What’s happening to the American family? A report from 350,000 readers
by Peter Lindberg, Features Editor
Of all the perplexing dilemmas your family has to face, the most elusive have to do with how your family works together — and how it copes with a society that’s as mystifying and as frustrating as any in history.
Some family problems — like the mortgage, that kitchen remodeling, even an illness — at least have reasonably defined choices. But some deceptively simple questions — like why is our 13-year-old acting that way, or are we really getting along together — often are so frustrating that many families never resolve them.
Rather than simply collecting a battery of expert opinions on family behavior, we took a more direct route: In our February and March issues, we published two four-page questionnaires with 109 questions that probed the touchiest family problems.
We asked some very blunt questions — and got 350,000 equally candid replies, thousands of them accompanied by letters filled with insight — and a good deal of hope for the American family.
What made these opinions even more compelling were the respondents themselves — younger, better educated, family-oriented, and surprisingly objective.
Thus, though it is certainly is no blueprint for your own family decisions, this report does represent how thousands of concerned husbands, wives, and parents feel about some of the most volatile family problems.
Note: some percentages will total over 100 percent because of multiple answers.
Below — arranged in the same order as the answers you see on these two pages — are excerpts from the thousands of letters we received with the questionnaires. Combined with the answers, they yield compelling, often startling conclusions about some of the most sensitive areas of family relations.
A vote for love — and communication
- The first five years were not good, but with help from God, a lot of communication between me and my husband, and a whole lot of understanding by my husband, we worked things out and have never been so happy.
- Children should understand that expressing yourself and clearing the air is more important than brooding over things until they become giant size. I think it’s also important that they realize that if you have legitimate reasons for your way of thinking, you can often change another’s mind. I have sometimes said no to my children, and after an argument have agreed with them.
- An argument definitely helps, provided it isn’t a hit-below-the-belt type of thing. It clears the air of all the petty little things that can add up to big things. I don’t feel it’s the big issues that cause divorces; it’s years of little things piled together.
- Big arguments lead to big bitterness — better small and patient discussions.
Sex, the pill, and marriage
- No, No, No! Women do not “give sex to get love!” They give sex because they love! With the emphasis on because! And they don’t just “give sex.” They participate in what they assume is an act of mutual and deep affection.
Who are these 350,000?
- They’re family-oriented — about 90 percent are married, 86 percent have children, 80 percent own a home.
- In 42 percent of the households, the wife has an outside job (full or part-time).
- They’re well-educated — 25 percent attended college, almost one-fifth have college degrees, and another one-fifth have done graduate work.
- They’re younger — about 40 percent are under 35 years, 45 percent are between 35 and 54, and roughly 15 percent are 55 years or older.
A vote for love — and communication
Do you think most husbands and wives you know share their most personal problems?
Would you consider this sharing of personal problems to be:
No help 3%
Do you think an occasional big argument helps the husband-wife relationship?
On this question, age made a measurable difference in the answers given: 68 percent of these respondents under 35 thought a big argument helped; 49 percent of those over 55 felt it helped.
Do you think it is important— both for parents and children —that a husband and wife openly and frequently show affection for one another?
Do you think that parents should argue in front of children?
Here again, age made a difference: of those under 35, 27 percent thought parents should argue in front of the children; only 14 percent of respondents over 55 felt this way.
Sex, the pill, and marriage
Is there too much emphasis on sex in all aspects of our society today?
Do you think the easier, more relaxed attitude about sex has helped the discussion of sex between husbands and wives?
Do you feel that improved birth control methods — such as the pill — have contributed to better sexual adjustment in marriage?
Do you think extramarital sex can contribute to a happy marriage?
Planning the family
Do you think children should be planned?
What do you consider the ideal number of children?
Five or more 3%
Do you feel that birth control methods and information should be available to anyone — including unmarried teenagers?
Among respondents under 35, 14 percent answered no; of those 55 and over, 40 percent said no.
Do you think family planning should include legal abortion as an alternative?
Do you think premarital sex can contribute to a happy marriage?
Do you approve or disapprove of two people living together before they get married?
Of those 35 and under, 41 percent approved; of those 55 and over, just 12 percent approved.
What makes marriage work?
Would you say that the married couples you know have a mutual understanding about what they want from their marriage?
Based on your observations of couples you know, which one of the following reasons for staying married seems to be the strongest?
Have learned to tolerate the marriage 13%
Do you consider most of the couples you know to be happy in their marriage?
In other questions, roughly half the readers felt that among couples they knew, sexual unfaithfulness by either a man or woman would cause a divorce.
Divorce: why and when
In your opinion, what are the main reasons marriages fail?
Financial problems 39%
Lack of mutual interests and goals 37%
Personality conflicts 27%
Poor sexual adjustments 25%
Third-party entanglements 18%
Among the couples you know, do you feel there’s a social stigma attached to being divorced?
Where would you go for advice if you had marital problems?
Marriage counselor 45%
Parent or other family member 17%
Books, magazines, newspapers 12%
Religion: a loss of influence
Is religion losing its influence on family life today?
Which of the following attitudes best describes your opinion on change in organized religion?
Changing too fast 32% Not changing fast enough 31% Changing at about the right speed 35%
Reaching — and holding— the children
How much trouble do you have communicating with your children?
Great deal of trouble 2%
Very little 52%
Not a parent 16%
At what age do you think most parents lose effective control over their children’s activities?
Before age 13 24%
13-15 years of age 30%
16-18 years 33%
19-21 years 10%
21 years or older 1%
At what age do you think most parents should relinquish effective control over their children?
Before age 13 3%
13-15 years of age 2%
16-18 years 17%
19-21 years 60%
21 years or older 18%
The answers above make one dilemma quite clear: Though these parents (and 5/6 of these respondents are) can communicate with their children, they feel they lose control long before it’s desirable.
A need for fathers — and involvement
Do you feel the father in most families spends enough time with the youngsters?
Should parents participate actively in a child’s homework?
Do you think parents should get involved in their youngster’s organized activities, such as sports and scouting?
Do you plan most of your vacations around your children?
No children 15%
For youngsters, a tighter rein
Are most parents these days too permissive with their children?
Do you think children should be disciplined by physical punishment?
Here 71 percent of readers under 35 believe in physical punishment, while 56 percent of readers over 55 believe this method works.
In your family, who has the major responsibility for disciplining the youngsters?
Not a parent 13%
No ringing vote for women’s lib
All in all, do you feel that the movement for women’s rights is a force for the better?
In answering this question, more of the younger readers (and those with postgraduate education) said the women’s rights movement is a force for the better.
In general, do you think the new awareness of women’s rights has altered the husband-wife relationship significantly?