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College students learn it takes work
to have a happy family   
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[JULY 17, 2004]  URBANA -- University of Illinois family studies professor Constance Shapiro is teaching her students that "happily ever after" doesn't just happen.

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 events.

"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.

"But those 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 family's life."

[University of Illinois news release]

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