A new study by the Search Institute focuses on family relationships rather than on family structure. The results? Connections to others are important, as are routines and expectations.
Today's families are definitely doing something right, and the Search Institute in Minneapolis has gathered some new data to prove it.
Last month, the organization released the results of the American Family Assets Study, a nationwide survey conducted by Harris Interactive in June 2011 that targeted more than 1,500 families -- parents as well as their kids, ages 10 to 15 -- revealing what the Search Institute calls "a new portrait of America's families that focuses on family relationships rather than family structure."
The results of the research -- culled from online answers to more than 200 questions per parent and 175 per child -- led to the creation of the new Family Assets Framework. It highlights five main areas that contribute to thriving families. These are nurturing relationships, establishing routines, maintaining expectations, adapting to challenges and connecting to community.
The higher the level of assets, the more positive the outcomes for all family members. For kids, this is reflected through engagement at school, taking care of themselves (healthy food choices, enough sleep) and empathy toward those being treated unfairly. Parents, in addition to paying attention to their own health, tend to be actively involved in community life.
Demographics -- single- or two-parent households, income, immigration status or parents' sexual orientation -- matter less. What matters more is building or fortifying connections not only within the family but within the broader community (among neighbors, teachers, and coaches).
We asked Gene Roehlkepartain, acting president and CEO of Search Institute, to weigh in on the survey results and explain how all families can use these findings to make simple but meaningful changes.
Q Why is the distinction between family structure and family relationships so valuable?
A The structure of a family is much less important than how we live our lives together. We tend to talk a lot about structure, but families are taking a lot of control over the ways they can make their family strong, whatever their family looks like. I think that is really good news.
Q According to the survey, the most common Family Asset is "clear expectations," which 84 percent listed as a strength. Since the number also includes responses from young people, this seems like a victory for parents.
A Parents are setting expectations that kids are hearing. Kids know and understand what is expected of them as members of the family on some key points. One of the assets in the framework under the category of "adapting to challenges" is "democratic decision making," which means that everybody in the family has a say in a decision that will affect the family. This promotes a "we're all in this together" mentality.
Q "Nurturing relationships" was also highly ranked as a strength by families, although "connecting to community," which seems like it would also focus on relationships, was the lowest at 22 percent. What do you make of this disparity?
A I think that creating community involves going beyond the kinds of transactions families have with neighbors, coaches and teachers, toward finding ways to get to know these and other people outside the family in a deeper way. Families who live in suburban or rural communities tend to list fewer overall assets than those in urban areas -- there can be different levels of opportunity to form connections in a city neighborhood, for instance.
Q How are the financial struggles faced by many families today reflected in this survey?
A The way families adapt to challenges is part of the framework -- that point emerged as one of the greatest needs among parents and kids. Every family has to adjust to changes in their daily life which could include everything from financial problems or job loss to the death of a pet or family member. One of the underlying messages of the survey is that many are experiencing strong, healthy family lives in spite of the odds.
Q What are some ways that families can incorporate the results of the study into their own lives?
A Look over all the assets and talk about places where you believe your family can do better. If you're feeling like you don't know your neighbors well, think about ways to build those relationships.
Take a look at family routines -- which are different than ruts -- and see what your family is doing to establish routines, which build confidence. Make time for more family meals and relaxation -- parents tend to put doing things for the kids ahead of their own need to relax.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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