The family is the most important agent of socialization in all societies. From our infancy onward, our families transmit cultural and social values to us. As discussed later in this book, families vary in size and structure. Some families consist of two parents and their biological children, whereas others consist of a single parent and one or more childre-n. Still other families reflect changing patterns of divorce and remarriage, and an increasing number are made up of same-sex partners and their children. Over time, patterns have changed in some two-parent families so thatfathers, rather than mothers, are the primary daytime agents of socialization for their young children. Theorists using a functionalist perspective emphasize that families serve important functions in society because they are the primary locus for the procreation and socialization of children. Most. of liS form an emerging sense of self and acquire most of our beliefs and values within the family context. We also learn about the larger dominant culture (including language, attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms) and the primary subcultures to which our parents and other relatives belong.
Families are also the primary source of emotional support. Ideally, people receive love, understanding, security, acceptance, intimacy, and companionship within families. The role of the family is especially significant because young children have little social experience beyond the family's boundaries; they have no basis for comparing or evaluating how they are treated by their own family t0 a large extent, the family is where we acquire our specific social position in society. From birth, we are a part of the specific racial, ethnic, class, religious, and regional subcultural grouping of our family. Studies show that families socialize their children some what differently based on race, ethnicity, and class (Kahn, 1977; Kohn et al., 1990; Harrison et al., 1990).
For example, socioiogist Melvin Kahn (1977; Kahn et al., 1990) has suggested that social class (as measured by parental occupation) is one of the strongest influences on what and how parents teach their children. On the one hand, working-class parents, who are closely supervised and expected to foUoworders at work, typically emphasize to their children the importance of obedience and conformity. On the other hand, parents from the middle and professional classes, who have more freedom and flexibility at work. tend to give their children more freedom to make their own decisions and to be creative. Kohn concluded that differences in parents' occupations were a better predictor of childrearing practices than was social class itself
Whether or not Kohns findings are valid today, the issues he examined make us aware that not everyone has the same family experiences. Many factors-including our cultural background, nation of origin, religion, and gender-are important in determining how we are socialized by family members and others who are a part of our daily life. Conflict theorists stress that socialization contributes to false consciousness-a lack of awareness and a distorted perception of the reality of class as it affects all aspects of social life. As a result, socialization reaffirms and reproduces the class structure in the next generation rather than challenging the conditions that presently exist. For example, children in low-income families may be unintentionally socialized to believe that acquiring an education and aspiring to lofty ambitions are pointless because of existing economic conditions in the family (Ballantine, 2001).
By contrast, middle- and upper-income families typically instill ideas of monetary and social success in children while encouraging them to think and behave in "socially acceptable" ways. The social constructionist/symbolic interactionist perspective helps us recognize that children affect their parents' lives and change the overall household environment. When we examine the context in which family life takes place, we also see that grandparents and other relatives have a strong influence on how parents socialize their children. In turn, the children's be havior may have an effecton how parents. siblings. and grandparents get along with one another. For example. in families where there is already intense personal conflict. the birth of an infant may intensify the stress and discord. sometimes resulting in child maltreatment, spousal b ttering. or elder abuse. By contrast, in families where partners feel happiness and personal satisfaction. the birth of an infant may contribute to the success of the marriage and bring about positive interpersonal communications among relatives,.