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Family structure: For kids, no 'average' is the new norm
University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen said that while the single largest group of children, 34 percent, live with married parents who both work, that falls short of qualifying as an "average." - photo by

There's no such thing as an average American family in 2014, at least in the details of family structure. Nor does a "typical" mom exist, according to new research released Thursday by the Council on Contemporary Families.
While the majority of kids live in married, two-parent homes, the percentage has been shrinking. And the details within even those intact families is increasingly diverse.

In the report, "Family Diversity Is the New Normal for America's Children," University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen said that while the single largest group of children, 34 percent, live with married parents who both work, that falls short of qualifying as an "average."

Political and social conversations about family structures and children's lives often do not reflect that degree of diversity, said Cohen, who has a new book out called "The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change."

"I think we still frame our conversations around an ideal that peaked around 1960 and because we think of everything through that prism, we get confused," he said, adding that view impacts the ability to form social policies that benefit kids in diverse families. It creates a challenge to craft research in ways that explain or illuminate the American family in diverse forms, he said.
Take 100 children who are representative of American life, the report says, and 22 live in families where mom stays home and dad earns the income — the "typical" family experience of 65 percent of kids in the 1950s. Another 23 live with a single mother; it's a 50-50 proposition whether that single mom was ever married. Seven live with a cohabiting single parent and three each are being raised by a single dad or grandparent.

Cohen said the study showed that two children, selected at random, have just slightly more than a 50-50 chance they live in the same situation.

One-size policy
A graphic depicting the different family arrangements in which children find themselves growing up creates a "veritable peacock's tail of work-family arrangements," the council said in background material.

Still, "The clear majority of kids are raised in two-parent married homes," said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who was not associated with the report. "Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish. Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States."

He noted that American families experience a tremendous degree of economic diversity that is not always good news for them.
"It's important to note that much of the family diversity today in the United States fuels family inequality and that's because adults and children in single-parent families are less likely to have and acquire the social and economic resources they need to flourish in contemporary America," said Wilcox.

Policy should address the reality of different family forms, according to Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage."

What's dropped with one-size social policy in the face of great diversity is everyone who doesn't fit that size, said Coontz. She cites bereavement as an example: Recent research found some people experience increased wellbeing, some do about the same, some see a slight decline and others suffer significant decline while grieving loss. Trying to average it out creates results that won't apply to most bereaved people, she said.

"It's extremely important for researchers to subdivide," said Coontz. The need is not just to look at broad trends, because what works in one family may have a completely different outcome in another.

"It's a huge challenge — and huge opportunity. Almost every kid can learn, but they need different kinds of learning environments depending on backgrounds, temperaments, family situation and neighborhoods," she said. "We have opportunity to get more of our families succeeding."

Security and stability
Coontz noted the largest group of kids in two-parent families where moms stay at home are in the lowest 25-percent income bracket. The next largest group in the category are married women in the richest 5 percent. There are crucial differences within categories. Women stay home — or work — for different reasons, their satisfaction with either situation is not necessarily equal.
The younger generation is already getting used to the notion that it's not easy to categorize families, said Cohen. Children no longer expect to find just one or two ways that they differ from new friends, like "my parents are married and yours are divorced."

Cohen suggests that crafting sound social policy will rest on providing and encouraging kid-friendly outcomes like security and stability for both the adults and the children. What works for one family may not work for another that is made up entirely differently, he said.

"One way to think about that is that given so many different family arrangements, how can we reduce instability and insecurity in lots of different family arrangements so they can make sound decisions?" said Cohen.

The report can be found online at the Council on Contemporary Families website.

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