Family Life Today
It does not take too much insight to realize that families today look much different from the way they did just a generation or two ago. The idyllic picture of mom, dad, and two or three children living happily down the street in the house with the white picket fence is just not as likely today. Family situations vary widely, and educators not only must know what those possibilities look like but must be ready to work effectively with diverse family patterns (Hildebrand, Phenice, Gray, & Hines, 2000). In the following paragraphs, a number of important family characteristics are described to help you better understand the diverse mix you will encounter in your future classroom. For each of the family characteristics identified, some general implications are presented. Be aware that although these implications may be typical, each family situation is unique. For example, although many single parents may find it difficult to commit the time and energy needed to be involved in the schools, single parents in your future classroom may not fit this pattern.
The Extended Family
Not too many years ago, it was fairly common to find families and their relatives living in the same community or general area. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents were available to help with child care and give advice on how to parent. This support system was often helpful, especially to new parents as they struggled with the many challenges of raising children. Although some of these extended families still exist, they are now the exception rather than the rule. Despite the fact that many parents still need and want the support the extended family provided, few have found an adequate replacement (Berger, 2004). Teachers and schools can assist in this process by helping parents create a network with other families in similar situations to provide one another with support. In some instances, the extended family provides the primary care for young children.
Divorce and Single-Parent Families
One of the most significant family situations that teachers will encounter is the single-parent family. National statistics indicate that 25% of children under age 18 are living in families with only one parent (Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2006). In most circumstances, the missing parent is the father. Single-parent families headed by mothers are far more likely to be living at or below the poverty level than two-parent families. It is estimated that approximately 40% of all single-parent families headed by women are poor, compared to only about 8% of two-parent families (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006). In addition to low incomes, single parents as a group tend to be busy with work commitments and child-rearing responsibilities, which may leave less time for things like parent–teacher conferences and helping out in the schools. Teachers need to be sensitive to these time constraints and find ways to creatively work with single parents and their children. It is also important to communicate with and involve non-custodial parents (typically fathers) when legally possible. For example, it may be necessary to schedule separate parent–teacher conferences for non-custodial parents so that they can be included in their child’s learning and development.
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