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What do children think about families?

Maureen Ryan

Exploring children's perceptions of families as part of a classroom activity can be a valuable way of broadening and challenging their pictures of families.

Journal issue: 



Writing in 1982 about the rights of children, Asche suggested a need existed for a broad course which would teach children not just sex education but family education and which would include discussion of social, economic and psychological aspects of family relationships. This view has been reiterated most recently by The National Council for the International Year of the Family which endorsed the importance of school-based human relationships education at every level of the school, and which

… does not accept a narrow definition of education designed to prepare children and young people for employment. Instead, education is seen as central to life preparation, to the well-being of individuals, relationships and family life.


Children can be very articulate when answering the question “What is a family?” as I discovered during my 1991 study of 1030 children aged between eight and 12 years. The children, drawn from Grades 3/4 and 5/6 in inner and outer western suburban Melbourne schools, wrote fluently and often with passion about families and about changes in families.

The comprehensive description below is an example of the way in which some children intertwined many different concepts.

A family is a group of people in all sorts of numbers. You have a mum and a dad, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandpas and grandmas etc. who all relate to each other. You might have step-sisters and step-brothers but you are still a family all together. You can have animals in your family like a cat, dog, budgie, parrot. You share your feelings with your family but sometimes you might like to keep it to yourself. If you are sometimes nervous you might like to tell your mum and dad, maybe your cat or dog. Maybe if you come from a different country you have religions that you learn at home with your family. You can learn to co-operate with your family by going to some nursing homes. Sometimes in a family there are twins or triplets. When people die in your family it is very sad and you don’t get over it for a long time. You might not work or go to school for a long time because it is very sad for you. At Christmas, Easter and special events you give your family presents. (Girl, Grade 5)


Children readily drew on their own family experiences in their descriptions but often used those personal examples as starting points for the more general pictures they attempted to paint. As the examples included in this paper suggest, most children tried very hard to explain what they thought a family was, rather than to simply describe their own families.

The categories I used to group the children’s descriptions of families arose from a content analysis of all the written responses. Their descriptions were analysed according to the concepts they referred to. More references were made in descriptions to the emotional content (such as love, care, sharing, belonging) of families than to other content such as family structure and doing things together.


The children wrote with optimism except when they referred to family fights and to family breakdown.

A family is a few people who go shopping and they buy food and they fight and they go to bed. (Boy, Grade 2)

To me a family is a group of people who love you and care and if we are in trouble they help us out of it and they share things. Of course we have fights sometimes but we make up. (Girl, Grade 5)

A family is when you are all related. I hate when my sister causes trouble and I get the blame. My mum goes to work. When she comes home she is all cranky. She goes, “Bill at work says Do you want to work on Saturday? and I say No and he says Bad luck.” Then she starts complaining to my dad. My family is big now when my sister and her husband and their kids come over. When they come in, I say, “Let me hold the baby.” When I helped my sister change the baby’s nappy, boy, did I get a surprise. My brother-in-law always hits me for nothing so I tip a bit of the baby’s milk on him so he kills me. My younger sister starts crying when I hit her and my mother says, Poor Baby. It makes me sick when my sister eats everything out of the fridge and there’s nothing for me. I like it when we go to my cousin’s house and we eat over there. I like playing my cousin’s drums. When my dad and I go shopping, he goes Slow Down when I push the trolley. Then when he hits me in the head, I get sick when he says Never Learn. I like it on Christmas Day when we open the presents. (Boy, Grade 5)

Significantly more Grade 5/6 children compared with Grade 3/4 children, and girls, compared with boys, indicated that they considered family fights inevitable. Grade 3/4 children were more inclined to indicate that they thought families should not fight.


In investigating subjective and objective definitions of family offered by children, Funder (1989) discerned the impact of parental separation and divorce in the detail of the responses of children with experience of these. It is of interest in this study that only 92 references were made to parental separation and divorce in responses to the open-ended question, “What is a family?” and 49 of the 1030 children expressed acceptance of alternative family structures and of parental separation, divorce and remarriage.

To me a family is two different sexes taking care of some children and trying to always stay as a group and not to split up. (Boy, Grade 6)

A family is to me a group of people and put together to care for each other and love each other and belong to one another. Most people become family. Sometimes a family breaks up like divorced so the mother and father aren’t family anymore. (Girl, Grade 4)

Grade 5/6 children made more references than did Grade 3/4 children to “proper” (intact) families but Grade 5/6 girls wrote more positively than other groups about “non-standard” families. Here, they wrote of love transcending mere structure.

A family is a mother and a father. Some children too. It is people that are related and close together. If you have a family you may have a family tree. All the people on it are in your family. (Girl, Grade 5)

A family is a group of people made up of children and parents. (Boy, Grade 5)

To me a family is a household that not only lives with one another but loves one another for what they are inside. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. With a family you should always try and understand other people and try and sort out any problem. (Girl, Grade 6)

A family is someone that is married and has kids. The two parents live together and get on well and are very close. If all your relatives died you would have no family and when the parents aren’t together it is hard for the children. Some parents go to court for their children and break the children’s hearts. Some married couples haven’t got children and the most frightening thing is when the parents fight and if your children are older than about four it can break their hearts and it’s not fit for a single parent to get drunk after work and stay with her friends while her kids are getting babysat and I think if anyone has kids they should be able to see the other parent. Don’t shout at your children and don’t have a baby until you’re sure you can look after it and the worst thing is if you split your children and I think instead of putting your kids in a home you should give them to your grandmother or something. (Girl, Grade 4)

Compared with their references to other content, girls made significantly more references to emotional content than did boys. These gender differences were more marked at Grade 5/6 level than at Grade 3/4. The emotional aspects of families to which girls referred significantly more often than boys were love, care, sharing/belonging, understanding problems/talking. In contrast, boys and younger children (Grade 3/4) referred significantly more often than girls and older children (Grade 5/6) to family structure.

A family is a brother and a sister and a mum and a dad. (Boy, Grade 4)

In contrast with references to family structure, an abstract concept such as trust was mentioned significantly more often by Grade 5/6 children than by Grade 3/4 children. Respect was mentioned most often by Grade 5/6 boys; kindness was popular with Grade 3/4 girls and sharing and understanding and talking about problems, with Grade 5/6 girls.


Compared with Grade 3/4 children, Grade 5/6 children wrote more frequently of families “sticking together” and of family members relying on each other.

A family is when we stick together. A family is when we share things. Family is when they love you and never forget your birthday. (Boy, Grade 4)

Overall, children described families as special and beyond the material world. This finding is similar to that of Goodnow and Burns (1985) who found that children most valued families because of the sense of “being together”, “belonging to a larger group of relatives” and of an “unshakeable bond”.

The sense of togetherness, alluded to by the children in the Goodnow and Burns (1985) and Ochiltree and Amato (1985) studies, is clear too. While children refer to the more fundamental family behaviour of “ doing things together” (185 references), they refer frequently to less tangible qualities of family sharing/belonging/not feeling alone (101 references) and to “sticking together” (67 references).

A mother, father and children can go on picnics and to the park and take them on the rides and then go home and have tea and if they’ve been good they get some dessert and watch some video and go to bed at a reasonable time. (Boy, Grade 6)


Stereotyping was visible in the romantic notions of boy meets girl/marries girl/has babies/lives happily ever after picture present in 74 of the 1030 descriptions of families. Romantic notions of this sort were found more frequently in the responses of Grade 5/6 children than of Grade 3/4 children. Likewise, more references were made by the older than by the younger children to stereotyped parental roles.

A family is when people come together, meet, get married and have children together, live together and be happy. (Girl, Grade 4)

A family is when a female and a male get together and know each other for awhile then they get married. When they get married they get children. It could be a girl or a boy and when it’s ten they let him or her go to his or her friend’s place to play. Then the boy or the girl comes home and stays with their parents. The parents buy the clothes for the baby and the grownups too. The male works and brings some money for the family. The female just cleans up and makes things to eat for the family. The male brings some money and spends it wisely. (Boy, Grade 6)

A family is when a man loves a woman. They unite, have kids. They give them a good education so they can take off in life like their parents. (Boy, Grade 6)

A family is when someone gets engaged and then gets married. Then the female borns a baby. Then the female is a mother and the male is a father. Then it’s a family. Then the family buys a house to live in all together. Then the father buys a car and gets work so he can give the money to his wife and then the wife will go shopping so they can eat. Then they buy furniture. (Boy, Grade 4)

Another aspect of stereotyping worthy of comment is the use by children in their descriptions of families of dated terminology such as “sticking together through thick and thin”, “a roof over your head”, “nourishment” and “shelter”.

I think a family is people who share their problems with each other, share their problems, feelings, thoughts. Families are to help you, care for you and to love you. Families are there to feed you. To put clothes on your back and to shelter you. (Girl, Grade 5)

A group of people who love and care for you and pay the hospital bills and let you get your hair spiked and give you clothes and give you shelter from rain and give you an education. (Boy, Grade 4)

These findings are in line with suggestions by Edgar (1982) and Goodnow and Burns (1985) that children are moulded by parental example and that they call to mind platitudes about families when required to answer questions about them. Goodnow and Burns (1985) referred to children in their study of families “expending a great deal of effort in searching for an explanation and mixing ideas that are handed down with some ideas of their own.” (p.33)

However, my research revealed that children were generally wide-ranging in their responses to questions about families and that their own families, when reference was made to them, were most often used only as starting points for more general observations. This is in accord with the findings of Ochiltree and Amato (1985), that although children see their parents in traditional roles they are much more aware of family issues than many parents realise.

Well a family is something when you always stay together and do things together. Your mum stays home or goes to work or your dad stays home or goes to work while the kids stay home and/or go to school. Soon as the kids get older they find jobs or have their own shop or other stuff. Mum and dad get paid every week and they pay off the bills and with the money that is left over you go shopping and buy stuff. Sometimes you go out like a family and have dinner at McDonalds or somewhere like that. Or when people ask you to come to tea you go as a family. Sometimes families just stay home and watch TV all night and then they go to bed. That’s what my family is and yours. (Girl, Grade 6)

Families are like a bunch of bananas; they always stick together no matter what. Like if one of their children had Aids what would the parents do? They would be right along with the child, go through the rough times. (Boy, Grade 5)

I’ve got two families; one in Melbourne and one in Queensland. I don’t like my stepfather. I like my real dad better. Now I’ve got four sisters and one brother and a baby. I think that’s too much family. (Girl, Grade 6)

Just say you were born in 1978 by “Terri” and she’s 19 and then one year ten months later she gets married and then three years later your parents split up and have a divorce and then two years later your mum gets married again and two or three years later they get divorced and then your mum finds another man that they’re living with now. That’s two unhappy families and one still living. (Boy, Grade 5)


Attention to children’s interpersonal understandings is imperative. Such understandings are integral to their development as fully functioning human beings equipped to live within a changing social context. A paradox revealed in my study is the tendency for some children to reveal both wisdom about the complexities of family functioning and preference for the status quo in family structure and form. It is likely that the responses of the children are characterised by similar pressures from “real” and “unreal” perceptions as was the memory that Anne Deveson had long held of her family. In As the twig is bent (1979), Anne Deveson remarks with some surprise that she had always remembered her family in terms of particular behaviour which did not exist but which in her mind had come to represent the more intangible sense of warmth she had experienced in the family. A subtle balance between fact and fiction may affect what children and adults draw from their observations and experiences of families. Quoted in As the twig is bent, she states:

I was really not conscious of having an unusual childhood, with my parents absent so much of the time until one memorable day when I was walking through Kings Cross when I was working at the Commission I realised that I had always thought back on my childhood as being one which was very much the family round the kitchen table stirring the pot of soup, and it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never really had that. I think what was symbolic for security (and I had a great deal of emotional security as a child) came both from Nanny, who was always there, and from an enormous amount of warmth from my mother who I always knew was going to be there. I knew that she came back on weekends and that when she did I would have cuddles in bed with her and go for walks with her and have fun with her. We also had a number of aunts, uncles and cousins around and there was a lot of happiness around the house, which I think is what had always given me a feeling that I’d had a far more conventional childhood than in actual fact I did have.

In this seemingly simple statement, Deveson exposes the tension between the fact and fiction in her perceptions of her family life. It demonstrates too her tendency to ascribe “real” feelings to “non-real” events. Additionally, Deveson bases her interpretations of roles and relationships in her family on a picture she holds of soup and kitchen tables. The interchange between thoughts and feelings in Deveson’s description is clear and demonstrates the richness of emotional and intellectual content in perceptions of families.

Overall, gender appeared to be more powerful than age in differences in children’s responses to the question “What is a family?”

The opportunity for boys and girls to reflect on aspects of family relationships as part of school programs could constitute a starting-point for the development of shared perspectives about the families of the future. In his paper, The school’s role in promoting family life, Edgar (1990) suggested that through facilitating their students’ understandings of family life, schools are both enhancing the fabric of society and the personal development of the students. This is the view reiterated in the 1994 International Year of the Family Report.


The question “What is a family?” opens the way for considerable classroom discussion. Students may be invited to brainstorm or to write responses. A concept mapping exercise could follow which draws out categories such as love, doing things together, family structure, sharing, belonging, fighting, security.

Many of the children’s comments reproduced in this paper can be used as starting points for discussions.

Inviting students to consider questions such as those below may enable them to focus on some of the complexity of family relationships:

Image What are some happy things about a mother moving from the children’s home to live somewhere else?

Image What are some unhappy things about a mother moving from the children’s home to live somewhere else?

Image What are some happy things about a new baby in the family?

Image What are some unhappy things about a new baby in the family?

Literature is filled with extracts like the one below which provide excellent opportunities for exploring family related issues:

An hour later, I was home, having spent my precious money on four peaches. After some considerable thought I arranged them on Matilde’s christening plates and waited for mother to return. … As I met her at the entrance to the kitchen, I almost pulled her inside the door, I was so eager to show her the peaches.

“Amelia, what have you done? You’ve gone and bought peaches and I haven’t got enough money to buy salt for the soup.”

Her face coloured from rosy pink to red as she shouted at me. I felt the tears come stinging to my eyes. She threw the wood aside, stood only inches away from me, her arm outstretched, her hand open.

“How could you?” she screamed. “How could you waste money like that? Peaches, who cares about peaches?”

I winced from the pain of the cracking hand that burned through my dress and between sobs tried to explain they were for her.

…. Yet in another way I understood mother’s reaction. It was poverty. Never having enough food, always patching and repatching our clothes, knowing we were all too thin, wishing she had more money for food, to give us more to eat, knowing it was impossible. That’s what made her act in this way. She didn’t want to beat us. She just could not help it.”

Amelia – A Long Journey by Maria Triaca.

There’s much food for thought and discussion too in the ways in which romantic views of family life persist and in structural aspects of families, for example, names, responsibilities.

The meaning of membership of the Australian family for citizens of the year 2000 warrants attention as well.



MAUREEN RYAN is Associate Professor of Education at Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. E-mail:

The research reported here is more fully described in:

Ryan, M. (1991). Children’s perceptions of changes in families. Unpublished PhD thesis.

That children have the right to a broad family education is stated by:

Asche, A. (1982). The rights of the child. Discussion Paper Number 5. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Creating the links: Families and social responsibility. Final report by The National Council for the International Year of the Family (1994). Australian Government Publishing Service, (page 284).

Definitions of family and the impact of parental separation and divorce on children can be found in:

Funder, K. (1989). Family configurations: Post-divorce insights from children. Paper presented at the Third Australian Family Research Conference, Ballarat.

For other studies of children’s perceptions of families see:

Goodnow, J. & Burns, A. (1985). Home and school: A child’s eye view. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Ochiltree, G.& Amato, P. (1985). The child’s eye-view of family life. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

That children are moulded by parental example is from:

Edgar, D. (1982). Facing up to family change. Paper presented at the Education Department’s Counselling and Clinical Services Conference, Melbourne.

Goodnow, J. & Burns, A. (1985), see above.

Anne Deveson’s quote is from page 84 of:

Lane, T. (1979). As the twig is bent. The childhood recollections of sixteen prominent Australians. Melbourne: Dove.

The value to schools of facilitating their students’ understandings of family life is expanded by:

Edgar, D. (1990). The school’s role in promoting family life. Paper presented at IARTV/AHISA Seminar, Xavier College, Kew.