Society has different expectations for individuals in different age groups and assigns different statuses and roles to them. Among the social roles that give meaning to a person's existence are those prescribed as family members, friends, and by memberships in various organizations.
A typical family of today has been characterized as shaped like a beanpole, in that there are several living generations, but each generation has only a few members.
Nearly one-third of all babies born in the United States are illegitimate, and a sizable percentage are born to teenage mothers. The birthrate varies with age and ethnicity. It is highest for women aged 25-29 years and for Hispanics and blacks than for Asian/Pacific Islanders and whites. Internationally, the fertility rate is highest in African countries and lowest in European countries.
Though rearing a child is a time-consuming and often frustrating task, the experience can be a maturing one for both parents and child. Good parenting results from a combination of genetic endowment (of parent and child) and experience. Some people never learn to be good parents, whereas others seem to be naturally gifted with parenting ability. It helps to have good parents oneself, parents from whom one has personally benefited and after whom one can model. Still, children are fairly resilient creatures, and a few parental mistakes do not usually produce little monsters.
In general, authoritative parents, who set behavioral limits and standards, and enforce them with a combination of power and reasoning, have more socially adaptable children than authoritarian, indulgent, or neglecting parents. Children of authoritative parents tend to be not only independent and self-assertive but also friendly and cooperative.
Over one-third of all mothers of young children are gainfully employed outside the home. One might think that this would be psychologically harmful to young children, but research evidence indicates that this is not necessarily so. Mothers also benefit—both economically and psychologically—from working. Not only working mothers but also single mothers have increased in numbers in recent years. Having only one parent undoubtedly has negative effects on the development of children unless the lack of a parent is compensated for by a surrogate or in some other way.
The harmoniousness of relationships between children and their stepparents varies with the ages and genders of both the children and the stepparents. The potential for conflict is greatest between a stepfather and a stepdaughter, especially when the latter is a teenager. Children with foster parents tend to have more problems than those with adoptive parents.
The departure of adolescent and young-adult children from the parental fold or "nest" does not typically cause the parents to become depressed, emotional wrecks. An empty nest can provide more time for interspousal transactions, vocational and avocational activities, and other sources of personal enjoyment and growth. Nevertheless, most middle-aged adults whose children have "fled the coop" continue to spend time and energy in helping both the children and their own parents. Most adult children have a strong sense of filial responsibility, and older parents also feel a sense of duty toward their adult children.
Most adult children see their parents fairly often. This is particularly true of older mothers and adult daughters. The closeness of the relationships between older parents and children depends on the geographical distance between their respective residences and the closeness of the relationships in earlier years. Material and personal assistance between generations flows in both directions, the nature of the assistance depending, among other things, on gender and socioeconomic status.
Several million American children live with their grandparents and great-grandparents. In many cases, the child's parents do not reside in the home, and the grandparents or great-grandparents ("skip-generation" parents) must take care of the child by themselves. Grandparents typically experience positive feelings at the birth of a grandchild, but sometimes it makes them feel old and remote from the present. Whatever the case may be, the overall picture in today's world is one of increasing separation between grandparents and grandchildren.
Grandparenthood has been described in terms of several different types: fun-seeking, companionate, firm, distant, and so forth. However, the nature of the social interaction between grandparents and grandchildren depends as much on the gender and ages of the parties as anything else. In general, grandmothers, and especially the mother's mother, are closer than grandfathers to their grandchildren.
Same-sex siblings who are approximately the same age are typically closer to each other than to other family members. The loyalty between brothers and sisters tends to increase with age. However, the relationships between adult siblings range from intimate to hostile. Sisters of all races tend to maintain closer contacts with each other than brothers, and black brothers are usually closer than white brothers.
Friends are often closer and valued more than family members. Friends tend to be similar in age, appearance, and socioeconomic status, as well as interests, abilities, and temperament. They provide us with companionships, entertainment, feelings of acceptance and importance, and help us cope with emotional stress caused by a loss, a disorder, or a defeat. Deep friendships develop through a series of stages, beginning with simple awareness of each other and culminating in shared confidences. More superficial friendships are based on similarities of lifestyles and interests but do not involve as much self-disclosure as deep friendships. Styles of friendship have also been characterized as independent, discerning, and acquisitive/gregarious.
Young adults tend to have more friends than middle-aged and older adults, and middle-aged adults have more friends than older adults. However, most older adults, especially older women, continue to have friends and to receive emotional and material support from them.
Women of all ages have more friends than men. Women are also more likely to talk about their problems, express their feelings, and otherwise share confidences with friends. Men are more likely to engage in activities, such as minicompetitions, with their friends. People of higher socioeconomic status have more friends than those of lower socioeconomic status, and whites have more friends than blacks. Young, married adults have more friends than single or widowed adults, but unmarried retirees spend more time with friends than married retires, and older widows and widowers see their friends more frequently than older married couples.
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