Family Life Today (page 2)
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.
Divorce, as previously described, impacts a great many families. It leaves young children without one of their parents and creates many stresses for all involved. In many circumstances, family dynamics are further complicated by the eventual remarriages that frequently occur. As in the previous example of Ramon, these blended families create challenges for both parents and children as new relationships are established. Approximately 15% of American families today include a stepchild or stepparent (Hildebrand et al., 2000). While adults are learning to mesh parenting styles and combining efforts to manage complex households, children are adjusting to a variety of new relationships (Berger, 2004). Socially withdrawing or acting out behaviors may be the responses of children in new blended families. Careful observation and sensitive interactions may be required of the teacher to assist children and families with these complex changes.
Gay and Lesbian Families
A small but growing number of children in America have either two moms or two dads. In some cases, these children were born into a heterosexual family that later dissolved when one of the partners discovered his or her homosexual inclinations. Others were either adopted by their gay or lesbian parents or were conceived through artificial insemination (American Psychological Association, 2006). Although gay and lesbian families currently make up only a small percentage of family totals, there is every indication that teachers and schools will see increasing numbers in the future. The latest U.S. Census data indicate that 96% of all U.S. counties have at least one same-sex couple with children under age 18 (Gates, 2003). As state and federal laws continue to become more supportive of gay and lesbian couples and society in general grows more accepting of this family configuration, it becomes increasingly likely that you will be working with gay and lesbian families in your future teaching career.
Today’s economic realities find a great many intact families in which both parents work outside the home so that the family can maintain a desired lifestyle. In other two-parent families, both husband and wife have career aspirations and are employed full-time outside the home. Because of these two sets of circumstances, children in two-parent families today tend to have less time to spend with their parents (Berger, 2004). In addition to less family time, when both parents work outside the home, parents may have fewer opportunities to be actively involved in school activities. While there are numerous exceptions to this generalization, the complexities and time-constraints of two-career families make it more difficult to get actively involved in classroom activities. Teachers of young children need to understand the complexities of this family type and make adjustments in their involvement strategies to ensure that busy lifestyles and limited flexible time can be managed.
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