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The Minnesota Family Strength Project: Study Finds Families Strong
By Lorna Benson
October 21, 1997

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A new survey shows 78 percent of Minnesotans rank their families as "very" or "exceptionally" strong. The survey was sponsored by the Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative, Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Historical society.

The findings seem to run counter to popular notions that families are falling apart because of rampant teen drug use, domestic violence and divorce.

Minnesota Family Strength Project

THE SURVEY'S MAIN FINDING - that Minnesota families feel overwhelmingly strong - surprised researchers. Terry Steeno, Executive Director of Family and Children's Service in Minneapolis, says, in general, families felt extremely good about their physical, mental, and financial health, just a few of the strength measurements used in the survey.

Steeno: I think the popular opinion is that all families are struggling. I think we all struggle at different times, but in reality what we're finding with this study is that families do work. Families do meet the needs of their members. In fact it's a small percentage of people that cannot rely on their families.
The survey polled 1000 people through a random statewide telephone survey.

Researchers also asked an additional 400 families to complete a 200-question survey seeking more detailed information. Finally, the study convened a dozen small group meetings - including people from African-American, American Indian, Chicano/Latino, Somalie, and Vietnamese backgrounds - to discuss the state of families.

The survey did find some differences in family strength based on the family's particular make-up. In the survey, gay and lesbian families without children scored their strength higher than any other group. Traditional families with two heterosexual parents and children at home ranked second - along with gay and lesbian couples with children, and multi-generational families. Single-parent families and single-person families were next, followed by step-families and co-habitating adults without children. The weakest families were co-habitating adults with children.

Steeno says when families did have problems, typically it wasn't because of big issues.

Steeno: It was the day-to-day hassles - whether the kids did their chores, or did the parents agree on parenting. All those sorts of things were much more trying for families than a major change like a death, or a marriage, or something like that - that kind of crisis - I think people could weather that kind of stress, but they're not prepared for the everyday kind of hassles, and that's gradually what causes them to grow apart.
According to Paulie and Debra Talen, a lesbian couple with three young children, those daily hassles are somewhat easier to handle because of their family make-up.

Paulie says she is freer in her relationship to do what she is best at:

Paulie Talen: There isn't sort of a preconception about one of us going off to work and one of us staying home - or one worrying about the pediatrician appointments, and one managing the friendships. You know, I think some heterosexual couples get trapped into some of that, and we get to re-decide and re-divide-up some of those things.

Debra says that sort of deliberate re-thinking of roles extends to other areas of the Talens' relationship, especially when it came to having children.

Debra Talen: For those of us who got together as a gay or lesbian couple and then chose to bring children into our lives, we've had to do it in such a conscientious way. We've had to (2-year-old starts chattering) - yes, honey - we've had to work at it.
But the Talens feel uncomfortable speaking for all gays and lesbians. Debra says, while the survey's findings mirror her life nicely, there are probably many gays and lesbians who don't feel as strong in their relationships because they might be hiding their sexual orientation from others - or they may be in abusive relationships.

Psychologist and survey researcher Judy Tiesel says it's important NOT to generalize too much when looking at survey findings garnered during the second phase of the study, when researchers focused on a much smaller group of hand-picked families.

Tiesel: That's why we want to be real careful with the Level 2 results to not infer that this does represent all the gay/lesbians in Minnesota and their family units. Because it was a very small sampling. And yet, for those who did participate in that study who are doing so well, I think we can learn what is it that's contributing to them doing so well in their family strength.
Some other highlights from the family strength survey include the observations of adolescents who often saw their family as more chaotic and rigid than their parents did.

Researchers were surprised to find out most of the adults surveyed believed their current family is stronger than the family they grew up in.

Steeno: I think, prior to this, we always thought that people would look back and say the family of the 50s was the strong family, and that isn't what this confirmed. The majority thought their current family was stronger than their family of origin.
Researchers are still analyzing the data they gathered on Minnesota families. They're hoping to continue their work with follow-up surveys.