Myths and Realities About American Families
by H. Stephen Glenn
Several years ago a popular song focused on the endless stream of bad
news that dominates media in the United States. The chorus includes the
phrase "sure could use...a little good news today."
This chorus could be said to reflect the feelings of people who work
to support children, youth and families. That constant flow of negative
information and stereotypes about families undercuts the hope that we
know is necessary for all of us to thrive. It has been said that "hope
dies in the face of pessimism...hope thrives on an awareness of positive
Resiliency studies show that hope, optimism and family cohesiveness
are the critical variables present in highly functioning families. The
truly good news is that all these variables are present in highly
functioning families. Any family, in any socio-economic situation or
with any level of education can acquire and use these attitudes to great
advantage-and studies show that many, many families do just that. We
just don't hear about or focus on that good news often enough.
As a society, Americans tend to be alert to what's wrong rather than
what's right. We do this on the job, in our schools, in our
relationships and in our families. But, thankfully, this attitude is
undergoing a change in America. We are becoming more aware of the power
inherent in heeding and building on the positive aspects of our jobs,
schools, relationships and families.
While attempting to make this change, it is helpful to be guided by
the principle, "Sometimes we find in a careful study of our recent past
keys to our future."
To understand this saying, we can look at the work of epidemiologists
(people who study the incidence, spread and control of disease). When a
new disease appears in a population, they seek out the survivors of
it-those who were fully exposed to it but didn't become ill-to find out
what protected them. By cutting through the misinformation and
determining why these people are doing so well, scientists can pass
along what they learned, which ultimately empowers others at risk of
catching the disease to face the challenge more effectively.
In applying this principle to families in America, it is clear that
we can do the same thing. "Bad news," which is often news taken out of
context or outright misinformation in the media that is passed along
verbally, can be quite frightening. But getting the full story-the
reality-is most often very encouraging and empowering.
Following are some common, modern-day myths about families
accompanied by realities that disprove them. Read them, pass them along
and watch hope grow.
Myth #1: The American Family is Disintegrating.
Hardly a day goes by without hearing references to the shakiness of
the family as a unit of social cohesion and support. As I am writing
this article with the radio on in the background. i heard a commentator
say, "given the disintegration of the family in America...."
REALITY #1: FAMILIES ARE ALIVE AND WELL IN AMERICA.
The commentator should have said "the disintegration of many families
in America." The truth is that there are probably more healthy, high
functioning families in America now than in the recent past.(As a
percentage of the whole.)
In the 1950's, the bell curve representation of the American family
would look like a one-humped camel: a large curve with steep sides,
small "tails" and a broad dome. Statisticians would say this represented
a homogenous population, with a relatively small group above the norm
who were very high functioning and a slightly smaller group that would
have been considered low functioning-for example, those struggling
within the criminal justice system. Most families however, were
concentrated in the middle-on the broad dome of the camel hum. They had
some problems, but they got by.
The majority started to feel the increase of modern pressures on
family life; mobility, loss of extended family, television,
two-wage-earner families, increased adolescent pregnancy, increased drug
use. These pressures built up on the dome until the weight collapsed
it, forcing families to move to one side or the other of the middle. The
one-humped camel developed two humps (a bi-modal distribution) with
some families moving toward being less effective and others moving
toward leaning how to be healthier and more effective in the face of
societal pressures. The latter group once again formed the majority, but
a smaller one than that of the 1950's. The less effective families
remain in the minority, but it is those families that media focused upon
and turned into a stereotype to represent the state of the American
However, as this article will reveal, the majority of American
families are functioning relatively well or are moving through the
valley of the two curves. Renowned family therapist K. Virginia Satir
once said the vast majority of families will go through periods of
dysfunction as they adapt to a changing world. Any system open to growth
and change will experience dysfunction as it changes (and, remember,
that during times of change, thisng will often get worse before they get
It is important to keep our perspective: the majority of families are
working hard to improve their family life rather than giving up-or
disintegrating. For example, surveys in 1962-63 revealed that 85% of all
fathers said raising kids was primarily a mother's responsibility. Now
surveys show that about 40% of all fathers think raising children is a
joint responsibility. Twenty-five years ago when I taught
family-oriented workshops, about 10% of the participants were fathers.
Today, fathers make up about 35% of the attendees. This speaks volumes
about the health of American families. Resiliency studies consistently
show that having involved parents is a very strong protective factor for
Families are facing challenges each day with optimism, hope and
commitment. And while modern American lifestyles can scatter family
members in various ways, many families are learning to "reintegrate"
themselves so they can preserve the strength inherent in families that
have healthy bonds. here's how they're doing it.
- They establish family rituals and traditions that give them a
sense of identity.
- They have regular, effective family meetings.
- They are pro-active in preparing their children with essential
life skills and leave little room for society to exploit them.
- They incorporate their children's peers into family activities.
- The problem-solve together.
- They treat dialogue and collaboration as priorities
- They have a spiritual base and encourage their children to
contribute in meaningful ways to relevant institutions and the community
- They teach discipline by coaching with firmness, dignity and
MYTH #2: THE "DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY."
"I am the way I am because I come from a dysfunctional family."
REALITY #2: MOST FAMILIES FUNCTION ON SOME LEVEL.
We hear the statement above all the time. But the "dysfunctional
family" is a stereotype. Most families function. They just may not be
functioning in all ways according to the ideal of certain best-selling
authors. Not all so-called "dysfunctional" families do everything in
dysfunctional ways, nor do all so-called "functional" families do
everything in healthy ways. Nor does any family affect any two members
the same way. For example, three children raised by the same parent(s)
may report very different perceptions of that family.
We are having the experiences we are having because of the way we are
currently responding to issues from our family. What's important about
this knowledge is that we can choose to respond to those issues in ways
that make us feel good or at peace with ourselves. In other words, if
our learned responses to unsettling family issues have not made us feel
good in the past, we can learn different responses that will make us
feel better in the future.
The power inherent in this insight was brought home to me at a recent
conference. When I finished my presentation, a woman came rushing up to
me with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. She said, "I was
needy and came into the recovery field for help. I now see that I have
allowed myself to become buried in stereotypes. When I arrived this
morning, I was an adult child of an alcoholic, codependent from a
dysfunctional family. Now I realize I am just a person with a wide range
of experiences. Some good and some painful.
"by calling my family 'dysfunctional', I have lost sight of many
wonderful and healthy experiences in my family of origin that I need to
celebrate and take strength from. I have also avoided being specific
about my issues and working on my responses to them."
MYTH #3: ABUSED CHILDREN GROW UP TO BE ABUSIVE PARENTS.
Research indicates that approximately 90% of all abusive parents were
themselves abused as children.
REALITY #3: MOST ABUSED CHILDREN DO NOT GROW UP TO BE ABUSIVE
Many people are familiar with this statistic and jump to the
conclusion that if a child is abused, he or she will grow up to be an
abuser. The statistic above relates to parents who are identified by
some social institution as being abusive. Adults who were abused
children but don't abuse their own children are not reported to
Research from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that
60%-65% of abused children do not repeat a pattern of abuse when they
have children. Some research indicates that children who learn to act
upon emotions rather that react to them are able to break the pattern.
It is the child who thinks she caused the parent's anger that caused an
abusive act, who has no contingency plan for dealing with feelings of
anger. When that child has children of her own and feels angry with
them, she believes her children cause her anger (as she had once caused
her parent's anger), so the only reaction she knows is to hurt the
An abused child who asks, "When I get angry with my children, what
can I do to handle the anger differently?" is setting out on a different
path. As adolescents or as adults facing this question, they may
remember that their friends' parents didn't express anger by means of
verbal or physical abuse. Or, through reading or seeing movies, they may
come to understand that there are many ways to handle anger and to
relate to others that don't involve harming another.
Parents, teachers, counselors, mentors and other adults can help support
this learning process early by talking with a young person about an
event in which their feelings were involved. "What were you feeling?"
"What did you do in response to the feeling?" "What were the results of
doing that?" "What else might you have done in response to the feeling?"
"If you did that, what might have been the results?" (This is easiest
to do when the focus is on a recent event, but after the young person's
feelings are calmed down and he is distanced a bit from the situation.)
MYTH #4: "THIS" GENERATION IS PARTICULARLY AT RISK.
Many people express the belief that most American young people are
doing poorly and are hostile toward adults. Some studies have even shown
that increasing numbers of adults admit to being frightened by young
people in general and will go to significant lengths to avoid contact
REALITY #4: MOST YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY ARE VERY MUCH LIKE THE
GENERATIONS THAT HAVE COME BEFORE THEM.
Constant references in the media and in conversation to negative
trends regarding young people skew our perspective. No matter how "bad"
things have become in America, we have never reached the point where
more than 20-25% of our young people become statistics in human or
welfare services or the criminal justice system (many hwo do become
involved in those systems are counted several times in all three
systems, hence the high percentage). Basic math indicates that the vast
majority of young people are growing up in family and community
environments that prepare them reasonably well for the routine tasks of
life-the same as preceding generations.
And while popular myth has it that most young people don't respect
adults as they once did, the facts show something else. A recent
nationwide study by Search Institute asked young people aged 12 to 18 to
name the three people they most look up to. More than 55% identified
one or both parents. The next largest percentage-about 47%-named a
teacher, counselor, youth worker, grandparent or other adult mentor.
Tallying in with much lower percentages-18-20%-were sports,
entertainment and political celebrities.
Young people also were asked whom they would consult or whom they
could count on to be there for them if they had a serious problem.
Again, parents topped the list at more then 50%. Next, 40-43%, came
counselors, student assistance workers, teachers and other adult
mentors. Then, ahead of their friends, came their friends' parents. When
asked why they would go to an adult rather than a friend with a
problem, the typical response was, "My friends don't know much more
about things than I do. I need someone with experience to rely on."
The majority of families in the United States are doing OK at their
job of raising kids. They're functioning fairly well, even though they
may go through periods of difficulty. Families are producing children
who view their parents and many other adults as people they can look up
to and count on. Our challenge is to balance our concern for young
people who are struggling with a practical awareness of what relatively
successful kids are doing differently. This perspective will allow us to
teach, lead and encourage troubled kids with an attitude of optimism
Reprinted from Student Assistance Journal with permission of
Performance Resource Press, Inc., 1270 Rankin Drive, Suite F, Troy, MI