How Do Kids Think About Who Makes up a Family?

Grown-ups are often surprised about what their young children see as family.

Posted Dec 04, 2017

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

As part of getting to know new children entering my practice, I usually begin by sitting with them at a small table and asking them to draw a picture of a person. It’s not a talent contest, so I tell them, “Stick people are just fine.” Many of them will draw something, and when I ask who that might be, the majority of pre-kindergarten-aged kids will say it’s them.

Then I ask them to draw who is in their family, and that’s where it gets interesting.

If parents are present, kids will often seek their help if they get stuck or can’t get started, but I encourage them just to include whoever feels like family to them. Neighbors, parents’ best friends, and pets make frequent appearances in these portraits, while some obvious choices, like grandparents, step-parents, and step-siblings are not depicted, even when they live together. Parents register everything from surprise to amusement to disapproval. The evidence shows that how kids think about family is often quite different from the way grown-ups do. Young children tend to value frequency and pleasantness of contact, drawing these figures closer to them in proximity. Less present or more emotionally charged relationships seem to be reserved for the outer regions of their pictures; in some cases, the back of the paper seems just right. Getting straight who these folks are in relation to them seems to be a work in progress.

Parents, on the other hand, work hard to keep who is — and who is not — part of the family straight. When introducing relatives whom the children don’t see frequently, they are careful to assign them a label that sets them apart somehow from other visitors — “Uncle Bill," "Cousin Jane” — alerting the child that this person has a special place in the family, at least to Mom or Dad, and should be accorded some notice of being special to them as well. But younger children in particular are more persuaded by those who walk the walk: If you are really close to me and the people who love and care for me, children believe, then you’re family. The modifying labels that parents use might or might not stick, according to whether the individual earn that place in a child's mind. This is one of the reasons that younger children are more flexible about family structure stereotypes than school-age counterparts, who seem more preoccupied with who belongs and who doesn’t in any particular family structure.

Here are three things parents should keep in mind about the normal evolution of children’s family perceptions:

  • I have been following Pew Research and Child Trend studies of family structure for decades and have watched a steady downward trend in percentages of children reaching age 18 who live with both of their married biological parents. The truth is that "nuclear families," as we used to call them, have probably never been a majority family structure in America.
  • Be attentive to young children’s screen time exposure to advertising and programs about family structure. Periodically check in with what they think and feel about what they are watching, compared to the families they know, including their own.
  • Be aware that open — and especially unresolved — conflict between parents tends to undermine a child’s sense of security within and about family structure. Even infants are sensitive to such troubles. Therefore, it is important to get the help you need during those tough early years to maintain your vital relationships with each other.

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