UCLA researchers Elinor Ochs and Belinda Campos spent three years filming a group of 32 middle-class families with two working parents in order to track their behaviors in a range of ways. The Atlantic has an excerpt of Ochs and Campos’ new book, Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle-Class America about how children and spouses behave when the mother and father return home from work. Their takeaway was that most children and spouses behave positively when the second spouse comes home from work (usually the dad), but the alternative is not a negative response—it’s being ignored.
In more than half of reunions with their dads, middle-class kids ignored them. In 40 percent of reunions, mom got the cold shoulder. The explanation for this is that the later-returning parent comes home to a house in full swing—kids doing their homework or watching TV, the first spouse making dinner. It matters, the researchers explain, because the lack of positive greeting set the stage for a less happy evening for everyone. “Positive greetings gave way to smooth, rewarding social exchanges, while distraction disappointed the returning parent, which may have contributed to fathers spending less time with other family members on weekday evenings,” Ochs and Campos write.
So what’s the solution? Middle-class families are performing a delicate juggling act, and it doesn’t make sense for many of them to drop everything, Von Trapp-style, and have the kids line up and greet their returning parent with a song. Family dinner also doesn’t make sense for everyone: What about when mom has to work late three nights a week, or Timmy has an away baseball game in another county? The people at home are going to get hungry and cranky, and waiting for the stragglers might not make sense. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that family dinner might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Perhaps the solution, then, is an old-fashioned one: Start up a nouveau cocktail hour. The New York Times suggested somewhat jokingly, in an article about Ochs and Campos’ study from 2010, that in the '50s when men returned from work, a cocktail hour gave everyone a time to relax and unwind in the same room and was a good fit for men’s and women’s different discussion styles. The 2013 version might include junior on a laptop, the other kids eating at the table, and mom coming home late instead of dad, but perhaps if the family knew that every day when parent No. 2 arrived, they would all be sitting and relaxing in the kitchen, it would be easier to jump-start a positive evening together.