Monday, May 24, 2010


The NY Times has a piece today by Benedict Carey on the videotape study of 32 Los Angeles families, carried out in 2002-2005 by anthropologists from UCLA. Each family was paid $1000 to fill out extensive questionnaires and let the film crews videotape them for a week. All of the families were middle class, and both parents had full-time jobs. One of the study leaders calls the result “the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world.”

I am intrigued by this sort of thing because I wonder how we get our ideas of how to parent and what family life should be like. How many families do any of us know well before we get married? Our own, and maybe one other if we have a childhood best friend. And yet somehow we form ideas about how things ought to be that are often at odds with how we grew up. Is it television? Are we projecting into family life ideas we develop in other areas, like, we believe in fairness and gender equality, so we imagine how those ideas will work out in our future families?

Consider the age-old question of how much children should be asked to help around the house. We have very little success getting our children to do housework. They exact such a high price for any effort that it is generally easier and quicker for me to do things myself than to get one of my children to do them. I could bully them into doing more, but I prefer to reserve my strongest efforts in that regard for getting them do their homework. Anyway, it seems that nobody else in America gets much work out of children, either:
Mothers still do most of the housework, spending 27 percent of their time on it, on average, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for children (giving an allowance made no difference).
The researchers also took spit samples from family members four times a day, to measure the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. It seems that stress is lowest where there rigid rules about who will do what, rather than an ongoing negotiation. And this is certainly true in dealing with my children. One of Lisa's greatest innovations is a schedule that specifies who will unload the dishwasher on any given day; as long as we keep to the schedule, the dishwasher gets unloaded with minimum fuss. But should the schedule get out of whack, say beecause someone is gone all day on his or her unloading day, mayhem ensues.

And, again, I wonder how it happens that all the families in America have the same problems, when parents and children are so different from each other in so many ways.

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