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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 6, 2015 at 12:01 am

5 Responses

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  1. Hmmm. Is it people, or only already wealthy people, for whom wealth does not matter? Similarly, income effects are always larger among the top 10% because income variance is already very high – $10k shifts are easy around $100k means, impossible when the baseline is $30k.

    Still a wonderful study and very interesting results


  2. My parents are not divorced and they have been with their strong relationship for 28 years.



    May 6, 2015 at 2:47 am

  3. This is fascinating. I would have never read this story and really appreciate you elevating some of the top lines. My dad was a stay at home dad all of my life (until I went to college, I was around him all the time). He’s definitely warm and a giver and I have benefited immensely from having him be in the home, so much so that I am considering being a stay at home dad when I am older. It is difficult work from what I can tell from him, but this study shows the importance of having solid family supports. Thank you again!


    Maxwell John Love

    May 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm

  4. Excellent summary, Fabio. But why use the “social network” concept to characterize warm dads? We already have concepts to cover positive emotionality, especially when we are examining direct ties, as in parent-child relationships. I’d save “social networks” for analyses that involve indirect ties, and dial back when looking at close, intimate, and family-based relationships.


    Howard Aldrich

    May 6, 2015 at 2:17 pm

  5. @Don: This research includes respondents from different social backgrounds. Also, if you were asking how family affects people who are already in different income levels, that is less clear in the text. but it is clear that family bonds do correlate with achieving that level.

    @Howard “The Fly Man” Aldrich: Fair point. I just want to distinguish between the interactional aspect of family (warm dad), the structural aspect of family (divorced dad), and the stratification side of family (working class dad). The big take home is that “interactional” dad matters with structural and strat dad don’t. Network may not be the best term, I get your point, but it is distinct in concept.



    May 6, 2015 at 5:44 pm

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