Parents not disciplining kids enough is the most commonly cited issue facing families, with the widespread availability of drugs and alcohol a distant second, according to a new national survey on attitudes about family life.
The American Family Survey also found people say their own families are strong, but believe the institution of family more generally is stumbling in the face of assault. The source of the attack depends on who you ask: Conservatives believe cultural decay is destroying family life, while liberals believe families struggle because of economic challenges.
In spite of such differences, people across the ideological spectrum tend to engage with their families in similar ways, including the frequency with which they eat dinner together, do chores, go out together and even argue, the poll found.
The American Family Survey, a nationally representative online poll of 3,000 American adults by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, found that 53 percent listed parents not adequately teaching and disciplining their children among the top three problems facing families today. That was followed by 27 percent listing access to drugs and alcohol.
Other oft-included top-three choices were the cost of raising a family (26 percent), sexual permissiveness (25 percent) and children living in a single-parent home (also 25 percent). Conservatives, moderates and those over 65 were significantly more likely to point to sexual permissiveness than were liberals or younger folks. Men, conservatives and those age 55-64 were more likely to single out “more children growing up in single-parent homes” as problematic than were other respondents. The survey, being released Nov. 17, was conducted by YouGov.
While people on both ends of the spectrum agree that lack of discipline is a problem, liberals are more likely to decry economic challenges like the cost of raising a family and lack of good jobs, while conservatives lament sexual permissiveness, the decline of religious faith and the widespread availability of drugs and alcohol.
Liberals discount structural aspects of challenges like family breakdown and single parenthood. Conservatives do exactly the reverse, said study co-author Jeremy C. Pope, also co-director of CSED and an associate professor of political science at BYU.
"They're a little blind to aspects of economics that may affect families. ... The survey can't settle who's right and wrong in this, but it's important to get people to understand that they're approaching this in different ways," he said.
“In one sense, they are speaking past each other in identifying ways to strengthen families,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, also a co-author of the study, co-director of the center, and associate professor of political science.
Where people of different ideological bents come together, though, is in how they live out their family lives.
Shared activities are often seen as a way to build relationships within families. More Americans, 76 percent, said they eat dinner as a family at least weekly than any other activity from a list presented in the survey. Nearly half said they eat as a family daily. A strong majority — 61 percent — also do chores together at least once a week.
The least frequently reported activity on the list was having an argument, with fewer than 20 percent admitting to arguing once a week. Visiting parks, movies, museums and sporting events and activities of a family member were also more likely to be monthly or yearly events.
There were no strong splits between conservatives and liberals on these activities, except when it came to the question of worshiping together as a family, with conservatives decidedly more likely to do so weekly than liberals (43 percent vs. 24 percent).
Jim and Sharon Miller of Magna, Utah, have spent lots of time together in nearly four decades of marriage. Sharon, 57, said they married when she was 19. They have five grown children, 27 to 38, four of them married, and seven grandchildren. Family activities have been important throughout their married life, from day-to-day family dinners and chores to regular church activities and always showing up when the kids had extracurricular activities. Because they were raised similarly, she said they didn't have to figure out discipline; they approached it the same way. They have taken care of their personal relationship with each other, which has helped them be more effective as parents, she said.
One of their daughters, Talisa Caddle, 29, married a year and a new mother, lives with them with her husband Tevin, 25, and infant Jordyn, 4 months, while Tevin is in college. The younger couple are figuring their own work-life balance and how to prioritize family activities. Caddle said they have date night when they can, though it's harder with a new baby.
Caddle has thought a lot about what kind of mother she'll be; what kind of family she'll raise. She's traditional, she said, which to her means they'll have dinner together. They'll continue to pray together and go to church together. Despite headlines, that's not so unusual.
The Caddles and other young couples will face many of the issues Americans list as significant for families. When it comes to economic issues, the survey found that half of American adults didn't think raising kids is affordable for most people, compared to 30 percent who said it is. Only 4 percent "strongly agree" the cost of raising a child is something most can afford.
"A few generations ago, it didn't cost that much to raise a child," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy and director of the Hopkins Population Center at Johns Hopkins University.
"Boys and girls started working at a young age in earlier generations. It’s now clearly difficult for many parents to afford what they think a child needs while growing up," he said.
Liberals are less likely to see raising a child as affordable, 17 percent compared to 40 percent of conservatives and 27 percent of moderates.
The survey examined other supports for families as they struggle to make ends meet, asking about social institutions that make families stronger. Churches were the highest ranked institutions for helping families, with a mean score of 66 out of 100. “Your neighborhood” came in next at 63. Third was the police, at 61. “Your employer” came in close to public schools at 58 and 56 respectively. News media was lowest ranked at 45.
Most opinions in that series were relatively neutral, said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence and a consultant on the survey. "There's a subset that scores churches very high and a subset that scores the news media very low, for example. It's not really like the average person is viewing one as lower than the other," he said. The answer to the police question was different by race, with blacks giving police lower scores on supporting families.
Not exactly free-range
Other questions also reflected Americans' concern for protecting children.
The survey asked at what age kids are old enough for a wide range of activities. There's no parenting manual to outline when kids are ready for certain things, and some are controversial. Many people remember the experience last year of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Springs, Maryland, who let their kids, ages 10 and 6, walk home a mile from a park unaccompanied. The journey was interrupted when someone called police and the family became mired in a child protective services investigation on allegations of neglect, prompting a national outcry.
Those polled deemed a child old enough to walk alone from a neighborhood park at an average age of 12.9 years. The average ideal age for a comprehensive sex talk was 12.4. The age to get a cellphone was 14. Jobs were a possibility about age 15.7, exactly the same age for going on a one-on-one date. That’s nearly a year older than the average age a child was considered old enough to have his or her own social media account (14.7 years old) or go out with friends without adult supervision (14.8 years old). People with children set that age slightly higher than did those without children.
How old is old enough is something Lisa and Dean Johnson of Everett, Washington, have been figuring out since their children, Eleanore, 17, and R.J., 15, were born. The ages at which their kids did certain things were fairly close to the average ideal ages identified by the survey.
The kids came home alone from the park around middle school, about the time serious conversations about sex took place, said Lisa Johnson. It was a busy time of life; they got cellphones around that 12-year mark, too. They could get a job at 15 — handy, because it let them save some money for dates at 16. Some things, like hanging out with friends without adult supervision, varied depending on the kids' comfort levels, the activity and who their friends were, she said.
"Being a mom, the main thing that concerns me is their safety," she added. Asked if the world is safer or more dangerous than it used to be, she said it's more "unpredictable," from economic opportunity to human relationships. "People sometimes aren't the people you think they are. I am concerned about those the most."
The average ages found by the survey "seem kind of old, but there’s no question that the period between childhood and adulthood has lengthened greatly,” said Cherlin. “It could be that adolescence is slowing down. Children used to have paper routes at age 12. Maybe (respondents) don’t interpret jobs as babysitting or working in a corner store. A few generations ago, many 15.7 years of age were out of school and getting a job full time.”
When it comes to other kinds of discipline, the study found 85 percent think parents need to set boundaries about children's media consumption, something that “wasn’t even on the radar” a generation ago, Cherlin said.
He was surprised that 54 percent of those surveyed agree to some degree that it’s “sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.” That’s a statement that horrifies child development experts, who Cherlin said “think kids thrive with encouragement, love and modest discipline. It’s the 'modest' that seems to not come through here. I would think that ‘good hard spanking’ would be much lower. Last year, we saw an NFL player suspended for the season because he gave his child a good, hard switch.”
Sharon Miller found that astonishing, too. Her kids faced time out if they erred, rather than physical punishment, she said. She remembers only one spanking herself growing up. And though she's swatted her children on the backside to get their attention, the most painful punishment tended to be a "good hard talking to."
Cherlin found nothing surprising, though, about the fact that American adults think others should be reining their kids in more.
“Each generation has bemoaned lack of discipline and profligate sexual behavior among the young, and I suppose they’ve all been right,” he said. “It’s not a new complaint.”
It's almost a reflex to lament other people's parenting skills, said Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Family at Brookings Institution and a consultant on the survey. "It's quite lazy in a way," he said of such stereotyping. "But what about you? 'No. My family's fine.'"
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