The Moral Lives of Children Project

The Culture of American Families

Much today is written about the impact of technology, the media, peer groups, consumption, and schools on our nation’s children, yet the obvious is often overlooked. Missing from this picture is the impact that interactions between parents and children at home make. The Culture of American Families Project is a three-year investigation of the home cultures that are molding the next generation of American adults. Generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the project's first phase included a national survey of 3,000 parents of school-age children. The second phase engaged 101 parents from the larger sample in intensive, in-person interviews. Findings from both studies will be disseminated broadly to scholars, journalists, educators, parenting organizations, policy makers, and last but not least, to parents themselves.

Like The State of Disunion, The Politics of Character, and other Institute surveys before it, the Culture of American Families Project adapts the tools of contemporary social science to an investigation that is broadly interpretive and contextual. Our goal is to distinguish the diverse moral narratives that are crafted in the daily interactions between parents and children. What are the treasured hopes, deepest fears, and most pressing challenges of today's parents? Where do they turn for support? What role, if any, do understandings of “character” have to play in the lessons children learn? Is contemporary life too fluid to anchor in stable, shared convictions? What does it mean to be a “good parent” or a “good child” in an era when moral signposts point in multiple directions? These questions, which do not lend themselves to easy answers, drive our research.

Explore the Culture of American Families Project findings >>

View the Culture of American Families Press Release >>

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Read the full project description >>

The Institute’s Culture of American Families Project is a benchmark study of the family cultures within which the next generation of American adults are being formed. Under the leadership of Project Directors Carl Desportes Bowman and James Davison Hunter, the Institute’s Research Team began laying the groundwork for the project in 2010 with extensive background reading in the area of parenting and family studies. Early in 2011, a Project Advisory Council was put in place to offer input at key junctures in the project. The Council convened at Watson Manor in March 2011 to discuss fruitful lines of inquiry and weigh alternatives.

An early thread of these conversations was the premise that major historical and structural changes are re-framing the nature of American home and family life. Prominent among these changes are: new internet-based technologies of connection and distraction, the grounding of identity in external commodities and patterns of consumption, the colonization of homelife by forces beyond parental control, carving up and over-scheduling of what once constituted “family time,” a turning inward toward family as the center of emotional intimacy, and the transformation of old understandings of authority and discipline, to name just a few. The net effect of these historical changes is nothing less than a revision of the moral anthropology of childhood and parenthood.

To more fully understand the nature of these transformations, The Culture of American Families Project launched two major data collection efforts during the fall of 2011:

  1. A Web-based survey of a nationally representative sample of 3,000 parents of school-age children. This one-hour survey, fielded for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture by Knowledge Networks, examines a broad range of parental priorities, aspirations, challenges, and practices, interpreting them in light of a variety of cultural and socio-demographic indicators. Unlike national surveys that focus primarily on the summary profile—what the average American thinks or does—the survey pursues a strategy of disaggregation, identifying lines of difference between different family narratives and cultural patterns that predominate in America.
  2. Follow-up, in-person interviews were conducted with 101 of the survey respondents. These 90-minute, semi-structured interviews complemented the survey with open-ended questions designed to explore how respondents articulate their visions of the good parent and the good child. Interview questions explore the kinds of people parents want their children to become, and attempt to elicit the explicit and implicit strategies parents employ in their habits and practices of scheduling, disciplining, motivating, and communicating with their children. Since the interview sample echoes the representativeness of the survey sample, we are able to pursue these themes with parents from diverse backgrounds and social classes. The interview data offers texture and depth to the cultural narratives and patterns that emerge from the survey data.

This project has three audiences: scholars, policy makers and activists, and the wider public. Our public strategy focuses on the influential leaders working within policy, educational, parenting, and religious communities, who are strategically positioned to use our research for the common good. The Institute is creating a network of parenting and educational organizations and presenting an Executive Report with “thoughts for practitioners” to a national conference on November 15, 2012. The Survey Report and Interview Report are scheduled for simultaneous release in December 2012.  They will be distributed widely to the scholarly community and organizational leaders, and they will be available on the Institute’s website.

This project represents a multi-year commitment to understanding the moral frameworks that predominate in contemporary American families. Our goal is to tell the tale of contemporary parental habits, hopes, fears, assumptions, and expectations for their children. We will carefully describe parents’ accounts of their children’s struggles and activities as well as their understandings of what it means to raise “good” children, understandings that are transmitted both explicitly and implicitly, to their children. Our aim is help clarify the dilemmas that surround American parenting, and to offer research that can inform the work of organizations that partner with parents in both scholarly and practical ways.


This project is generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation:

Who We Are

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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