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).

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