Hinckley Lecture: Sparks and Solution for Fragile, Poor families

Poverty is a large and complex topic of research, as is family instability and complexity. Both can be daunting subjects to understand. However, Kathryn Edin has spent decades researching and living among poor families, and shared some of the insights she’s gained since writing books like $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America at a recent presentation on campus, sponsored by the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Chair. “Family instability and complexity,” Edin  said, “are both consequences and causes of poverty. It is more common among low-income families. And they are at an all time high.”

So, what, if anything, can be done to address the core problem of family instability and complexity in poverty? Edin said it comes down to SPARKS.

What are SPARKS?


SPARKS are Supported Pathways through the Arts, Recreation, Knowledge, and Schools. They are activities or programs that help children or teenagers identify themselves outside of their hard home life. They find themselves. Eventually, they make better family decisions because they can mentally get out of their difficult upbringing. “Emerging RCT evidence suggests that these positive youth development activities can have a dramatic impact on family formation and family stability among disadvantaged youth,” said Edin.

Edin shared her encounter with three teenagers living in complex and unstable families. Despite their home challenges, these teens connected with something outside of themselves.

“They found something that defined them…that consumed them,” said Edin. She described these teen’s experience as a “life-saving identity project.” For one Baltimore teen, Vicky, it was pigeons. She cares for pigeons, and has a goal to take them flying in every park in the city. Edin said this was the first level of a SPARK. Vicky identified herself with her love and care for her birds, not the horrors that occurred in her own home.

Bob found identity with Pokémon and Japanese anime. He found friends who identified with him as well as gaming, anime, and the arts. Bob dressed in goth clothes as his way of drawing the line between his street upbringing and his identity. Bob’s SPARK connected him to friends with similar interests, and was his way out of street life.

Cody’s SPARK was the most effective, as it was with an institution—the police academy. Police used to question Cody on the street, but after he joined the academy, cops saw his academy medallion and befriended him. Edin described Cody’s SPARK as the highest kind: “It’s like he jumped onto a moving train—there was already direction, good mentors, and service opportunities.”

Career/academic program SPARKS showed the most dramatic results and influenced young men in the following ways:

  • 33 percent more likely to be married
  • 46 percent more likely to be a custodial parent
  • 30 percent more likely to live independently with child and partner (21 percent for women)

High quality after-school programs affected pregnancy by up to 50 percent.

Many schools are no longer teach the arts and music because of budget cuts. Police academies have also been cut in some cities. These programs are often SPARKS for children and teens.

“We’ve got to create real pathways to follow SPARKS so that the bridge gets them to the other side,” said Edin.


Societal Systems That Foster Family Progress

“Ill-timed and unplanned pregnancies [are] the biggest contributors to unstable, complex, and fragile families,” Edin said. By extension, birth control is a central issue, a “how” of every child being planned and well-timed. But for those children already born, child support, paid by non-custodial parents to aid in the raising of children, is perceived as the most significant institution to fragile families. Fathers feel that the child support system does not ensure that they will see their children, and it handicaps them if they fall behind on payments.

“Why can’t child support be the mechanism that says to co-parents they’re in this for life?” said Edin. She called upon graduates of this university to consider working with these co-parents to get along. Then, parents will better be able to build “strong durable childhood bonds that last all the ways past the first five years, to high school graduation, college, and beyond,” said Edin. She lamented community college degrees that are losing their value in this ever-progressing world. Young adults from poor communities and unstable families are going to college more, but they often cannot finish college and end up in debt. “We are robbing these hopeful, aspiring kids of their dreams,” Edin said.

“But this is not hopeless,” she said. “We need to try things. She said classrooms need to be filled with students like those at BYU, who are invigorated to change and impact society for good.  Universities are one place to begin feeding students into important avenues.


The whole lecture can be seen here.


Dr. Edin defines family instability and complexity

Part 1: The Problem

“By the time a child of unwed parents turns five, 23 percent of them have 3 half siblings,” said Dr. Kathryn Edin at our most recent Hinckley lecture. Edin’s decades-long ethnographic research about low-income families revealed that:

  • 78% of families are unstable and complex
  • 18% are stable two-parent families
  • 4% are stable single mother families

Family or relationship instability refers to the forming, breaking, reforming, breaking cycle of family life. This cycle of parents not staying together leaves the child with many parental figures who enter and leave their life, often while the child is very young. “In the first five years of a child who belongs to unmarried parents,” she said, “twelve percent of these children see one parent transition; 30 percent of children see three or more parent transitions in the first five years of their life.”

“Family instability and complexity,” she said, “are both consequences and causes of poverty. It is more common among low-income families. And they are at an all time high.”

These causes and consequences are parts of a difficult and complex societal issue, but her research provides both illumination for every member of society wondering how to help, and suggestions for improvement at the public policy level. That research began decades ago when she began roaming the country in her 20’s interviewing poor single mothers about their budgets. In her 30’s, she sought to get a more complete picture by focusing on the stories and laments of single fathers.

A major cause of family complexity and instability in poverty: unplanned pregnancy

captureNow as a distinguished sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, she investigates low-income and middle class family planning styles. These observations have proven crucial to discovering how to lessen family instability and complexity.

She found that those in low-income families often had unplanned or ill-timed pregnancies in non-committal relationships. Children tended to come along when the parents were still trying to “find themselves.”

In contrast, middle-class families meticulously planned and timed births. Parents were in a stable and committed relationship, often marriage. Parents had children when they both had “arrived” in a career-sense—they were confident with who they were and they felt fulfilled. Children who were born into families like the second scenario had a better upbringing in a more stable family.

The key lesson Edin learned in her 30s: “Moving the needle on mobility from poverty must include the family contexts into which children are born and raised. This is not a popular opinion, but I became convinced this was essential.”

With all of this in mind, Edin asked: “What would it take to ensure that every child can be planned and well-timed?” The answer? SPARKS (Supported Pathways through the Arts, Recreation, Knowledge, and Schools). Children and teens who have a SPARK identify themselves outside of their hard home life—they find themselves. They make better family decisions.

Stay tuned to fhss.byu.edu for more posts about how to help low-income families become more stable as we provide further coverage of the Hinckley lecture and explanation of SPARKS.

You can view the whole lecture here:

Dr. Frank Fincham on the Paradox of Marriage

This post is fifth in a series of videos available in our new BYU Social Sciences YouTube channel! The channel contains tidbits of many of our most popular lectures and useful, succinct, research-backed advise on relationship, political, religious, media, and financial issues. Follow us there to stay up-to-date on wisdom that will help you and  your family live better lives.

There are struggles and successes in any close romantic relationship, as we talk about here and here, but those who can forgive forge a lasting bond, said Dr. Frank Fincham in a 2013 Hinckely Lecture. “Here’s the paradox of close romantic relationships such as marriage,” he said. “We get our deepest affiliate needs fulfilled in our close romantic relationships, and it’s a rare person who has never been hurt, betrayed, wronged, or let down by their partner.” Because marriage is such an intimate relationship, spouses are their most vulnerable. This vulnerability is deeply satisfying, but also reveals what hurts the most, he explains in this two-minute highlight video and in the full lecture, found here.


To this Fincham said, “So forgiveness needs to be available in that relationship, because in those types of relationships we make ourselves vulnerable.” To properly argue and forgive in close relationships like marriage, one must their partner as the whole person that he or she is. While it is important to keep in mind that forgiveness is not necessarily trust, as he mentions here, it’s almost important to remember that “there’s more to the offender than the offending behavior.” A Florida State University professor, Fincham’s research focuses on understanding marriage/partnerships, particularly cognitive processes involved in conflict and the impact of interparental conflict/divorce on children. He’s also conducted two more recent research programs on forgiveness and on prayer in close relationships. He is integrating hemodynamics and cardiac functioning into his research on families. Fincham’s research has been recognized by multiple awards from professional societies.

As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University he was named “Young Social Psychologist of the Year” by the British Psychological Society. Other awards include the Berscheid-Hatfield Career Award for “sustained, substantial, and distinguished contributions to the field of personal relationships.” A Fellow of five different professional societies, he has been listed among the top 25 psychologists in the world based on number of citations per published article.




5 Expert Tips for Managing Your Kids’ Social Media Use

Social media is now an essential fiber in the thread of most adolescents’ social life. Kids and teens use social media everywhere. They use it at home, on the road, and even at baseball games. Although it is impossible to be absolutely certain that your kids are free from social threats on their social sites, parents can take some small and simple steps to secure some online safety for their kids and peace of mind for themselves.

One of the leading experts in teen social media use, Marion K. Underwood, visited BYU campus two weeks ago to present her findings on the subject. She suggests that parents:

Follow Their Kids

If you don’t have a social media account, get one! Your children can benefit from knowing that you will see what things they post, and some of what will be shared with them. Being your child’s friend and follower is a simple way to stay aware of what they experience, and even show you care.

Also, make sure to be more than a passive observer of social media content. Participate! Post, like, and comment on different material. Being a more active participant in social media will help you understand where your child is coming from. Dr. Underwood, as she received likes and responses to her personal social media content, recounted, “I was amazed at how thrilled I was.” She now has a better understanding of what her children feel as they participate in social media conversations.

Experiences like these will help you to empathize with your child. “By creating your own account and joining these platforms,” says Underwood, “You will understand the power of digital communication in a way you never thought possible.”


Take Away Phones at Night

“85% of the students in [our] study said they slept with their [phones] under their pillows so they could hear an incoming text message in the middle of the night. Disruption in sleep is terrible for adolescents,” said Underwood.

Further, when teens are alone in their rooms, they are more likely to subject themselves to negative content, which is widely available on all platforms. Making this quick rule will lessen the likelihood of teens dwelling on negative messages.


Set Specific Guidelines for Specific Situations

“I think we all need to structure our homes and our children’s time to avoid over-involvement with social media,” says Underwood. She suggests at least two ideas:

  • No phones during meals.

“[This includes] family meals at home, at restaurants, that includes parents – everybody has to put their phones away.”

  • No phones in the car.

“A rule that I had when I would miss my work time to drive children around in carpools was ‘no phones in the car,’ said Underwood. “If I’m spending my time to take my young ladies places, I wanted them to converse with me. So I would say, you’re not going to look at your phone . You’re going to talk about your day. And every family can come up with their own set of guidelines.”

Further, children and teens are capable of doing a lot of good on their various platforms. Encouraging children to engage in pro-social behavior on social media can be beneficial to overall mental health and well-being.

Setting these kinds of boundaries doesn’t absolutely assure that your home’s parent-child interaction will be full of green pastures, but it does mean that family stability will more easily prevail over the outside social world.


Talk Openly

Social media is a big deal to your kids. “Online experiences [are] vitally important to…students,” Underwood said. “When we asked them what was more important, their offline social experiences or their online experiences, they said online social experiences were more important in their lives.”

“I’m not a big fan of monitoring software,” says Underwood, “Young people are very smart about how to get around it and platforms change all the time. Our best hope of influencing their online conduct – their online experience, is to use our relationships to discuss with them.”

Invite Children to Help 

Children and teens can help you to help them. Dana Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens wrote: “What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate, and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations.”


“Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go.”

You can have a positive influence on your children. It is never too late to begin implementing guidelines for a positive social media experience.

You can view Dr. Underwood’s full lecture here:



What guidelines do you have in YOUR home for social media use?

Social Aggression, Social Media, and the Perils of Lurking Online: Dr. Marion K. Underwood Speaks

Underwood-turquoise-glasses-6x9.jpgDean Marion K. Underwood will deliver her lecture “Social Aggression, Social Media, and the Perils of Lurking Online” on Thursday, February 11 in the Hinckley Alumni & Visitors Center Assembly Hall at 7:30 p.m. Her address will be the twelfth annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture, named for the late wife of Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Admission is free and the public is welcome to attend.

Dr. Underwood is the Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Provost, and Ashbel Smith Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. She earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Duke University. Her research examines origins and outcomes of social aggression, and how adolescents’ digital communication relates to adjustment.

Dr. Underwood’s work has been published in numerous scientific journals and her research program has been supported by the National Institutes of Health since 1995. In 2003, she authored a book, Social Aggression among Girls. Since 2003, she and her research group have been conducting a longitudinal study of origins and outcomes of social aggression, and how adolescents use digital communication. Dr. Underwood received the 2001 Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, was granted a FIRST Award and a K02 Mid-Career Independent Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health, and is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.

Brigham Young University established the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences in 2003 to honor Sister Hinckley’s commitment to strengthening home and family. The chair focuses on understanding and strengthening the family, the development of women, and strategies to help both parents and children in difficult circumstances. Each year, the chair invites a distinguished scholar to deliver a lecture addressing a pertinent social issue.

For more information, visit HinckleyChair.byu.edu or contact Jamie Moesser at (801) 422-1320 or Jamie.moesser@byu.edu.


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