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Men & Women Differ in how Family Communication Builds Self-esteem

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Lynne Webb has spent a decade studying college students, tracing how their sense of self is shaped by communication with their parents. Gender, she found, plays a pivotal role in the way sons and daughters translate family communication into either positive or negative self-images.

"For women, part of their self-esteem comes from the extent to which they believe they came from a normal family, "normal' defined by how they rank their family interactions in comparison to other families they know, as well as to American families in general," said Webb, communication professor in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

The more normal a young woman believed her family's interactions were, the more the family had a positive influence on her transition into adulthood.

The notion of normal, though, doesn't have much influence on young men's self-esteem, Webb explained, because men don't tend to nest power in a relationship, but rather in discourse itself.

"Men early on begin to think of themselves as independent agents," said Webb. "They don't draw their identity as much as women do from being in a social network. The discourse of parents can actually have a much more direct influence on a son's self-esteem because the notion of normalcy isn't a factor."

In recognition of her research, the Southern States Communication Association (SSCA) has
named Webb the Outstanding Gender Studies Scholar of the Year for 2001. The association, comprised of communication scholars from 15 states, ranks as the second oldest communication association in the country. She will be honored during the association's 71st Annual Convention April 4 -- 8 in Lexington, Ky.

Webb stresses that the concept of "normal" is problematic. Research teams of graduate students have spent the spring semester collecting data from UA students to find out how they define the term. A separate team is analyzing the content of four best-selling textbooks on family communication, in order to understand better the part gender plays in shaping family studies.

"Normal is a social construction," said Webb. "If you don't have extremely strange behavior going in a family, such as incest, then your vision of normal is based on what you tell each other, how you define it within the family. We found that most people think their families are in the middle, not terribly wonderful or terribly strange."

The influence parents have over children varies by the gender of the parent as well. Both male and female children expect that the mother will be an effective communicator and an affirmer.

"Mothers seem to have a negative impact on self-esteem when they fail in that expectation. But the parent driving self-esteem is the father, in terms of his discourse and his power to increase feelings of self-esteem," said Webb.

Parents might be surprised to learn that they continue to have a significant influence on their offsprings' sense of self-worth through the college years, and even through graduate school. The manner in which they communicate is a key factor in this process.

If a student comes home and says, "I'm having trouble deciding on a major," the parent might think twice before responding, "Well, you can't be a student forever."

"If parents were to say, "Relax, find the major that suits you. I had that trouble too in college,' then that young adult will feel affirmed. It wouldn't have to be the same experience, but more of an empathetic response, a recounting of their own experience," said Webb.

After earning a Ph.D. in 1980 from the University of Oregon, Webb taught at the University of Florida until 1990. She taught at the University of Memphis from 1991 until 1999, when she came to the University of Arkansas as a tenured professor.

"Lynne is always willing to help out young scholars in the profession. She's one of those people often called upon when someone in the field wants help or advice on how to succeed," said Robert Brady, chair of the department of communication.

In 1997 the SSCA presented Webb with the Outreach Award, as well as awards for Top Research Paper in 1986, 1990, and 1998. She is book editor for the Journal of Family Communication, has authored or co-authored over 30 scholarly articles and book chapters, and serves as Chair of the Women's Caucus for the National Communication Association.

---University of Arkansas

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