Over the past decade, the “family” has gone public. Popular opinion is clearly worried about it. Everyone seems to agree that it is changing. Politicians of both parties insist that they care about it. Legislators and lobbyists daily announce their plans to help it. Media commentators increasingly comment on it. Scholars research it. The baby boom generation, approaching age forty, has now discovered it. Corporations, worried about their future labor force, create new personnel policies in order to accommodate it. Though important exceptions exist, most people today seem to be in favor of it.
Yet what does “it” mean? In Washington today “family policy” is a term unburdened by any specific meaning. The words are simply a political Rorschach test, designed to convey whatever anyone wants them to convey. Want to help the poor? Want to cut taxes? Want to support working women? Want children to pray in school? If you do, or do not, then you want “family policy.” Similarly, “family” and “family values,” while frequently invoked, usually amount to little more than rhetorical Trojan Horses, intended to camouflage any number of special interests and hidden agendas.
The confusing, often contentless nature of the family debate certainly retards and distorts the policy-making process. But more importantly, it impoverishes our broader understanding of what may be our society’s most urgent social question.
What is to be done? Is it possible to strengthen the family as an institution as we approach the new century? Few questions in our time are as important as this one. At stake is nothing less than the kind of society we wish to be. Yet to strengthen the family, we must first strengthen and clarify the terms of our public discourse. I would like to offer, therefore, not a full-blown agenda to improve family well-being, but rather a more limited set of proposals to improve our debate on the family.
Many people, of course, will disagree with some or even most of these ideas. But perhaps these proposals can contribute to a refined conceptual framework: an analytic and normative perspective on the family that reflects widely held American values, that can help overcome the polarizations of the past decade, and that points the way toward a new consensus on the nation’s family agenda for the 1990s. Call what follows the Ten Suggestions.
Critique today’s prevailing cultural ethos of “adult individualism.” Quite simply, this ethos is harmful to family well-being. We are becoming, more than ever before, an atomized, adult-centered society in which expressive individualism—what has been called the “untrammeled self”—has become a governing cultural ideal, overshadowing and to some degree displacing other cultural norms, such as civic virtue, religious belief, and family values. At the same time, dissatisfaction with this ethos is growing in our culture—in part because modern individualism possesses a mixed record at best in what is supposedly its strength: increasing the level of overall adult happiness. It seems that our society, or at least much of it, is in fact yearning to reconnect with purposes larger than the self, particularly the family. What would help is a language and an analysis of the family to give voice to that yearning.
Analyze the family primarily through the eyes of children. Not exclusively, just primarily: child rearing, after all, is probably the family’s most important social function. Such an analytic vantage point would help avoid many of the hidden agendas that now attach themselves to the family debate. It would also help to soften—and even perhaps to inform—the inevitable clash between the needs of adult women and those of adult men.
Consider, for example, the current debate over whether single-parent families should be judged as better, worse, or “just as good as” families with two parents. If the children involved were given the choice, which would they choose, and why? Or take the example of corporate day care for sick children—a growing trend in the American workplace, widely celebrated in the media as “pro-family.” Perhaps it is. Certainly it helps the corporation: it reduces absenteeism. And it may also help parents. But is it an equally unmixed blessing for the sick child? I do not claim that we should ignore adult needs. Nor do I claim that these issues—either single-parent families or care for sick children—are simple ones. They are not. But I do claim that viewing them through the eyes of children offers an essential perspective that is frequently absent in today’s family debate.
Formulate family policy “from the inside out”—that is, from the distinctive vantage point of family functions and the family as an institution, rather than from the imperatives of broader policy or political goals. If family policy is to be worthy of the name—if it is to be different from simply ideas to help people—it must derive solely from what might be called “family business”: to marry; to bring children into the world, raising them to be healthy, productive citizens; to pass on basic social and moral values to the next generation; to care for aged parents and grandparents; and most fundamentally, to build and maintain those bonds of affection, nurturance, mutual support, and lifetime commitment that form the very definition of family life. Establishing this criterion would locate the family itself at the center of “family policy.” It would force many extraneous ideas—currently hitching a ride on the family express—to get off the train, hopefully to find their rightful destination. Less baggage and the proper passengers: that would be an enormous blessing.
Recognize that the American family dilemma is androgynous. In particular, it is not reducible to a “woman’s problem” or a “woman’s responsibility.” Thus, strengthening family life in the i990s cannot and should not mean the repeal of the past thirty years of new opportunities for women in the workplace and in public life. Just as today’s cultural ethos of individualism affects men just as much as women, so must a revived ethos of family life affect the behavior and priorities of both sexes.
Rehabilitate, for modem conditions, the “good family man.” This compliment was once widely heard in our culture—bestowed, to those deserving it, as a badge of honor. Rough translation: “He puts his family first.” Ponder the three words: good(moral values); family (purposes larger than the self); and man (a norm of masculinity). Yet today, especially within elite culture, the phrase sounds antiquated, almost embarrassing. Part of the reason, of course, is the modern gender role revolution: the “good family man” carries a lingering connotation of “sole breadwinner” and “head of the family.” Yet it is also true that contemporary American culture no longer celebrates, among its various and competing norms of masculinity, a widely shared and compelling ideal of the man who puts his family first. Since some, even much, of today’s family dilemma stems simply from male abandonment and male flight from family obligation, surely we must revive for the new century a widely shared conception of the good family man.
Stop the special-interest pleading, ubiquitous in today’s family debate, that pits the “working” family against the “traditional” family. Liberals tend to champion the former, conservatives the latter. Each side frequently twists the numbers in an attempt to define the other out of existence; each seems morally dismissive of the other; each acts as if family policy were a zero-sum game in which one family can gain only at the expense of another.
But all families deserve support, not just some. Those parents who stay at home with children are not bad, or quaint, or even unusual. Yet these parents, who deserve our praise and support, are frequently told by our culture that they are old-fashioned, outmoded, irrelevant. At the same time, working parents also deserve support—new policies from both government and employers to help them balance the demands of family and work. Any family policy, from the left or the right, that seeks to help one type of family by belittling another is simply not acceptable.
A rule of thumb: While new government programs and policies will not solve the American family dilemma, they can and should play a role in strengthening family life and, at a minimum, in ameliorating some of the negative consequences of family decline. From the right, we hear that government is the main enemy, since the state inherently erodes family autonomy. We are warned: “Look what government is doing to you!” From the left, we hear that government is the main ally, since public authority can assist families in need. We are entreated: “Look what government can do for you!” This familiar dichotomy—long the dividing line in the politics of the modern welfare state—needlessly polarizes the family debate. The issue is neither the size of government, nor some inherent quality (good or bad) of public authority, but rather the relationship of specific policies to family well-being.
Government programs should seldom, if ever, seek to replace private family functions. “Family policies” that simply facilitate the transfer of family functions to public authorities—for example, child care policies that in effect reduce parental authority and choice may be desirable on other grounds, but they can hardly be described as strengthening the family as an institution. At the same time, the tools of government can and must be used, not to replace families, but to empower them and to foster their well-being. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed that, in the long run, it is culture, not politics, that determines the health of a society. That is the conservatives’ truth. But, he added, politics can influence culture. That is the liberals’ truth.
Encourage, and in some cases require, private sector employers to recognize that their employees are also family members. Working parents, fathers as well as mothers, need new opportunities to balance work and family: family-leave options, part-time and job sharing opportunities, flexible work hours, and other family-oriented workplace policies.
Recognize that the family debate, in large part, is a debate about cultural values. Yet an influential current of opinion today, especially within elite culture, views any set of unambiguous norms with suspicion, fearing them to be oppressive and overly judgmental. This belief that norms themselves are the problem—that the best ethos regarding the family is one of moral agnosticism—is not only historically unprecedented, but is itself an important contributor to the American family dilemma. With the establishment of normlessness comes a frequent refusal among participants in the family debate to state clearly what their guiding values are. It is unhelpful when scholars assert that values do not or should not influence scholarship. If we could, in fact, somehow remove values from the family debate, there would be very little of importance left to say.
Strive for a new consensus on “family values.” Even in our pluralistic and often culturally divided society, surely there exist some broadly shared “family values” of deep social importance. And surely people interested in family policy should understand and debate these values—not in order to legislate or police them, but simply in order to know whether a proposed family policy is supportive of them or undermines them. In this spirit, I propose some beginning definitions.
We value families. The family is society’s primary institution for raising children, caring for the elderly, and passing on and developing the values of society. It is usually the source of both our greatest loves and our greatest sorrows. It is the main mediating institution between the individual and the state—the basic social unit of our culture. For these reasons, most of us see the family as our central and most enduring commitment beyond the self.
We value marriage. The marital commitment is a foundation of strong families. While divorce may be the least bad alternative for a damaged marriage, today’s high divorce rate is a troubling sign for families. We value marriage as an equal partnership, based on shared commitment, compromise, and responsibility, not domination or inequality.
We value children. We see in children our hopes for the future. While recognizing the primary responsibility of parents in child rearing, we also affirm that raising children is more than a series of private choices—it is also a social imperative that should be supported by other social institutions, by the work place, and by public policy.
We value parents. Parents are a child’s first and most influential teachers, and a child’s major providers of love, guidance, and protection. The parental role is socially invaluable and irreplaceable; it should be honored and supported by society. Parenthood is a serious responsibility that should not be entered into lightly or casually. While many divorced or widowed parents are admirably successful ones, few would deny that the duties of parenthood are best met by two parents working together in marriage. Moreover, bringing a child into the world outside of marriage, or when parents are too young or unprepared to be real parents, is almost always personally and socially harmful.
We value our elders. Caring for our elders is one of the family’s most important functions, one that should be facilitated and encouraged by other social institutions and by public policy. Moreover, we recognize the unique contributions elders can make: to the economy, to child care and teaching, and to our broader cultural life.
We value community. Institutions that make up community life—the school, the church, the synagogue, the workplace association, the service and charitable organization—are enriched by strong families. The institutions of community also enrich family life by extending our concerns beyond the family to the broader society.
We affirm basic moral values as part of the heritage we received from our parents and will develop and pass on to our children. These values of character and citizenship include honesty, respect for others and for the law, recognition of the link between effort and reward, and commitment to the benefits and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Other institutions, from schools to the media, should support and reinforce parental efforts to teach and pass on basic values.
We see the need for societal concern, reflected in public and private sector policies, that will strengthen all families, empowering them to realize and build upon the family values that form the cornerstone of our culture.
David Blankenhorn is President of the Institute for American Values in New York City. This essay is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book A New Commitment: Family Values and Family Policies in the 1990s, David Blankenhornet al., eds.