Female University Students’ Views On Family And Parenthood: Cross-Country Analysis


Perceptions of family and parenthood can be seen as a determinant of fertility and a society’s socio-cultural state. Studying these across different countries is particularly topical amid growing migration. The paper presents the results of an international research project in which we studied ideas about family and parenthood of female university students from Russia, Austria and Kazakhstan. Data was collected in 2015. The results of our research showed that young women from different countries had similar views about the purpose of family in contemporary society. At the same time they had different assessments of the significance of family for the fulfilment of some functions. We obtained the image of a happy family in the students’ minds. We found out that there were certain differences in the students’ ideas about a happy family. We obtained the image of parenthood and identified its main aspects. We also saw differences in the female students’ ideas about parenting. Differences in perceptions of family and parenthood are likely linked to differences in the types of parenting culture and the substance of future parental labour. Researching students' ideas about family and parenting enables assessing a country’s demographic prospects. The implementation of education focused on reproductive intentions and behaviours could be an effective way to improve the demographic situation.

Keywords: ParentingFamilyFemale studentsReproductive Behaviour


Demographers and sociologists around the world are today noting transformations that are

happening to family as a social institution: the changing nature of relationships between family members,

the rethinking of family roles, the widening configuration of the family and so on (Castren and Widmer

2015). According to Morgan (2011), family is at simultaneously both a stable and a changeable

phenomenon. With this in mind, it would be more appropriate to talk about changes to family practices,

family living or family life courses, rather than to family as a social institution. In asking whether family

is a social construction or a natural phenomenon most scientists agree that ''’family’ can mean whatever

we want it to mean” (Almond 2008). A similar question arises with respect to the definition of

parenthood. For example, Hays (1996) and Furedi (2001) believe that parenting should be seen as a

socially constructed phenomenon. Lee at al (2014) argue that “’parenting’ is now viewed as an activity

that cannot be effectively carried out ‘naturally’”. As such, a parent should have specific skills to fulfil

parental functions. Ramaekers and Suissa (2011) add that “parents are expected… to do things with their

children that are in very specific sense goal-oriented” .

Viewing family and parenthood as social constructs implies their differentiation across cultures

and societies. We note that many European countries and Russia are today facing a rather difficult

demographic situation. Thus the highest total fertility rate in Europe is 2.07 (in France), while for 28

European countries, it ranges from 1.2 to 1.6 (Country comparison 2016). Russia’s total fertility rate for

2015 was 1.61, which is 23.3% less than the below-replacement fertility. The differentiation of European

countries on the basis of this indicator is shown in Figure 1 .

Figure 1: Total fertility rate across different countries for 2015
Total fertility rate across different countries for 2015
See Full Size >

By defining ‘family’ and ‘parenthood’ as social constructs that can have their own specifics in

individual societies and by differentiating fertility rates across countries, we can suppose that different

nations can have their own ideas about family and parenthood. Research into these ideas is especially

pertinent among young people – the most important demographic resource with the highest parenting

potential. We note that these ideas about family and parenthood are potentially influenced by a number of factors: the prevailing socio-cultural situation, the intensity of migration flows, the political environment,

a society’s national and religious structure, the level of economic welfare and so on.

Problem Statement

Contemporary society today faces a number of socio-economic trends that potentially threaten the

social institution of family. In developed countries, these are declining fertility, growing diversity of

family forms, increasing divorce rates, higher levels of urbanisation, adverse media messages and so on

(Shorter, 1975). Scientists believe that these phenomena are bringing about (or have already brought) a

crisis of – or, to put it more mildly – a modernisation of family as an institution (Sinelnikov, Medkov and

Antonov 2009). Discussions of the change/collapse of the family mostly refer to the transformation of

social functions fulfilled by the family. There are changes to a family’s core and secondary functions. A

family's reproductive function can only be measured quantitatively, whereas its educational function has

mostly qualitative dimensions (Lee et al. 2014). Undoubtedly, these processes are affected by the social

norms that exist in a given society.

In light of this, research into young people’s views about family and parenthood is topical both as

regards demographic prospects and from the point of view of forecasting a society’s socio-cultural state.

It is important to understand how today’s youth view the concepts of ‘family’, ‘parenthood’ and ‘happy

family’; what they see as the purpose of a family. All of these can be seen as a determinant of forming

and developing the need for children and thus as factors of reproductive behaviour and future parenthood.

Research Questions

Within this context, there are two research questions in our paper:

What specific ideas about family and parenthood prevail among young people in Russia, Austria

and Kazakhstan?

Can these perceptions be viewed as one of the determinants of future parenthood?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study is to identify similarities and differences in views about family and

parenthood among female university students from three countries. These perceptions can be considered

as one of the determinants of the nature of parenting and parental labour, the understanding of parenting


Research Methods

This research entails an international project in which we studied female university students from

Russia, Austria and Kazakhstan. Data was collected in 2015. In each country we surveyed 200-250

female university students.

This paper analyses the questionnaire responses that reflect female university students’ views

about family and parenthood. We studied inter-country differences in answers to the following:

A question about the reason for having a family in contemporary society. Female university

students were offered multiple-choice answers, with the option of providing their own answer.

A question about what constitutes a happy family. This was an open-ended question. There were

no time or space restrictions for answers. In subsequent analysis we classified the full spectrum of

answers into homogenous groups.

A question about what ‘being a parent’ means. This was also an open-ended question, without

time and space limitations. The obtained responses were classified into homogenous groups.

For our analysis, we used descriptive statistics and contingency table analysis. Since we studied

nominal variables, we used the Chi-squared criterion and the Cramer coefficient.


In the course of our analysis, we obtained the following results.

1. Young women from different countries have similar views about the purpose of family in

contemporary society. An analysis of the female students’ answers enabled us to conclude that they see

family as a social institution which mostly fulfils the following functions:

- educational (more than two-thirds of the young women in each country noted that a family is

needed to raise and develop children);

- recreational (between one-third and two-thirds of the girls in different countries said a family is

needed for psychological support; 46% to 53% said family is needed for interaction and shared leisure);

- reproductive (between 36% and 48% of the females said family is needed for childbirth).

We note that in the ranking of family functions, sexual and economic aspects came last (table 1).

Figure 2: Female students’ responses to the question “What is the purpose of family in contemporary society?”
Female students’ responses to the question “What is the purpose of family in contemporary
See Full Size >

The fact that young women from different countries have similar ideas about the key functions of

family as a social institution could be partly explained by the high value these countries place on family.

According to the World Values Survey (2014), 92.4% of the Kazakhstani population, 85% of Russians

and 77.6% to 91.1% of the European population rate family as a very important value (table 2, Austria not

included in the research).

Figure 3: Responses from different countries to the question: “Indicate how important family is in your life” (%)
Responses from different countries to the question: “Indicate how important family is in
      your life” (%)
See Full Size >

It can be said that the stability of family mentioned by Morgan is underpinned by the fulfilment of

traditional functions. The need for a family to fulfil these very functions determines the significance of

family in the minds of people from different countries. The transformation of family, which is reflected

in changes to family forms, family living and family life courses, does not impact the substantive

foundations of family as a social institution, which continues to be its reproductive, educational and

recreational functions across different countries.

2. The students from the three countries had different assessments of the significance of family for

the fulfilment of sexual and psychological support functions. We learnt that the need for family for

regular sexual relations is most obvious to females from Austria (the respective answer was chosen by

almost one in four) and the least for young women from Russia (only 8% of respondents). As regards

psychological support, the situation is reversed – this is most sought after for Russians (two in three

women) and least for Austrians (one in three women). Respondents from Kazakhstan were in the middle.

The rather low role of family as an institution of psychological support in Austria compared to

Russia and Kazakhstan can be explained, in part, by the developed state of professional psychological

support in Europe. According to the classification of the World Health Organization, some activities with

families provided by psychological services are an element of psychological interventions (Policies and

practices 2008). As a result of such psychological interventions, patients may be prescribed certain

treatment. WHO data shows that over half of the countries do not provide information about such treatment. At the same time, it is known that 3,763,000 prescriptions (0.45 per person) were written in

Austria in 2008 (Policies and practices 2008). On the whole, one of the conclusions from a WHO report

on “Policies and practices for mental health in Europe” is that “services in European countries appear to

be so differentiated that any comparison is haphazard” (Policies and practices 2008).

3. In analysing the young women’s responses to the open question of what constitutes a happy

family, we grouped similar answers to obtain the image of a happy family in the students’ minds. As it

turned out, the attributes of such family include: mutual understanding, harmony, love, children, a

complete family, financial security, meaning of life (table 3). We note that in describing a happy family,

female students commonly mentioned its size and composition (“a complete family”, “a large family”, “a

family with many children”, “three children, husband, wife, two dogs”) and relationships between its

members (“a family that supports each member”, “children born into a loving, harmonious family”).

Figure 4: Attributes of a happy family in the students’ minds
Attributes of a happy family in the students’ minds
See Full Size >

countries named the following attributes of a happy family: mutual understanding and harmony

(61-65% of respondents), love (24-34% of respondents), the presence of both parents/ a complete family

(11-24% of respondents). It is interesting to note that financial security was one of the least significant

attributes of a happy family (table 3).

5. There were certain differences in the women’s ideas about a happy family. Thus, very few

young women from Austria pointed to a big family with children (3% of respondents). For women from

Russia and Kazakhstan, this attribute was rated second and third (37% and 21% respectively). Moreover,

responses by Austrian young women are characterised by a lesser frequency and diversity than the

responses of women from Russia and Kazakhstan. The latter give a greater number of descriptors of what

constitutes a happy family.

We believe that the difference in the view of children as an attribute of a happy family may be

linked to the real demographic situation in the studied countries. Thus, Austria has the lowest birth rates,

while Kazakhstan has the highest. In 2015, Austria had a total fertility rate of 1.46, Russia – 1.61 and

Kazakhstan – 2.31 (Country comparison, 2016). We note that the fertility rates in a particular country are

determined, among other things, by the social norms, which in turn shape individual need for children (Antonov 2012). Our research showed that in Austria, and in part in Russia, the social norm for having

fewer children shapes the respective low need for children (Bagirova et al. 2016). This is the reason why

the image of a happy family in these countries is not necessarily linked to having children, and

particularly – a large number of children.

6. In the course of analysing the women’s responses to the open question about what “being a

parent” means, we grouped similar answers and thus obtained an image of parenthood in the young

women’s minds. We identified two aspects of this image. On the one hand, respondents noted a parent’s

obligations towards children (being a parent means to be responsible, to look after and provide for

children); and on the other hand – they identified certain benefits to fulfilling parental obligations (selfactualising,

being happy). The most important attribute of parenthood, in the young women’s minds, is

the parents’ responsibility – this response outstripped others with a large margin (table 4).

Figure 5: Attributes of parenthood in the female students’ minds
Attributes of parenthood in the female students’ minds
See Full Size >

Our results align with researchers’ conclusions that “the work of mothering and fathering was now

endowed with profound importance. It became defined as a distinct skill that could assure the

development of character traits necessary for a successful life” (Furedi 2002). Children today are seen as

a special object of care, education and development, which requires significant investment on the parents’

part as regards time, money, emotions. Moreover, there is a growing number of books about parenting

around the world – ‘parenting manuals’, ‘parenting guides’, ‘parenting classes’, ‘parenting education’

where parents are taught what they need to do to be “good” parents. Thus, according to Google Books

Ngram viwer data, from 1970, the number of books on parenting has been growing rapidly (Google

Books Ngram viwer).

7. We saw differences in the female students’ ideas about parenting. Thus, women in Austria have

a more “serious”, rational attitude towards this phenomenon. They more commonly link parenting with

obligations – Austrian respondents more commonly cited responses referring to “accepting responsibility”

and “taking care of children” than their counterparts from other countries. They also more readily recognised a parent’s need to provide for children financially. Austrian women also demonstrated a

greater “seriousness” in their perceptions of parenthood through the realisation that parenting helps a

person to self-actualise (table 5). Yet the emotional aspect of parenting (the perception that it brings

happiness) is the least significant for these young women (just 4% of respondents mentioned this in their

questionnaires). At the same time, for women from Russia and Kazakhstan, the perception of parenting as

happiness is on a par with the attribute of looking after children. Moreover, females from Russia and

Kazakhstan have rather similar views of parenthood. It should be noted that Kazakhstani girls cited

looking after children as an attribute of parenting far less frequently than women from other countries

(table 5). This may be linked to a greater commonality of extended families in this country, which creates

the objective possibility of “delegating” some childcare duties to other family members. Thus, according

to the Kazakhstan Census, in 2009 extended families accounted for about 30% of all private households

(Households in the Republic of Kazakhstan 2011). Between the 1999 and 2009 Censuses, this indicator

rose from 22% to 30%. For comparison, data from the Russian Census for 2010 placed this indicator at no

more than 19% (Russian Census results 2010).

The identified differences could also be explained in terms of Catherine Hakim’s Preference

Theory (Hakim 2003), according to which women’s lifestyle preferences are a key fertility factor. Our

results correspond to the lifestyle preferences she identified: career-oriented, family oriented, oriented

towards combining work and family. In our view, the first could typify Austrian women, the second –

women from Kazakhstan and the third, combined lifestyle type, could describe Russians. However

confirmation of this hypothesis requires further research.


In our view, the results we obtained lend themselves to the observation that subjective ideas about

family and parenthood can be viewed as one of the determinants of future reproductive behaviour and

parenting. We discovered that to a certain extent, our results align with real demographic trends in the

studied countries. As such, targeted shaping of perceptions about family and parenting can adjust the

reproductive behaviour and the emerging demographic trends.

We suppose that one of the effective instruments for influencing these ideas could be the

implementation of education focused on reproductive intentions and behaviours. There are opportunities

for regulating reproductive behaviours of the population at every level of the education system.

Undoubtedly, the development of such educational programmes should consider country-specific sociocultural

differences that affect the prevailing parenting culture, the nature of reproductive behaviour and

the substance of parental labour. However, the development of these ideas requires further theoretical and

empirical research.

In conclusion, we note that the study of female students’ ideas about family and parenting creates

an informational foundation for more reliable assessments of a particular country’s demographic

prospects. Such studies are all the more topical given the heightened intensity of migration processes.


The article is processed as one of the outputs of the research project “Integration of the parental

labor results in Russian pension system“, supported by the Russian Foundation for Humanity, project no.

16-32-00020. This project is co-financed by Ural Federal University (Act 211 Government of the Russian

Federation, contract № 02.A03.21.0006).


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