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MONDAY, MAY 21, 2007

There’s no use pretending you don’t do it.

Face it. The urge to measure your family against others is virtually irresistible.

“Social comparison is a fundamental process,” said Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, a sociologist at Washington State University. “We look to others to better understand who we are and how we are doing.”

These evaluations don’t have to be conducted in some competitive “keeping up with the Joneses” way. You might just wonder how your version of normal stacks up.

This isn’t new. But it could be that these informal family comparisons are being made increasingly often.

“I think it happens, more than 40 or 50 years ago, because we now have more options for constructing new and varied family lives,” said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College and is director of research for the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families.

So is there a right or wrong way to contrast life under your roof with what you see happening in other homes?

“You should be really cautious when you find yourself either getting self-righteous in comparisons to other families or feeling inadequate in comparisons,” said Coontz. “Because what the outside image shows is so seldom what really goes on. The family that looks like a total mess from the outside might have some healthy qualities that you could learn from. The family that looks ideal might never speak to each other in private.”

Of course, some families are different in ways that do not require speculation to understand.

North Side homemaker Keri Yirak has a son who has, over the years, found himself in recreational groups and social circles made up of kids from widely disparate economic and lifestyle circumstances. So Yirak’s conversations with him about how families differ have taken place on several distinct levels.

Spokane pharmacy tech Carol Voogd thinks comparing your family to others is simply human nature. In her case, the comparisons have often been with the families of relatives. She remembers when the extended family kept track of which child walked at the youngest age, et cetera.

Now she’s more apt to reflect on the fact that her grown daughters are pretty happy while some of their cousins, well, there’s no need to go there.

For Missy Carstens, the process of comparing families is partly about choosing models. A 27-year-old Gonzaga University employee, Carstens recently got engaged. She has been thinking about what she wants for her future. She’s proud of the way her own parents have led their lives, but she knows she has options.

Said Evergreen State’s Coontz, “The good news is there are no longer cookie-cutter marriages, where you were just bitterly ashamed if you didn’t live up to the Ozzie and Harriet standard.”

People understand that impossibly upbeat TV families are unreal, said Coontz. Still, if you watched June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls often enough, that image could seep into your subconscious as some sort of crazy ideal.

But updated versions of family comparisons can also be served up with dollops of delusion. Coontz regards today’s greater variety of household arrangements as a good thing. However, she worries that some of us unrealistically assume that, “Anybody can do anything and be successful at it.”

That attitude can lead some to initially underestimate the strains and tensions inherent in trying to make it as a single parent or being a two-earner family.

Different people have alternative ideas about what makes a family successful. Though it’s unlikely many would admit it, some look to wealth and possessions. Others point to impressive academic achievement, athletic honors or earnest children pushing for social justice.

Patrick Stagaman, a senior at Lewis and Clark High School, said many of his peers – a significant percentage of whom have witnessed broken marriages – have their own definition. “I figure teens view a ‘successful’ family as one that has all of the parties happy,” he said.

And they are ready to adapt to make that happen. “Kids can belong to more than one family now, and if one of their families isn’t ‘successful’ they will create a new one with a group of friends.”

Robert Clark, professor of sociology at Whitworth College, offered a perspective on comparing your family to others.

“Recognize that what you see is not the whole picture and there could be a lot of other things going on that you don’t know about,” he said. “But if you see something positive or what you view as positive, that can open up new vistas that you wouldn’t have had before.”

There’s a lot out there – practically the whole panorama of American life.

“You kind of have to do some careful sifting,” said Clark.

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