Family Development Theory

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Family Development Theory

Family development theory focuses on the systematic and patterned changes experienced by families as they move through their life course. The term family as used here represents a social group containing at least one parent-child relationship. The family group is organized and governed by social norms. The general notion of a family life-cycle has a long history that dates back to 1777 (Mattessich and Hill 1987). A more conscious formulation known as family development theory began after World War II with work on family stress by Reuben Hill (1949) and a later textbook by Evelyn Duvall (1957). The first systematic statement of the approach characterized family development as proceeding through life-cycle stages (family stages) such as early marriage, families with young children, the launching of children out of the home, and the empty nest (Hill and Rodgers 1964). These family stages can be studied on three levels of analysis: the individual-psychological, the interactional-associational, and the societal-institutional.

In the decades following the initial formulation of family development theory, there has been a conscious departure from the life-cycle concept. Roy H. Rodgers (1973) suggests abandoning the family life-cycle concept in favor of a more life-course-oriented concept that he calls the family career. Joan Aldous (1978) argues that the family career contains subcareers, most notably the sibling career, the marital career, and the parental career. These, in turn, are strongly influenced by careers external to the family, such as educational and occupational careers. Paul Mattessich and Reuben Hill (1987) maintain that family development unfolds through invariant, universal stages, a conception that is very similar to the aging process. However, the conception of invariant and universal family stages continues to attract criticism (e.g., White 1991; Bengston and Allen 1993). Aldous (1990) believes that the major difference between the life-course and family development perspectives is that the life-course perspective focuses on the individual, whereas the family developmental approach focuses on the family as a group. She maintains that neither approach can properly be called a scientific theory.

In contrast to Aldous's position, James M. White (1991) proposes that family development is a scientific theory because it offers general propositions and can be formulated as a mathematical model that describes the process of family development. Rodgers and White (1993) suggest that the old perspective of families moving through deterministic, invariant stages invites a stagnant and less-productive understanding of family dynamics. Family development theorists Rodgers and White have revised and simplified some of the following key concepts.

Basic Concepts and Propositions

Position is a term denoting a person's place in the kinship structure that is defined by gender, marriage or blood relations, and generational relations. The basic positions within the family are husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and sister.

Norms are social rules that govern group and individual behavior. For example, the incest taboo is a strong and pervasive social rule forbidding mating between family members.

Role is defined as all the norms attached to one of the kinship positions. For instance, in most societies the role of mother entails the norm of nurturing of the young. However, because the positions are defined structurally, the content of a role (the norms) may change from society to society or ethnic subculture to subculture.

Family stage is defined as the period of time in which the structure and interactions of role relationships are noticeably distinct from other periods. The stage is usually inferred from the events that indicate a change in the membership of the family or the way in which members of the family are spatially and interactionally organized. For example, launching a child does not mean the end of the parental role but a change based on the spatial and interactional organization of the family members.

Transitions from one family stage to another are indicated by the events between stages. Family stages are experienced as on time or off time in terms of the expected timing for these events. For instance, having another child when postadolescent children are leaving home would be "off time."

Family career (family life course) is composed of all the events and periods of time (stages) between events traversed by a family. At the societal level, the stage-graded norms are indicated by the sequence of events followed by most families. For example, a premarital birth is considered out of sequence for most people. Variations in families indicate the strength of the norms within any given birth cohort and historical period.

Deviation by large numbers of families from a career sequence is viewed as a source of social change. Social change comes about because families seek to align their sequencing of stages with the sequencing and timing norms of nonfamily institutions (e.g., education and occupation). For instance, as the time required for education rises, the age at which a person marries rises, and the period of fertility available to a couple is reduced. Cross-institutional norms, such as finishing one's education before marriage, create the need for systemic deviation in family career and, hence, social change.

Basic propositions proposed by Aldous (1978) lead to the definition of the process of family development. Rodgers and White (1993), in defining the process, claim the probability for a family to move to a new stage of family development is dependent on the old stage they were in and how long they had been in that stage. They further suggest that the process can be mathematically modeled as a semi-Markov process (Coleman 1981; Tuma and Hannan 1984). Two examples of propositions derived by Rodgers and White are that "normative demands of any given institution must be in line with the stage of the family, otherwise the family is strained" and "institutional normative adaptation is preceded by systematic behavioral deviance" (1993, p. 244).


Debate continues as to the usefulness of concepts such as developmental tasks and the amount of emphasis on structure rather than interaction. Family researchers using family development concepts have produced only modest empirical correlations with dependent variables such as marital satisfaction. Developmental scholars argue that these disappointing results are due to a lack of appropriate measurement of the concepts. Critics respond that this is because the concepts are too vague or ambiguous. In addition, the focus on the modal (center point of all variations) career has been criticized as concealing variations that are due to age cohort, ethnicity, race, and gender.


Despite criticisms, family development theory and its associated concept of family life-cycle stages remains one of the most internationally popular academic approaches to the study of the families. Researchers have applied this theory to such diverse topics as work-family interface (White 1999), family computer uses (Watt and White 1999), blended families (Baxter; Braithewaite; and Nicholson 1999), and sexual orientation (Friedman 1998). This approach has also proved useful to international researchers; examples include the study of German families (Vaskovics 2000), Eastern European families ( Judge 1999), and families of India (Desai 1993).

In addition to the academic research, this theory has been useful to practitioners and therapists in several areas. For example, applications of the theory have been undertaken in the study of stress (e.g., Klein and Aldous 1988), traumatic brain injury (Moore, Stambrook, and Peters 1993), alcoholism (Rotunda; Scherer; and Imm 1995), and schizophrenia (Stromwall and Robinson 1998). The practical applicability of this theory has greatly benefited from the substantial literature on using family development theory as a therapeutic tool to assist in the analysis of on-time careers and events (Carter and McGoldrick 1988; Falicov 1987).


Future improvements of family development theory may bring the possibility of integration between the life-course perspective and family development theory (Aldous 1990; Bengston and Allen 1993). White (2000) suggested that such integration might pave the way for ever-wider scope and application and explanatory power for this popular approach. There is little doubt that international scholars will continue to use the family development approach to assist in descriptive and cross-cultural comparative analysis of family stages and the family life course.

See also:Adulthood; Childhood; Elders; Family Life Education; Family System Theory; Family Theory; Retirement; Stress; Transition to Parenthood


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Family Development Theory

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