Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Thoughts on Family Values

Because families are a reflection in microcosm of the social structure at large, its politics and philosophies are always subject to a state of flux. As society changes and experiences shifts on any number of levels and aspects, so too does the family as they absorb that influence and adapt accordingly. Therefore, when it comes to defining "family values" it is important to develop a pragmatic understanding and approach. Attempting to define what constitutes an "ideal" set of values for all family models is a mistake, for it fails to take into account the ever-changing nature of the social structure the family is an integral part of. Therefore, I believe family values should be receptive to change and able to adapt in a manner that best serves the well-being of society. The particular kind of receptiveness and adaptiveness depends entirely on the situations that emerge in the course of cultural evolution. Family values should reflect a commitment, but not of a dogmatic type that accepts an unchanging template and attempts to superimpose this template on cultural and social conditions to which it does not apply and only becomes a detriment to progress. Rather, family values should reflect a commitment to adapt constructively to changing social conditions. I echo the viewpoint expressed by Vera St. Erlich in her book Family in Transition, who writes "At any moment, there are various different courses of action possible, and people make decisions. Which course they will choose is dependent on subjective considerations, that is on inclinations and predispositions which evolved in earlier periods" (Erlich 394).

Furthermore, family values should be manifested in practical ways; values should not be composed merely of ephemeral rhetoric but rather should be allowing of application. People should maintain a healthy skepticism toward any attempt by popular culture to define a social demographic or institution symbolically rather than realistically or practically. Post-war capitalism fostered just such cultic symbolism in the development of the breadwinner/homemaker paradigm of the 1950s. In his discussion of the family of the 1950s, sociologist Robert Heiner rightly calls into question the popular conception of this period as being "traditional" or ideal for modern society. He writes, "The family of the 1950s - both on and off television - however, was far from traditional. It was, in fact, most unusual and, historically, almost freakish. Men returned home from the war, and a great many of the women who had been in the workforce during the war left their jobs (either willingly or not so willingly). New families were being formed at an astonishing rate, and the baby boom was under way" (Heiner, 76). The 1950s represented a sudden and pronounced shift from previous trends that were characterized by declining birth rates, increasing divorce rates, and marriage at later ages. The popular tendency on the part of many people today to implicitly assume that the 1950s family structure was representative of family life throughout the first half of the century is testament to the power of social and cultural constructions. One could argue that the sudden rise in post-war birth rates explains this current popular assumption that the 1950s was a "Golden Age" of the family, the culmination of time-tested idealized principles. After all, the "baby boomer" generation, by definition, represents a significant number of people who were socialized by the anomalous culture of the 1950s. This leads me to a consideration of functionalism. Functionalism seeks to understand society's institutions at the level of the contribution by each in enabling the smooth running of society as a whole. In light of this perspective, it is clear that the family model that emerged in the 1950s was not functional to any significant degree, since it did not survive longer than a decade and the advantages the model offered were few and short-lived.

The evangelical right-wing movement today is egregiously attempting to re-define society in dogmatic terms that blocks all form of progress and acknowledgment of shifts in social structures that necessitate adaptation. Vera St. Erlich writes what I recognize to be a critical constructionist viewpoint: "Values can be more easily recognized by looking at the reactions of people than listening to their words and slogans. If some economically backward people or groups complain about the misery of their life, that does not necessarily mean that a higher standard of living is their most cherished value. If they do not care to repair their poor homes, nor to become literate, show indolence toward hygiene and medicine and little enthusiasm to irrigation and tractors, it is evident that a high standard of living is not their most important goal. That does not mean that they do not share the common human values of a better life. But it shows that they don't want these achievements at any price" (Erlich 394, emphasis mine).

With that in mind, there are two specific shifts in the social structure and its policies that I think would help U.S. families to better live out a set of family values that is receptive to progress and a changing consciousness:

1) The United States should follow the relatively recent example of Canada and open its doors to gay marriage, accepting it as a legitimate union and a legitimate foundation upon which a family can be based. Acceptance of gay marriage represents veritable progress beyond petty discrimination based upon genitalia alone. It is also conducive to encouraging healthy, family-oriented activity rather than, for example, prostitution or unhappy and unfulfilling heterosexual marriages that result from society looking down on a person's sexual orientation and forbidding that person to marry someone of the same sex. Thus, the acceptance of gay marriage in the U.S. at large could potentially precipitate a decrease in divorce rates as individuals pursue relationships that are truly in line with their personal orientation. Consequently, children benefit not only from the increasingly rare luxury of being raised by two adults, but also by being instilled with progressive values that educate and discourage the socially detrimental homophobia that many children, from elementary grades even to high school, are often heard to express. Clifford Krauss, writing for the New York Times about Canada's dramatic social shift towards being identified as a tolerant society, attributes this progressive transformation to the fact that Canada has become a very multicultural society within the last generation, as well as to the fact that Canada enjoys a more evenly distributed government. He writes, "Increasingly, Canada has been on a social policy course pursued by many Western European and Scandinavian countries, gradually moving more out of step with the United States over the last few decades" (Krauss 68).

It is my contention that family life is greatly enhanced and benefited by the kind of cultural diversity that Canada exhibits, and this includes tolerance of same-sex marriage and may even be an issue that warrants high priority in light of its civil rights nature. The U.S. would do well to overcome its narrow-minded nationalism and follow the example of our more culturally evolved and revolutionary neighbor. To put it another way, family values should not be concerned with matters of mere reproductive ability, but with matters of more profound cultural and social import that take into consideration long-term issues, such as overpopulation, that will have an impact on future generations of families.

2) U.S. policy leaves much to be desired and improved concerning its attitude toward childcare and family leave. In the United States, child care is by and large a peripheral priority for the government, as parents are expected to bear the financial responsibility for expensive programs that are not even meeting standardized criteria for quality and adequacy. In a country where influential politicians and corporate pundits often engage in rhetoric that refers to children as "our nation's future" and "our most precious resource," it is striking to see just how much of this rhetoric is simply lip service to better enhance the success of a political platform. It is an illustrative example of Erlich's distinction between words/slogans and actions; between what people say they care deeply about and what their actions actually reveal. Applying this concept to U.S. child care and family leave policies, a comparative analysis with the policies of other countries reveals unambiguously where America's priorities lie. Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel, in an article from the journal Contexts that details the results of just such a comparative analysis, write, "Any child care program or funding system has social and political assumptions with far-reaching consequences . . . these emphases entails different national assumptions, if only implicit, about children and parents, education, teachers, peers and societies as a whole" (Clawson and Gerstel, 28-29).

Family life and the values intimately associated with it would be vastly improved and enhanced if U.S. policy engaged child care and family leave reform in a manner that does not target the poor. The current U.S. policy emphasis on subsidies for poor families and their children is inadequate to resolve issues of inequality and accessibility to quality child development. As Clawson and Gerstel point out, "Subsidy systems favor the poor, but subsidies (unlike tax breaks) depend on the level of appropriations. Congress does not appropriate enough money and, therefore, most of the children who qualify for subsidies do not receive them" (Clawson and Gerstel, 30). Besides this practical problem, there are other potentialities to consider. For example, through the government's singling-out of the poor for appropriations that rarely come to fruition, the self-fulfilling prophecy has the potential to become a significant factor, and one that ends up maintaining the status quo rather than creating a viable and practical solution to inequality. Other countries such as France and Denmark, while both different in their emphases on the importance of early education, are both representative of a better alternative than the United State's capitalistic policies. Essentially, families in the U.S. would be much better off financially and socially if the government established a combination of publicly-funded child-care for children that incorporated a preparatory educational program (as in France) and paid family leave for working parents with infants and younger children (as in Sweden).


Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel. "Caring for Our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States," Contexts (Fall/Winter 2002).

Erlich, Vera St. Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Krauss, Clifford. "Social Shift Opens Door to Gay Marriage Plan," New York Times (April 13, 2003).

The Roots of Family Problems in America

The politics of family structure and the historical trends that illuminate its current popular constructions is a field of study of particular import to sociology. The family is in many ways a microcosm of societal structures at large, a model that features a basic formulation behind all the varieties and undulations to be discerned within its manifestations. Thus, by understanding family structures and politics, one can arrive at an understanding of society and culture overall. This is because culture exerts a certain influence that family models tend to emulate on a much smaller, more diluted scale that allows for concise analysis. Although inferences to the larger, more complex nature of society from concise family structures may not represent factual or practical views of society, it does reflect perceptions and popular constructions of that social universe. These perceptions and constructions are wide-ranging and very diverse, but out of this diversity certain identifiable trends emerge over time, trends that have accelerated in the past century.

When attempting to understand the social problems associated with U.S. family life, sociologists have pointed to several key roots of these problems. There is much debate among sociologists who identify deleterious factors that have influenced American families, and these debates are often specialized depending on what aspect of social problems is being discussed. There are of course many historical factors that have contributed to the current condition of the family, and they all apply to general considerations of key roots. Among the most pronounced and significant of these influencing factors was the marked shift in gender demographics in the workplace in the 1970s. The effects of deindustrialization accounted in large part for this shift in demographics. Sociologist Robert Heiner writes, "The demand for high-paying blue-collar workers, in automobile and steel manufacturing, for example, began to shrivel; and the demand for low-paying 'pink-collar' workers, sales clerks and secretaries, for example, began to expand. With several economic recessions in the 1970s, men faced unemployment and stagnating wages. Women moved into those pink-collar jobs and into other jobs as well; and though their wages were lower, they were able to offset the declining financial situation of their families" (Heiner, 80). According to the documentary The Motherhood Manifesto, "In 1960, 70% of our families had a breadwinner who went to work everyday and a homemaker who went home and took care of the children or an elderly parent or a sick relative. That has completely changed; it's reversed."

Contrary to the popular conceptions disseminated by various corporate media relations, the gender disparity associated with "pink-collar" jobs (most notably sales clerks and secretaries, among other like vocations) does not have its roots in women's liberation and a victory for feminism on an economic level. Rather, as more and more men lost their jobs as manufacturing dwindled in the face of deindustrialization and the introduction of an increasingly high-tech workplace, many women found themselves with no other alternative but to enter the workforce. Furthermore, the prevalent breadwinner/homemaker culture of the 1950s had instilled in many women the "cult of domesticity." Economist and feminist Julie A. Matthaei writes, "Since a homemaker would enter the labor force only if her husband's income was insufficient to provide for family needs, her labor-force presence signaled his inability as head of household. Only if he earned sufficient income to provide for the family's basic commodity needs could she specialize in domestic homemaking, allowing the couple to live out clearly polarized masculine and feminine lives" (Matthaei, 121). This polarization of gender roles and cultic attitude toward female domesticity had an effect on women even as she entered the workforce in terms of what she settled for in the way of salary. On this note, Heiner remarks, "In that women demanded less in terms of salary, . . . many company owners and managers came to prefer hiring women because they were 'better adapted, cheaper, more reliable and more easily controlled' than men." (Heiner 80). The disparity in income between gender was a direct result of women being socialized to assume their role in society was homemaker (a role that men used to reinforce their social reputation of independent masculinity) and this socialization caused women to be content with a salary that did not represent the amount of work she actually performed. This in turn led to the development of "sex-typed" jobs, abstract designations that produced the gender disparity between manufacturing jobs and "pink-collar jobs" mentioned above. In her seminal American Quarterly article "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60," Barbara Welter wrote, "Somehow through this mixture of challenge and acceptance, of change and continuity, the True Woman evolved into the New Woman - a transformation as startling in its way as the abolition of slavery or the coming of the machine age. And yet the stereotype, the "mystique" if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity" (Welter, 174).

This came to represent a problematic development for family life in a number of ways. The "cult of domesticity" and the resultant development of sex-typed jobs that Matthai writes extensively about in her book An Economic History of Women in America helped the symbolism of women as homemakers to survive even as more and more women entered the workforce. According to Heiner's research, "[M]ost women working outside of the home basically have two jobs because they also do most of the housework. This undoubtedly causes stress and resentment and decreases marital satisfaction among many women. Another part of the correlation between dual-earner families and divorce is explained by the fact that a woman earning an income has greater independence and is better able to exit a failed marriage and live on her own" (Heiner, 81). Thus, the dual-earner family model represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presence of women in the workforce afford them the opportunity to leave a failed marriage and thus become independent and liberated from an out-dated model of domesticity. On the other hand, the potential for divorce has a deleterious effect primarily on families with children, not to mention the fact that most couples depend on a dual-income to maintain their financial security. The aforementioned documentary The Motherhood Manifesto brings to the forefront of the discussion how the marginalization of working mothers and the divorce rates that are sometimes associated with it has a negative impact on childcare and is correlated with the extremely high rates of child poverty. According to the film, single moms earn 34-44% less than their male counterparts. "We're the wealthiest nation on earth and we refuse to take care of our children and their families."

Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

The Motherhood Manifesto. Dir. Laura Pacheco. Perf. Mary Steenburgen. Bullfrog Films, 2006.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60." American Quarterly, 18 (1966).