Learning health attitudes and behaviour
An important aspect of the family is the raising of children; indeed, many people would argue that this is what a family is for. This means not only children’s physical care but also their ‘socialisation’. This term is sometimes used to describe how people learn to interact in ways that are typical for the community in which they live, or the ‘social norms’. Social norms are shared patterns of behaviour which are widely accepted as ‘the right way to do things’. Through the process of socialisation, people learn the informal ‘rules’ that make it possible for us to live in society. Different societies, of course, have different expectations about behaviour, but the process of socialisation occurs in all societies.
Building on the work of the eminent American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), socialisation is often described as being divided into three stages:
This section is mainly concerned with the first of these stages, primary socialisation. In particular, the focus is on how social norms within a family might affect health. Eating habits, which are often central to both family life and health, are used here to illustrate this relationship between families and health.
Across Europe, the social norm is that women are more likely than men to do the family shopping and prepare the food (European Food Information Council, 2012). As children learn these social norms about who does the shopping and cooking, this will have an impact on their future health. The European Food Information Council (2012) also reported that women generally eat more healthily than men, and that men eat more healthily when they are in a relationship with a woman. This social pattern is reflected in findings by the UK Food Standards Agency (Department of Health, 2003) that many men were not confident about meal preparation and were less aware than women of healthy eating messages. It could be argued that young boys grow up to understand that a concern for healthy eating is simply not part of being a man. They observe the gendered nature of food shopping and consumption in their family and reproduce parental behaviours in their adult lives.