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Sociology Class

The Family

Playing Field

You will need to understand the concept playing field as this will be the focus of the final paper assignment.  Our playing field is the situation we are born into and how it affects us.  It is the tools we have to work with in our lives or what we have available to us and the specific consequences this has on us.  It is sometimes termed our “opportunity structure.”  Our playing field can be advantaged or disadvantaged. For example, our playing field includes (and this is the short list): gender, race, ethnicity, social class, family composition, educational opportunities (and if our parents went to college or not), health (including genetic factors), if our parents have good parenting skills or not, and if we were a wanted or unwanted child. We are at the “mercy of our significant others” and they set the stage for our lives.  “We are only as good as our experts”  This means that we can only be as good as those we have available to us to teach us the necessary skills in life. 

Our family is a key aspect of our playing field, which will be the focus of this particular lecture.  However, there are other key factors that affect our playing field (education, race/ethnicity, social class, gender, etc.)


The major consequence of our playing field is our self-concept, which has the biggest effect on us long-term.  Think about some specific characteristics of your playing field and the effects they have had on you.

For example, my playing field included: female, a “wanted child”, parents divorced when I was about 6 months old resulting in very little contact with my “father” who did not pay child support, mom worked two jobs, education and college were highly emphasized (“not an option”), and my family members do not live long (many different diseases).  All of these factors are going to have a multitude of consequences on me and set the stage for my life.  Think about how each of these has or could have affected me and who I have become.

We say that our playing field is pure luck…it is the “luck of the draw” as to which family and environment we are born into.  We are not little fetuses looking down who can choose the parents or environment we will be born into…that’s too bad, huh?

For the remainder of this section we are going to be discussing specific playing field issues and the effects.  We will be discussing the generalizations or the common effects of the specific playing field issues.  We will always know someone who did not fall into the typical outcomes and we will get to those individuals at the end, but for now we will stick with the outcomes that the data (studies) have shown.

Alcoholic/Substance Abuse Parents

Studies have shown that children of alcoholics/substance abusers will either 1) become an alcoholic/substance abuser themselves 2) marry an alcoholic/substance abuser (they are used to taking care of others and become enablers; they are also likely to even seek occupations in which they take care of others such as nursing) or 3) never touch a drink in their life (this last outcome is the less likely to happen but it does occur).  These individuals are likely to be “people pleasers” as they have walked on eggshells their whole lives.  Obviously growing up in this environment is going to have a major affect on who the person becomes and the “choices” he or she makes.

Wanted vs. Unwanted Children

Being a wanted or unwanted child is definitely a playing field issue and has major long term effects.  Most of us know if we were wanted or unwanted or even unplanned…we don’t have to even ask our parents or do the calculation we are given many clues throughout our lives.  Were you wanted or unwanted?  How do you know?  How has this affected you?  There are two studies you should be familiar with.  The Harvard Obesity Study was a study in which they found several children who were obese (we are not talking just overweight, they were obese) for no medical reason (such as a thyroid condition).  The researchers wanted to find out why they were obese.  They interviewed the children and parents (separately) and gave the parents a paper survey/questionnaire.  There were several important findings.  First, they found that the parents were in unhappy marriages.  Secondly, they found that the children were unwanted children.  Either the parents did not want them (or did not want more children) or they were the wrong sex child (they wanted a boy and had a girl or vice versa).  So, how does this result in obesity?   Well, to begin with the children were unwanted but obviously the parents felt guilty for not wanting them so they tried to make it up to them.  How do we show love in many instances?  Through food…I cook good food for my family because I love them…when we go back home to visit our mom she cooks for us to show her love.  This is what these, usually moms, were doing…they were overfeeding them out of guilt…the idea is that they were showing their love.  Another finding is that these children had very lengthy charts at their doctor’s office…they were taken to the doctor constantly, for every little thing…another way their parents were showing their love (the over-concerned parent), which can lead to being a hypochondriac.  Additionally, the children had a since of being unwanted and some turned to food for comfort.  We can see how being unwanted can lead to multiple effects including an impact on our self-concept. 

The “Hurried Child”

Have you ever heard someone constantly tell their child to hurry?  This is not a good thing…I try to never do this but sometimes I slip-upJ.  I also see many parents holding their child’s hand while walking fast and literally dragging their child along.  Studies have shown that a “hurried child” is an unwanted child.  The idea is that if I constantly tell my child to hurry, essentially he or she is interrupting my life and I have a lot of things to do!  There are severe consequences to being a hurried child.  First of all if I am an unwanted child my self-concept is affected but beyond that a hurried child becomes a nervous adult (anxiety problems) and this causes further health problems down the road.


The primary goal for parents should be to have a child with high self-concept.  A child’s self concept is directly related to his or her socialization and interactions with his or her parents.  One, very simple example:  If a child asks, and many of us do, “how did I get my name?”  The answer will not necessarily harm him or her but it could greatly increase his or her self-concept.  For instance, there was a girl who asked her mother that question.  Her mother responded, “Oh, when I was in labor I didn’t have a name yet.  I was watching my favorite soap opera and there was a girl named _____.  She was very pretty and all the boys liked her.  I hoped you would be pretty as well so I named you after her.”  Now, this girl’s life was not ruined because of this but she definitely did not feel special due to this.  She also learned a very important gender expectation here.  Now, on the other hand there was a boy named Matthew.  He asked his parents the same question.  His mother responded, “We tried for 10 years to have a baby.  I had many miscarriages.  Finally, I had a successful pregnancy.  You were born and you are the greatest thing that has ever happened to us.  We named you Matthew which means ‘gift from God’ because you are our gift from God!”  Now Matthew definitely has something that the girl doesn’t have…he feels special (and wanted) and his self-concept is raised just by these simple words.  Do you know how you got your name?

Sex Education

What type of sex education did you receive?  How is this a playing field issue?  What are the long term effects of having or not having proper sex education?  I know that when I was 18 years old my mom decided it was time for us to have “a talk.”  My response to her was “my friends already told me everything!”  This is one of the scariest responses ever…we definitely don’t want our kids learning from their friends who do not have the correct information.  Having consistent and good communication on this topic with our parents (partnered with a comprehensive sex education curriculum taught at school) benefits our playing field.  Communication on this topic with our parents also leads to a strong parental bond.

Parental Children

A parental child is a child, usually the oldest child, who is responsible for his or her siblings.  We don’t just mean babysitting, they are acting as the parent of their younger siblings.  This is a negative playing field.  These children miss out on their childhood and later are more likely to have a mid-life crisis due to missing an important stage in their development (revert back to their childhood, a time with less responsibilities).  There is also the concept of the parentified child which is when a child acts as the parent to his or her parent…this is also very detrimental to their development.  In many instances this is due to a parent having a mental illness, being an alcoholic, or having a disability.  They are also more likely to have a mid-life crisis later in life.

Sibling Relationship

When siblings do not get along most of the time we can attribute their negative relationship to their parents’ actions.  It is said that parents are responsible for sibling relationships.  How they treat their children (especially treating them differently) will affect the long term relationships of the children.  There was a study on brothers (but we could apply the overall concept to other types of siblings) who did not get along and actually rarely even saw each other.  They only got together when their wives planned family functions like holidays.  The researchers observed the brothers during these get-togethers.  The brothers rarely spoke to each other, however, they were not fighting at first.  Then their mothers showed up to the family function and this was when the fighting began.  It was noticed that the mothers treated her sons differently and played favorites in most instances.  One of the worst things we can say is “why can’t you be like your brother, he is_____” (smart, athletic, etc.).  This is termed pitting them against one another (making comparisons) and caused negative relationships between the siblings.  Why are sibling relationships so important?  Later when we are older and our parents are gone who should we be able to turn to for help?  In most instances if brothers or sisters do not get along we can directly attribute it to how the parents treated them.  Even when siblings fight or call each other names we are responsible to make them stop and make them treat each other with respect.  My favorite is to have your children hug each other (or hold hands) for five minutes if they are not treating each other with respect.  We have a major problem in our society today of sibling abuse (the most common form of abuse in our society today) and parents are responsible to make sure it does not occur.


How is breastfed a playing field issue?  What are the benefits to a baby being breastfed?  What are the long term outcomes?  Here are some of the benefits.  Children that are breastfed have an increased bond with their mothers, have an increased immune system, are less likely to get certain types of cancers, have higher IQs (8-10% higher; due to being held and touched), are less likely to get ear infections, and are less likely to die of SIDS disease.  The importance of touch is the key in many of instances.  Also, it saves a lot of money.  On another note, mothers who breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer (two years of breastfeeding reduces our risk up to 50%).  So, can you see how whether or not we were breastfed is part of our playing field?  Studies in the U.S. today have found that most women were breastfeeding their babies upon discharge from the hospital, yet, weeks later when they had to go back to work many no longer were breastfeeding their babies.  What does this say about our society?  More maternity (and paternity) leave benefits are needed to support families.  It should be mentioned that some women cannot breastfeed (do not produce milk, have to be on medications, etc.).  It is also important to note that culture plays a role…in some countries children are breastfed for much longer than our social norms permit (in impoverished countries it makes sense to breastfeed for much longer).


“The fundamental function of the family is trust.”  Trust is the most important thing we can give our children as well as teach them.  To teach trust and be trustworthy is essential to positive socialization.  We don’t want our children to be naïve…that is not what we are talking about…but to trust others and be a trustworthy person.  Trust is not something we are born with, it is taught.  Those who do not trust have a very difficult time in relationships with others.  Long term effects could go as far as causing jealousy and control issues which are major predictors of family violence.


It is very important that we teach our children that there are consequences for their behaviors.  So, when our children misbehave or break the rules we give them appropriate punishments.  So, how many of you were told you were on restriction for one week and it ended up being one day? J  This is what my mom did too!  Do you think this taught us an important lesson?  Bug my mom long enough and I will get what I want??  If my mom tells me not to play ball in the front yard and I do and the ball goes through the front window what should be the consequences for my behavior?  If we are trying to teach our children that they are responsible for their actions then we should make them work to pay for the window, right?  What happens if my parents always save me (i.e. fix my problems for me, get me out of binds, etc.)?  The long term effect is that I will become an impulsive person.  Impulsive people do not reflect on the future (no reflective qualities), they are interested in the doing without looking at the effects of their behaviors.  So, how many of you realize you could get a ticket when you are speeding but maybe take the risk because you will be late for work or school?  If you realize it you are probably not an impulsive person.  Do any of you have to borrow money from your parents to pay your rent or car payment because you went shopping and spent too much money and did not reflect on the consequences?  A gift we can give our children is to not save them so they can handle things on their own.

Non-person Father (Non-person Parent)

The study was on fathers but we can apply the information to any parent.  A non-person is a parent who is “at an interaction but not of an interaction.”  What this means is that the parent is not an absent parent physically but is absent emotionally.  These parents do not communicate with their children or do so in very limited amounts, but certainly they do not discuss important life issue with their children.  What are the effects of having a non-person parent?  Remember our discussion on the importance of bonds?  If we are female are we learning that this is what a father is like and will we end up marrying someone similar to this?  If we are male are we learning how to be a father?  And the cycle continues.

Serial Father

A serial father is an absent father that goes on to have additional children in another relationship.  The previous children not only feel abandoned due to having an absent father but they feel like they have been replaced.  This has long term effects on their self-esteem.

Absent Fathers

Recent data has shown us that a father’s role is very important to both sons’ and daughters’ development.  Historically a father’s role with their children was viewed as less important than a mother’s role.  We now see that that is not the case.  Boys without fathers in their lives or that lack a bond with their fathers are more likely to engage in deviant behaviors, have behavioral problems in general, and are more likely to be juvenile delinquents.  Girls without fathers in their lives or that lack a bond with their fathers are more likely to have distorted body images and be lifelong dieters and (problems with wanting to gain acceptance; what does our society value in girls?), have eating disorders, be promiscuous, drop out of school, and or commit suicide.

What Will This Person Be Like to Exit From?

When we are dating a person most of the time we are in “la la land” and do not see the signs that indicate the future with the person.  It doesn’t sound very romantic but we need to think about what the person will be like to exit from or in other words, what will it be like when I want to get out of the relationship?  I guess first we could ask ourselves what the person would be like to be married to and have children with and then exit from.  So, in order to do this we need to pull our heads out of the clouds and logically think (hopefully our parents have taught us to do soJ).  For instance, if the person is always concerned of our whereabouts and calls us constantly (thank goodness for cell phones; we call this jealousy like in our previous example) do we see the red flags and what the long term outcomes will be?  What about if we go to dinner with the person (he or she asked us out so he or she is going to pay) and we have good service yet the person does not leave a tip, what is that person?  What should we do?…run!

Child Support

The effects of child support not being paid are not only economic but emotional.  These children suffer from economic stressors (and downward social mobility) as well as emotional effects (abandonment).  Studies have shown that only about 31% of those who are supposed to pay child support pay the full amount and pay on time on a regular basis, then there are about 20% that sometimes pay or do not pay the full amount, and about 49% never pay.  Research also shows that about 7 out of 10 children do not see their fathers on a regular basis after their parents divorce.  In turn this means that 3 out of 10 do see their fathers on a regular basis (about 30%) which is likely the group that pays child support regularly.

Physical Punishment/Spanking

How many of you were spanked for punishment as a child?  Okay, we are going to discuss some data who spanks and the effects of being spanked or receiving corporal punishment.  It seems like every ten years we hear about new more effective methods of punishing our children and that the old methods ruined our children!  Depending on our age and social class we can predict who has been spanked.  Nowadays, spanking is a lower class phenomena.  The middle class as well as upper class are more likely to take things away (video games, car keys, cell phone, etc.)…think about it the lower classes don’t have anything to take away.  Murray A. Strauss has done a lot of research on spanking and the effects.  He has found several things:

  • 90% of people use some type of corporal punishment (physical punishment to change behavior) to correct misbehavior.
  • The most frequent form is spanking (but slapping, hitting (with hairbrush, paddle, and belt was also found), grabbing, and shoving.
  • Mothers are now more likely to spank (in the past it was “wait till your father gets home”) as we have been told by the experts that punishment needs to be immediate and mothers are more likely to be home with their children.

Strauss is opposed to spanking as it has been found that spanking:

  1. legitimizes violence (children will be violent towards others)
  2. weakens the bond with parent
  3. lowers the child’s self-esteem

Strauss says “the only good thing about spanking is that it is over immediately” and the issue is less likely to be dwelled upon…would you rather be spanked or have a two hour conversation with your parents on what you did wrong and what you should do in the future?  Would you rather be spanked or be on restriction for a week?  Or have your cell phone taken away?

Family Violence

If a child comes from a family in which there is violence what will be the effects?  We have found the “cycle of violence” or what is called “intergenerational transmission”, the child is more likely to also be violence (in his or her family of procreation) or endure violence against him or her in subsequent relationships.  The following are some important long term effects of specific types of family violence.

Viewing domestic violence as a child causes social learning and is likely to result in being in a domestic violence relationship in adulthood (as a victim or perpetrator).

There is the active abuser who actually abuses the child as well as the passive abuser who knows about it (or should know about it; red flags) and does not do anything about it.  Studies have actually found that the passive abuser does more damage than the active abuser as a child learns that he or she cannot even trust others to stop the abuse.  The child views the abuse as being condoned by the passive abuser.  Today the passive abuser can also be held legally responsible for the abuse.

The most common form of abuse is neglect (about 78% of the abuse cases; mostly young dependent children), then physical abuse (11%), then sexual abuse (8%; this form of abuse is a major violation of trust), then emotional abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as “a disregard for the psychological needs of a child or adolescent.”  Some examples of emotional abuse are: lack of expression of love and affection, withholding contact and approval, putting a child down or labeling, lying, demanding excessive responsibility (parental or parentified child), ignoring, fear-inducing techniques, and extreme inconsistency.  One of the major consequences of emotional abuse is low self-concept, which as we have stated previously causes a snowball effect to other consequences.


Neglect can be physical, emotional, or educational.  For example:

  • Physical: no food, dirty diapers, basic hygiene, dirty home, etc.
  • Emotional: lack love, attention, affection; part of emotional abuse as well
  • Educational: not making a child go to school

Effects: neglected children lack empathy for others (make sure you know what empathy is), oftentimes they feel nothing, and this leads to adult antisocial behavior.

A classic case of a severely neglected child (note: social workers had a huge file on this person when he was a child) is Charles Manson.  Social workers were called out to his house many times and never removed/saved him.

Explanations of Child Abuse

So, why do people abuse their children?  People do not just decide that they are going to do so there are several factors to help us understand why people do so.

  1. Structural factors (lower social class, large family size, or single parenting); the idea is stress in the family
  2. Mental illness of the parent (actually the smallest number of child abuse cases, less than 5%)
  3. History of abuse (cycle of abuse; parents abused as children)
  4. Transitory situational factors (triggers such as alcohol, drugs, and unemployment)
  5. Difficult or demanding child (behavioral problems, mental disability, or physical disability) also a stress related issue

Many times there are several factors interacting with one another.

Children’s Reactions to Abuse

When children experience these abuses against them they feel out of control.  All people, including children, need to have a sense of control over their lives.  That’s exactly why we give even three year olds some control or choices (over what they want eat – give them two options, shirt they wear, etc.).  When we feel out of control we find a way to at least control something in our lives.  So, abused children react by:

  • running away (“running away makes sense” – Anneburg; they are fleeing from trauma; even though they may have even worse experiences on the streets at least in their mind it is not worse as they feel in control and that at least they made the choice)
  • Eating disorders (“I can control what I eat” or don’t eat)
  • Suicide (“I will make the final decision”)
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Violence and aggression
  • Substance abuse

The Resilient Child (finally!)

What does resilient mean?  The characteristics of resilient children are they have the capability of “rolling with the punches”, recover quickly, they focus on anything positive that is happening in their lives rather than focusing on what is wrong with their lives, and they are able to think beyond the present moment and imagine the future…pretty hard to do in some of these instances.  They create an emotional distance from the situation and reach out to positive role models, or what we call a mentor.  Most kids who are resilient have had a mentor in their life…someone to just tell them that it does not have to be this way and they will succeed in the end…this is what gives them the ability to break the cycle and not abuse their own kids. 

Being resilient does not necessarily mean breaking the cycle of abuse, it  simply means, breaking any cycle.  A child who’s grandmother and mother were teen parents but she waits until she is thirty years old to have her first child, someone who is the first in their family to go to college and graduate, someone who’s parents always had money problems (and claimed bankruptcy several times) yet he or she is a good money manager…the main idea is that a negative or disadvantaged cycle is broken.  So are you resilient in any way?

What Are Strong Families? (Stinnett, 1992)

Strong families are those that:

  1. spend time together
  2. appreciate one another (have to be taught to appreciate others)
  3. are committed to one another
  4. talk and listen to one another
  5. are religious (“families that pray together, stay together”)
  6. deal with crisis in an effective way (we learn from our parents how to make decisions and deal with crises situations; also if everything is defined as a crisis, and you know the type of person I am talking about, then we do not learn how to manage our lives.


So what are families (and/or parents) supposed to provide us with?  I always say that there is no guarantee that you will get a “Life Is Beautiful” parent (have you seen the movie?  Then you know what I am talking about).  We are lucky to have one competent parent as some get none!

Family and Social Class Issues

The social class and family issues can be include in the family section of your final paper or in your social class section if you chose that as one of your main topics.

Social Class Socialization

“Your parents’ occupation determines your occupation.”  What are the differences in the experiences that blue collar workers vs. white collar workers have in their jobs?  Think about all aspects of their jobs, how they are treated, and the skills they use in their jobs.  What this quote means is that we are socialized to be in a specific social class and our major socializing agents are our parents.  The way they socialize us according to their social class is not always in identifiable ways.  For instance, studies have shown that if I am obeying orders at work, punching in, highly supervised, and am not allowed to problem solve or be creative I will bring these characteristics home with me and socialize my children accordingly (blue collar socialization).  If I obey orders at work I will make my children obey me when I get home.  I highly supervise my children and do not allow them to problem solve.  This results in my children being used to this level of control and will result in them “choosing” to be in blue-collar jobs later in life.  Do you see how this works?  So on the other hand if I am a white-collar worker I problem solve at work, my job encourages autonomy, I am loosely supervised, I am creative, and I have self-control (white collar socialization).  So, how do I socialize my children and what will be the results?  Studies have also shown that children in the different social classes are educated differently (teachers treat them differently; different lesson plans) and therefore are also socialized through education to remain in their specific social class.  The two together work to seal the deal!  More on inequality in education in an upcoming section.

Competitive Consumption (or conspicuous consumption)

Competitive consumption is the process by which we spend to “keep up with the Jones’”, that spending is a competitive process in which we have been taught materialism and to keep up with the material norms of the social group we identify with. We learn this through our socialization.

Deferred Gratification

Deferred gratification (also called delayed gratification) is where we save for today to have a better tomorrow, we resist the temptation for instance rewards and prefer delayed rewards.  Often we are taught this value from our parents who may teach us to work towards the future or to be frugal.  Deferred gratification was considered a middle-class phenomenon in the past as a means for upward mobility.


There was an interesting study in which individuals (adults; parents) were asked several questions including: race, ethnicity, income (demographics questions) and some attitude questions, the most interesting questions being: How many children did you want to have?  How many children do you have?  It was found that those in poverty were more likely to have more children than they wanted to have.  Why would this be?  When asked several of the respondents stated that they could not afford birth control.  But birth control is free in most instances (we just have to find them) and isn’t having a child more expensive than birth control?  The idea is that the poor are not taught planning abilities.  Actually for many of the poor looking in the future is even more stressful than just getting through the present day.  Also, another interesting finding was that they found that in one specific group 97.8% of them had the exact number of children they wanted to have…it was those that were Jewish!  If you know anything about that group you know that no other group has moved up in social status faster (social mobility) and they are taught planning abilities.

Mental Illness (Hollingshead and Redlick, Yale University)

Not everyone is equally likely to be mentally ill.  The poor are more likely to be mentally ill or even to be labeled mentally ill (we do not say a rich person is mentally ill, we say they are eccentric).  The poor and mentally ill are less likely to receive treatment or if they do it is less likely to be effective treatment.  Poverty sets the stage for other playing field issues.

Concerted Cultivation or Natural Growth

Read the assigned article (Invisible Inequality) for information on childrearing and social class (concerted cultivation or a natural growth childrearing).  Think about which method of socialization was used by your family when you were growing up.


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