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Observing Established Families Provides Practical Insight for Young Families
Young families—those with preschool or early grade-school children—can benefit from several key observations from this study. First, we observed the importance of establishing a like-minded community of peers in a similar stage of life. Second, we observed a strong desire in married couples to establish a philosophically-coherent view of life that can feed into parenting and provide a valuable framework for making difficult choices. Third, we observed parents whose marriage roles had taken a backseat to their parenting roles (actually more like a third-row seat). Fourth, we observed how a family's schedule can take on a life of its own and begin to define them. Finally, we observed opportunities for young parents to customize their lives.
Before detailing these key observations and insights, let's start with an overview of the priorities and values of young people, and young parents in particular. These attitudes are often considered characteristics of "Generation Y" or "Millennials." This cohort is a highly motivated group and fairly optimistic. They want to find their own way in the world, including how they approach marriage and parenting—they will eschew "handed-down" ideas and solutions, and instead use self-help approaches that give them the tools to craft their own solutions. They also have a strong social conscience—they want to leave the world a better place than they found it and to serve a broader purpose; this sentiment will greatly impact their parenting priorities.
When it comes to family, their optimism is tempered by their upbringing—they or many of their friends grew up in non-nuclear households. As a result, many of them are skeptical of their ability to marry the "right person" and parent their kids well. They place great value on both marriage and family, but postpone each until they are sure it will work. However, once they take the plunge they are optimistic that they can beat the odds and fashion a great life for themselves and their children. When they run into major obstacles, this faith will be shaken. As a culture, young parents are a great audience for self-directed marriage and parenting help, especially if they can be given an accurate vision for what a thriving family looks like, and how family serves a broader purpose in society.
One final cultural note; young families have unprecedented opportunities to customize their lives. Technological developments are producing innovations in work, entertainment, recreation, church, home management, and education that allow young parents to intentionally construct their lifestyles from the ground up—these opportunities will only increase over the next couple of decades. Those who can take advantage of such opportunities will be in a position to create a life for themselves that is tailored to their strengths and priorities. Those who cannot will end up overwhelmed by the options presented to them, and lacking clear boundaries among their many obligations. It is truly a feast or famine opportunity.
Developing a Cohesive Vision for Family
The first finding from our study that specifically applies to young parents is their appetite for "strategic planning" in early married life: we saw a strong enthusiasm among our young childless couples to develop a consistent philosophy of life. These couples spent a great deal of time discussing their views, values, and priorities related to various aspects of life. Such discussion should be encouraged around the issues they will face after they become parents—so these couples can develop a cohesive vision for their future family. This activity must be done early, because (in contrast with the young married couples) the parents we observed in our study had little opportunity or energy for such theoretical discussion—they were too engaged in the daily activities of parenting (and possibly had already developed such a framework).
We also noted that the parents of older children in our study had to consistently make practical trade-offs in daily life. For example, one mother had to choose between making a dinner for the entire family (they had already eaten together several times that week) or finishing some housework chores that she had been neglecting. Another mom worried that she was being too inflexible with her son’s food preferences. Some of these choices created doubt within our moms that they were doing the right thing for their families. Of course, it is impossible to fully address every issue in advance, but a cohesive (and shared) family vision and parenting philosophy can help young parents understand how to choose one "good" over another. They will be making these trade-offs constantly once they become parents, so they should develop the ability to make choices consistent with their already-established vision for their family. They should also learn to be comfortable with the alternatives they will have to let go.
Finally, a shared vision of family and approach to parenting will be a valuable tool for maintaining parental consistency. We saw on multiple occasions that one of the most difficult aspects of making parenting decisions was both parents being united. This was a primary challenge among our divorced households, of course, but it was also problematic on several occasions among our married parents. In one case Mom and Dad argued in front of their daughter about whether she could go to a friend's house. While the decision itself was not an important one, the fact that their daughter saw their disagreement was of concern for Mom. In another case, one of our moms was frustrated with some of the household responsibilities that she felt should be shared—yet her husband consistently left them to her. Young couples who take some time and energy to develop a shared view of family, parenting styles and techniques, and the values they want to instill in their children will be on a solid foundation when they finally become parents—and the good news is that many of them are predisposed to develop such a framework.
The next insight for young families is that a community of like-minded peers is invaluable for several reasons. This community can provide key insight into what is expected in family life. One of the young husbands in our study explained that he had a peer mentor (our label, not his)—someone who was going through the same transitions, and who could encourage him by relating similar trials and concerns. Just knowing that some of the struggles he and his wife were experiencing were normal helped him be more comfortable with conflict, work pressures, etc. He also indicated that he had an older mentor with whom he discussed broader, more philosophical dilemmas. Both of these people formed an integral part of his support system—and contributed to his marital happiness.
Such a community becomes even more important as the children grow (see the related article on community parenting). As the children become more independent, mom and dad benefit greatly if their children are held to the same standard wherever they go—we observed such benefits in the areas of faith, school, basic behavioral standards, etc. The cultural pressure this community places on the children provides extra incentives for following their parents' rules, and even facilitates the internalization of their parents (and the communities) values during adolescence and early adulthood—when peer influence becomes particularly important.
The Schedule Monster
The third observation that has specific application to young parents relates to the way they develop their children’s portfolio of activities: we noted more mature families whose lives had been taken over—and sort of defined by—their children’s activities. In one case Mom fantasized about quitting everything for a year, but decided this would not be fair to the kids. It turns out this was a very high-achieving family—whatever the children did, they were good at. So pulling them out of an activity would literally remove opportunities for future accomplishments. So they kept going with these activities, and Mom's role became to manage all of it, because she was no longer in a position to influence it.
Young families should be encouraged to carefully consider which activities they want to commit to, because it will only get harder to quit as time goes on and their children invest their time and energy into them. They should be encouraged to assign limits of commitment to each activity, and communicate these to their children, so the children never feel entitled to participate in any specific thing (this is another area where a cohesive, and shared, set of family priorities will come in handy).
We noted that the marriage relationship takes a backseat to parenting, and that this seems to become more prominent as the children get older and more involved in things outside the home. Fortunately, our young couples seems singularly dedicated to developing a strong marriage, so motivation is not a factor. However, as they have kids, and as those kids age, they will need practical advice on how to maintain the relationship that they worked so hard to establish. They will also benefit from tools that assist them in understanding how the activities they engage in outside the home limit or enhance their ability to focus on their marriage.
Young people value their marriage and their children and are highly motivated to succeed in both. As they endeavor to create a fulfilling family life, they can reap specific benefits from developing a cohesive shared family vision, establishing a like-minded community, and an awareness of how their activities can define them for better or worse. In these areas, and given their unique cultural context, Focus on the Family is well-positioned to assist them in navigating the early stages of family life.
Originally published November 2010