Group Differences in Family Behavior? Look Deeper.

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Across the various socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups within our diverse population, there are more similarities in how people think about families and engage in family life than there are differences.  That does not mean that there are no differences.  On average, one group may look slightly or even significantly different from another, and, rather than obscure that variability, we should dive into it to figure out what it means.  As anybody who has taught a family class (or, watched the news really) knows, however, the identification of difference often leads to assumptions of deficit.  In other words, there is a tendency—even among the well-meaning—to think about a single standard of family behavior and judge families who do not adhere to that standard as deviant.  That widespread tendency makes having important conversations that much more difficult, which makes progress that much harder to come by. 


One thing that my training has given me is a constant voice in my head asking “what about history?” and “what about inequality?”  That perspective forces me to try to understand something happening right now in some family or group of families and go backwards in time to capture the historical trend getting us to this point and go up in terms of levels of society to capture the stratification of our society and how it trickles down into our family lives.  This perspective is woven through all chapters in Families Now, and I think it is especially helpful in understanding many instances of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic differences in family life—thinking historically rather than simply contemporaneously, thinking macro instead of solely micro.  As a result, we can “cancel” deficit model and instead think of such differences in terms of the ways that the families adapt to their own unique sets of needs and challenges within their specific environments. To share some examples from Chapters 8, 11, and 12 from Families Now:

  • Social scientists now tend to discuss the significantly higher likelihood that low-income parents will have children when unmarried (vs. married) in terms of economics rather than morals.  They highlight how historical changes in the economy (e.g., rising inequality, declining job stability) have led economically vulnerable parents—much more than their economically stable counterparts—to view marriage as an insecure and unpredictable setting for having children.
  • Qualitative studies have problematized the narrative around the relatively low rate of breastfeeding among African-American women over the last half-century, shifting the discussion from questions about good and bad maternal choices to highlight how they actively resist the too-narrow definitions of what it means to be a good mother that are imposed on them by the larger society.
  • U.S. schools increasingly expect parents to be visibly involved in school activities, so the lower-than-average engagement of Latino/a parents was often interpreted by school personnel (and researchers) that they cared less about their children’s education than other parents.  More culturally informed research has revealed that such interpretations ignore the barriers that schools erect to Latino/a parents’ involvement but also the many ways that they support their children’s education that school personnel (and researchers) do not see.


To keep going with this discussion, present to your class the specific example, discussed in Chapters 2 and 8, in which the rate of fertility and extended family structures among Mexican immigrants in the U.S. is higher compared to the general U.S. population.

  • Ask the students to explain this difference—why would Mexican immigrants have more children and more often live with other kin than, say, White non-immigrants in the U.S.?
  • Remind students that the rates of fertility and extended family structures among Mexican immigrants in the U.S. is also higher than Mexicans in Mexico—what does that say about the use of any cultural explanations for the family behaviors of Mexican immigrants?
  • If using both comparison points allows non-cultural explanations to emerge, what are those other kinds of explanations?  Does the idea of adaptation to the environment factor into these explanations?
About the Author
Robert Crosnoe is Rapoport Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the chair of the Department of Sociology and also holds faculty appointments in the Population Research Center and (by courtesy) Department of Psychology. Prior to coming to Texas, he received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University and completed post-doctoral fellowships at the Center for Developmental Science and Carolina Population Center, both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Crosnoe’s research primarily focuses on family, education, and health with special attention to the experiences of children, adolescents, and young adults from socioeconomically disadvantaged and immigrant populations. This research has been funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Sciences, National Institute of Justice, William T. Grant Foundation, and Foundation for Child Development. It has been published in inter-disciplinary journals, such as American Educational Research Journal, American Journal of Public Health, American Sociological Review, Child Development, Demography, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Marriage and Family, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His books include Mexican Roots, American Schools: Helping Mexican Immigrant Children Succeed (Stanford University Press), Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education (Cambridge University Press), Asset or Distraction: Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital from Adolescence and Young Adulthood (Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development with Rachel Gordon), Healthy Learners: A Whole Child Approach to Disparities in Early Education (Teachers College Press with Claude Bonazzo and Nina Wu), and Debating Early Child Care: The Relationship between Developmental Science and the MediaUniversity Press with Tama Leventhal). In the past, Dr. Crosnoe has been a Co-PI of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, chaired the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association, served on the Governing Council of the Society for Research in Child Development, and completed a term as Deputy Editor of Journal of Marriage and Family. Currently, he is President-Elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Collaborative on Development in Context, and serves on the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. He has been elected to the Sociological Research Association, received awards from the Society for Research in Child Development, three sections of the American Sociological Association, and the Society for Research on Human Development. He has also been awarded the Scholar Award from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Changing Faces of America’s Children fellowship from the Foundation for Child Development and completed a fellowship year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.