access.mpr.orgCivic Journalism

Families Talk, Families Listen

The Minnesota Family Strength Project
Releases Study of 2,000 Minnesota Families
October 20, 1997

What Makes Minnesota Families Strong?
What Makes This Study Unique?
Cultural Differences
Now What?
About the Partners

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (October 20, 1997) - Seventy-eight percent of Minnesotans say their families are "very strong" or "exceptionally strong," and Minnesotans consistently rate their current families as stronger than the families in which they grew up, according to a study released today from the Minnesota Family Strength Project. The respondents' age, number of years married, cultural/ethnic background, or religious preference had no significant bearing on whether families considered themselves strong.

"The study tells us that if we're out there talking about how to save deteriorating families, people aren't likely to listen - because most of us see our own families as strong," said Terry Steeno, president and CEO, Family and Children's Service, which commissioned the research. "Instead of looking at what's wrong with families, this study tells us what's working in families, so we can learn from each other to build on family strengths."

Researchers from the Minnesota Family Strength Project talked to more than 2,000 families of all colors, shapes, and sizes from throughout Minnesota to find out what makes them strong. The project is a unique collaboration of Family & Children's Service, the Allina Foundation, the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Public Radio.

The release of the research results coincides with: distribution of a 36-page special section in the November issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine, called "Families Talk, Families Listen," including a pull-out section to enter information on your family into the Minnesota History Center archives; the "Picture Ourselves Family" festival at the Minnesota History Center's "Families" exhibit; and Minnesota Family Strength Month, proclaimed by Gov. Carlson in November.

A free booklet with strength-building tips from Minnesota families is available by calling, toll free, 1-888-719-8097.

What Makes Minnesota Families Strong?

The Minnesota Family Strength Project let families define what they consider to be "their family." Across the entire study, families who rate themselves strong had a broader definition of family. On average, they mention almost twice as many members as less strong families. Four times as many Minnesotans defined their families as large (22 members or more) than as "just myself." And families included pets as often as friends in their definition of family.

Five themes emerged from the research as the elements most central to family strength:

  • Communication
  • Health (physical, mental and economic)
  • Time spent together
  • Spirituality (important to many families whether or not they attend organized worship services)
  • Support (physical and emotional)

The top stresses reported by families were: no chance to unwind, uncompleted chores by children, and arguments between parents and children.

"This is consistent with past research that tells us it is not so much the crises that tear families apart - it's the grind of day-to-day hassles," said Judy Watson Tiesel, Ph. D., family social scientist and designer of the research. "It shows us we need to get better at helping people cope with daily stresses, instead of waiting for a big crisis."

Strong Families are Healthy Families

The research clearly reveals a connection between family strength and health. "This project draws us beyond the ordinary bounds of health care by focusing on strengths, not weaknesses, where our diagnosis usually begins," said Mike Christenson, executive director, the Allina Foundation.

And where do families turn when they need help? The top resource mentioned by Minnesota families was prayer. "Spirit, healing and family strength are related concepts. The health system needs to continue to improve supports for those relationships," Christenson said.

What Makes this Study Unique?

Many of the findings from this research are consistent with conclusions drawn from other family studies, according to David Olson, Ph.D., professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and consulting researcher on the project. "But this project adds to our knowledge in important ways," he said. "Most research projects study problems or weaknesses. The Minnesota Family Strength Project studied strengths - what families do well. Families will find building on their existing strengths more constructive than trying to eliminate a problem or a weakness."

Another important difference, Tiesel said, is that the research methodology went beyond standard quantitative data from a random sample of the population to also employ new techniques of culturally sensitive information-gathering from various ethnic groups. These interactive group meetings revealed more about the distinctive experiences of families of ethnic minorities.

Cultural Differences

American Indian families talked about the importance of their connection to ancestors as a source of family strength. Chicano/Latino families talked about the importance of balance between their traditional culture and adapting to Minnesota. Many felt that being bilingual was central to keeping their families together. For recently immigrated Somalis, the need to get all their family members in one geographic location overshadowed all other elements of building family strength.

The five themes that emerged in the general population of Minnesotans - communication, health, time together, spirituality and support - proved consistently important across all ethnic groups and family structures. Among African American, American Indian, Chicano/Latino, Somali and Vietnamese families interviewed, four additional themes emerged. These were repeatedly described as important to the families' experiences as minority cultures.

  • Respect
  • Unity
  • Cultural traditions
  • Extended sense of family.

Now What?

Based on the research, the Minnesota Family Strength Project is now engaged in designing and implementing strategies that will help families and organizations use this information to build family strengths, and is encouraging others to follow suit. Initiatives include:

  • A Cultural Family Dinner program, through the Phillips/Powderhorn Cultural Wellness Center, encouraging families from a variety of cultures to break bread and share ideas.

  • Convening spiritual leaders, in partnership with Search Institute and other youth, family and community initiatives, to discuss how places of worship can help families, communities and young people build on their strengths.

  • A partnership with ethnic communities involved in the research to continue the dialogue and support efforts to build family strengths within the context of their cultures.

  • Systems change. Allina Health Systems and Family and Children's Service are exploring new ways to build on family strengths and to take advantage of family strengths in mental and physical health-related prevention and treatment.

  • Share research findings with businesses, policy-makers, places of worship, schools, neighborhood groups, etc. to facilitate a discussion of what they can do to build on family strengths.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to share what we've learned with families, policy makers, community leaders and family serving agencies," Steeno said. "The strength of individuals, families and communities is interconnected - and each of us can contribute to that strength. If we work together, we can build a better way to support families and communities as we approach the 21st century."

About the Partners

The Allina Foundation promotes innovation that engages citizens and changes systems to improve the health of individuals and communities. The Minnesota Family Strength Project engages families to inform the health system about innovative ways to strengthen families and improve health.

The Minnesota Family Strength Project is a direct extension of the mission of Family and Children's Service. Through this initiative, families in all their various forms will build on their strengths by sharing and learning from experts and from other families. Family and Children's Service will also share these results with policy makers, community leaders and family serving agencies to help find new and better ways to support families and communities.

The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and shares the story of Minnesota's past through its collections, exhibits, publications and public programs at the Minnesota History Center and 24 historic sites throughout Minnesota. The History Center's "Families" exhibit focuses on the diverse experiences of past and present Minnesota families and provides a broad historical context for the findings of the Minnesota Family Strength Project.

Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative seeks to amplify citizens' points of view on important issues - like family strength - to be a catalyst for positive community change. Interest in the Minnesota Family Strength Project grew from its findings in previous projects where the family emerged as the key to strengthening communities.


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