According to this Wall Street Journal piece, American anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at UCLA have turned their sights from studying family life in such places as Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon, to Southern California’s middle class.

They studied family life up close and personal (“in vivo”), rather than in a lab setting—though I’m not sure how the latter would be accomplished—in order to determine how families with two working parents balance their various cares and responsibilities.

The UCLA team recorded video for a week of nearly every moment at home in the lives of 32 Southern California families. […] Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers.

As a mom of several, I couldn’t help chuckling at this line:

“The researchers noted that the presence of the observers may have altered some of the families’ behavior.”

Gee, ya think? It would certainly have altered mine. My children tend to be on their best behavior when they are being observed by outsiders. For that matter, so do I. The only families whose behavior is not altered by cameras and observers are likely the stuff of which reality TV is made, and be it better or worse, it can rarely be called ‘normal’.

I initially felt encouraged upon reading about this research. One certainly can’t fault them for their aims:

The center … wants to understand “what the middle class thought, felt and what they did,” says Dr. Ochs. The researchers plan to publish two books this year on their work, and say they hope the findings may help families become closer and healthier.

It’s refreshing to hear about someone who wants to help families, and not just ‘deconstruct’ their values or deride them for their various dysfunctions. It’s in marked contrast to what I can only call anti-family forces, which seem bent on mocking the family into oblivion. We’ve observed ad nauseam how marriage and middle class families have been the brunt of cynical and degrading humour in pop culture films and sitcoms.

Not surprisingly, however, the anthropologists did find much that was, if not mock-worthy, then discouraging. They observed patterns of behavior among and between the children and the parents, leading researchers to ask two questions:

  1. Why do American children depend on their parents to do things for them that they are capable of doing for themselves?
  2. How do U.S. working parents’ views of “family time” affect their stress levels?

Overwhelmingly, the kids were needy and unhelpful.

In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals [by the parents] to help….  In the remaining eight families, the children weren’t asked to do much.


Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said.

In short,

“The kids are oblivious to their parents’ perspectives,” says Dr. Ochs. […] the studied children didn’t seem to view it as their routine responsibility to contribute.”

As for parents’ expectations regarding “family time”, the UCLA team seemed to conclude that the concept tended to be interpreted in an “idealized”, highly structured –dare I say artificial—manner, as opposed to something that flowed organically from the life of the family.

I’d be willing to venture that both these problematic issues stem from the fact that, outside of parents’ job schedules, there are simply not enough hours in the day. When there is less time spent together, parents feel anxious to make those remaining hours count. The myth of “quality time” is still omnipresent. As for training children to be helpful and responsible, that also takes a lot of time and effort. Any parent can tell you that it takes much less time to do a given task him/herself than it does to patiently (and repeatedly) train a child to do it.

In about 75% of the families, the mothers came home first and began to “gyrate” through the house, bouncing between the kids and their homework, groceries, dinner and laundry…

Not exactly the stuff upon which a patient apprenticeship in life skills is founded.

According to the article, how children “develop moral responsibility” is an area of keen interest for the researchers—I’d say the future of civilization depends on it too. I believe the study was flawed from the start, due to the incredibly small sample, limited geographical location thereof, and that the researchers exclusively studied dual-career families. Perhaps the majority of contemporary middle class families do have two working parents, but a significant number do not. It would have been interesting to contrast this sample with families that have one parent at home full-time. Or maybe that would have yielded results just a little too politically incorrect for UCLA. 

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...