If you have ever wondered what might be in the mind of the parents who are moulding the attitudes of the younger generation, you may be interested in a three-year study of the “Culture of American Families” that has just been released by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Many parents – not to mention politicians, journalists, academics and public servants – will be fascinated by the insight that this study offers into the divisions that are shaping the future of the United States and that will inevitably flow on to other “advanced economies” as well.

The report identifies four types of family cultures which it labels “the Faithful”, “the Engaged Progressives”, “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers”. (They could just have well have reduced it to the “religious”,  “liberals”, “cynics” and “social climbers”.) It is based on a national survey of 3,000 parents of school-age children, which was followed up with “intensive, in-person interviews” of 101 parents (the uneven number no doubt reflecting the influence of today’s single-parent families). Its aim was to look more deeply into the “diverse moral narratives” that parents are passing on to their kids. While to some extent  the report states the obvious, it also contains useful insights and quantifies trends with hard numbers.

It has release a swag of lengthy documents with the report, including an executive report, a national survey, an interview report and tables from the national survey. All this might be a bit hard to digest for the average reader, so thankfully it has made its main findings more manageable through a press release that a number of media outlets, including the Huffington Post, have already used. The release breaks down each of the four groups under five headings: 

  • Who they are;
  • Most important value;
  • Where they live and what their families look like;
  • Outlook; and
  • Reflection of their worldview on their parenting.

Interestingly, the largest of the four groups is the “American Dreamers”, or social-climber grouping. They represent 27 percent of the total US population and unsurprisingly are made up mainly of low-income families, around half of which are Hispanic or black. Fewer than two-thirds are currently married, many have never married, and they are more likely than any other group to be women. The outlook of this group is described as “optimistic”, but their attitudes are worrying: they are determined to ensure that their children will be better off than they were and “will do anything to make that happen”.

Just as worrying are the “Detached”, or cynical, group, which accounts for 19 per cent of the population. They feel marginalised and when asked what trait they most wanted to see in their children, only one-third considered honesty to be “absolutely essential”. Their outlook is characterised as “worried” and they strongly disagree with the statement that “this is a great time to be bringing children into the world”. But their main concern is not about a loss of belief in “morality or God, but about “individual influence lost”.

Surprisingly, these two groups taken together outnumber the two that are often characterised as being the most influential in western societies — the “religious” and the so called “progressives”.
The religious — “Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other” — are characterised as being mostly concerned about morality.

They worry that the rest of the world doesn’t share it,  and they deeply want their children to know the difference between right and wrong. When faced with a situation that is morally unclear, for instance, “the Faithful overwhelmingly say they would decide what to do based upon what God or scripture tells them is right (88 percent), rather than upon “what is best for everyone involved” (9 percent) or what would “make you happy” (2 percent).” Two-thirds are white, 16 percent are Hispanic and 11 percent are black. Their education level is average, their family size is larger than average, and they are most heavily concentrated in the South. Eighty-eight percent are married, 74 percent of them in their first marriage. They are four times more likely to be Republican than Democrat.

You might expect that religious people would be characterised as having a positive outlook — after all, they do believe in a benevolent God and a life beyond this one in which justice will be achieved. But the report characterises them as “negative”, mainly due to their perception of a culture that is in moral decline, particularly in relation to “the quality of TV, movies, and entertainment”; and “the dating and sexual practices of teenagers.”
Their worldview on parenting is characterised thus:

The Faithful pray as a family daily over meals, believe in spanking and regular chores, turn to pastors and spiritual counselors, not clinicians or experts for parenting advice, and feel secure as parents in their control over their children. “Fully two-thirds reject the idea that ‘trying to control teenagers’ access to technology is a losing battle,’ compared with 41 percent of other parents”.

By contrast “Engaged Progressives” are said to be more positive, given their commitment to tolerance which outweighs all questions of right and wrong. They believe primarily in personal freedom and reduce morality to doing “what would be best for everyone involved”. This group is said to be “more educated than average”, with a smaller-than-average family size. While eighty percent are married, only 63 percent remain in their first marriage. They are four times as likely to be Democrats as Republicans.

Their worldview on parenting?

There is little prayer but lots of talking. More exposure to popular culture and technology. When advice is needed it’s gotten from therapists, psychologists and counselors. They are reluctant to spank, and also hesitant to use punishments like grounding, scolding or taking away privileges.

One interesting similarity between the religious and progressives is that they both see themselves as less strict than their own parents were, and as being closer to their children.

William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.