Preschoolers` Concept of Family Structure
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
PHILLIPS, T. D. (2004). Preschoolers` Concept of Family Structure. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 7. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Preschoolers` Concept of Family Structure
Missouri Western State University PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
The experiment explored the relationship between children’s living arrangements their concept of family. Children ages three and four were the focus of the study. Demographic information including living arrangements was given by a parent or guardian. Children were sorted into two groups. One group consisted of children of married households and the other non-married households. Children were asked to label adults in two pictures. The first picture was a portrait of a family and the other a picture of a couple getting married. After data was collected, it was found that no significant differences in the way the two groups labeled each picture could be found due to a lack of participants.

Preschoolers’ Concept of Family StructureThe development of social concepts begins at a very young age. People learn from their environment and form ideals based on what they observe. Before children begin to attend public school, they spend most of their time at home with their parents or guardians. Children view their parents as perfect and want to be exactly like them. Family structure effects what children observe in the home and alters the formation of what is ideal. Absent fathers are becoming more common in American households. In fact a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2002) indicates that from 1960 to 2001 the number of single parent households increased by 7,045. Just as any other alteration in family structure, being raised by a single mother impacts children psychologically, socially, and sometimes physically, and economically. Parenting styles differ between males and females. The fact that children of single mothers are more likely to act out than those of two parent households where fathers are present has been pointed out in an article by Fagan (2000). Mothers are seen by their children as comforters where as fathers are seen as disciplinarians (Berger, 2005). It is very difficult for a mother to fill both roles. The lack of a disciplinarian is often thought to be the cause of adverse behavior by children of one-parent households. This may be remedied through relationships outside the home. A child may develop a close relationship with another male family member or close family friend and often this is helpful in suppressing anger and filling the void. A study by Peretti and DiVitorrio (1992) found that younger children also have lower confidence in themselves and tend to be less social particularly if the divorce or break up occurred during their lifetime. Children up to age five operate purely on an egocentric basis. The term egocentrism was coined by Piaget in reference to children (Berger, 2005). They do not yet have the mental capacity to understand that some things that occur in the world do not directly involve them. They link everything directly to themselves. When parents fight their children typically think it’s because they have done something wrong. The same thing happens with divorce or separation. When children observe this they tend to believe they have done something to make their parents angry with them and one parent doesn’t want to live with them, the child. Problems are internalized and then later externalized through negative or aggressive behavior.Often a situation occurs when the child has never met, and knows nothing about, the father. In this type of family structure Hertz and Wellesley (2002) found that it is best for the mother to create a positive image of the father for the child. This approach appears to be better for the child’s well being.Gender issues are the most commonly studied topic concerning single parent families. There is a growing belief that children raised by mothers of homosexual orientation are more likely to be of homosexual orientation as adults. However, MacCallum and Golombok (2004) found no evidence to support that idea in their study of single mother households.Most research concerning children of single parent households focuses on older children, teenagers, and sometimes adults. Preschool age children can be difficult to work with and pose several problems. They may be shy and uncomfortable with the experimenter, which may create mortality problems and have adverse effects on the results of the study. The child may be full of energy and unable to sit down and listen. Also, younger children have more difficulty following directions. Tasks must be explained very clearly. They may not have the verbal skills necessary to communicate their thoughts and feelings. This can be frustrating for both them and the adult experimenter. Environment is especially important for younger kids. They feel different levels of comfort in different places and it is reflected in their actions, conversation, and general behavior. Careful planning is needed when studying preschool children in order to get correct results. Preschoolers feel many effects of single parenting psychologically. Their social concepts are also altered. Their concept of the ideal family structure must also be altered. This study was intended to support this idea. Children model what they see, especially in their home. If a child sees his or her mother become the victim of spousal abuse, he or she is at greater risk for becoming an abuser or a victim of similar abuse. Children growing up with non-resident fathers, in theory, should be more likely to become single mothers and non-resident fathers. The hypothesis of this project suggests that children, age 3 and 4, who are living in single mother households do not grasp the concept of a husband. Children who have not seen permanent relationships do not expect to see them.

ParticipantsThe study consisted of eight preschool age children thee to four years old. Participants were recruited from local St. Joseph, Missouri day care and preschool facilities. The studies were conducted at various times that accommodated individual facilities’ schedules. Parents or legal guardians provided information including, the age of the child, sex, race, and parental living arrangements. MaterialsInformed consent forms were used. One was sent to each facility’s director (see appendix A) and one was signed by the participants’ parent or legal guardian (see appendix B). All consent forms were collected prior to conducting research. Pictures the children labeled can be found in appendix C.

ProcedureThe study began in November and was completed in November. Data was collected over approximately a two-week period. After each facility’s director gave written consent, parental consent forms were collected. Each child was asked on a one-one basis to label people in two pictures. Picture 1 was presented before picture 2 (see appendix C). The information sheet filled out by the parent was attached to the child’s labeled pictures and placed in a separate pile from the consent forms. In this way, all identifying information was kept separate from the data.

There were 8 participants in the study. Four were female, and five were male. Three parents listed their children as being of African American ethnicity, four as Caucasian, and one as mixed. Three children were four years of age and five were three years of age. The married group consisted of three participants whereas the non-married group consisted of five participants. A chi- square test of independence was administered to determine if a relationship existed between the independent variable, the child’s living arrangements, and the dependent variable, how the child labeled the pictures. For the male figure in picture one (see appendix C) children with unmarried adults in the household labeled the figure as follows: one child did not answer, one child labeled the figure as a “man,” and two children labeled the figure as “Dad,” and one answered in the “other” category. Children living with married adults labeled the figure as follows: One gave no answer, one child labeled the figure as “Man,” and one answered “Dad” (see figure 1).For the Female in picture one (see appendix C) was labeled as follows: children in unmarried households– one gave no answer, one answered “Woman,” and two answered “Mom.” Children in married households- one gave no answer, one answered “Woman” and one answered “Mom” (see figure 2). The Male in Picture 2 (see appendix C) was labeled as follows: children in unmarried households – one gave no answer, one labeled the figure “Man,” two labeled the figure “Dad,” and one labeled the figure “Husband.” Children in married households answered as follows: one gave no answer, one labeled the figure as “Man,” and two labeled the figure as “Husband” (see figure 3).The female in picture two (see appendix C) was labeled as follows: children in unmarried households- one gave no answer, one labeled the figure as “Woman,” two labeled the figure as “Mom,” and one answered “Wife.” Children in married households answered as follows: One labeled the figure “Woman,” and two labeled the figure as “Wife” (see figure 4).

It is suspected that those children who have never lived in a two- parent household would be less likely to label the male figure in picture 2 (see appendix C) as a husband. However, due to the lack of participation in the study, no significant relationships could be determined. It is still possible that children of married households are more likely to label the male figure as a husband in picture two then are children from single-parent households. Studies exploring similar topics related to family structure have typically used older children. This may be due to better cooperation, more mature communication skills, or easier access to the participant pool. Parents may be less willing to allow their younger children to participate in this study; perhaps parents would be less cautious if they were signing consent forms for older children. The demographics were collected from parents as well. These included a statement of living conditions concerning the marital status of the parent or guardian (see appendix C). Parents may have gotten too caught up in this. There was also a letter to parents sent out explaining the nature of the study (see appendix C) which also attempted to state clearly that their child was not going to be asked any personal questions relating to his or her own living arrangements. However, parents may have felt these matters were simply no one else’s business.The process used to hand out consent forms was also found to be ineffective. Consent forms were left at daycares and preschools in the hands of the directors to send home with parents. It is recommended that the experimenter spend an hour or two in the morning at each facility of interest personally passing out material and answering questions. This eliminates a middle person. The experimenter will know that the materials did in fact get handed out and parents may feel more at ease having met the experimenter as opposed to allowing their child to be questioned by some obscure person. With some revision this study could have significant findings and aide in our understanding of child development, more specifically the development of concepts and family concepts of young children. Little research has been done in this area with young age groups such as pre-kindergarten. Children of this age tend to be very egocentric (Berger, 2005) and learn from their environment. They develop concepts of what is ideal based on what they see in their immediate environment, their home

Berger, K. (2005). The developing person through the lifespan (6th ed.) (Bayne, J. Ed.). New York: Worth PublishersFagan, P. F. (200). Congress`s role in improving juvenile delinquency data. Retreived: December 7, 2004., R. (2002). The father as an idea: A challenge to kinship boundaries by single mothers. Symbolic Interaction, 25, 1-31.MacCallum, F., & Golombok, S. (2004). Children raised in fatherless families from infancy: A follow-up of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers at early adolescence. Journal of child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 1407.National Bureau of Labor Statistics (2002). Family households with children and single family households. Retrieved December 7, 2004. Peretti, P.O., & DiVitorrio. (1992). Effect of loss of father through divorce on personality of the preschool child. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 19, 269-273.

Letter to DirectorDear director,

I would like to conduct a research project in your daycare/ preschool facility. More specifically, I would like children to complete a labeling task regarding family structure, and their concept of marriage. Answers between single parent and two parent households will be compared to determine their understanding of family structure. Young children are of particular interest because there has been little research done in this area with children before they reach adolescence.

Enclosed is the consent form to parents that I would like to distribute with your help and the help of your staff. You will find further explanation of the research and why it is of value enclosed as well as all forms that will be given to parents. Also, copies of the pictures to be labeled are included.

I would greatly appreciate you permission to go forth with this project. We can work out a time that would be best for me to come to your facility. If you grant permission, I will need a short letter from you stating that I (Tanya Phillips) have permission to conduct research in your facility, provided that I obtain parental consent.

Any further questions can be answered by contacting me at 390-8388 or

Thank you for your time,

Tanya PhillipsPsychology student, Missouri Western State College

Appendix BLetter to Parents and Consent form

Dear Parent or Guardian:I have a growing interest in the development of social concepts of preschool aged children. More specifically, I would like to begin researching how young children grasp the idea of adult relationships such as family structure, and marriage.

I would like to ask your child to participate. Children will be shown pictures of families and asked to verbally label the people in them. At no time will your child be asked to provide personal information. I will only be asking them to label pictures. I myself work with preschool aged children and often find that they may be shy toward new people. If your child expresses fear, anxiety or discomfort during the study he or she will be allowed to return to his or her classroom without completing the labeling task.

Your child’s confidentiality will be protected. I am asking you to complete to the attached questionnaire for purposes of basic demographics regarding your child. Any identifying information will be removed from the questionnaire promptly after the labeling task is completed.

There is much to be learned about the development of young minds. The purpose of this study is to further knowledge about how children are impacted by single parent and two parent households. I hope to gain more insight into how much they understand at this young age about family structure. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at home, 390-8388, or by email,

Thank you for you participation,

Tanya PhillipsPsychology Student, Missouri Western State College

Please complete this form and return with consent form.

1. Sex of child M F2. Race of child ________________3. Age of child ______________ (in years)4. Please circle one of the following:a. My child is currently, and has always lived in a single-parent household.b. My child is currently, and has always lived in a married two-parent household.c. My child is currently, and has always lived in an unmarried two-parent household. d. My child has at some point lived in a married two-parent household.e. My child has at some point lived in an unmarried two-parent household.

Consent Form

My child, _______________________________________, is being asked to participate in research titled, “ Preschoolers’ Concept of Family Structure.” This project is being conducted under the supervision of Tanya Phillips with the approval of the Missouri Western committee of the Use of Human Subjects in Research. During this project, researchers will be collecting information regarding the preschoolers’ development of the concepts of marriage and family structure.

As a participant in this study, my child will be asked to verbally label people in 2 pictures. The nature of this study has been explained to me in writing, I understand the anticipated benefits of my child participating in this study will help the investigator with research on the concept of family structure by preschool age children living with two parents in comparison with those living with one. I also know that the risks of my child participating are minimal.

The researcher will make every attempt to safeguard the confidentiality of the information that will be provided by my child and me. Any information obtained from this study that can be identified with my child will remain confidential and will not be given to anyone without my permission. If at any time I would like additional information about this project, I can contact Tanya Phillips at 390-8388 or

I understand that either my child or I have the right to refuse to participate in this project. I also understand that if I do agree that my child can participate in this project, I have the right to change my mind at any time. I understand that my decision to refuse consent will not affect my child in any way.

My signature below indicates that I have given my informed consent so that my child may complete the project described above. My signature also indicates: The project has been adequately explained to me. I have read this document I am legally able to provide consent for the above-named child My child has no physical or mental illness or weakness that would be adversely affected by his or her participation in this described project.

_____________________________ ______________________________Parent or Legal Guardian Tanya Phillips

_____________________________ ______________________________Date Date

Appendix C

Figure 1- Marital Status of Adults and Name Given to Male in Picture 1.Figure 2- Marital Status of Adults and Name Given to Female in Picture 1.Figure 3- Marital Status of Adults and Name Given to Male in Picture 2.Figure 4- Marital Status of Adults and Name Given to Female in Picture 2.

Submitted 12/10/2004 9:09:09 AM
Last Edited 12/10/2004 9:26:31 AM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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