Who They Are & What They Want
There is no single definition of family in the 21st century. That said, research shows most families want similar things from their experience.
Who Are Our Family Audiences?
There is no single definition of family in the 21st century. The term "family" encompasses a range of possibilities: blended families, single-parent families, self-appointed families, gay grandparents, nannies, caregivers, and so on. For our purposes, we follow a simple definition espoused by researcher Lynn D. Dierking:
Two or more people in a multigenerational group that has an on-going relationship; they may be biologically related but not necessarily. In fact, the general rule is that if a group defines itself as a family, they are one." 
What does that mean for developing family programs? Design for access and flexibility and give your facilitators the agency to adapt as necessary.
Today's families are diverse and undefinable. Our program design and facilitation must take that into consideration.
What Families Want: The Family Agenda
I don't care whether I'm from Afghanistan, Turkey, or Northern Denmark, if I have children I want to support the needs of my children...So it doesn't matter what my social class is. It does matter whether I perceive that this is an institution that can meet those needs."
John H. Falk. "Motivation and Learning Styles." 27:40.
As John Falk implies above, families, whatever their makeup, have common needs and desires. Falk argues for supporting the needs of their children. Researchers have found several other consistent goals for use of community institutions, such as museums and libraries:
- "Many families...anticipate that there will be fun and entertaining things for everyone in their group to see and do." 
- "Because museums are considered by many people to be learning institutions, many parents view a...visit as an opportunity to expose their children to history, science, and the arts." 
- Social interaction
- Caregivers value "meaningful social experiences and that they use their time...to build shared memories and develop meaningful relationships." 
- Spending quality time with each other
Some combination of these goals make up the family agenda for most multigenerational groups. In fact, some researchers believe that "the motivations to learn, interact socially, and enjoy themselves are so intricately intertwined, that they essentially make up one agenda and it is not a question of either-or." Whatever their goals, family agendas "have been shown to directly influence what families do and how they act during their visit, as well as what benefits they take away." 
As institutions, we must be able to respond effectively to these agendas. As Beth Fredericks of the Boston Children's Museum reminds us, "not all families are going to react to [a] project or [a] program in the same way. It just can't happen."
In order meet the family where they are, we must get to know the families that make up our audience. Talk to them; share your ideas; ask what they want (learn more in our Evaluation section). It's easy to sit around a table as professionals and design a program around what we find interesting or what we think is important. But really we should be designing experiences around what the family audience wants, their interests, needs, and what will be relevant to them.
This is especially true in the 21st century as families struggle to find family time and take full advantage of those opportunities. Here's what Beverly Sheppard and Heather Nielsen have to say:
"Think of the family as a coordinated hunter-gatherer team..."
As Beverly Sheppard explains, if you design your program around a family's agenda and goals, you can send them on an exciting hunting and gathering spree for knowledge and new experiences, while awakening their curiosity.
Getting to Know Your Family Audience: Further Resources
Though it's important to have demographic information, museum researcher John H. Falk cautions that it is not a visitor's demographics so much as one's physical or socio-cultural context that informs his or her museum "identity" on any given day. In this video, Falk examines 5 "identities" and how they influence visitors' motivations. Knowing this can help us better customize our programming.
Moms, Older Male Caregivers, and Museums
Reach Advisors is a survey and data-driven research organization that has made great strides in helping us understand the ever-changing 21st-century family. Here's what they learned about
It is also important to understand your community from which many of your families visit. Getting to know the community will help identify potential family audiences and might spark some ideas of ways to reach families near you.
There are several national and local institutions that offer insights into families in your community. Here are a few:
- Pew Research on the American Family Today
- The US Census Bureau
- The US Department of Education, Data & Research
Some localities also offer specific data on their constituencies, including race, ethnicity, education, economic status, and language. For example, this Massachusetts website has compiled such information for each community. A quick Google search for your area should yield similar data.
1. Lynn Dierking. "Family Learning: Laughing and Learning Together." www.engagefamilies.org. Web. 11 April 2016.
3 & 4. Marianna Adams, et al., "What We Do and Do Not Know about Family Learning in Art Museum Interactive Spaces: A Literature Review," Family Learning in Interactive Galleries (FLING), www.familiesinartmuseum.org, 2010, 4. This comprehensive review, circa 2010, covers the changing definitions of family, facilitation, audience motivations, social interaction, audience goals and values, parent behaviors, as well as describing the life-cycle of a family’s visit to a museum.
7. Adams, 4. See also Dilenschneider, Colleen. "Data Reveals the Best Thing about Visiting a Cultural Organization." Know Your Own Bone Blog. Web. 11 November 2015.
8. Adams, 4.