Anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles have studied family life as far away as Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon region, but for the last decade they have focused on a society closer to home: the American middle class.
Why do American children depend on their parents to do things for them that they are capable of doing for themselves? How do U.S. working parents' views of "family time" affect their stress levels? These are just two of the questions that researchers at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families, or CELF, are trying to answer in their work.
By studying families at home—or, as the scientists say, "in vivo"—rather than in a lab, they hope to better grasp how families with two working parents balance child care, household duties and career, and how this balance affects their health and well-being.
The center, which also includes sociologists, psychologists and archeologists, wants to understand "what the middle class thought, felt and what they did," says Ochs. The researchers plan to publish two books this year on their work, and say they hope the findings may help families become closer and healthier.
Ten years ago, the UCLA team recorded video for a week of nearly every moment at home in the lives of 32 Southern California families. They have been picking apart the footage ever since, scrutinizing behavior, comments and even their refrigerator's contents for clues.
The families, recruited primarily through ads, owned their own homes and had two or three children, at least one of whom was between 7 and 12 years old. About a third of the families had at least one nonwhite member, and two were headed by same-sex couples. Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers.
Among the findings: The families had very a child-centered focus, which may help explain the "dependency dilemma" seen among American middle-class families, says Ochs. Parents intend to develop their children's independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own, she says.
In addition, these parents tended to have a very specific, idealized way of thinking about family time, says Tami Kremer-Sadlik, a former CELF research director who is now the director of programs for the division of social sciences at UCLA. These ideals appeared to generate guilt when work intruded on family life, and left parents feeling pressured to create perfect time together. The researchers noted that the presence of the observers may have altered some of the families' behavior.