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The Big Challenges of Making Small Changes in Family Life

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When people find out about the family research that I conduct as a social scientist, they often look at me quizzically and ask “that’s nice, but how useful is it?”  To them, advancing understanding of how families work seems less than important if that research is not directly leading to explicit plans of actions to help or change families in some way.  I do not agree with that sentiment, but I get where it is coming from to some extent.  There is the need to point out and explain social problems and the need to remedy such problems, and it certainly seems efficient if those two things are part of the same enterprise even if they do not have to be.  Yet, efforts to change families—even those that are grounded in sound research—often do not have any impact.  Partly, that is because families—like people—are hard to change.  

One thing that is clear to me after many years in this line of work is that improving this less than ideal record of impact requires that we come together to construct beyond multifaceted approaches to problems facing families.  One theme of Families Now is that the core element of a multifaceted approach is that it links macro and micro levels of understanding of some problem or challenge. With such a macro-micro linkage, we can connect family policies to family interventions.  The former concern broad-scale efforts to shift the population of families in some intended direction, such as the federal welfare reform legislation discussed in Chapter 4 that was intended to increase employment rates in the population of low-income mothers and reduce the number of families on public assistance in the process.  The latter are targeted efforts to shift dynamics within families in some intended direction, such as community-based programs discussed in Chapter 15 to help improve the climate of relationships in families with children with chronic illnesses by providing emotional supports to those children’s siblings.  Surveying so many different policies and interventions collectively across the chapters in Families Now suggests to me—and I hope to your students—that family policy and intervention need to partner up.  Consider the discussion of some major government-funded programs in Families Now:

  • An effort to increase the quality and health of marriages among low-income couples by improving their communication and interactions had disappointing results, and one criticism of this program was that it focused too much on what was going on between spouses and not enough on the outside external pressures (e.g., economic instability) on them. 
  • An effort to improve the academic and health outcomes of young people from low-income families by moving them in large numbers to more affluent communities with greater economic opportunities did not consistently yield its intended benefits, and one criticism of this program was that it focused too much on the residential distribution of families across communities and not enough on the interpersonal dynamics (such as peer relations) that young people faced upon moving.

In one case, a lot of money went towards something too micro, and, in another, it went towards something too macro.  Is there some meeting point?

To delve deeper into these issues, pose the following challenge to your students.  The goal is to reduce the rate of child maltreatment (i.e., abuse or neglect) in families, and your state creates a blue-ribbon family to propose actions to achieve this goal.  Separate the students into groups representing different blue ribbon panels, and ask each group to sketch out one general plan to address this problem.  After the groups present their proposed plans to the class, lead a discussion of how much they lean towards the policy and intervention side and how they could balance these two approaches.

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.