The perfect American child--in the minds of adults, at least--is an independent thinker and a hard worker who does not necessarily do what he or she is told to do.

Having an obedient child is less important to adults than it was a decade ago, but having a hard-working child is more so. The top-rated trait in children, now and then, is thinking for themselves.

That is the portrait painted in a broad new study from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, released today, of America's changing family life. Based on survey data from 1972 to 1998, it depicts a society that places rising pressure on children to succeed, but also grants them more power in the home.

The study was done against a backdrop of massive upheavals in everyday life--changes seen more sharply in the Washington area than in the rest of the country--that have altered the nature of childhood. People marry later than they used to, have fewer children and divorce more frequently. Most mothers now hold paying jobs.

All of that has affected the qualities people value most in children. In the 1980s, obedience ranked second and hard work ranked third. Since then, obedience has dropped and hard work has moved up, and they are now tied for second.

"People have become less traditional over time with a shift from emphasizing obedience and parent-center families to valuing autonomy for children," said the report by Tom W. Smith, the center's director. "While strictness and discipline have given way to a more liberal approach to raising and guiding children, hard work and perhaps other traditional values appear to be gaining ground."

Parents have not abandoned the idea that their children should behave, Smith said in an interview, but they now expect their children "to be self-disciplined."

They want their children to have fun, but in an orderly way--going to soccer practice, for example. But busy parents do not want children having open-ended fun--"being wild and silly and crazy," as Smith put it--perhaps because they do not have the time for the minute-by-minute supervision such behavior requires, he said.

The declining emphasis on obedience also reflects the growth of the nation's middle class, said Linda Waite, a sociologist who directs the university's Center on Parents, Children and Work. Middle-class jobs demand judgment over the ability to follow rules without objection, and middle-class parents assume that their children will hold those jobs, too, she said.

The downside is that when a child questions a parent's judgment, exhausting arguments can result. But parents seem to believe the results will be worth it.

Carley Lee, a mother of three boys who lives in Bethesda, said that when she asked her parents why, they often told her, "Because I told you so." She tries to reason with her children, hoping they will not clam up later on tough issues like sex and drugs.

"I do think it's become more and more important to develop lines of communication with your children," she said. "Parents do worry more now about being able to talk to their kids about things."

Even as people have become less strict with children, they have rising expectations for them. One reason, Smith said, is that with more women working, "work has become a more central part of both partners in the marriage." Some parents say this also reflects society's increased competitiveness.

"We expect our children to grow up a little more quickly," said Jean Watson, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and mother of a young son and daughter. "We expect them to be more mature."

Her children's lives in Burke are more structured than hers was three decades ago, she said, and she worries about over-scheduling.

"We may be burning them out," she said. "You have Girl Scouts. You have dance lessons. You have sports. Children have so little down time just to be children. There's a lot of pressure."

The survey also noted that Americans' attitudes about having children are somewhat ambivalent as well. Less than half of all households have minor children living in them, a switch from the 1980s. In a change that Smith said reflects growing tolerance for different lifestyles, most Americans now reject the idea that people without children "live empty lives"--although an overwhelming majority say children are "life's greatest joy."

In fact, when asked in 1993 what was most important to them, Americans did not list having children first, Smith noted. That ranked fourth, behind faith in God, being self-sufficient and having financial security.

The study was based mainly on data from the 1972-1998 General Social Surveys of the National Opinion Research Center. From 1972 to 1993, the survey interviewed about 1,500 adults each year; beginning in 1994, the survey interviewed nearly 3,000 every other year.

More than nine in 10 Americans also say that children do not interfere with parents' freedom--a break with many other countries. Smith said Americans know that parents must adjust their lives, but "do they really interfere? The answer is no."

"Having a child is exercising that freedom to begin with," he said. "And you can have a career and raise children; you can have caregivers during the day or the evening.

Francesca Dixon, a District resident who became a first-time mother at age 35, said people like her "have had freedom in their twenties and thirties. By the time we have children, we're not missing anything."

Children and the American Family

The dynamics of a typical American family have changed dramatically in recent decades. Americans' current attitudes toward children reveal that parents value hard work as much as obedience and do not see child-rearing as something that interferes with their freedom.Importance of traits in children (by percent)

To think for one self

'88: 50%

'98: 49%

To obey

'88: 23

'98: 18.5%

To work hard

'88: 14.5

'98: 18

To help others

'88: 12

'98: 13

To be well liked or popular

'88: 1

'98: 1

American Parents' Views of Children

Main purpose of marriage is having children

Percent disagreeing: 69.5%

People without children lead empty lives

Percent disagreeing: 53.1%

Children interfere with freedom of parents

Percent agreeing: 8.7%

People who want children should marry

Percent disagreeing: 16.3%

SOURCE: General Social Surveys of the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago and the International Social Survey Program