Last semester, in a human development
and family studies course called "How to Have a Happy Family,"
Shapiro assigned readings written by faculty from across campus,
then asked them to speak about their research and experiences with
such issues as infertility, special-needs children, balancing career
with family, partner violence, gay and lesbian issues, and caring
for aging family members. The students then applied their new
knowledge to case studies on these topics.
"We discovered that most families have
both joyous times and difficult challenges. The students learned
that flexibility and commitment are important keys to riding out the
difficult storms," Shapiro said.
Had students anticipated coming up
against these rough spots? Students appreciated the possibility of
divorce and remarriage, she said, and almost all of them believed
they would live with a partner before marriage as a way of trying
out the relationship.
But they were surprised to learn that
they might have trouble having children. "And they had never
imagined having a child who was not completely healthy. Listening to
faculty members talk about struggling with these situations was a
wake-up call," she said.
Women outnumbered men in the class four
to one. Although both men and women hoped to become parents, women
reported much more experience taking care of small children. Many
female students decided that familiarity with infants and children,
rather than "maternal instinct," made women more capable and
comfortable with child care.
"None of their male classmates had even
held a baby," Shapiro said. "The women realized they would have to
teach a spouse child care if they wanted to share parenting."
Shapiro said that every marriage has
its danger points. "Every challenge the couple meets, whether it's
facing a difficult medical situation, new parenthood, dealing with
teenage children and aging parents at the same time, or adjusting to
an empty nest, has the potential to rock a family if their support
systems aren't strong."
She advised her students to
intentionally build these support systems, especially if they raise
families at a distance from grandparents and other relatives. "It's
a heavy burden if a couple only has each other to talk with about
these challenges," Shapiro said.
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Support can be found naturally in a
family's spiritual community, neighborhood and by making friends
with other parents at school functions, dance classes or sports
"Parents need to be able to talk with
other parents about things that come up with their children. They
need to be able to say, 'Does your son do this?' and 'How do you
handle this?'" she said.
But each family member should also look
for ways to provide support within the family circle. "We talked in
class about the ways one family member's crisis can put acute stress
on the entire family. Other members of the family need to stay
committed to that person, to rally around him and help him
participate in the life of the family," she said.
And, in today's work-driven world,
parents must balance work and family life to guarantee that each
family member gets the support he needs, the researcher said.
"It's very important for families to
put a premium on spending time together. Research shows that
children don't mind if their parents work. They just want their
parents to leave work stress at work and pay attention to them when
they're not working. Children need to feel that they're in a nest of
caring siblings and adults," she said.
Shapiro added that young people look to
the media for images of happy families. "Today we watch the Ozzy
Osbourne family, a very different image from Ozzie and Harriet's
family that was modeled for earlier generations. Children look for
families that mirror theirs on TV and watch them struggle with the
same problems they face."
"At the same time, the media helps
convince young people that having the right clothes and toys will
help them fit in with their friends and make them a happy person.
That puts pressure on parents, and parents already put a lot of
pressure on themselves to give their children all the things they
think will make their children happy.
things don't make us happy," she said. "At any time, each family
member will be pursuing his own path with varying degrees of
physical and mental health. And there needs to be a cushion of
family love and support there. That's what will make the difference
when people meet the trouble spots that come in almost every
[University of Illinois news