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Families: living apart while living together

March 21st, 2005 · 4 Comments

From an article in today’s Seattle Times American families’ plight: Lives structured to a fault

Scientists at UCLA have spent the past four years observing 32 Los Angeles families in a study of how working America somehow gets it done. Day after day.


In 1,600 hours of digital video, scientists captured moments of unfiltered joy — but also of sorrow, anger and frustration.

The UCLA study isn’t ranking families from best to worst. Instead, scientists are asking how families are coping.

In a word, barely.

For the study’s director, Elinor Ochs, a linguistic anthropologist, the most worrisome trend is how indifferently people treat each other, especially when they reunite at the day’s end.

With a mouse click, she summons footage from the project’s vast archive. Some of it is hard to watch.

The article mentioned four trends in American families. Excerpts below each point.

  • Working moms

    Researchers say now there are three jobs in the American family — two careers plus parenting — and only two people to accomplish them.

    In short, home life is beginning to imitate the downsized American office.

    It means parents and children live virtually apart at least five days a week. They reunite for a few hours at night, sleep and separate again the next morning. In this study, at least one parent was likely to be up and gone before the children awoke.

  • No time-outs (no leisure time)

    Kim’s remark raises a second trend emerging from the UCLA data — little time for dreaming.

    Ochs laments how few people have any unstructured time. In just one of the 32 families did the father — a freelance film animator — make a habit of taking an evening stroll with his son and daughter. Hand in hand, they dodged vacant lots and broken glass in Culver City while chasing fireflies and making up stories.

  • Drowning in trappings

    Archaeologist Jeanne Arnold planned to treat each house in the study like a dig site, cataloging and mapping family belongings as artifacts. But there was too much stuff. Instead, her staff took photographs. Thousands of them.

    For Arnold, who is accustomed to examining bits of bone and pottery, modern households are overwhelming. How much stuff do people own? So much that only two families have room to park their cars in the garage.

  • Face time

    Researchers say schedules and clutter butt heads to create the fourth family trend: flux.

    Using computers, scientists mapped the location of each family member throughout the home every 10 minutes. Originally, they planned to conduct this electronic roll call every 20 or 30 minutes. But they found themselves chasing their subjects from room to room as they orbited one another, hardly pausing.

    Ochs says families gathered in the same room just 16 percent of the time. In five homes, the entire family was never in the same room while scientists were observing. Not once.


    “People just don’t come together very frequently in our society,” Ochs said. “They might say they want community, but they don’t seek it.”

    You can’t believe everything you read or extrapolate from it: 32 families do not make a nation. But this article does make me wonder what is happening to American families. Are we becoming a country of people who live apart from each other, even when under the same roof?

  • Tags: news

    4 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Mark A. Hershberger // Mar 21, 2005 at 8:50 am

      Also see: http://www.openweblog.com/users/hexmode/422761.html

      Are we returning to our roots? I wonder, because 150 years ago in Victorian England no one spent time with their children. The pawned them off on the nanny, or, if they weren’t well-off enough for a nanny, they were probably working all day anyway.

      Wealthy mothers at the time would peek in on their children once or twice a day. Poor mothers (the majority) didn’t have time to be with their children since they were working so hard.

    • 2 Rae // Mar 21, 2005 at 3:33 pm

      Julie, even though we know it to be true and quite rampant in our country, I don’t think that we who home educate are struck very often with the reality of how little families are actually together in the course of a 24 hour period because we are so together with our children.

      E and I are in a local university production of Oliver! with rehearsals every evening from 6-9:30 p.m. While it has been fun, I am already looking forward to being done because I can’t stand being gone everynight, all night long. I am with the girls everyday, but when I come home exhausted from dance and play rehearsals and they are already in bed, long asleep, I feel like I haven’t seen them all day. And R (my husband and I) have even less time together.

    • 3 Lucy // Mar 21, 2005 at 7:26 pm

      I’d be interested in seeing the clusters inside of family units. Meaning, do the kids hang out together or apart? I’m betting that the families segregate by age into “adults” and “children”.

      I’ve noticed in the church nursery, with the few children who spend more than average time in child-care situations, that the younger ones are often more comforted by their siblings than by their parents. Perhaps its because they spend so much time together in childcare. Sheer quantity of time seems to matter in trust-building.

    • 4 Hamburger lad // Mar 21, 2005 at 11:36 pm

      I think it works similarly in large familes–the older children take on some of the responsibilities that would be handled by the parents of smaller families. My father was in the middle of 14 kids and with the exception of his oldest sister, he was closer to his immediate siblings than the very oldest and youngest.

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