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
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
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