Summer 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Family Times


Stephen Small
Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Patricia M. Day
Youth Development Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Cooperative Extension Service
Madison, Wisconsin

Ellen Fitzsimmons
Program Planning and Evaluation Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Cooperative Extension Service
Madison, Wisconsin

Robert Young
Leadership Development Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Cooperative Extension Service
Madison, Wisconsin

Contemporary families are challenged because of lifestyle changes that have taken place over the years. Today, an estimated 60% of all children spend some part of their lives in a single-parent or step-family household,1 and the majority of all parents are employed outside the home.2 These and other factors, combined with the challenges and constraints of contemporary life, can make it difficult for people to find the time, energy, and resources to build a strong and fulfilling family life.

Efforts aimed at helping are typically remedial and designed for crisis situations. Few services or programs are preventive or involve those who aren't facing serious problems. Yet, when families have skills and resources for dealing with these challenges, serious problems are less likely to occur and they're able to deal more effectively with issues and concerns they do encounter.3 That's why the University of Wisconsin-Extension developed a program of home-based learning activities to provide knowledge, skills, and ideas for enhancing family life.

A Team Effort

The Family Times program was developed and implemented jointly by the 4-H Youth Development and Family Living program areas of the University of Wisconsin-Extension. The design team is comprised of faculty from both program areas. An agent advisory group of home economists and 4-H agents provided ongoing feedback about program scope, materials, and implementation strategies. The program was piloted with 51 families in 11 Wisconsin counties by teams of Extension home economists and 4-H youth development agents.

Figure 1

Program Assumptions

Programs aimed at strengthening families may inadvertently weaken them by requiring individual members to attend meetings or programs outside the home. What's needed is a program that encourages members to spend quality time together. Consequently, Family Times is home-based and family-centered, encouraging optimal use of available time.

A second assumption is that while most people understand the importance of interaction and have a great deal of knowledge about their own family's strengths, they need to develop confidence in their abilities to use these skills. Therefore, this program encourages people to identify the positive qualities, behaviors, and skills they have, not just areas concerning them. The program plan helps develop and build on strengths to deal constructively with specific needs and concerns.

Research Base

Family Times draws on models developed by Lewis and Beavers,4 Olson and McCubbin,5 and Stinnett,6 and other research on healthy family functioning.7 Five domains were identified to serve as the foundation for the program: communication, decision making, caring and affirming, pride and loyalty, and social and community ties.

Program Materials

The Family Times curriculum includes an activity book for families, a videotape, and agent support materials.

A family's involvement in the program begins with the "Family Discoveries" questionnaire, which has been adapted from a widely used standardized measure of family functioning known as FACES III, developed by Olson, Portner, and Lavee.8 The questionnaire, found in the planning section of the activity book, is filled out individually by family members to help identify strengths that characterize their family and differences and similarities in their perceptions.

Next, families set goals and formulate a plan to develop skills and build on the strengths they've identified. Families are encouraged to begin with activities in areas where they're strongest. This increases the likelihood the first experience with the program will be successful, rather than frustrating or disappointing. Later, members are encouraged to work on those areas they'd like to improve.

Families can choose from over 50 activities divided into the sections that correspond with the program's five core areas. Each begins with a short discussion of the specific strength being presented, followed by a series of activities designed to strengthen skills in that area. For example, the Communication section focuses on how to be a good listener and how to express feelings, opinions, and concerns in a straightforward, nonconfrontational manner. The activities create situations where members can test and use these skills.

In the "Dear Abby" activity from this section, one person reads a letter from a newspaper advice column and the others take turns making up and discussing their answers. This encourages parents and children to talk about values and moral issues, without blaming, criticizing, or preaching, and provides an opportunity for parents to model what they believe.

An annotated index describes the purpose of each activity and the strength area it supports. Activities have been coded with symbols to help families identify which activity is likely to work best for them. Although many are especially relevant for those with school-age children, others are developed specifically for parents and teenagers. One example is "Family Job Hunters," which provides parents with suggestions and tips for helping their sons and daughters locate, apply, and interview for part-time employment.

Most activities work well with all types of families; however, some are particularly appropriate for single-parent families, couples, trans-generational families, and blended families. Some activities, like the "Family Oral History," were developed with grandparents in mind. This shows younger people how to preserve pieces of their heritage by taperecording interviews with older family members.

Family Times is designed to be fun as well as educational. To appeal to a wide range of interests, abilities, and learning styles, the activities cover a variety of subject-matter and content areas, such as citizenship, literature, financial issues, recreation, technology, history, and the arts. Some activities include worksheets, planning lists, certificates, contracts, gamesheets, and other items which can be torn out of the book, duplicated, or copied by hand. Many involve creating special celebrations, traditions, and customs. Others involve games, crafts, or special family projects. Some can be done in less than 15 minutes, but others require more involvement over time.

The program also includes a five-segment videotape that explores the concepts and skills found in Family Times. Each segment discusses one of the five family strengths and features families doing activities from that particular section.


The Family Times Program includes four evaluation tools. The first assesses the program's impact. The remainder gather information that's used to shape and improve the program. A subgroup of families who completed the program also participated in a telephone survey that gathered qualitative information about the benefits and drawbacks of the program.

Families Assess Themselves

A unique feature is how the impact evaluation was built into the program. As described earlier, the "Family Discoveries" questionnaire is used at the beginning of the program to identify strengths and develop an enrichment plan. In addition, this information is used by the program design team to assess impact.

After being involved in the program for about six months, participants in some counties were asked to once again complete the inventory to assess progress and set new goals. A copy of the results was given to the local Extension agent. This provided pretest and posttest evaluation data, while helping families gain a better understanding of themselves.

Getting Feedback

Additional formal evaluation tools were used to supplement input from the advisory committee and informational contacts with agents and participants. A one-page agent summary described the scope of the local program, the participants, and the orientation procedure.

A "Family Facts" questionnaire, completed at the program orientation, collected basic biographical data to supplement the impact data collection described earlier, and allowed for later analysis of how different activities worked with various family types.

Participants also completed feedback cards after each activity to share written comments about how well the activity worked and how much time was spent.

In evaluating impact, which included a comparison group of nonparticipating families, analysis of variance results supported the hypothesis that families involved in Family Times demonstrated a greater increase in self-reported family functioning than did nonparticipants. But even these nonparticipant families appeared to benefit from the "Family Discoveries" questionnaire.

Correlational analysis also suggested that the greater the amount of activity in Family Times, the greater the increases in each of the family strengths assessment areas.

The 20 telephone interviews provided much positive feedback on how the activities were used by families, as well as information about specific activities that worked and those that didn't.

When asked: "Has Family Times caused change in your family relationships?" almost all participants interviewed gave positive responses. Some typical ones include:

"Kids seem to open up more. Activities were good for getting their opinions."

"It's easier to disagree now without getting upset with each other."

"Two activities in particular have made us more aware of the traditions in our families."

About half the families surveyed by telephone described a problem that Family Times helped them work through. For example, one parent indicated that the "Job Jar" activity helped them work out communication problems about who does which chores in the family. As a result, the children became involved in making their own decisions and assuming more responsibility for what they agreed to do.


Family Times has the potential to reach traditional and nontraditional Extension clientele with easy-to-use, home-based learning experiences designed to strengthen today's busy families. Based on current research and theory, the program uses an empowerment approach to help families identify and build on existing strengths. Finally, because the evaluation instrument is built directly into the program, the data have value not only to program designers and implementers, but also to participants.


1. A. J. Norton and P. Glick, "One Parent Families: A Social and Economic Profile," Family Relations, XXXV (January 1986), 9-18.

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, News, November 15, 1982, Table 2.

3. J. M. Lewis and others, No Single Thread: Psychological Health in Family Systems (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1976) and H. I. McCubbin and others, "Family Stress and Coping: A Decade Review," Journal of Marriage and the Family, XLII (November 1980), 125-42.

4. Lewis and others, No Single Thread.

5. D. Olson and others, Families, What Makes Them Work (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983).

6. N. Stinnett and J. DeFrain, Secrets of Strong Families (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1985).

7. F. Walsh, Normal Family Processes (New York: Guilford Press, 1982).

8. D. H. Olson, J. Portner, and Y. Lavee, FACES III (St. Paul: University of Minnesota, Family Social Science, 1983).