One of the many things I’ve always loved about the Family Studies blog is the treasure trove of healthy relationship information and advice that we publish. More than just a resource for the best research on family well-being, the Institute for Family Studies also strives to be a place where individuals, couples, and parents can find the tools they need to build healthier, happier families that can go the distance and help others around them do the same. Each year, I try to look back at the relationship-related research and articles we have published and highlight a few key lessons to take with us into the new year as we seek to promote flourishing families. So here are five suggestions based on recent IFS research and publications that can help all of us build stronger families in 2023.
1. Practice Your Faith at Home
A theme we repeat often on these pages, which is backed up by countless research studies, is that faith is linked to marital and family well-being, with religious participation being especially important during the adolescent years. But as Dr. Jenet Erickson reported on this blog, young people today are increasingly less likely to have grown up in church and to have observed religious practices by their parents. At the same time, we’ve seen a significant decline in teen and young adult mental health, which could be linked to the decline in religiosity.
However, when it comes the benefits of faith, it’s not just about taking our families to church. Families who pray, read scripture, and talk about their beliefs at home are more likely to have children who practice a similar religion in adulthood. In her study of religious conservative parents, for example, Jesse Smith found that conservative religious parents are better at “passing down” their faith to their kids than moderate and secular religious parents, in part, because they are more likely to pray and discuss their faith at home and to be more active in their kids' spiritual lives. A more recent study from the Wheatley Institute, which we highlighted just this week, found that individuals who engage in home-centered religious practices and attend worship services are significantly more likely to report high levels of life meaning and happiness, and to report higher quality marriages, compared to individuals who only attend religious services (but don’t practice their faith at home) and those who don’t attend at all.
2. Cultivate Healthier Family Eating Habits
The benefits of eating dinner together as a family are well established, including lower risks of childhood obesity and teen drug use. Philosophy professor John Cuddeback offered a deeper reason for families to gather at the dinner table—belonging. “At the table,” Dr. Cuddback wrote, “we discover that we belong; that life is always shared life—we are never alone; that we begin by listening, and that others have something to say; that we too have something to say, and others will listen—because they love you.”
According to Dr. Cuddeback, families should use eating together at the table to develop good manners and to become more intentional about eating healthier food. He described eating as a “moral act,” noting that what we eat is as important as how: “Food should nourish the body, not simply tickle the taste buds while undermining, often subtly, the health of the body.” For more tips on healthier eating for families, go here.
3. Limit and Monitor Your Child’s Screen Use
As technology encroaches further and further into our lives, the subject of screen time is a source of stress in many families. In 2022, we released two major reports on teens and tech, one with a public policy focus (with the Ethics and Public Policy Center) and the other with a focus on families and screens (with the Wheatley Institute). The message from both reports, as IFS executive director Michael Toscano pointed out in a recent essay, is that we need both parents and public policy to combat the harms of Big Tech. “When it comes to teen mental health,” Toscano wrote, “the objectives must be twofold: limit technology's reach into the lives of kids and empower parents.” Dr. Jean Twenge, a co-author of both IFS reports, has suggested a number of steps parents can take to limit the harms of social media on teens, especially delaying the smartphone and social media for as long as possible, making use of the monitoring and filtering tools available, and urging lawmakers to pass legislation to help protect kids online.
4. Put Down the Smartphone and Avoid Porn
Speaking of smartphones, one step to a healthier family life is for parents to put away their screens and focus more on each other. Marriage therapist Dr. Peter McFadden shared that one of the most common complaints he hears from both husbands and wives involves the smartphone, which has “made maintaining connection in marriage even more challenging.” He recommended keeping smartphones out of the bedroom, and starting each day with at least two-minutes of screen-free time together, as well as setting aside entire weekends of phone-free family time.
Another great reason to put away the smartphone is to avoid the harmful effects of pornography on your marriage. As AEI’s Daniel Cox reported for IFS, exposure to porn is more common than ever before, with 58 % of Americans having watched porn sometime in their lives, including 27% who watched it in the past month. According to a report by the Survey Center on American Life, men who watch porn report feeling lonelier, more insecure, and less satisfied with their appearance compared to those who do not watch it. Research also shows that pornography use can have a corrosive impact on healthy relationships, and 1 in 6 married couples report that porn use has caused relationship conflict. Conversely, couples who do not use pornography are more likely to report higher quality, more stable, and more committed relationships.
5. Communicate the Truth About Marriage to Young People
Recent research indicates that the overwhelming majority of teens still expect to get married one day, even as many question the point of marriage in a world where cohabitating is becoming more common. Which brings me to the most powerful way to strengthen our own families and the lives of future generations: Be intentional about teaching young people the vast benefits of stable marriages for individuals, children, and communities. This begins with modeling healthy marriage relationships at home, but it doesn’t end there. We also need to do our part to debunk some of the common myths about marriage today, including the myth that cohabitation is a good step toward a more stable marriage and that marrying in your 20s is risky. Reporting on a recent study, IFS senior fellow Brad Wilcox wrote,
The conventional wisdom holds that spending your twenties focusing on education, work and fun, and then marrying around 30 is the best path to maximize your odds of forging a strong and stable family life. But the research tells a different story, at least for religious couples. Saving cohabitation for marriage, and endowing your relationship with sacred significance, seems to maximize your odds of being stably and happily married.
Young people who want to give their future kids the best chance at a stable family life not only need to be warned away from cohabitation and against delaying marriage for too long, but they also need to be taught how to reach their family goals. We launched a website and video series on the success sequence to help get this important message out to those who need it most, including that the best path to family stability is to raise children in marriage. Communicating this fact to the next generation as often as we can is a simple way to help build stronger families in the new year and beyond.