Parenting in America   /   Fall 2013   /    Parenting In America

Divided We Parent

Culture of American Families Survey

Carl Desportes Bowman

Young Family by Ulysse Desportes, Staunton, Virginia; used with permission.

It’s no surprise that child-rearing practices reflect the values, beliefs, and dispositions of parents, and American parents are a famously varied lot. Yet for all that diversity, the Culture of American Families Survey, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, identified four broad types of family cultures through an analysis of responses from 3,000 parents of school-age children. There are certainly variations within these types, as one would expect, but the typology clearly highlights how different commitments of the heart give rise to remarkably distinctive child-rearing regimes.

The Faithful

The Faithful (20 percent of American parents) adhere to a divinely inspired and timeless morality, handed down through Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, giving them a strong sense of right and wrong. Understanding human nature as “basically sinful” or at least incomplete and seeing moral decline in the larger society, including in the public schools, the Faithful seek to defend the traditional social and moral order by creating it within their homes and instilling its values in their children, with support from their church community. Raising “children whose lives reflect God’s purpose” is a more important parenting goal than their children’s eventual happiness or career success.

To that end, they talk to their children daily about matters of faith, routinely conduct family devotions, attend church weekly, and pause to say a prayer before family meals. They have a strong sense of parental efficacy, believing that parents are more influential in their children’s lives than peer influences. Their family sizes are larger than average.

While a number of Faithful attitudes and practices—including spanking and other physical punishment, the view that women should embrace the role of homemaker, and strong disapproval of gay marriage or sex outside marriage—line up with stereotypes of conservative Christians, several attitudes depart from stereotypes. They want their families to be warm and emotionally supportive. They think men should put their family before their career just as much as women should.

Engaged Progressives

For Engaged Progressives (21 percent of parents), morality centers on personal freedom and responsibility. Having sidelined God as the author of morality, Engaged Progressives see few moral absolutes beyond the Golden Rule. They value honesty, are skeptical about religion, and are often guided morally by their own personal experience or what “feels right” to them. In turn, they feel obliged to extend moral latitude to others.

They reject the Christian tenet that “human nature is basically sinful” and are generally optimistic about today’s culture and their children’s prospects. Aiming to train their children to be “responsible choosers,” Engaged Progressives strategically allow their children freedom at younger ages than other parents. By age 14, their children have complete information about birth control; by 15, they are surfing the web without adult supervision; and by age 16, they are watching R-rated movies.

Engaged Progressives are the least religious of all family types. A majority never attend church or pray before meals. Politically liberal, they support gay marriage, value tolerance, and believe the playing field of life should be relatively fair and even. Half of them live in the Northeast or on the West Coast, and few live in the South.

Engaged Progressives are particularly opposed to spanking and other harsh forms of punishment, but they still consider themselves to be at least moderately strict. They  invest much energy in shaping their children’s “moral character” and are concerned with maintaining “very close” relationships with their children.

The Detached

Inhabiting a world of less moral certainty, the Detached is one of two types that fall between the conservative commitments of the Faithful and the more progressive values of the Engaged Progressives. 

The parenting strategy of The Detached (21 percent of parents) can be summarized as this: Let kids be kids, and let the cards fall where they may. They are skeptical about the old certainties of the Faithful, but they are just as skeptical about the designs and selfassurance of Engaged Progressives.

The Detached are primarily white parents with blue-collar jobs, no college degree, and lower household incomes. They report lower levels of marital happiness, and they do not feel particularly close to their children. They feel they are in a “losing battle with all the other influences out there,” and it shows in their practices. They spend less than two hours a day interacting with their children, and when they do have dinner together as a family it is often in front of the TV. Most Detached parents do not routinely monitor their children’s homework, and they report lower grades for their children than other parents.

In general, they are pessimistic about the future of the economy and their children’s opportunities, and they seem resigned to the situation. On issues of morality they do not express strong opinions. While they say they believe in God, they do not attend church regularly and say that religion is not an important part of their children’s lives.

American Dreamers

American Dreamers (27 percent of parents) are defined by their optimism about their children’s abilities and opportunities. These parents, with relatively low household income and education, pour themselves into raising their children and providing them every possible material and social advantage. They also invest much effort protecting them from negative social influences and shaping their children’s moral character. This is the most common family culture among blacks and Hispanics, with each group making up about a quarter of American Dreamers.

American Dreamers believe in God and say that religion is very important in their lives, but they embrace a live-and-let-live morality when it comes to other people. They believe in speaking their mind, saying that the “greatest moral virtue” is being honest about one’s feelings and desires.

While two-thirds of American Dreamers are married, this group features more single parents and more reliance on the support of extended family. 

American Dreamers describe their relationships with their children as “very close” and express a strong desire to be “best friends” with their children once they are grown. Compared to other parents, they are just as likely to offer their children praise and encouragement, but they are more willing to discipline them—by scolding, giving timeouts, threatening spanking, and spanking.

Read the full four reports here.

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