The University of Chicago News Office
November 4, 1996 Press Contact: Sabrina Miller
(773) 702-4195

Family Values: The Next Step

New research from the University of Chicago shows that there is a better way to strengthen families than forcing them into a 1950s problem-free stereotype: Work on ways to increase family resilience so that families are better able to meet the unprecedented challenges of the ‘90s and become stronger.

Froma Walsh, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and author of the study, sighs heavily at the phrase “family values.”

“The media are saturated with images of the family as conflicted, abusive, negligent, broken,” says Walsh, who is also co-director of the Center for Family Health. “Although the virtue of ‘family values’ is widely touted, little support is given to sustain the vitality of families. At a time of widespread concern about the demise of the family, it is more important than ever to understand processes that can enable families to weather and rebound from their life challenges, strengthened as a family unit.”

The political rhetoric offers solutions that are too simplistic–and ultimately unsuccessful at encouraging stronger families, she said.

“Instead of political slogans, what is needed are programs that really value families and support and strengthen them. Our culture has a myth of rugged individualism–pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But resilience is best forged through relationships, collaboration, mutual support and encouragement.

“Think of the song accompanying the civil rights movement: ‘We Shall Overcome.’ The reason that became a clarion call widely around the world is that it expresses that belief: That together we have the power to overcome adversity,” she said “We have to work together if we’re all going to survive and thrive.”

Walsh’s paper “A Concept of Family Resilience,” was published this fall in Family Process.

“We can’t go back to ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ with Dad as breadwinner and Mom as full-time homemaker,” she said. “Two-earner families are today’s norm, with fathers more active partners in parenting. Families need support in meeting these stressful challenges.”

Walsh says that conventional research and social services focus on building individual strength. While that has its place, counselors and government programs that work to give families the tools to work together–in their own ways–to deal with problems strengthen both the individual members and the family as a unit.

And strengthening families enables them to deal collaboratively with the inevitable future troubles, serving a preventative function.

“More than ever, as families are changing their forms and norms and struggling in basically a brave new world, they need more flexibility and resilience to meet unanticipated challenges.”

That means not forcing diverse families into a one-size fits all, politically correct model. Successful families can be in a variety of forms and cultural preferences, Walsh says, but have some common tools and processes, including:

* Working toward cohesion among family members, including extended family members;

* Keeping communication lines open; and

* Developing problem-solving skills and affirming belief systems.

Social policy and counseling efforts should focus on building these and other skills, she says, instead of stigmatizing so-called “non-traditional” families. One problem, she says, is that families who differ from the traditional format are presumed to be dysfunctional, even if their interactions are healthy and effective in their particular situation.

“Processes needed for effective functioning may vary depending on differing social-cultural context and developmental challenges,” Walsh says.

In the paper, “A Concept of Family Resilience,” published this fall in Family Process,Walsh calls for clinical changes that “foster a compassionate understanding of parental life challenges, encourage reconciliation and search for unrecognized resiliences in family relationships.”
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.
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