We talked to Elinor Ochs, distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, director of the UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families, and coeditor of Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle-Class Families and Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, about how the rhythms and shape of family life might change by 2050.
Boom: What was the most surprising conclusion you drew from observing the rituals of daily life in middle-class families?
Elinor Ochs: On one level, we were not surprised by our observations because we are from middle-class society ourselves. We were familiar with middle-class family communication and knew, for example, that Americans are big consumers. Yet, after dawn-to-dusk video recording of family life and poring over nearly 21,000 photographs of homes, we were staggered by the accumulation of goods in people’s homes. Our study holds up a mirror to society: clutter results when families keep going to stores and bringing home toys, clothes, sports gear, food, televisions, computers, game consoles, and more. Many families stockpile food, storing surplus food in second refrigerators. Their possessions spill out of the house into the garage. A related observation is that families purchased and ate primarily packaged convenience foods. These foods come in boxes that take up a lot of space, which is one reason Americans seem to require such big refrigerators and freezers. Many parents said they were too busy to cook food from scratch, but we observed that it took only ten minutes more hands-on time to prepare meals from scratch than to prepare packaged foods. Perhaps ten minutes matters for some parents, but being too busy cannot be the whole story about parents relying on packaged foods. It may be, instead, that some parents do not know how to cook dinner from raw ingredients. Our study indicates that what families eat influences how long family members eat dinner together: Family dinners with food made from scratch were the longest; dinners of packaged foods were the shortest.
Boom: Your research indicates the importance of family members exchanging personal narratives at dinner. How do you see families carving out time for such interactions?
Ochs: Dinnertime is not the only time when family members can exchange information about their lives, but it tends to be an important opportunity. Family members have cell phones and the possibility of communicating in dyads—for example, a parent and a child or a couple—throughout the day. But dinnertime can involve the family as a unit narrating experiences. Family members at dinner often recount experiences that troubled them. They use dinnertime to understand those experiences and their relevance for how they should handle similar experiences in the future. Sharing life events with other family members is a universal means to become intimate and share moral values.
Boom: What challenges will American families face in the future?
Ochs: One of the biggest challenges for twenty-first-century working parents is to figure out how to provide emotional and practical support to not only one’s children but also one’s partner. Our study found that, despite the feminist movement, working mothers returned home two hours earlier than their spouses and performed most of the housework and childcare. The most frequent observation of fathers at home was alone in a room, while mothers were most frequently observed with one or more children. The couple was rarely together in the same room without their children. Regarding the family as a robust social and emotional unit, a challenge is to inculcate in children a sense of responsibility toward other family members. It is a difficult for parents to nurture a child’s dreams and ambitions yet at the same time not tip toward over-nurturance, which discourages a child’s autonomy. Like a horse whisperer, I would gently encourage parents to allow a child to become a capable and respectful human being who looks out for the welfare of other people, including one’s parents, and is able and willing to help the family unit. The hard part is knowing how to apprentice children to be responsible, balance their own self-interests against the needs of other people, and develop a sense of the common good. American middle-class households are, in many ways, very privileged in comparison with those in other societies around the globe. The challenge is not to squander that privilege in a way that will encourage a sense of children’s autonomy decoupled from a sense of responsibility toward others.
Boom: What you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Ochs: A dining room table.
Image at top courtesy of Andrew Watt.