American Ideal Is Kin Through Thick and Thin

Demographer Graham B. Spanier finds a puzzling bit of hope from his own family history.

His late father, Fritz, who fled Nazi Germany at age 15, failed miserably at home.

“His marriage was dismal, his family life was decidedly unhappy, and his abusive behavior toward his wife and children, tolerated in the 1950s, would have resulted in legal intervention today,” Spanier told a gathering of psychologists, social workers, therapists and others here last week.

Yet Fritz Spanier remained married for 37 years, instilling his children with a powerful commitment to family stability. All three offspring are now married, with children of their own--and they, like many others from damaged homes, seem to have inherited a strong vision of family continuity, in spite of growing up with fear and violence.


“Why do so many children experience abuse, disruption, poverty, or hunger, yet somehow, against great odds, reach adulthood with the notion that family life can be rewarding?” Spanier asked, in addressing the 4,400-member National Council on Family Relations, of which he is president.

The answer, he theorized, may be that a powerful commitment to marriage and family is being transmitted even in families that could be described as unhappy, broken, pathological or nonexistent.

Despite the sweeping social change that has buffeted the American family in recent decades, new evidence indicates children and adults are far more resilient in surviving upheaval than previously believed, he said.

A Shift Toward Pessimism


“Don’t get me wrong,” said Spanier, 40, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “I believe the tide is shifted in a decidedly pessimistic direction. But my hope comes from some very recent studies indicating that children and families show a hardiness, or built-in reserves to weather dysfunction and come out emotionally and psychologically healthy, and turn things around in the next generation.”

The forces of change are considerable. Widely accepted statistics indicate that today, first-married couples in an intact marriage, with two children and mom at home represent only 8% of the nation’s families.

More worrisome, it is estimated that 35% of all children born in the 1980s will experience living in single-parent families twice by 1990, said B. Kay Pasley, a family scientist at Colorado State University’s human development and family studies department at Ft. Collins.

But recent studies, said Spanier, a sociologist and licensed marriage and family counselor, “instruct us that some widely held beliefs about the negative impact on children of divorce or parental absence may be overstated if not wrong.”

For example, a wide-ranging assessment questions whether departure from the nuclear-family norm is harmful to children. Written by sociologists David Demo of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blackburg and Alan C. Acock at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the review evaluates more than 100 studies of various family structures and children’s well-being.

“We found there is no conclusive evidence that family structure, per se, is crucial to children’s social and psychological well-being,” said Demo in a telephone interview. “What researchers have documented is that the quality of relationships within the family, whatever the family structure, is important to a child’s well-being. That includes the quality of the parent-child relationship as well as the relationship between the adults.”

Moreover, Demo said, “our review indicates persistent family conflict is a very important variable affecting children. If there is marital discord, if parents and children aren’t spending much time together, and when they do come together it is in conflict, this has a negative impact on children in terms of self-concept, what they think of themselves and academic performance.”

Spanier also cited a recent longitudinal study by Paul R. Amato, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, finding that adults who experienced parental divorce or death as children were no different in self-esteem than adults who grew up in continuously intact families.


“You find a lot of consensus among researchers that in the first year or so after divorce and separation, there certainly is a negative effect on children. They are upset emotionally, their grades go down and they exhibit behavior problems. But it appears that the majority of kids come out of it OK. When we follow these kids into adulthood, the effects of divorce become more difficult to discern,” he said.

Less in Control

Amato did find adults who experience parental divorce or death had a somewhat lower sense of power and felt somewhat less in control. However, he believes this effect is economic in derivation, linked to education. “These adults turn out not to get as much education because they grow up in one-parent families, get lower-paying, lower-status jobs and have greater problems in adulthood for those reasons. Remember, the majority of children in one-parent families grow up at or below the poverty line,” he said.

Clinicians working with adults in therapeutic settings view such research with some skepticism. “We want to prove that divorce won’t damage our children, that working parents won’t damage our children. The reality is that kids don’t have much help in resolving grief. Our children’s pain scares us so much that we don’t do enough to help them resolve it,” said Carolyn J. Moynihan, a social worker who is director of the Family Place in Mt. Horeb, Wis.

“After more than 20 years of practice, I can tell you that how well children do depends on how much is resolved following divorce. The painful reality is that everywhere out there are adults who have scars, spots still tender, and suffer irretrievable losses of parent time,” she said.

Never Understood

In her office recently, Moynihan said, she listened to a 17-year-old girl sob unconsolably over her parents’ divorce 10 years earlier. “In 10 years, this young woman never knew why her father left her mother and never heard her father say how genuinely anguished he continues to be at having to leave. And the father never heard of his daughter’s pain,” Moynihan said.

Spanier doesn’t foresee a return to the dominance of the traditional nuclear family at any time in the future, a sentiment echoed many times at the conference. Professionals expressed frustration in trying to make the public understand that the family of yesteryear is a vanishing species.


“If a grandmother is raising grandchildren, that is a family. If an unwed mother marries, her husband is a stepfather, and that is a family. A single father with sole custody of his child comprises a family, but the rest of society seems to cling to the very outdated norm of what the family is,” said one weary psychologist.

Spanier agreed: “Instead of trying to come up with a different America, we need to find ways of adapting to what’s happening today. There are people who say, ‘Families are falling apart because people are divorcing,’ or ‘The problem is women are working,’ or ‘The problem is day care.’ I am saying that is a lot of baloney. We are going to have these things for a long time to come, and we need to find a way to build the family around them.”

A Lingering Fantasy

For example, he said, despite what we know about women working full time, kindergartens routinely end at 12:30 p.m.

“What is this fantasy that mothers are available to pick up children at midday? And why do we require someone to pick up the children and take them to another setting for day care? We know that continuity at one site is easiest on children.”

Aside from the lack of child care, Spanier said, the combination of work and mothering is an exhausting life style for most women, and that women’s pure leisure time is declining. “Success in managing the work-family dilemma would raise our hopes for the family of the future; failure could surely dash such hopes,” he said.

Spanier also called for translating research into action. Referring to the work of Marilyn McCubbin of the University of Wisconsin’s school of nursing, who has been studying the resiliency of some families in adapting to change, Spanier said: “If we can discover how some of these families deal with stress and survive these transitions, it will tell us what interventions we can use to draw out these strengths.”

Many at the conference found Spanier too pessimistic. “I don’t think the family has deteriorated. It depends on what period in our history you are using as comparison,” said David Baptiste, a counseling psychologist and marital and family therapist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Never Ideal Situation

“We never had an ideal family. That is the myth of the romanticist. In the Colonial period, we had a great deal of desertion. Following world wars, we had a lot of children without fathers. And throughout history (when women didn’t have economic freedom to leave marriages), we had a lot of people living quiet, anguished lives,” Baptiste said.

“In the 1960s, people were saying we were going to hell in a basket, and we didn’t. Every country goes through these periods of change, and I think the family will weather the storm,” he said.

Pauline Boss, a social psychologist and family therapist with the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, concurs.

“I tend to be an optimist,” she said. “Things are not good, but they are certainly better than in the 1950s or 1960s. We had a vision of the perfect family then, but we also had a lot of anger, conflict and depression.”

Boss and others think that to adapt to change, many families are reaching out to include others in a positive way. “For example, when you have women who are single parents joining together to celebrate their children’s graduations, I would argue that this is a very positive influence. Who is to say that this is worse than an intact family celebration, where the father is abusive?” she asked.

Regarding the future, Boss offered one reservation: “Policy makers tend to envision a very outmoded picture of what a family is today. We are in trouble until the people who make policy hear this.”

Carl Broderick, professor of sociology and director of marriage and family training at USC, marvels at the human spirit. “Even in the greatest poverty and in the most disruptive family styles we know about, people are creative and are constructing mechanisms for support and survival,” he said. “We really don’t understand why it happens, but there are people who, as individuals, say, ‘I will not pass this on to my child,’ ” Broderick said.

“I am that kind of person. I am a loyal, loving, egalitarian father. But I had three fathers, and none were like that.”