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Power of Negative Example

What kind of family do teens want today?


While peers are significant, family remains highly important for adolescents as well, according to HSE researchers. However, many young people do not see their parents as role models.

Happiness Courses

Despite common signs of adolescence such as self-determination, rebelliousness, difficult relations with parents and the importance of peer support, teenagers continue to rely heavily on their family. Indeed, when faced with a challenge, many teens turn to their parents, in particular to their mother, according to Arthur Rean, Head of the HSE IOE Laboratory for Prevention of Antisocial Behaviour. A survey of more than 5,500 high school students aged 14 and older in the Central, Volga, Siberian, and Ural Federal Districts confirms that the family is of paramount importance for adolescents. It is the absolute leader among the top five things which the young respondents value most, being mentioned by nearly three-quarters (72.5%) of the teenagers surveyed, followed by love (58.4%), health (52.4%), friends and success (43.6% and 36.1% respectively).

'One may wonder if these were just socially acceptable responses, i.e. that the children responded as they thought they were expected to respond', Rean comments. 'But first, all of the top five values are pro-social and equal in this respect. Second, the survey was anonymous. The researchers did not ask the children their names. There was no way a completed questionnaire could be attributed to a specific student. Third, it was an online survey in which the respondents interacted only with a computer. And fourth, the significant sample size, which included students from different schools, different regions and different ends of the country, should have levelled off any individual psychological factors'.

The respondents were also asked a direct question as to whether the family was 'an essential condition for happiness', to which 68% of the adolescents answered positively.

However, the researchers further found that most teenagers did not consider their own family to be a good model to follow.

When asked, 'Would you like your future family to be similar to the one you grew up in?' only 42% of the students answered 'yes', while 34% said they definitely would not want their future family to be like their parents' and 24% were not sure. In total, 58% of young people 'do not consider their current parental family to be a role model', Rean notes. (The respondents were not asked to explain why.)

According to Rean, here lies one of the reasons for young people's unpreparedness for a married life and high divorce rates in the early years of marriage. Indeed, the teenagers surveyed seem to share this perspective in answering the question as to whether one needs to be specifically prepared for marriage: 66% believe that they could benefit from education about family relations. They do not necessarily mean that this subject should be taught at school: 38% believe that classroom lessons could be helpful and the same number disagree. Incidentally, last December, the Russian Ministry of Education formally raised the possibility of introducing a school-based curriculum in 'family happiness'.

'It is certainly unlikely that a family happiness course can provide a solution for every problem, but at least it can help address some of them and perhaps quite effectively', Rean believes. 'And yet the main role in preparing young people for family life lies with their parental family where they learn the basic patterns of family behaviour. Unfortunately, families today do not always serve as good role models'. There are other ways to help young people prepare for married life, such as psychological training. However, 'taking a course from a trained psychologist is not really necessary at an early stage of preparation for family life', according to the researcher. That said, a relevant school curriculum 'must be informed by substantive knowledge of psychology'.

Rean leads a team of authors working to design such a curriculum. In particular, its content will focus on preventing and handling family conflicts and on negotiation and listening skills.

Unequal Relations

The survey respondents believe that love, mutual support and the ability to compromise form the foundation of a happy marriage. 'We did not ask the students whether or not these factors are present in their parents' families', Rean explains. 'But we separately examined their attitudes towards their mothers and fathers'. How much influence the mother and the father have on the child and the parents' respective roles can shape the child's perception of the family.

The mother's influence on her children as they grow is more than double that of the father; with 57.5% versus 23.7%, fathers lag far behind, the researcher notes. The reasons for this may include greater emotional closeness between the mother and her child or the amount of time spent together. Fathers usually spend far less time with their children than mothers — sometimes because of their job if they work in shifts or travel on business, and sometimes due to socio-cultural attitudes. There is still a popular stereotype that childrearing is 'not a man's business'.

Grand Portraits of Parents

The adolescents were asked to describe their parents using Rean's '80 adjectives' method. The resulting verbal portraits of fathers and mothers came out almost entirely positive, with terms such as kind, reliable, caring, responsible, family-oriented, intelligent and sincere used equally often in regard of both parents. Most descriptors used in the responses reflected emotional and moral qualities. The main difference between the parents was that mothers were mainly characterised via their attitudes towards other people while the fathers' characteristics tended towards cognitive and authority-related ones.

Mothers were often described as tidy, affectionate and caring. 'For most respondents, their mother is not only an exceptionally positive person but also very altruistic and someone who places other people first', the researcher comments. 'This, of course, reflects the mother's centeredness on her own child and altruistic love for him or her'. Fathers were frequently described as authoritative, cheerful and wise.

While negative characteristics were extremely rare, fathers were more likely to be portrayed in negative terms. According to Rean, the term 'deceitful' had the weight of 2% in the descriptions of mothers and 6% in those of fathers, and the same was true of the term 'insensitive'. The reason may be that children set higher standards for fathers or perhaps the child-father relations are often less trusting. One way or another, the theme of fatherhood is one of the most problematic in family sociology today.

Family Framework

The respondents were asked about their attitudes towards unregistered marriage; 54% considered cohabitation as something normal, just as most adult Russians, and only 17% of respondents were strongly against unregistered unions.

As for having children outside marriage, the respondents were less tolerant, with only 35% finding it normal, the same number opposing it, and 29% undetermined.

According to Rean, young people, with some reservations, can be described as traditionalists.

'Admittedly, the fact that 54% of respondents accept cohabitation as normal hardly fits the notion of traditionalism', he says. ‘Likewise, the fact that a large minority of 35% consider it normal to have children outside marriage is quite remote from traditional family values. Yet on the other hand, both in the former and particularly in the latter case, young people demonstrate strong pro-family attitudes’.

Given the millennial history of the institution of the family, expecting a revolutionary change in attitudes would be unrealistic, he continues. ‘The role of the family in supporting its members' economic survival is not as essential today as it used to be,' he notes. ‘But its role in providing mutual personal, moral and psychological support remains strong and is almost irreplaceable. Indeed, an individual's social adaptation and survival in today's world strongly depends on their family's ability to fulfil this role'.

The respondent's reproductive attitudes reveal that a relative majority (49%) plan to have two children (which is typical for older generations as well), while 15% prefer to have just one child. This is consistent with the actual situation, as most Russian families have one or two children.

Quite unexpectedly though, a substantial proportion (39%) of respondents would like to have three children (a similar trend was noted by demographers a few years ago). If converted into reality, such attitudes would lead to a tangible increase in the country's population. While having two children in the average family only leads to a simple continuation of the population, having three children will result in a population increase. 

But one must keep in mind the difference between the desired and actual number of children in the family. This also concerns those who are currently unwilling to ever become parents. Their attitudes may change with time.

'Generally, school students in Russia expect support from their family but also realise that family relations are not perfect and they may need to learn how to build such relations properly in the future', Rean concludes.

Arthur Rean, Head of the HSE IOE Laboratory for Prevention of Antisocial Behaviour
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 24, 2018