Oct. 23, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 3

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    Families that work

    University establishes one of first centers to study dual-income families

    By William Harms
    News Office

    The University is establishing one of the nation's first academic research centers to examine issues facing working parents and their children, including how two parents, working full-time, manage the learning experiences and the moral and social development of their children.

    The new center, the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work, is co-directed by Linda Waite, Professor in Sociology, and Barbara Schneider, Senior Social Scientist at the National Opinion Research Center. Both researchers have done extensive work on families, including studies on family structure, child-rearing and the impact of careers on families. The center will receive nearly $3 million over a three-year period from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

    "Our plan is to understand the dynamics of working families not only from the perspective of the adults in the household but through the voices of the children," Waite said. "For example, we are interested in how teenagers model their parents' attitudes toward work when discussing their experiences at work and at school."

    The contemporary family is more fluid, more flexible and more vulnerable to pressures from inside and outside itself, the researchers contend.

    "The lines between the home and the world of work for families is perhaps less clearly defined now than in previous times as both mothers and fathers are spending more time working at home or bringing work home," Schneider said. "In many homes, the outside world is ever-present through non-family members who assist in child care, who may or may not share family traditions, customs, values and expectations."

    The research center is being established at a time when the dual-income family has become the norm in American life, the researchers said.

    "From 1960 to 1995, the labor force participation rate of married women with children 6 to 17 years old -- the group in which we are most interested -- rose from 39 percent to 76 percent," Waite said.

    "Today, about half of all women having their first child return to work within the first year of that child's life. It is expected that most mothers today will work outside the home for a significant part of their children's school years," she added.

    The challenges to home life brought on by the shift will be the basis for many of the studies launched by the center. Among the topics researchers expect to explore are:

    _ the sharing of household duties between a couple and their children;

    _ the changing roles of fathers, who are now often expected to assume the responsibilities traditionally handled by stay-at-home mothers, such as transporting children to after-school activities and resolving disputes between children;

    _ the ways children spend their unsupervised time: either by being with friends, or by being involved in hobbies or homework.

    Researchers will also explore the connection between supportive work places and successful families. Studies have shown that the more autonomy parents feel on the job, the less likely they are to feel stress in balancing demands of work and home, the scholars said.

    "Feeling good about work-related activities may affect the closeness and support family members are willing to give to each other," Schneider said.

    The center, which will be based at NORC, will undertake an extensive research agenda involving original data collection and reanalyses of existing national databases. In addition to the two co-directors, other faculty members from the University's departments of economics, psychology and sociology will be involved. The center will support the work of 12 graduate students and two post-doctoral students as well.