The American Family, Really Revealed

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jun 10, 2010 @ 08:18 AM


A new study just released by a group of over 70 social scientists at UCLA takes the kind of look at the American Family that many of us would love to do - and probably need to.

Read more about the study by clicking here.

The study, which recorded the every move of 32 Los Angeles area families from 2002 to 2005, is being touted as "The richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world" (by a professor at UCLA who was not involved in the study). Think reality show on steroids - or think ethnography done the way we wish we had the budget and time to do it.

While this study is likely to yield insights and information about the way real families live for years to come, we think there are immediate ways in which the approach and the evidence can inspire researchers right now...

  1. The devil is in the details. Fans of ethnographies know that's the case. To uncover game-changing insights, sometimes you have to watch the whole game. The work of ethnographies can be - should be - tedious. It requires patience. And although in-home ethnographies in the market research space are more often ethnographic interviews than pure exercises in observation, real insight comes from what happens by accident versus what we impose. This isn't to say we should design ethnographies without structure - and without time limits. The number of families who would willingly allow market researchers into their homes for days at a time are certainly rare (and likely expensive to recruit!). But the preliminary results from this study show that paying attention to the minutiae of interactions, tonality and gestures can lead to monumental discoveries.
  2. Space matters. Studies discussed in the New York Times show that researchers looked at not just actions but surroundings. Ethnographies are designed to provide a more authentic look at people by keeping them in their own context versus transporting them to ours, but the space is more than just setting: it's a character in your story. Observing where actions took place - inside or outside specifically - and what spaces were designed for (e.g., a meticulously designed outdoor space, ideal for entertaining) versus what happened in contrast (e.g., life lived indoors) can tell us more about needs and unmet needs than any dialogue might.
  3. Finally, a real family is hard to find. For many good, practical reasons, we often find our focus groups populated with more stay-at-home moms than full-time working moms. We assume that moms are the only ones with influence in the grocery store. We show people with more time and less complex lives in our advertising. And we neglect the ways in which households with two full-time workers differ -and are alike - homes in which parents spend more time at home. And this is true despite the fact that many of you reading this are likely to live in or come from homes where both mom and dad (or some other configuration of caregivers) both worked. With demographics telling us that these dual-income households are not only the majority, but also the future, it might be time to plan our research around their schedules - and think of creative ways to incentivize them to share their valuable time with us.

Tags: research, kids, parents, Modern Family, mom, family, Youth, Teens, tweens

Modern Families: Is TV Getting it Right?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 @ 01:37 PM
Families take center stage on some of network TV's newest hit shows. But the make-up of these families is a bit different than in the past...No longer is the focus solely on the nuclear family and how it navigates day-to-day life in the home, in school, and at the office. Instead, the family is defined in much broader terms. Grandparents aren't just occasional or supporting players - they are critical to the soul of the family, but also have their own lives, needs and motivations. Kids and their parents still play a key role, but so do cousins and aunts and uncles. Today's modern family - at least on TV - is more complex than ever before.

Modern FamilyLike a "Who's Who," or a "What's What" of non-traditional families, the roster for the ABC show, Modern Family, includes a gay couple raising an adopted Korean child, a newly minted stepdad of a son from Columbia whose son is younger than many of the stepdad's grandchildren, and a more traditional family, consisting of two parents and three kids. The show depicts parents who are trying to do the right thing for their kids, while their kids are trying hard to learn the rules of the world around them, and parents are trying to do their best for their teenagers as they struggle with independence. (Photo from

But do these fictional families reflect reality? Like many of these families, the answer to that question is complicated.

Based purely on demographics, we would say, "no." The majority of U.S. families are still white, two-parent households, and are not likely to include an adopted child. But while these families might not replicate the majority, they more than mirror a growing minority of families who deviate from the "norm," or perhaps better said, are challenging the notion that a norm really exists. A few facts:

  • As of 2006, 28% of children were living in single-parent households (
  • In 2005, 22% of Americans had a family member who was part of an interracial marriage (
  • More than 4 in every 100 children is being raised by gay parents (,9171,1640411,00.html)

TV - even reality TV - aims to tap into our fantasies. It doesn't try to show us ourselves as we really are but, instead, it shows us who we aspire to be (or not be), where we wish we could go (or not go), and what we wish we could say or do. And we think the fantasy that these shows tap into tell us as much about the fantasies of the modern audience as they do about the reality of the modern family. Today's aspirational family (as always) isn't just like us, but better. They might look different than us, but struggle with the same things. And for many of us, they look exactly like us - and show us that these families count as much as the traditional families that are usually reaffirmed by the small screen.

So, what does this tell us about the lives of today's kids, tweens and teens? They're growing up during a time when you don't assume your friends' families are just like yours. It means that you're likely to know a family like the ones featured on these shows - and you might even be a part of one yourself. Finally, it means that today's youth are likely to expect the culture around them to reflect the way their families really are - or the kinds of families that they wouldn't mind being part of.

Tags: kids, parents, Modern Family, family, Youth, Teens, TV, tweens