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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

The Faithful, 20 percent of American parents, adhere to "divine and timeless morality" from traditional Christianity, Judaism or Islam to give them a strong sense of right and wrong. They try to preserve moral order, raising "children whose lives reflect God's purpose." They talk often with their kids about faith, have family devotions, attend church and pray before meals.

A news release explained them this way: "A number of the Faithful attitudes line up with stereotypes of conservative Christians. For example, they use spanking, strongly disapprove of gay marriage or sex outside marriage, and the Faithful women embrace the role of homemaker. But several attitudes depart from stereotypes. The Faithful want their families to be warm and emotionally supportive and think men should put family before their career, just as women should."

Engaged Progressives

For this 21 percent, morality centers on personal freedom and responsibility. They see few moral absolutes except the Golden Rule, they value honesty, are skeptical about religion and trust what "feels right," also allowing others moral latitude. They are the least religious, the study said.

They are pretty optimistic about today's culture and their children's future, hoping to help them become what the researchers call "responsible choosers." Their children get more freedom. By 14, they know about birth control, by 15, they surf the Web without supervision and by 16 they watch R-rated movies.

They are politically liberal, support gay marriage, value tolerance and "believe the playing field of life should be relatively fair and even."

The Detached

This group (19 percent) let kids be kids. They are skeptical of the "old certainties" of the Faithful, but are just as skeptical about the views of the Engaged Progressives. They are primarily white with blue-collar jobs, no college degree and lower income. They are less happy in their marriages, not particularly close to their children and think they are "in a losing battle with all the other influences out there." They spend less than two hours a day interacting with their kids and when they have dinner as a family, it is often in front of the TV. They don't usually monitor their kids' homework and their kids tend to have lower grades than those of the other parenting cultures.

The Detached, say the researchers, are pessimistic about the economic future and their children's opportunities and "seem resigned." They say they believe in God, but don't attend church and religion is not an important part of their children's lives.

American Dreamers

The American Dreamers make up 27 percent. They are optimistic about their kids' opportunities and abilities and even with relatively low household income and education, they "pour themselves" into raising their children and giving them material and social advantages. They try to protect their kids from negative social influences and strive for strong moral character. This is the most common family culture among blacks and Hispanics.

They are more likely to be women, they believe in God and claim religion as important but "embrace a live-and-let-live morality when it comes to other people." They voice opinions. Two-thirds of them are married but they feature more single parents and count more on extended-family support.

They are "very close" to their children and hope to be best friends some day. "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 time-outs, threatening spanking and spanking," the researchers noted.

What matters

"The study also revealed that between all the categories, most of the parents said their children share the same values as they do, despite outside influences — and dissension in the household is usually about everyday things like setting curfews or doing the dishes," noted Daryl Nelson of Consumer Affairs. "Researchers also found that there are less authoritarian types of parents than in previous generations and many try to properly balance the art of being a disciplinarian and friend to their child, which certainly wasn’t the case in the past with many parents."

And while parents may fall into categories, experts note that children are still very individualized, siblings are often quite unlike each other. The Carmans already see that in their kids.

"We do have great hope for our children and their futures," says Lorna Carman, who has concluded from the brief descriptions that she and her husband, who teaches special education in a high school, are probably just a little more American Dreamer than Faithful. Barely.

"But we are not so naive as we once were as parents, before the recession, about how hard it might be for them to achieve success in their future families and careers. And so we work harder to empower them psychologically and spiritually, not through extracurricular activities and extra lessons... but through communicating with them, educating them about the world, spending time with them and building a trusting relationship with them.

"We don't hope to be their best friends someday necessarily, but we would like them to know we are their biggest supporters, their advocates, we will alway love them and they can talk to us."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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