Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Gender Role Nontraditionalism and Offspring Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Gender Role Nontraditionalism and Offspring Outcomes

Article excerpt

The research on nontraditional families has followed two streams. The first has focused on changes in family structure and the second on gender roles and attitudes. A great deal of research has dealt with the consequences of the former for children, but relatively little research has dealt with the latter. In this article we focus on the consequences of gender nontraditionalism in two-parent families for offspring outcomes.

The traditional nuclear family of the 1950s is enshrined in both popular culture and sociological theory (Parsons & Bales, 1955). This family form was based on a specialized division of labor, with the man assuming the instrumental role of breadwinner and the woman assuming the expressive role of homemaker. In terms of power, the husband was the "head" of the household, and although his wife had some input into family decision making, she ultimately deferred to his judgment. In relation to children, mothers provided the majority of child care, whereas fathers served as authority figures and disciplinarians. This conception of the nuclear family was an ideal type; in reality, it only applied to certain groups. Nevertheless it describes, approximately, the manner in which many families lived.

In contrast, the emerging family of the 1980s and 1990s emphasizes role sharing and egalitarianism. Surveys show that people in the 1980s were more likely than in the 1960s to agree that it is appropriate for wives to have their own careers, that employed women can be good mothers, that husbands of employed wives should do more housework and childcare, and that wives should have equal say in making important family decisions (Thornton, 1989). Currently, most wives share the breadwinning role with their husbands, with about two-thirds of married women with children being in the paid labor force (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Table 621). Surveys show that young men have increased their time in housework and child care slightly in the last few decades (Pleck, 1985). Similarly, the percentage of preschool children cared for by their fathers while their mothers are employed increased from 15 in 1988 to 20 in 1991 (O'Connell, 1993). And a small but significant proportion of men are highly involved in family work (Gerson, 1993). In spite of limited change on the part of most men, the notion of egalitarian marriage has become firmly entrenched in our culture and serves as an ideal toward which many people aspire.

These changes have been met with criticism from some quarters. As we outline below, conservatives from the political and religious right have rejected nontraditional families on several grounds--the major one being that they are not as successful at raising children as are traditional families. This perspective is echoed in scholarly claims that the American family is in decline, with concerns about children being at the forefront of these criticisms. Relatively little research, however, has directly addressed this issue.

In this article, we use data from a 12-year longitudinal study of parents and young adult offspring to address the following question: Are the long-term outcomes for children raised in nontraditional nuclear families different from those experienced by children raised in traditional nuclear families? We define nontraditional families as those in which mothers are employed, fathers contribute to household labor and child care, and parents hold egalitarian attitudes toward gender roles. In answering this question, we consider several types of child outcomes, including relationships with parents, social support networks, family formation behaviors (cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing), psychological well-being, gender role attitudes, and educational achievement. Although a large number of studies have examined the consequences of maternal employment for children, we know of no study that has looked more broadly at the issue of traditional versus nontraditional families. …

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