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A family's 'culture' type trumps its parenting style

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28 2012 7:25 p.m. MST

Lorna and Eric Carman use words like "faith" and "responsibility" to describe what they hope to teach their children. Here, the Oregon couple visits her grandparents, Donna and Don Busath. Their sons are Jude, Sage and Ezra.

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MADRAS, Ore. — 'Faith' and 'responsibility' are two of the words Lorna Carman uses when she's asked to describe how she and her husband Eric parent their three young sons: Sage, 8, Jude, 5, and Ezra, 2.

The Carmans believe strongly in God and are trying to pass their faith on.

"We highly value the importance of a parent at home, especially a mother," Lorna Carman said. "We do discipline and feel that's an important part of guiding our children to the best moral principles."

On the other hand, when the boys go astray, their parents don't spank.

"We're a little more hands off and try to allow our children some choices," she said. Politically, she noted, they're more conservative than some of their liberal friends and more liberal than some of their conservative friends.

Here, she pauses, because it's hard to summarize easily all the little differences and choices that go into how two people choose to rear their children.

Recent research says families fall into one of four "cultures" and those trump any individual parenting styles when it comes to the impact on kids. Forget helicopter moms or attachment parenting. The next generation is being molded by the "Faithful," the "Engaged Progressives," the "Detached" and the "American Dreamers," according to a University of Virginia study.

"Each type represents a complex configuration of moral beliefs, values and dispositions — often implicit and rarely articulated in daily life — largely independent of basic demographic factors such as race, ethnicity and social class," the researchers wrote after completing a three-year study of American families.

So Lorna Carman is listening to descriptions of families, trying to figure out where her little brood would fit in. And as with everything else involving humans, it seems there's some overlap and nuance.

The study

The project, funded by an $850,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, tells "the complex story of parents' habits, dispositions, hopes, fears, assumptions and expectations for their children," said project co-director James Davison Hunter, professor of religion, culture and social theory and the executive director of UV's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

"Though largely invisible, the family cultures are powerful, constituting the worlds that children are raised in, and may well be more consequential than parenting style," Hunter said in a written statement.

"It is a lens also being used recently by social psychologists to look at politics," noted an article in the Huffington Post, concluding that what ends as Red State/Blue State begins as two moral universes — one that revolves around values of faith and tradition, the other focused more on equality and tolerance. "That analysis goes a long way toward explaining why each election leaves so many voters feeling that they live in a different country, and, when applied to parenting, it hints at why other parents seem so clueless."

For the study, researchers conducted an hour-long online survey of a nationally representative sample of 3,000 parents of school-aged children, then followed up with in-person interviews of 101 of them, using open-ended questions "designed to elicit parents' implicit and explicit strategies and assumptions."

They concluded American parents fall into four categories:

The Faithful

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