully, the family will provide a harmonious and stable environment for living. A good home environment is one in which the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs are adequately met. Sometimes families emphasize physical needs, but ignore cognitive or emotional needs. Other times, families pay close attention to physical needs and academic requirements, but may fail to nurture the child’s friendships with peers or guide the child toward developing healthy relationships. Parents might want to consider how it feels to live in the household as a child. The tasks of families listed above are functions that can be fulfilled in a variety of family types-not just intact, two-parent households.

Parenting Styles: As discussed in the previous chapter, parenting styles affect the relationship parents have with their children. During middle and late childhood, children spend less time with parents and more time with peers, and consequently parents may have to modify their approach to parenting to accommodate the child’s growing independence. The authoritative style, which incorporates reason and engaging in joint decision-making whenever possible may be the most effective approach (Berk, 2007). However, Asian-American, African-American, and Mexican-American parents are more likely than European-Americans to use an authoritarian style of parenting. This authoritarian style of parenting that using strict discipline and focuses on obedience is also tempered with acceptance and warmth on the part of the parents. Children raised in this manner tend to be confident, successful and happy (Chao, 2001; Stewart & Bond, 2002).

Living Arrangements: Certainly the living arrangements of children have changed significantly over the years. In 1960, 92% of children resided with married parents, while only 5% had parents who were divorced or separated and 1% resided with parents who had never been married. By 2008, 70% of children resided with married parents, 15% had parent who were divorced or separated, and by 2010, 14% resided with parents who had never married (Pew Research Center, 2010). By 2013 only 61% of children resided with married parents, and of those only 46% were being raised by both of their biological parents (Livingston, 2014).

Based on the 2010 United States Census, when just looking at households that contain spouses or unmarried partners with children, the majority of households with children are married, opposite sex couples (Lofquist, 2011). However, same sex couples have higher percentages of adopted children than opposite sex couples. Table 5.6 identifies the number of same sex and opposite sex households with children.

Table 5.6: 2010 Census Data on Households with Children in the United States.
Total Households Married Opposite-Sex Couples Unmarried Opposite-Sex Couples Same-Sex Couples
Households with children 25,233,794 22,872,151 (90.6%) 2,267,016 (8.9%) 94,627 (0.4%)
Biological only 90.80% 88% 72.80%
Step only or adopted only 4.40% 5.20% 21.20%
Combination 4.80% 6.80% 6%

Lesbian and Gay Parenting: Research has consistently shown that the children of lesbian and gay parents are as successful as those of heterosexual parents, and consequently efforts are being made to ensure that gay and lesbian couples are provided with the same legal rights as heterosexual couples when adopting children (American Civil Liberties Union, 2016).


A same-sex couple sitting on the ground outside with their child
Figure 5.24: Lesbian and gay parenting.

Patterson (2013) reviewed more than 25 years of social science research on the development of children raised by lesbian and gay parents and found no evidence of detrimental effects. In fact, research has demonstrated that children of lesbian and gay parents are as well-adjusted overall as those of heterosexual parents. Specifically, research comparing children based on parental sexual orientation has not shown any differences in the development of gender identity, gender role development, or sexual orientation. Additionally, there were no differences between the children of lesbian or gay parents and those of heterosexual parents in separation-individuation, behavior problems, self-concept, locus of control, moral judgment, school adjustment, intelligence, victimization, and substance use. Further, research has consistently found that children and adolescents of gay and lesbian parents report normal social relationships with family members, peers, and other adults. Patterson concluded that there is no evidence to support legal discrimination or policy bias against lesbian and gay parents.

Divorce: Using families in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, Weaver and Schofield (2015) found that children from divorced families had significantly more behavior problems than those from a matched sample of children from non-divorced families. These problems were evident immediately after the separation and also in early and middle adolescence. An analysis of divorce factors indicated that children exhibited more externalizing behaviors if the family had fewer financial resources before the separation. It was hypothesized that the lower income and lack of educational and community resources contributed to the stress involved in the divorce. Additional factors contributing to children’s behavior problems included a post-divorce home that was less supportive and stimulating, and a mother that was less sensitive and more depressed.

Additional concerns include that the child will grieve the loss of the parent they no longer see as frequently. The child may also grieve about other family members that are no longer available. Very often, divorce means a change in the amount of money coming into the household. Children experience new constraints on spending or entertainment. School-aged children, especially, may notice that they can no longer have toys, clothing or other items to which they have grown accustomed. Or it may mean that there is less eating out or being able to afford participation in extracurricular activities. The custodial parent may experience stress at not being able to rely on child support payments or having the same level of income as before. This can affect decisions regarding healthcare, vacations, rents, mortgages and other expenditures, and the stress can result in less happiness and relaxation in the home. The parent who has to take on more work may also be less available to the children. Children may also have to adjust to other changes accompanying a divorce. The divorce might mean moving to a new home and changing schools or friends. It might mean leaving a neighborhood that has meant a lot to them as well.

Relationships of adult children of divorce are identified as more problematic than those adults from intact homes. For 25 years, Hetherington and Kelly (2002) followed children of divorce and those whose parents stayed together. The results indicated that 25% of adults whose parents had divorced experienced social, emotional, or psychological problems compared with only 10% of those whose parents remained married. For example, children of divorce have more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, are more dissatisfied with their marriage, and consequently more likely to get divorced themselves (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2013). One of the most commonly cited long-term effects of divorce is that children of divorce may have lower levels of education or occupational status. This may be a consequence of lower income and resources for funding education rather than to divorce per se. In those households where economic hardship does not occur, there may be no impact on long-term economic status (Drexler, 2005).

According to Arkowitz and Lilienfeld (2013), long-term harm from parental divorce is not inevitable, however, and children can navigate the experience successfully. A variety of factors can positively contribute to the child’s adjustment. For example, children manage better when parents limit conflict, and provide warmth, emotional support and appropriate discipline. Further, children cope better when they reside with a well-functioning parent and have access to social support from peers and other adults. Those at a higher socioeconomic status may fare better because some of the negative consequences of divorce are a result of financial hardship rather than divorce per se (Drexler, 2005).

Although they may experience more problems than children from non-divorced families, most children of divorce lead happy, well-adjusted lives and develop strong, positive relationships with their custodial parent (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). In the United States and Canada, most children reside with their mother in single-parent households (Berk, 2007). Children from single- parent families talk to their mothers more often than children of two-parent families (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). In a study of college-age respondents, Arditti (1999) found that increasing closeness and a movement toward more democratic parenting styles was experienced. Others have also found that relationships between mothers and children become closer and stronger (Guttman, 1993) and suggest that greater equality and less rigid parenting is beneficial after divorce (Steward, Copeland, Chester, Malley, & Barenbaum, 1997).

Certain characteristics of the child can also facilitate post-divorce adjustment. Specifically, children with an easygoing temperament, who problem-solve well, and seek social support manage better after divorce. A further protective factor for children is intelligence (Weaver & Schofield, 2015). Children with higher IQ scores appear to be buffered from the effects of divorce. Children may be given more opportunity to discover their own abilities and gain independence that fosters self-esteem. If divorce means a reduction in tension, the child may feel relief. Overall, not all children of divorce suffer negative consequences and should not be subjected to stigma or social disapproval (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) believe that the primary factor influencing the way that children adjust to divorce is the way the custodial parent adjusts to the divorce. If that parent is adjusting well, the children will benefit. This may explain a good deal of the variation we find in children of divorce.

Is cohabitation and remarriage more difficult than divorce for the child? The remarriage of a parent may be a more difficult adjustment for a child than the divorce of a parent (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). Parents and children typically have different ideas of how the stepparent should act. Parents and stepparents are more likely to see the stepparent’s role as that of parent. A more democratic style of parenting may become more authoritarian after a parent remarries. Biological parents are more likely to continue to be involved with their children jointly when neither parent has remarried. They are least likely to jointly be involved if the father has remarried and the mother has not. Cohabitation can be difficult for children to adjust to because cohabiting relationships in the United States tend to be short-lived. About 50 percent last less than 2 years (Brown, 2000). The child who starts a relationship with the parent’s live-in partner may have to sever this relationship later. Even in long-term cohabiting relationships, once it is over, continued contact with the child is rare.

Blended Families: About 60 percent of divorced parents remarry within a few years (Berk, 2007). Largely due to high rates of divorce and remarriage, we have seen the number of blended families in America grow considerably, although rates of remarriage are declining (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). Blended families are not new. In the 1700-1800s there were many blended families, but they were created because someone died and remarried. Most blended families today are a result of divorce and remarriage, and such origins lead to new considerations. Blended families are different from intact families and more complex in a number of ways that can pose unique challenges to those who seek to form successful blended family relationships (Visher & Visher, 1985). Children may be a part of two households, each with different rules that can be confusing.


Blended family posing for a photo
Figure 5.25: Blended family.

Members in blended families may not be as sure that others care and may require more demonstrations of affection for reassurance. For example, stepparents expect more gratitude and acknowledgment from the stepchild than they would with a biological child. Stepchildren experience more uncertainty/insecurity in their relationship with the parent and fear the parents will see them as sources of tension. Stepparents may feel guilty for a lack of feelings they may initially have toward their partner’s children. Children who are required to respond to the parent’s new mate as though they were the child’s “real” parent often react with hostility, rebellion, or withdrawal. This occurs especially if there has not been time for the relationship to develop.


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Lifespan Development - A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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