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Review of "How Families Still Matter"

By Vern L. Bengtson, Timothy J. Biblarz, Robert E. L. Roberts
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by Shelly Marshall, B.S., CSAC on Oct 14th 2003
How Families Still Matter

In theory, there is such a thing as a perfect family and raising the perfect kids. In theory, if a parent just knows enough, has enough facts, and can apply them correctly, s/he could raise the perfect child. In theory, the longitudinal study of youth in two generations "How Families Still Matter" by Vern Bengtson, Timothy Biblarz, and Robert Roberts, tries to tell us how the theories and reality of parenting children correspond or don't.. It is rough reading.

The work is actually a research project and, for the most part, reads like one. This longitudinal study mainly describes two courses of child development, the outcome and processes of intergenerational transmission of values, aspirations, and orientations of youth. The authors attempt to compare family influences on today's youth (Generation Xers) with those of earlier generations. What is fact and what is fiction about what we believe?

The three researchers begin by describing two camps of child development theorists, the family decline theorists (antagonist) verses the family solidarity theorists (protagonist) and carry this theme as the backdrop for which all the discussions and results are waged. It is an interesting approach and the only basis for entertainment in the presentation of the study. The first two chapters lay the foundation by describing the study, the history of the questions asked, present the study design, and describe the various models of intergenerational modes of transmission of values and family functioning.

In Chapter Three we learn about Middletown, USA and the changing context of family life in America. The authors discuss why some theorists say the raising divorce rate and mothers in the work force have led to the decline of the American family and how opposing theorists find bands of cohesiveness, strength, and adaptability within the changing family structure. Chapter Four through Seven delve into self-esteem issues, explain how the educational and occupational aspirations of youth are used to measure and define outcomes, and discuss the variations in family influences.

How children develop is an area of special interest for me and I expect anyone who picks this book up will share this interest. I wanted to like the book; I wanted to praise the study; I wanted to learn something. Was I rewarded? Yes and no.

On the positive side, what these researchers explored and some of the conclusions they reported can only be described as courageous. Many of their findings go against the prevailing sociologic tide such as: mothers in the workforce might actually aid children's mental and emotional health and the rising divorce rate is not destroying the self-esteem and aspirations of our youth despite many studies to the contrary.

I applaud the researchers for reiterating that family diversity does not equal family break down and then demonstrating the science behind their statements. Unfortunately, I find some really distressing weak spots in both their presentation and their inferences in what the research means.

On the less positive side, How Families Still Matter contained difficult, impractical language throughout. The overuse of acronyms as a shortcut places an undue burden on the reader, the overformal use of scientific-sounding words was mind-numbing, and the tables and figures were confusing. Although solid research is woven into and out of the discussions, the writers describe their work in difficult-to-understand sentences. These sentences can only be compared to the confusion created if you simply wanted to balance your checkbook and someone handed you a book on calculus so you had a solid foundation for understanding your totals. The conclusionary passages in each chapter and the final chapter itself, a conclusion of the entire study, were somewhat gentler on the intellect. Most readers, who don't need the actual references and methodology, might want to skip the confusion and go straight for the conclusion of each chapter. Your brain will thank you.

I was extremely offended by their brush off of Judith Rich Harris and her extraordinary work (The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do). The authors described her work as concluding that "parents don't matter at all" when in fact that is NOT what her work says. They also wrote that she "cobbled together evidence," which no one who has read her work can ever make such a preposterous statement. They might say that she beats her conclusions to death and over proves everything--but "cobbled?" Not even close. I found it particularly unprofessional that the authors came to many of her same conclusions and didn't even realize it. For instance, Bengtson, Biblarz, and Roberts conclude that changing parental roles, circumstances and parenting methodologies don't seem to directly or necessarily adversely affect how their children turnout—that's what Harris concludes too! On page 60 they write that parents are the primary reinforcement for children's aspirations but add, "Parents also place children in social contexts (schools, neighborhoods, churches, clubs) that are congruent with the family's position in the social structure, so that the family and extrafamily effects often become mutually reinforcing." The only difference between their conclusions and Harris's here, is that Harris would say the social context is the primary reinforcement and the parental the secondary.

For researchers in this field, they have done themselves and Harris a great disservice by not fully understanding and misrepresenting what she has presented in child development theory. They have failed to see the significance of a pioneer in their field when they themselves aspire to break new ground. Bengtson, Biblarz, and Roberts have brushed off a valuable ally and shorted their own work. They also have shorted the reader by failing to present the significance of socialization theory as an answer to the many insights they offer. This is exactly why Harris wrote her book. People read and conduct the research and come to conclusions based on their assumptions of how they think a family works (in this case how values and aspirations are transmitted across generations) and paint a picture of society that is probably not correct.

We, as a society cannot correct the problems we want to correct if we don't understand the roots of why we do what we do and how we turn out that way. The authors sum up their findings by writing that "most families are resilient and adaptive, and that American families continue to perform their socialization functions in the face of rapid social change and varied family structures." What they are saying is that kids are turning out just fine despite shifting family dynamics and conclude that it is the family itself responsible for the continuing transmission in generational values and aspirations. What if they are wrong? What if it's not the family per se but the meta family--the peers, neighborhoods, and cultural influences the parents place their offspring in? They've reported pretty much the same things as Judith Harris. Why don't they know this?

Yes, kids are being socialized in an acceptable manner despite changing times, changing roles, and changing families. Now Bengtson, Biblarz, and Roberts just have to figure out who is making the assumptions about how our children become socialized. It's a funny thing about assumptions: when you're making them, you assume you're not.

Are the parents responsible for the socialization outcomes of our youth or the peers? Until we know the answer to that, we don't know how or where to influence change. And this book does not help us in that respect.


2003 Shelly Marshall


Shelly Marshall, B.S., CSAC is an Adolescent Chemical Dependency Specialist and Researcher. You can visit her site at www.day-by-day.org