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What Do Children Think They Need?

Berkeley's New $3 Million Center for Working Families Plans to Go to the Source

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted November 11, 1998

In debates over how much time children need from parents in this busy world of family and work, few people have thought to ask the children. But that will change, thanks to a new $3 million Center for Working Families being established on campus.

Headed by Arlie Hochschild, professor of sociology, the center is undertaking a novel approach to the study of child development. It will begin by interviewing children as young as 5 to determine how they feel about the care they receive. Interviews with parents, teachers and child care workers will follow.

"We assume we know what correct child development is," said Hochschild, "but we have only an adult notion of that. We haven't asked the children." Launched last month with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the new center is one of four national research centers established by Sloan in the past two years to study modern, dual-career families.

According to the foundation, which has invested some $12 million in this new effort, the centers will provide information on how family members care for each other when their daily lives are apparently so disrupted by the challenges of contemporary life.

"There have been profound changes in American families, driven by mothers of young children entering the workforce," said Kathleen Christensen, program director at the Sloan Foundation.

"The changes have been so rapid and dramatic," she said, "that we've been caught up in living with them and haven't stepped back to say, 'What's happening?'"

The new center will take a thorough look at how a child's total environment -- including home, school and parent's workplace -- influences him or her.

"We're looking at many kinds of 'cultures of care' -- small ones, large ones, fragile ones, solid ones, kin-oriented and market-oriented ones," said Hochschild.

"Most studies to date have looked at the child's socialization and intellectual development in child care," she said. "That's all well and good, but we need to find out how the children feel. Parents may think their children are thriving, but their children may feel otherwise -- or the reverse may be true."

For example, Hochschild said that researchers at the new center have found that 52 percent of girls and 41 percent of boys answered "no" to the question: "Is there at least one adult at school you could go to with a personal problem?"

"We need to design a society that is attentive to children's needs and to press for workplaces that allow employees to address their children's needs," she said.

Berkeley researchers will begin in Walnut Creek and Richmond interviewing middle school students. In Fairfield, they will talk to children from 5 to 7 years old to compare care provided in public versus private schools.

The research will compare children from different class and ethnic backgrounds, taking into account differing cultural notions of what constitutes good care. Six senior researchers and five graduate students will carry out the center's unusually large, integrated research project, which is housed at the Institute for the Study of Social Change.

The associate director of the center is sociology professor Barrie Thorne. Senior researchers include Louise Lamphere, current president of the American Anthropological Association; Terry Arendell, author of "Women and Divorce, Men and Divorce"; Elaine Bell Kaplan, author of "Not Our Kind of Girl"; and Rivka Polatnick, author of the article "Why Men Don't Rear Children."

The other three Sloan-funded centers, located at Cornell University, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, will focus on middle-class families.


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