Defrosting the Chicken, Pursuing the Dream
What would scientists learn about your family if they camped out in your home for a few days? Turns out the answer is not so obvious.
Psychologists prefer the uniformity of the laboratory to the messiness of real homes; anthropologists are more likely to head to New Guinea than to New Jersey in search of truth about human nature; and archaeologists tend to unearth more artifacts of human existence in long-abandoned sites than in your long-abandoned garage.
But – admit it -- there ARE artifacts in your garage, and at some point a true understanding of the American family really does require a good look at how we manage our time, our activities, and our connections with all the people who comprise our daily lives. With funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Professor and noted linguist Elinor Ochs has done just this with colleagues at the UCLA Center on the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). Their specific charge? Document the daily proceedings – two weekdays, most of the weekend, all during the school year -- in 32 middle-class families who volunteered to open their doors. All had a mortgage, all had at least two children, at least one of whom was between the ages of 8 and 10.
I have had the good fortune of being part of this team for the past several years, and I have watched many of the videotapes of people greeting one another and conversing, examined how family members distribute themselves on a moment-by-month basis on the floor plans of their families’ homes, read over the many questionnaires family members completed, seen many of the digital photographs of these homes, and – best of all – I have listened to the dedicated CELF team make sense of this unusually rich record of human activity.
So what do we learn? Most generally, every family is a gem: unique, alluring, beautiful to behold, and not without flaws. Yes, the homes the team entered were no doubt cleaner than usual, and it is likely that people were ‘on their best behavior.’ This stands to reason, and while it never seems that way on airplanes, few among us readily reveal our real quirks to strangers. But there are limits to how much we can control and conceal. Can we control the fact that our 9 year-old son with the sniffles really does not want to study for tomorrow’s math quiz? Or the fact that we are a bit peeved at our spouse, or that we had a lousy day at work? Or that the telephone is ringing when you walk in the door and a bill collector is on the line? Or that the chicken was left out too long to defrost, and someone must now quickly get take-out for dinner?
Social scientists know that we change things when we try to measure them, but that does not mean the evidence we have is all noise and no signal. Camera or not, people must eat, sleep, work, and parent their children, and the infinite variety of our lives means that each of us negotiates these tasks in a way that reveals something about us and our circumstances. And this is exactly what social scientists seek to know.
So what does the CELF project reveal? I believe that three themes provide us with a powerful understanding of what happens in families:
Can you think of a time when you were at home and you either did not want something or were not feeling something? Me neither. This is my first realization: Families are systems defined by emotion and motivation – and by how well they coordinate these emotions and motivations. Which is to say that individual family members want things in the here and now for themselves and for other family members – computer time, a nap, time to pray, a quiet child, completed homework, a run on the treadmill, a moment to call a colleague about work, permission to do a sleep-over, well-brushed teeth, a defrosted chicken put back into the refrigerator, a bed-time story -- and they have feelings about those things and whether or not they are delivered. Families work well when individual members want others to feel positive emotions and avoid negative ones: can I give you a kiss, a back rub, a healthy dinner, a picture I drew at school, a piece of candy from the Halloween basket, time to watch your favorite show, words of encouragement? Families work poorly when individual members think mainly about themselves, want or allow others to feel bad, and prefer that others not feel good. Coordination and orchestration of all these wants and feelings requires great skill and patience, and only one thing has to go wrong for the entire system to go skidding out of control.
Second, the needs and emotions of family members, and how those needs and feelings get coordinated, all occur in a range of physical environments. A home with a television is very different from a home without a television, and a home with a television on in every room is very different from a home with all those televisions off. People in a small home have more opportunity to connect (and get on one another’s nerves) than those in a spacious home. Homes full of clutter are different from tidy homes – and both impose unique costs on the family members. People with longer commutes arrive home feeling different from people who walk home from work. Families in safe neighborhoods can take walks after dinner; families in rough neighborhoods are less likely to do so. A home in which the mother can cook dinner and watch the child do homework is different from one in which the mother has to yell into the next room all the time to check. Families that have one computer have different demands than families in which everyone has their own laptop. Homes with an inviting backyard, garden, barbecue, and swimming pool encourage more socializing and time outdoors than homes without these amenities.
We have some control over these environments, and these environments have some control over us. Either way, we cannot understand our wants and feelings, or our relationships, without recognizing that they are embedded in environments that shape and change these wants and feelings.
The most remarkable aspect of these families is their busyness, and this is also the least obvious part of the puzzle. Why are families so busy all the time? I believe that the answer to this question, and the third theme required for any understanding of families, is aspiration. Parents have longer-term agendas that put the fire under the ‘emotion and motivation’ pot that I mentioned above: they want their daughter to do well in school because it is an element in her eventual success as an adult. Parents want to teach their 4 year-old how to brush her teeth well because they value self-sufficiency. They want to call a colleague from home because they aspire to get a raise, or a promotion, or a good retirement. They want to get on the treadmill because they aspire to good health and fitness. They want to pray because they aspire to a life of spirituality or religious meaning. These aspirations are almost always invisible but they drive family life and the investments of time and concern that family members make.
So what? All this matters because these three themes are the very makings of the American Dream, and I daresay the dream of families everywhere: people looking out for one another, in safe and healthy environments, with a legitimate shot at achieving the good things they want for themselves and their children.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is famous for saying "From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.” And so it is when social scientists are shown just a snippet of videotape of a family, going about their daily lives.
Learn more about the UCLA Center on the Everyday Lives of Families at