Getting Both Sides of the Story: The Benefits of Dyadic Interviewing in Studies of Young Adulthood
In this post, blog editor Elena van Stee is joined by Gaby Flores, Ariel Chan, and Angelica Qin to discuss their respective studies involving interviews with parent/young adult dyads. Each offers their perspective on the value of interviewing a young adult and parent from the same family, as well as practical tips for conducting a study with this dyadic design. They also discuss the benefits and challenges they faced in studies involving immigrant families, in which some parent interviews were conducted in a language other than English.
Gaby’s recent study examined relationships between low-income, first-generation Latina college students attending a Hispanic-Serving Institution and their parents. Elena’s research has examined college students’ experiences of parental support during COVID-19 campus closures and, more recently, how college graduates and their parents understand and negotiate financial (in)dependence in the post-college years. The latter involves interviews with ethnic Chinese immigrant parents conducted by research assistants Ariel Chan (Cantonese) and Angelica Qin (Mandarin).
What is the value of interviewing both young adults and their parents?
Elena van Stee: By using the dyadic approach, I sometimes got to see how a parent and child each framed the same story differently. In my current study, which looks at college graduates’ relationships with their parents around the age of 30, I often see differences in how parents and young adults frame exchanges of financial support—for example, whether the gift was construed as large or small, significant or insignificant, etc. These different portrayals of the same exchange help me understand how young people want to see themselves—for example, as self-sufficient, responsible, generous, or grateful. It enhances what Priya Fielding-Singh and Marianne Cooper call “attunement”: paying attention to what individuals omit vs. emphasize in their narratives and to whom they do and do not compare themselves. I found that attunement provides a great window into respondents’ emotion work—that is, how they respond when there’s a disconnect between how they want to feel and how they actually feel, such as when a young adult wants to feel like a competent, successful adult but actually feels like a burden to their parents.
Gaby Flores: My current study examined the relationship between low-income, first-generation Latina college students and one of their parents. By interviewing young women and one of their parents, I observed similarities and differences between participants’ opinions, decisions, behaviors, and experiences, and how they might be interdependent and/or independent from one another. I found that interviewing both a parent and child offered me a better understanding of a student’s academic, emotional, and social development than either interview could have provided alone.Authority figures such as parents and guardians strongly influence children’s development, and interviewing a parent can help the researcher understand these influences. These interviews can also help the researcher understand the parent’s own rationale for their manner of engagement in their children’s development, academically and personally. At the same time, interviewing their young adult children sheds light on how the young adult interprets their parents’ direct and indirect messaging on topics such as academics, parenting, and personal development. In sum, as Daisy V. Reyes, who also interviewed parent-young adult dyads for her work, wrote, this approach offers a window into socialization processes.
How do you decide which parent to interview? Are there benefits to interviewing parents of a particular gender?
GF: I would say it depends which dyad you are looking to explore! For example, do you want to understand father/son relationships? Or mother/daughter relationships? In my recent study, I let the young adult choose which parent they would like me to interview. This gave me insight into which parent they feel more comfortable asking to participate in a research study with them, which may well be the one to which they feel closer. I asked them directly why they chose the parent they chose and why, if they had another, they did not choose that parent. Their answers confirmed that their choices were based on relationship quality. In my study of young Latinas, 13 out of 15 chose their mothers.
EVS: I’ll echo Gaby again here—it depends on the research question! There are also practical considerations. In my research (and I know others’ as well), I’ve found that mothers are typically more willing to be interviewed. They’re also more likely to have an ongoing relationship with their young adult child.
In my first dyadic study, I chose to focus on undergraduates’ relationships with their mothers during the transition to remote instruction. I was only planning to interview a subsample of parents, and I knew mothers were likely to be both more willing to be interviewed and more involved in their children’s schooling. In my current study, however, I’m trying to recruit a roughly equal share of fathers.
As others have written, fathers are not always a useful source of information regarding household logistics and routines—mothers often oversee these domains. In fact, this is something fathers themselves have told me! For example, I’m thinking of a father who kept a running list during our interview of items to ask his wife about, such as whether their child was still on the family phone plan. Of course, the lack of knowledge itself is interesting and relevant.
Have you ever encountered discrepancies between parents’ and children’s accounts? If so, how did you respond to this?
GF: These kinds of discrepancies happen once in a while. For example, a parent might say they are involved in their child’s education while the child told me their parent was not academically involved. In such cases, I listen to each without revealing what the other participant shared. Instead, I ask a variety of follow-up questions, for example to understand how the parent understood their academic involvement. Such follow-up questions can be very illuminating. Sometimes there may be a misunderstanding or miscommunication between the parent and child.
EVS: Gaby makes a great point—sometimes apparent discrepancies between the two interviewees signal a real-life misunderstanding between them. This can be really illuminating in terms of understanding the dynamics of their relationship. As I have mentioned, differences in parents’ vs. young adults’ accounts of the same event can provide helpful insight into how each person wants to feel about the situation, as well as the image they’re hoping to project to me.
On another note, the discrepancies in participants’ accounts of when an event happened have really shown me the limits of the human mind in terms of remembering dates and chronological sequences! Of course, a lot of my interviews have been during the pandemic, which was something of a time warp for everyone.
How have you approached recruitment? Do you start with one family member, or do you recruit dyads?
EVS: I start by interviewing the young adult, and do not ask them to connect me to one of their parents for a potential interview until after the interview. This way, we’ve already established rapport and they have a better sense of what they would be asking the parent to do. This means the study includes young adults whose parents are deceased or estranged, which fits my research aims. It also enables me to include young adults whose parents are unable or unwilling to participate for a variety of other reasons—for example, some young adults in my current study have said their parents would be uncomfortable discussing finances with a stranger. It does mean that I have fewer parent interviews than young adult interviews.
GF: In my recent study, I decided to start with the young adult rather than the parent because my study focused on a single university context. This made it easier to find families in which the young adult had attended (or was currently attending) a particular Hispanic-Serving Institution in California. My flyer stated that a parent participant would be needed as well, so students were aware of this expectation when they signed up to participate. I reminded them of this expectation again during the interview. Then they would connect me with one of their parents shortly after the interview. The only case where I was unable to interview a parent, it was due to legal concerns. I still included the young adult respondent in the study.
How have you approached confidentiality?
GF: Interviewing both a parent and child from the same family may raise concerns about confidentiality on both sides. I was alerted to this dynamic when a student participant asked if I would tell their parents what they were sharing. At that point, I updated my interview plan to include a discussion of my confidentiality protocol before the start of each interview. I told my participants that I would not share anything from our conversation with the other party. I also explained that the purpose of interviewing both parents and children was to understand their respective experiences and understandings of the relationship. Parents usually told me that it didn’t matter, that everything they told me was the same as what they told their children.
EVS: Like Gaby, I promise confidentiality within every interview (following the approach outlined by Laura Hamilton in Parenting to a Degree). But confidentiality does have complications in this context. In addition to not sharing information across interviews, I do not even assume any information shared by the young adult is accurate when interviewing the parents. I also explain to parents that because of this approach they should not worry about repeating something I may already know from interviewing their child—if we’re going to talk about something, they need to bring it up first!
At the same time, I make sure each party understands that if both the parent and the child were to read my work someday, it’s possible that they could recognize one another. I’ve found that my interviewees are typically unconcerned and often laugh when I make this point, as if to say, “You think we’re going to read your dissertation?” This reaction is especially common among young adults from working-class backgrounds, who tend to think it is highly unlikely that their parents will ever encounter my future writing.
How have you described your research to parents who are less familiar with higher education and academic research?
GF: Although I found that parents were open to participating in my recent study because their children were already participants, many shared that they were still confused about what they were doing in participating in the interview. To address this, I started off by sharing my educational journey, including what led me to be a PhD student. Then I described my study and long-term goals with my degree. The parents had various questions, including about why I decided to focus on their community. I was completely honest about my intentions, namely that I felt my research could be valuable for first-generation college-going students from marginalized backgrounds. This seemed to make them more open and eager. Some parents expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to share about their experiences as parents of a first-generation college student, and the sense that they were helping their daughters and others like them by talking to me. Yet some parents still seemed to be confused about what research is and why I needed their input. Sometimes they had follow-up questions or needed me to explain the research process in a different way, which I was glad to do.
For other researchers, I would mention that it is critical to include time in your interview to explain what a research project is to parents who are not familiar with the process. So, in addition to explaining my study and the risks, benefits, time, etc., I explained how research ideas form, steps after the interview, and how I might be disseminating the findings.
Ariel Chan: It’s interesting, too, because in a recent interview a working-class Cantonese-speaking parent only asked about the purpose of the study after the interview. It seemed that she was simply happy to have a space to share about her parenting experience and relationship with her daughter—to have a space where she could talk to someone. I took this as a sign that I had met one of my goals as an interviewer: to make our conversation feel as similar to a normal conversation as possible, to create a space where the participant feels comfortable and like they are truly heard.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of multilingual dyadic interview studies? How have you approached interviewing parents in languages other than English?
GF: As a child of former immigrants from a mixed-status extended family, I am aware of the insecurities parents and students may experience in deciding to participate in my research study. Knowing this possibility, I was not specific about legal status on my flyer; rather I focused on recruiting for first-generation Latina college-going students. During the interviews, students shared with me their and/or their parents’ legal status and asked if it could hinder my project. I assured them, of course, that it would not, but that it would be helpful to me to fully understand their legal status. As a researcher, I was interested in whether their legal status affected their parent-child relationship, outlook on education, etc., or not (as suggested by “Ley de la Vida”).When it came to interviewing immigrant parents, I sensed some hesitance in participating until I described my confidentiality practices. The other dilemma was language, in that most spoke Spanish only. However, the fact that the Spanish I speak is what I learned at home seemed to put them more at ease, as most are not highly educated like my parents. While they seemed hesitant to be forthcoming at first, as the interviews continued, they went beyond answering the questions, sharing cuentos, stories. They also began asking me questions about my relationships, educational journey, and work experiences.
While language might be an issue for both the interviewer and interviewee, the focus should be on building rapport with the interviewee through measures such as introducing yourself, what research is, your research and personal goals, and most importantly, being honest. Also, as a first-generation Latina college student from a low-income background in a single-parent household, I made a personal decision as a researcher to not just extract information but offer support in return. I told all the parents and students I interviewed that they could reach out with any questions about college and post-college. While only a few have reached out, I believe it is important to share my capital with those who may need it.
EVS: My current project includes young adults from ethnic Chinese immigrant families, some of whom have parents who would not be comfortable doing an interview in English. I wanted to include immigrant families for theoretical reasons, and I knew that if English proficiency were a requirement for inclusion in the study, my sample would be skewed toward families with more resources. So, I hired two research assistants, Angelica Qin and Ariel Chan, to conduct interviews in Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively. Given the unstructured nature of qualitative interviews, we’ve gone through an extensive training process—trying to sync up our brains so that Ariel and Angelica intuitively probe for the same information that I would. This training included a lot of reading—prior research that inspired my research questions and design, as well my proposals, memos and fieldnotes from this project—as well as watching me interview and conducting their own pilot interviews in English. I’d be happy to chat about this process with anyone who is considering a similar design.
Angelica Qin: As an assistant on Elena’s project, it was very important for me to have a deep understanding of the research question, background, and design so that I would be able to—as Elena put it—“sync up” my thought processes with Elena’s and Ariel’s. Translating between two languages—and cultures—leaves a lot of room for error. A deep understanding of the project’s aims is essential for ensuring that we, as interviewers, phrase our questions in such a way that they elicit relevant information.
On that note, I think it’s important to the project not only that I speak Mandarin, but that I myself am Chinese American. I don’t purport to fully understand the experiences of Chinese American parents, but sharing their cultural background allows me to do some of that cultural translation work in a way that I probably wouldn’t be able to if I was a non-Chinese Mandarin speaker. My background and membership in Chinese American communities also help me to assist in recruiting Chinese American participants. I can access certain Chinese American networks more easily than Elena, and a shared ethnic background helps me gain potential participants’ trust. Given the underrepresentation of Chinese American families in prior research on class and parenting, I think this is really important.
AC: Those who are familiar with Annette Lareau and Jessica Calarco’s research are well aware that parenting approaches vary across social class. But it’s also apparent that this body of research has been limited in its scope, paying less attention to how social class intersects with race/ethnicity or immigration experiences. Obviously, a wealthy kid does not grow up with the same parenting as a kid living in poverty—but there are differences between the experiences of Black vs. White vs. Asian kids living in poverty, too. Elena’s study addresses this gap in the literature by taking into account the multifaceted nature of the coming of age experience for young adults with different racial/ethnic and social class backgrounds, some of whom are children of immigrants.
Conducting a trilingual study has the advantage of inviting the voices of underrepresented, minoritized individuals into the academic literature. Of course, there are challenges to conducting a study like this—there’s always the danger that researchers will misconstrue meaning because of their ignorance of the culture of the individuals in their study. For example, there might be some parent-child dynamics that seem unconventional or even contentious to readers here in the United States that parents from other countries see in a different light. We need to take into consideration that many of these parents grew up in a completely different cultural and temporal context. As an interviewer, I frequently remind myself to focus on drawing out stories from respondents, and therefore to avoid coming off as judgmental or on my high horse at any time during the interview.
Gaby Flores is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on educational inequities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Latinx sociology. Elena van Stee is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies culture and inequality, focusing on social class, families, and the transition to adulthood. Ariel Chan is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. Her research examines educational systems in times of political disruption, neighborhood social networks, and unfair organizational practices. Angelica Qin is a Project 55 Fellow at the Housing Development Fund and a recent graduate of Princeton University’s undergraduate Sociology program. Her research interests include race/ethnicity, inequality, and Asian Americans.