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Activities for Exploring the Family

From Bob Greene

Lead Off Activity: Who Marries Whom?

        Have students write down the characteristics that they think might influence them to marry someone, such as looks, personality, values, etc. You might want to write these terms on the board or on an overhead transparency. Give the students several minutes to do this and then present them with the sociological reality of mate selection. The person they choose will most likely be close to them in age, have a similar religion, ethnic or racial background, educational background, socio-economic status, geographic location and similar values. Sociologically speaking, the person that they choose to marry will be more like each of them than the ideal person they thought they were looking for. This exercise helps students understand how social forces are more like to influence them than they believe.  (Source: Jon M. Shepard and Robert Greene. 2001. Sociology and You, Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.)

Cooperative Group Activity:

Assign students to groups and ask each group to consider a society without families. How would the basic needs of people in that society addressed?  How would the children be cared for, how would training and values be instilled? Who would fulfill the child’s needs for love and care?  How would parents meet the needs of their growing children? What type of adults would this society create?

In this assignment, each group will create their own society. You might want to allow them to represent this family via a poster presentation and share it with the rest of the class. As a reference, you might want to direct students to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a satire that includes a family-free society, or have them read a passage or two from it.


        Students might be interested in the article, “Courtship and Marriage Among the Hopi” from  Stuart A. Queen and Robert W. Habenstein, The Family in Various Cultures, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1974, pp. 54-58.


        This activity is a powerful demonstration of the importance of the family in sexual regulation. You will need red wool, and index cards. Cut the red wool into one foot long pieces and give each student three cut pieces. On the index cards, put an “M” on one card, an “A” on two other cards and an “H” on a fourth card. All the other cards should remain blank. Give one student the M card, two the A cards and a fourth the H card. Then hand out all the rest of the blank cards. Now, tell students that they need to get the signatures of three classmates and they must circulate around the room. They must not simply get three signatures from their neighbors. This will not work if they do, the student with the M card and the two with the A cards are not to participate at all. They simply sit there. Once students are done getting signatures, have them sit and call the student with the “H” card up to the front of the room. He/she should have their three pieces of string with them. The student with the H card then calls up the three people on his/her card, and they hold the string emanating from the person with the H card. Now have those three students call up the three students on each of their cards. They connect by holding the strings that connect them to each other. By the time you are done, everyone in the room except the student with the M card and the two with A cards will be in front of the room and all will be connected somehow.  Now tell the students that the H card represented the person that was HIV + and all the signatures represented sexual liaisons. The student with the M card was monogamous, and the students with the A cards were abstinent. All the students who had sexual contact with the initial H card are now at risk for AIDS.

Caveat: This topic might be too sensitive for some classrooms and some teachers might not be comfortable with this topic. You might want to consider which students receive the H card and the M and A cards and it would help if you know those students. If you’re willing to try this, it can be a powerful demonstration.  It was chronicled in the National Council for the Social Studies curriculum.

Decision Making Skills

        This activity deals with sensitive but realistic social problems. Read the following scenario to the class.

Having lived in the city all of your life, you know people well and feel they are especially friendly to everyone. Age, health, race, gender, education, ethnicity and family status have never mattered. Recently your aunt divorced her husband due to his lengthy sentence given for a crime against humanity. That’s all your parents would tell you about this situation. Because your aunt is undergoing chemotherapy for an illness no one will discuss, you learn that your cousin will be coming to stay with you for at least half of the school year. You and your cousin are one year apart; that’s good because you will be able to introduce him to your friends and even double date together. As you prepare to share your bedroom, you tell your friends that he’s coming within the week. Then the doorbell rings. You are upstairs, so your mother answers the door. You can hear people talking in hushed tones, and occasionally words such as “AIDS, risky business, welfare, trashy people, divorce, communicable disease, and dirt bags” pass your ears. You hear the door slam as Mom’s sobs echo throughout the house. Dad is enraged when he comes home from work and hears what happened. Using the decision-making process, determine what you will do in an attempt to remedy this series of questionable events and save face for your family. Based on this scenario, ask students to discuss in groups where they believe the responsibility of the family is the greatest – to the larger society as a whole or to protect individual family members. Would students feel the same if the story involved turning in a drug addict or an escaped felon?

Social Class and the NBA Draft:

This activity might be used to stimulate a discussion and writing assignment utilizing several distinct sociological concepts related to the family. In this case, the social institution of sports every year attempts to create equality among its teams exemplified in this case by professional basketball.

Begin by asking students to ascertain the rules and logic of the National Basketball Association draft held every year in June. The students should point out that the best college teams based on the previous season records nationally and internationally pick high school players. The teams with the worst records pick first, assuring them of having the best chance to pick the best players and improve their team for the upcoming season. This is the league’s attempt at creating parity each year. Ask students to consider why the best players don’t have the opportunity to go to the best teams immediately.  Wouldn’t that be fair? Students will probably conclude that although the system is not perfect, it is most definitely the fairest system. How might they apply this logic to another social institution, the family?

        Imagine that families with their ascribed social status represent teams in the NBA. Each generation symbolizes another season of professional ball. Wouldn’t it be fair to ask the winning families (those at the top of the socio-economic ladder) to forego passing on their advantages to their offspring? For the competition to be fair and to achieve parity, the wealthier families would not be allowed to send their children to the best schools. They would have to go to the schools with the fewest resources in order to allow the other families to catch up. If the wealthiest kids are the best, they can achieve and succeed anywhere. Since the logic is that merit is the sole requirement for admission to college, the playing field would be leveled.

        At this point you might want to have students read excerpts from Jonathan Kozol’s, Savage Inequalities. One chapter would be sufficient. Once students have read some Kozol, have them focus on the sociological perspectives related to education, the functions of the family, the conflict approach to understanding the family, and other concepts such as white privilege.

Life Happens:

        This interactive simulation by Tracy Ore, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN gives students seven families, each at a different income level and has students calculate a monthly budget based on income, assets and number of family members. At various phases of this simulation, students are handed Life Happens cards and must readjust their budget accordingly. A copy of this simulation is available on the web. Students are extremely engaged in this simulation and you might want to discuss each family situation.  Upon completing this exercise, have students write a reflective essay on how their family dealt with their financial situation.

Cooperative Learning Activity:

        Is the family a public or private institution?  If the family is a public institution, then the community has a responsibility and right to step inside the family to insure the safety and well-being of the children. If the family is a private institution then the family has the right to and responsibility to raise children according to their own values. In groups have students debate the merits of each idea. The group that advocates the family as a public institution might want to beat on its desk every 30 seconds, to represent the occurrence of acts of domestic violence and child abuse in this country.


Braver, Sanford L. and Diane O’Connell. 1998. Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.  New York: Basic Books.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1997.  The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families.  New York: Basic Books

Gottman, John. 1994. Why Marriages Succeed and Fail: and How You Can Make Them Last. New York: Fireside.

Shepard, Jon M. and Robert W. Greene. 2000. Sociology and You. Chicago, Il: Glencoe Press.

Kozol, Jonathan. 1992 Savage Inequalities. New York: Harper Collins.

Popenoe, David. 1996. Life Without Father. New York: The Free Press.