Most of us have seen shows like Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver. There they are on our television screens, the model American family, a mother and father with two children. The father goes to work and the mother stays home to care for the house and children. Nowadays, that family structure accounts for only about seven percent of U.S. households (“Traditional,” 2013) and the “nontraditional family” is on the rise. How does this affect the growth and development of the children involved? The purpose of this article is to look into the lives of children living in nontraditional household in Vermont — over sixty-five percent of all households (KidsCount, 2013) — to see which is more influential, family structure or the dynamic between parent and child.
Imagine this recent scene in a preschool classroom: Ben and Trevor are playing Legos. Ben asks Trevor nicely for a long, blue piece so he can finish his Opitmus Prime. Trevor suddenly becomes very interested in Ben’s creation and snatches it from his class mate, then pushes Ben’s body away from the building area. Ben just stands there and cries, so Trevor hands it back to him, but not before saying, “Stop being such a girl, here, just stop crying.” And Ben stops. Fifteen minutes later, the tables are turned, and Ben takes something from Trevor, who responds not by crying but by pushing Ben down again and retrieving the toy from his hands. These two boys are both four and a half, their birthdays are six days apart. Both are only children. Besides their very different reactions to the same altercation, the only obvious difference between them is that Ben lives with Mama Liv and Mama Heidi (a married, lesbian couple), while Trevor lives with his father, Mark.
Mark, Liv and Heidi were asked to take a survey about their views on parenting, home life, and their child’s growth and development. They were asked to rate the statements on a scale of one to ten, with one being the lowest, or disagree, and ten being the highest, or agree. Some included:
- I feel my child is unaffected by their living situation, or my personal relationships and lifestyle choices.
- My child can respond to an altercation in an age appropriate way.
- I feel my child’s behavior at school is affected by what happens at home.
- My child is where they should be when it comes to developmentally/mentally/emotionally (All three were asked as separate questions. (Chabot Student Survey, 2014)
It was very interesting to read the responses. Mark didn’t think that the absence of a strong female role model for Trevor affected his compassion, empathy, or ability to curb his aggression and use his words, but he did feel his divorce may have had an effect on Trevor. Whereas Ben’s mothers made certain to have long-standing male role models in his life in order to create a balance.
To represent the “traditional” family, Doug and Irene were asked to participate. They have been married for eight years and are the parents of Lily. They were asked to take the same survey, and the answers were strikingly on point with those of the other parents in a nontraditional family. All three children are in the same educational spectrum developmentally, and their motor skills are all up to par. But all three families also answered that they don’t think they truly know how much the bad times (fighting, stress, etc.) affect their children.
Many parents I have spoken with over the years have said that stress is the top contender on the list of things they wish they could better shield their child from. Dr. Gabor Maté, a well known researcher on children and families, spoke on parent stress and how it affects the child:
(Maté, 2012, May 25)
According to Eliza Tyson, a daycare professional and child psychologist, “We are not born with stress, nor are we born with coping techniques. They are learned behaviors from our parents. A small child sees a parent get angry and throw something, more than likely if seen often enough, it will become the normal response and reflex for them.” (E. Tyson, personal communication, 2014) She went on to say:
Theorist Erik Erikson also proposed a stage theory of development, but his theory encompassed human growth throughout the entire lifespan. Erikson believed that each stage of development was focused on overcoming a conflict. For example, the primary conflict during the adolescent period involves establishing a sense of personal identity. Success or failure in dealing with the conflicts at each stage can impact overall functioning. During the adolescent stage, for example, failure to develop an identity results in role confusion.”
In this TED Talk, Tamra Afifi discusses one of the biggest stress factors it children’s lives: divorce. She breaks down how it affects them as a whole child:
(Afifi, 2012, May 20)
Eliza Tyson noted the following :
Children are so sensitive. Getting a blueberry Pop-Tart because someone else ate the last strawberry one could affect their entire day. Because they are not yet in the developmental stage where they really need to start looking beyond themselves, every little thing that happens to them is immensely important. So, thinking on that level, parents need to be more aware of what their child sees and hears. Because that fight over who’s picking them up or which credit card needs to be paid this week can and will stay with them for the rest of the day, and will affect it.” (E. Tyson, personal communication, 2014)
What Tyson described is exactly what our teachers in the center see every day. For example, when Irene was running late and came rushing in to drop off Lily, in a frantic conversation with someone on the phone, she had very little patience at that moment. Lily was taking her time, taking her shoes off and her mother snapped at her to hurry up. Lily is not a crier unless she gets hurt. But she cried from that morning almost through the entire day and was completely miserable. Similarly, one morning Mark dropped Trevor off and informed us that his father had passed away so Trevor’s mother would be picking him up. Trevor had not been told this beforehand, but he knew Mark was sad, which made him very attached and worried about his father for the rest of that day. Children are like sponges, and many parents don’t realize how much their children soak up on a daily basis.
Developmental theorists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and B. F. Skinner “focus on how environmental interaction influences behavior… These theories deal only with observable behaviors. Development is considered a reaction to rewards, punishments, stimuli and reinforcement. This differs considerably from other child development theories because it gives no consideration to internal thoughts or feelings. Instead, it focuses purely on how experience shapes who we are.” (Cherry, 2013)
During an interview with Liv and Heidi, I showed them an article which discussed a research study that concluded the children of gay and lesbian parents do better educationally than their peers from heterosexual homes. Liv’s answer below gave new light to this study:
Q: There are many people, including scientists and researchers, that have offered the theory that gay and lesbian parents end up raising smarter, more well adjusted children. Some articles even say “better” children. Can I get your thoughts on that?
A: Gosh, it’s suddenly like we have the ability to create super children through the power of homosexuality. (laughs) Well, the process of even just getting approved for adoption, let alone the actual adoption process, was taxing and exhausting. And the end result of all of it was this precious gift of life, who is our son. After all of that work, would you suddenly decide to slouch as a parent? You have a responsibility that goes along with this privilege. Do I think that gay and lesbian couples make better parents and home lives? Not necessarily. I think that it’s very hard work for us to adopt, and so we work just as hard to raise them once we do. But the same could go for a heterosexual couple who is trying to adopt. One should hope after all of that time and effort of adoption, that once you have them, the hard work has just begun. There is a difference between the ability to have a child at will, and the I.V.F or adoption process. Perhaps not wanting it more, but having to go extra lengths to get to the same result makes you more grateful. But in the end, I don’t believe that our sexuality is what raises our child. It’s our love and our values. I mean, who’s to say that if Heidi and I ever get divorced that Ben won’t react the exact same way that a child from a heterosexual marriage would? He wouldn’t. Because he’s five.” (L. Remnar, personal communication, 2014)
In his article “Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School,” Michael J. Rosenfeld (2010, August 1) concluded that, while each child has her or his own advantages and disadvantages in various situations, whether the parents are a heterosexual or homosexual couple hardly makes a difference when it comes to development, growth and education.
In summary, children in either traditional and nontraditional families progress and develop quite similarly, with the only differences being moral issues, such as compassion, empathy, and relating to peers. While Vermont is flourishing with nontraditional families, the three Vermont families I interviewed are representative of many families all over the world. It makes no difference where you’re located. Developmentally, kids are kids, and having different family styles hasn’t really changed that fact because it’s not about the dynamic or the structure itself, but about the child’s experience and observations of the adults they are learning from.
Afifi, T. D. (2012, May 20). The impact of divorce on children [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKcNyfXbQzQ
Brescoll, V. L., & Uhlmann, E. L. (2005, December 5). Attitudes towards traditional and nontraditional families. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, (4), pp. 436-445. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.hrt-proxy.libraries.vsc.edu/ehost/detail?sid=f4e61218-f1a4-4f58-a6ca-5c8046f2ab55%40sessionmgr4004&vid=1&hid=4206&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=psyh&AN=2005-15406-011
Cherry, K. (2013, January 1). Theories on child development. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/childdevtheory.htm
Giles, J. (2010, June 8). Children of lesbian parents do better than their peers. . Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19014-children-of-lesbian-parents-do-better-than-their-peers.html#.U9uwTfldVLZ
Indicator Selection | KIDS COUNT Data Center. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.datacenter.aecf.org/data?gclid=Cj0KEQjwopOeBRC1ndXgnuvx8JYBEiQAq4RPt71JtqtyuPNf-tQmr2njEDbsrr8QVWBeUrdg3benfGMaAga48P8HAQ#VT/2/0
Maté, G. (2012, May 25). Parental stress and its impact on kids [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rof2UQfzUtY
Traditional Families Account for Only 7 Percent of U.S. Households. (2002, January 1). ” Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2003/TraditionalFamiliesAccountforOnly7PercentofUSHouseholds.aspx
Rosenfeld, M. J. (2010, August 1). Nontraditional families and childhood progress through school. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3000058
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APA cite in text as: (Chabot, 2014)
APA cite in full References as: Chabot, K. (2014). Underneath it all: Children in traditional and nontraditonal families. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p4elXk-jR
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Kayla Chabot is a transplant from Southern New England, but plans to make Vermont her permanent home. She is currently pursuing her Early Childhood Education degree while being a full time nanny for an amazing set of twins in Shelburne. She hopes to make a career out of social work or as a lead preschool teacher. She loves to travel, volunteer and create.