The Big Challenges of Making Small Changes in Family Life

Document created by Robert Crosnoe on Feb 27, 2020
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When people find out about the family research that I conduct as a social scientist, they often look at me quizzically and ask “that’s nice, but how useful is it?”  To them, advancing understanding of how families work seems less than important if that research is not directly leading to explicit plans of actions to help or change families in some way.  I do not agree with that sentiment, but I get where it is coming from to some extent. There is the need to point out and explain social problems and the need to remedy such problems, and it certainly seems efficient if those two things are part of the same enterprise even if they do not have to be.  Yet, efforts to change families—even those that are grounded in sound research—often do not have any impact. Partly, that is because families—like people—are hard to change.  


One thing that is clear to me after many years in this line of work is that improving this less than ideal record of impact requires that we come together to construct beyond multifaceted approaches to problems facing families.  One theme of Families Now is that the core element of a multifaceted approach is that it links macro and micro levels of understanding of some problem or challenge. With such a macro-micro linkage, we can connect family policies to family interventions.  The former concern broad-scale efforts to shift the population of families in some intended direction, such as the federal welfare reform legislation discussed in Chapter 4 that was intended to increase employment rates in the population of low-income mothers and reduce the number of families on public assistance in the process.  The latter are targeted efforts to shift dynamics within families in some intended direction, such as community-based programs discussed in Chapter 15 to help improve the climate of relationships in families with children with chronic illnesses by providing emotional supports to those children’s siblings. Surveying so many different policies and interventions collectively across the chapters in Families Now suggests to me—and I hope to your students—that family policy and intervention need to partner up.  Consider the discussion of some major government-funded programs in Families Now:

  • An effort to increase the quality and health of marriages among low-income couples by improving their communication and interactions had disappointing results, and one criticism of this program was that it focused too much on what was going on between spouses and not enough on the outside external pressures (e.g., economic instability) on them. 
  • An effort to improve the academic and health outcomes of young people from low-income families by moving them in large numbers to more affluent communities with greater economic opportunities did not consistently yield its intended benefits, and one criticism of this program was that it focused too much on the residential distribution of families across communities and not enough on the interpersonal dynamics (such as peer relations) that young people faced upon moving.

In one case, a lot of money went towards something too micro, and, in another, it went towards something too macro.  Is there some meeting point?


To delve deeper into these issues, pose the following challenge to your students.  The goal is to reduce the rate of child maltreatment (i.e., abuse or neglect) in families, and your state creates a blue-ribbon family to propose actions to achieve this goal.  Separate the students into groups representing different blue ribbon panels, and ask each group to sketch out one general plan to address this problem.  After the groups present their proposed plans to the class, lead a discussion of how much they lean towards the policy and intervention side and how they could balance these two approaches.