the importance of family for the entire life course
Today, we’ll continue discussing George Vaillant’s The Triumphs of Experience, the 70 year long life course study. One of the major findings of the study is the importance of early childhood family conditions. The initial phases of the study asked participants to describe their childhood environment. Were their parents open and warm? Cold and removed? Divorced or still married? Also, the Grant study investigators had the opportunity to interview parents and other family members on occasions. Did the interviewer think the mother was involved or removed?
Using these data, the Grant Study investigators coded a number of variables reflecting family environment. The recorded stratification variables (employed v. unemployed, working class v. upper class), structure (divorced v. married) and emotional content (warm parents vs. cold parents). Then, they looked at the associations with a number of key life course variables.Two answers:
- First, having a warm father was associated with almost every positive life course outcome – flourishing in late age, not getting divorced, income. In some cases, the association is striking. In retirement, having a warm parent is associated with tens of thousands of dollars in additional income. That is amazing once you consider that this is an insanely biased sample of male Harvard grads. To push your income even higher in a batch of doctors, executives, and attorneys is stunning.
- Second, stratification variables don’t matter much. In other words, in this sample, having wealthy parents isn’t much of an asset.
- Third, divorce of parents does not seem to matter either once you account for having warm parents and having positive coping strategies.
Bottom line: Social networks seem to be very crucial for the life course. Not for their direct instrumental features (aka social capital), but mainly for allowing people to maintain an emotional composure that allows them to solve problems and thrive.