The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. See full survey report.

If you’ve ever wished that parents would rein in their screaming children or set tighter boundaries for their teens, you’re not alone.

“Parents not teaching or disciplining their kids enough” is the perennial favorite when U.S. adults are asked about challenges that families face. That has come in at No. 1 all eight years in the American Family Survey, which asks adults to pick three issues from a curated list of 12. Forty-one percent chose that response.

The other top pick is no surprise in fall 2022: the cost of raising a family, also selected by 41% of respondents. Inflation’s been hammering vulnerable households just as the nation is trying to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that’s not all that has folks worried in the American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll released at Brookings Institution Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. YouGov asked 3,000 U.S. adults their opinions on family-related topics that range from what families do together and how strong their marriages and relationships are to attitudes about abortion, gun policy and immigration, as well as who should decide what’s taught in schools and how faith endures or declines in America. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points and was fielded Aug. 8-15.

Among their three choices for most-challenging issues, at least a quarter of respondents picked work demands (30%) and single-parent homes (26%). Those beat out crime (21%), the decline of faith (20%), lack of quality family time in a digital age (20%), lack of programs to help struggling families (16%), drugs and alcohol (16%), lack of good jobs (14%), sexual permissiveness (13%) and the changing definition of marriage (13%).

COVID-19 and race issues — asked of half the respondents — weren’t even in the running as top worries despite being deeply contentious nationwide in recent years. Each was a top-three pick for around 12% of those surveyed.

Left vs. right

There’s a huge partisan gap when it comes to assessing what’s worrisome — and neither political ideology has it completely right, according to study authors Jeremy C. Pope and Christopher F. Karpowitz, who both teach political science at Brigham Young University.

“Liberal Democrats say it has something to do with economics,” said Karpowitz, director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “Whereas for conservative Republicans it is not economics, it’s structure — things like discipline and single-parent homes, finding quality time and changing definitions of marriage and family.”

He added, “I think what that indicates is that both sides of the ideological extremes of the parties are missing something.“

Pope agrees. “I think Republicans have a point; there are cultural and structural problems. People on the left kind of have their blinders on a bit. But I think that inflation is the single most important thing going on.”

Karpowitz notes that over the survey’s years, concerns about family structure and culture have fallen, while there’s been an increase in worry about economics.

Close to 9 in 10 liberal Democrats chose economic elements in their top three, compared to one-third of conservative Republicans. The latter instead chose some aspect of family structure (85%) and three-quarters also chose culture, compared to half of liberal Democrats who chose structure and 3 in 10 who pick culture.

Near the middle, there’s far less difference — usually around 10 percentage points or less — between moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats, the report says. “This is consistent with a series of findings in this year’s survey that show while the ideological members of each party are prone to take stridently incompatible positions, each of the parties has a more moderate wing that is crucial for both public conversations about America’s problems as well as the policymaking that could address those problems.”

Closer to home

Nor are the challenges facing American families in general prioritized the same as when a challenge hits your own family, Pope said. “For the small group of people having crises at the moment, it’s whatever that crisis is: My daughter’s having mental health issues or my son is going through a really hard time with school or something like that,” he said.

Inflation is a more universal crisis, what he calls a “big backdrop issue hovering over lots and lots of people. I think we are at the leading edge of people getting more concerned about economics and we will know a lot more about this in a year because we’ll have a better sense of how long inflation is persisting and if government has any sort of tools that it can use.”

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He predicts the Federal Reserve will keep cranking up interest rates and inflation will “slowly, slowly, slowly come down over time — in which case people will feel a lot of pain for a number of years. And then we’ll slowly adjust.”

That’s the thing about crises, he adds. People move past even those that are crushing in the moment like divorce or unemployment. Or, in some sense, they learn to live with them.

Galena Rhoades, a research professor at the University of Denver who works directly with families in the MotherWise program, has seen up close how some families are challenged economically. Tied to that, she told the Deseret News, “are things like paid family leave and health care.”

She notes that housing is a “major crisis for so many families today across many, many cities in the U.S., whether it’s high rent, prices for homes and now mortgage interest rates.” Food prices are high, food security more fragile. “All those things are essentially linked to money. I think it’s why we see the government trying things like changing the tax structure to address some of that, although for many families that’s a drop in the bucket and not a sustainable measure around addressing money crises that come from not having enough funds for food on the table, for health care, for housing, for mental health support.”

Kristen Johnson uses a lint roller to pick up dog hair and tickle her son, Early Johnston, at home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Kristen Johnson’s a single mom who’s grateful she and her ex-husband are both dedicated to the well-being of their son, Early Johnston, who is 9. Both want to do what’s best for him. Johnson, of Salt Lake City, said the cost of living recently has been “terrifying, to be honest. Everything is going up and nothing looks like it’s going to change anytime soon.”

She said she and Early live comfortably and can pay their bills, “but I’m grateful that child care isn’t solely on my shoulders.”

During the pandemic, she said she went through more of her savings than she expected because of rising costs and she’s grateful she bought her house when she did, because she doubts she could afford rent in the current market.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said.

Johnson sees no mystery in the finding that people disapprove of how others discipline their children. She thinks too many parents are becoming overly indulgent. “We don’t say no in this house,” is how she describes some parenting practices. She wonders how kids figure out boundaries in those homes. “I don’t think it’s good,” she said.

Kelley and Tim Maher of Gilbert, Arizona, with their children Beau, 17, Sullivan, 7, Ireland, 15, and Sailor, 12. In a world that’s sometimes scary, the Mahers say they try to arm their kids with hope. And they talk openly about challenges — their own and those of the world. | Maher family photo

‘Arming’ with hope

When Kelley Maher of Gilbert, Arizona, considers the challenges families face, she ponders, too, how she and her husband Tim should respond. She said she wants to infuse her kids, ages 7 to 17, with hope even when the world seems a bit off-kilter.

“I feel like there are a lot of things that sound very scary going on around us,” said Maher. “One of the things that we try to do as parents is let them know we’re going to be fine.”

Kristen Johnson and her son, Early Johnston, play Jenga at home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Amid a steady drumming of the bad-economy message, she’ll tell her kids that “we know how to adjust our spending and we’re not afraid of hard work — just trying to help them understand that we can ebb and flow with this and with other challenges.”

She reminds them that her father-in-law, who’s 87, has lived through wars and different political parties in power and economic ups and downs — a lifelong mixture of hard times and great times, too, in the face of challenges.

As for other items on the list, Maher thinks families should be working to be self-reliant and public policy should help them do that. “It’s not the government’s job to take care of us,” she said, noting she and her husband hope to help their kids become self-sufficient.

She does worry about the availability of drugs and alcohol, though. “I think we realize that kids are naturally curious; we do our best to arm them. But at the end of the day, they’re still able to make a choice and it might be a stupid one where they decide to try something.”

She said she grew up in New Hampshire in a day when a kid could be expelled for bringing a homemade joint to school. “Now, someone could try something that looks like a little Smartie and it ends their life. It just feels like it’s doubled down.”

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So the Mahers talk openly about risks and challenges and ask the kids what scares them or piques their curiosity. “If someone says, ‘I wonder what it feels like to be drunk,’ we’re not horrified by that. Let’s talk about it,” she said. She’d rather not squelch curiosity and send her kids out into the world to satisfy it.


“Busy-ness” is the root of many problems families face, according to Jeff Uskoski, a high school upper-level math teacher and the pastor of a nondenominational Christian church in Soda Springs, Idaho. He and his wife Hallie have four kids, ages 22, 11, 10 and 8. Without family time, problems creep — or roar — in, and “it seems like we’re getting less and less margins in our lives.”

Hallie and Jeff Uskoski and their children Silas 8, Reuben 11, Anna 10, and Hope, 22, pose for a photo in Darby Canyon in the Tetons in Idaho. Jeff is a teacher and pastor, his wife an oncology nurse. And they worry about the messages the world sends to children.
Hallie and Jeff Uskoski and their children Silas 8, Reuben 11, Anna 10, and Hope, 22, pose for a photo in Darby Canyon in the Tetons in Idaho. Jeff is a teacher and pastor, his wife an oncology nurse. And they worry about the messages the world sends to children. | Caleb Boone

Sexual promiscuity and oversexualization of youths are parallel challenges, he said. “They’re just exposed to things so early and so often and that’s a very discouraging, difficult thing to be walking through,” said Uskoski, who laments he labors to raise children in a culture that doesn’t support his belief system.

But while there’s no question inflation is real and important basics like food cost more, that’s a problem that might be easier for families to solve on their own, he said.

He thinks people mix up needs and wants. “Our appetites keep many people poor,” he said.

He partially solved that one — and the distractions because of technology — at the same time. When his kids complained that their friends all have cell phones, he smiled. “That’s great, because you can borrow one if you need to give mom and dad a call.”