“Family Values–For Real?

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Stephanie Coontz

IN SOME WAYS, of course, the “family values” polemics of the recent election campaign were ludicrous, as one might expect from a debate over competing television images–Murphy Brown vs. Ozzie and Harriet, the Waltons vs. the Simpsons. The pitiful level of the discussion illustrates historian Alan Dawley’s comment that when Americans say “that’s history,” what they really mean is, “You can forget it.”

While liberals gleefully responded to the Republican offensive by ridiculing Dan Quayle, leftists too often dismissed the subject as a distraction, or nothing more than an attack on working women. But this response underestimates the issue’s appeal to people of good will.

You don’t have to be anti-feminist to worry about the effects on children of being in day care ten hours a day. It’s not just religious fundamentalists who find fault with a no-deposit no-return approach to interpersonal relationships. Nor do you have to be a right-wing businessman to deplore the contempt that many individuals feel for the persons and property of others. There is a moral element to the current economic and political pre<->dicament of capitalism; leftists should not ignore it.

In the 1960s, having seen how conventional morality masked racism, indifference to the poor, national chauvinism, economic injustice, maltreatment of women, and suppression of dissent, many radicals tended to herald every expression of individual defiance and every rise in cynicism as a healthy development.

It is now increasingly clear that cynicism and social alienation are not necessarily precursors to social activism. Often, they operate as fail-safe devices for the system: if mindless patriotism and faith in government don’t work, then the next best thing is the distrust, individualism, and ultimate passivity fostered by a diffuse hostility toward “the powers that be.”

Romanticizing cynicism or tolerating indifference to moral issues on grounds that they represent lack of illusion in the system is like saying that a bomb crater is lack of a building. During the 1960s and early 1970s, we knocked down the patriotic edifice built on the twin bases of McCarthyism and hypocritical family moralism, but we shouldn’t confuse the resultant holes in the ground with the new social foundations we hope to construct.

Cynicism is what’s left after people have dug up the lies they used to lean on but before they’ve filled the holes with anything else. It’s not irrational to worry that in the absence of an alternative ideological foundation and set of moral guideposts, many individuals, particularly children, may fall into those holes. That concern explains why the family values issue will not, and should not, go away.

For most Americans the issue hits home in a powerful, poignant way, and it needs to be addressed. We should admit that there are serious dilemmas involved in reconciling individual liberty with interpersonal commitments. We must say clearly that the needs of adults for independence have to balanced by the rights of children to dependence. Only then can the left construct a persuasive answer to the right wing on this question.

In doing so, it can expose people to a far more powerful, far-reaching critique of American social and economic structures than can liberals who prefer to keep the issue focused on such easy targets as Dan Quayle’s absurdities. There is a crisis of family life in modern America, and non sequiturs like accusing anyone who says so of being against working mothers will not make it go away. We need to patiently and clearly explain just what that crisis does and does not entail.

The Real Traditional Family

I’m not suggesting that progressive-minded people give an inch to the reactionary side of the debate. When it comes to the way that politicians wrap themselves in fuzzy layers of family nostalgia to disguise their threadbare social and economic policies, we need to be the first to object. Take the way Democrats reacted when right-wing nuts at the Republican National convention labeled Hillary Clinton a radical feminist who had equated the family with slavery.

They fell all over themselves pointing out that she simply wrote a mainstream, scholarly article reviewing the judicial status of children in comparison to other groups traditionally defined as dependents in legal history. They also took pains to label themselves “traditionalists,” though they allied themselves with the historic separation of church and state and argued that many different kinds of families could have traditional values.

Such an adaptation to nostalgia only feeds the right-wing sentimentalization of a fictional past. The word family did originally mean a band of slaves, and for centuries it referred to power relations rather than loved ones. Even after the term came to refer to people affiliated by blood or marriage, it was not originally confined to these. Right into the 19th century, family signified all those under the authority of the household head, including slaves or servants as well as boarders and lodgers.

Traditional Anglo-American law defined the father as the absolute ruler of his family. In colonial America, disobedience to him was conceptualized as a form of treason, potentially punishable by death. Male household heads had total rights to any money earned by their children or their wives, yet had no legal obligation to support them; they could decide their children’s education, marriage, occupation, or church membership without any consultation with the mother. A wife was a “femme couvert”–literally covered by or subsumed in her husband’s legal personality.

Most politicians who rhapsodize over “traditional” family values have broken with the real traditional family, adopting an alternative version that was pioneered in 18th-century Europe and 19th-century America by a minority of the population. This minority, largely from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, inaugurated a more sentimental definition of the term family, stressing the exclusivity of the marital-biological unit and the unique intimacy of its attachments. But there is strong historical evidence that the turn toward a more emotionally-nurturing family life was associated with a turn away from community sociability and wider same-sex friendships.

Mutual duties and personal ties that had once softened the rigidity of economic or political contracts and the relentless logic of supply-and-demand in the market were increasingly banished from these realms and displaced onto the family. In the process, people may have come to owe more to their own families, but they owed less to the community as a whole.

In recent years, even internal family solidarities and interpersonal relations have weakened, and in many cases this has led to both material and psychological hardship. There is no sense in hailing all the demographic and cultural changes of the past two decades as positive. But nor should we grant any credence to the idea that current family dilemmas are the result of abandonment of tradition. We must point out instead that many traditional family values are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Values As Traditional Obstacles

The privatism that relies on nuclear, biological bonds to ensure the well-being of children, for example, is an obstacle to solving the problem of childhood poverty now that demographic and economic trends have redistributed income away from families that have children or other dependents. In the 1950s, when almost seventy percent of the adult population had children in school, we could rely on parents’ private interests to create a pro-child bloc, in spite of government’s failure to develop a coherent social policy for children.

Today, only twenty-eight percent of the adult population has children in school. Maintaining the tradition of private responsibility for children’s issues ensures that education will be a minority interest, encouraging desperate parents to attack their problems ever more individualistically, sometimes by abandoning the public schools entirely.

Another example of a traditional cluster of values that is part of the problem rather than the solution is found in cases of incest and other forms of child sexual abuse. The sexual abuse of children is overwhelmingly a family affair, and it reproduces very old-fashioned gender and power relations. Ninety-two percent of the victims of child sexual abuse are girls; ninety-seven percent of the abusers are male. Incest tends to occur in families with strong patterns of paternal dominance and authoritarianism, along with values reinforcing the
submission of women and children.

Incestuous fathers often complain about loose sexual mores in the wider culture. Stepfathers do represent a much higher proportion of abusers than biological fathers, as the right-wing never tires of pointing out, but this merely illustrates the pathology of the traditional sexual latitude given men toward younger women and the inadequacy of the only traditional limit on such license–the tie of genetic relatedness.

Tradition, similarly, offers no solution to problems of domestic violence and sexual harassment. Men who institute violence against women tend to hold “old-fashioned” views of male prerogatives. Indeed, the traditional male function of “protecting” women contains seeds of violence against women–sometimes “for her own good” sometimes out of the frustration of not being able to extend expected protections; sometimes out of rage at a woman’s unwillingness to accept “protection” in a particular instance.

Female child batterers, while violating traditional norms of maternal patience and compassion, tend to hold very traditional values about the centrality of motherhood in women’s identity: these values often lead them to bear children they do not really want or to harbor unrealistic expectations of the fulfillment they will find in their children–expectations that lead to frustration and fury when they are not met.

No identifiable pathology or unique value system separates the rapist from the respectable married man next door. But a recent study of college men who raped and a control group who did not found some intriguing differences we can use to counter stereotypes about the strengths of “traditional” families. The families of the rapists were far more likely than those of the nonrapists to contain wives who were full-time homemakers. The fathers were usually successful career men who disappointed their children by their physical and emotional distance. Rapists were more likely to feel hostile toward these distant fathers than toward their mothers, but when they did express negative feelings about their mothers these tended to revolve around fear that the mother hindered them from achieving a separate masculine identity–a common enough problem in “traditional” families that make women exclusively responsible for childrearing and emotional bonding.

Cross-cultural research suggests that such sex identity conflicts, and the male violence that often results from them, occur much more frequently in societies that impose a strictly gendered division of labor in child-rearing and production than in societies where there is more egalitarian sharing of responsibility between men and women.

Even teenage pregnancy, which the overwhelming majority of Americans believe to result from the breakdown of traditional values, offers an opportunity to critique nostalgia about the past. Teen pregnancy is a complicated issue that requires a nuanced response. Lamentations about “children having children” give too little agency to young women, but the blithe assumption that teenage sex is all part of a liberation movement is no more realistic.

There are some serious problems associated with very early sexual activity, and especially with early pregnancy. Teenagers have a higher level of sexually transmitted diseases than other groups of the population.
Teens who give birth are more likely to have children with a variety of physical, emotional or cognitive deficits, while those who have abortions are more likely to have traumatic experiences with the abortion. Teen mothers attain lower educational levels and earn lower wages than older mothers, and early sexual activity, especially with many partners, is often associated with self-destructive behaviors and low self-esteem.

But it’s important to note that most problems with teen sex occur among very young teens. And the most striking thing about the teens most likely to become sexually active at a very young age and most likely to either impregnate a partner or become pregnant is not their “liberation” but their inhibition and ignorance about sexuality, their tenacious double standard, and their limited horizons in general.

Most sexually active youngsters are startlingly unaware of their own sexual responses and biological processes. One of the major contributors to high teen pregnancy rates is the denial of youths, to themselves
and to others, that they are sexually active. Young women in particular are likely to feel that it’s okay to be “swept away,” but that “nice girls” don’t plan for sex. For many male teens who impregnate their partners, sex is something you “get away with” or “put over” on someone rather than an act that flows naturally from an intimate relationship.

Girls who become sexually active at an early age, far from being feminist in outlook, tend to have exceptionally strong dependency needs. They are more often motivated by desire to please their male partners than by a search for their own sexual satisfaction, and frequently seem to receive very little pleasure from the sex act itself. Girls who have positive attitudes toward education and clear goals for their future are less likely to start sex before the age of sixteen and less liable to become pregnant once they become sexually active.

False And Real Answers

But having explained that many traditional family values are part of the problem facing Americans in the 1990s, not part of the solution, we have still more to contribute to discussion of this issue. We should not just subsume it under our general critique of economic or political trends. There is a crisis of American families that is analytically separate from–and in many ways sharper than–the general economic crisis in America. If we address it, we can speak to people’s legitimate concerns about morality and interpersonal stability, getting past the endless economic statistics or abstract generalizations about “the class” that frequently make leftist tracts so numbing. I understand why people want to avoid falling into a “socialism is a warm puppy” type of discourse, but surely it’s time to reclaim the traditional critique that capitalism is unable to plan for a humane future. And what is the future if not our children?

Children bear the brunt of much of the economic decline and social decay in modern America, and we need to highlight that fact more sharply. There has been an extraordinary redistribution of income in America away from children over the past two and a half decades. As declining real wages sent more wives into the workforce, two-earner families with zero to two children pulled ahead of both single-parent families and two-parent families with larger numbers of children during the 1970s and 1980s. As deindustrialization and job restructuring proceeded, it has been the youngest Americans, those most likely to have young children, who have been the hardest hit. They have experienced far sharper drops in income and job prospects than other age groups. The result is that children below the age of three constitute the fastest growing poverty group in the nation.

Economic loss for adults carries special risks for children. One study in Wisconsin found that cases of child abuse increased by an average of 123 percent in counties where the unemployment rate had risen by 3.1 percent or more; counties in which unemployment declined had reduced reports of abuse. Outside the family, the United States has seen a sharp increase in child labor law violations over the past ten years; they more than doubled between 1983 and 1989.

The growth of part-time work and of take-backs in labor contracts, such as reduction in health-care benefits, also hurts children disproportionately. Twenty-six percent of pregnant women now have no insurance coverage in the early months of their pregnancy; fifteen percent have not managed to obtain it by the time of delivery. Between eight and eleven million children in America are completely uninsured, and larger numbers go without needed medical and dental care because of inadequate coverage.

In addition to economic trends, shifts in community relations and political priorities over the past two decades had particularly severe effects on children. Politicians have given in to voters’ tax revolts by gutting children’s programs. Between 1970 and 1991, the purchasing power of the typical AFDC benefit decreased by forty-two percent, primarily as a result of state and federal funding cuts. Public and private spending on preschool, primary, and secondary education in America is now lower than in almost any other industrialized country. The government halved its spending on low-income housing between 1980 and 1990.

Children are also specially victimized by our urban crisis. Poverty, decay of the urban infrastructure, and “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill have deprived children of safe places to play or go to school. In Chicago’s central city, seventy-four percent of inner-city children have witnessed a homicide or violent assault. On top of all this has come the influx of crack cocaine, which greatly multiplies the dangers facing youth. To the thousands of children already brain-damaged by lead poisoning acquired in deteriorating homes and schools, we must add the thousands more being born to drug-addicted parents.

It is no wonder that people look at what’s happening to America’s children and see a crisis of the family. Our job is not to deny the evidence of their own eyes but to get them to enlarge their line of vision. Why should we deny that some parents are irresponsible or worse, that it’s awful for a child to be born addicted to crack, that twelve-year-old drug dealers are a symptom of something gone terribly wrong? By admitting the legitimacy of people’s concerns about these issues, we can also help put them in perspective.

There’s nothing wrong with agreeing that fathers shouldn’t be allowed to evade their child-support obligations when they can afford them, as long as we point out who the biggest evaders of child-support are in this society. If the lack of “exit rules” in marriage permits some fathers to run away from commitments they contracted, what about the lack of exit rules in the economy, which has allowed so many employers to desert the urban areas whose workers and tax breaks they used for so many years?

There’s no sense in attacking teachers who complain about families who fail to supervise their children’s school attendance or homework, so long as we raise with them the even bigger problem of a government that invests less in K-12 education than in foreign adventures such as Desert Storm. Some parents have neglected their children’s needs for their own self-centered pursuits, but few have acted as irresponsibly as the federal government, which tripled its debts during the same ten years that it halved its spending on low-income housing and permitted hunger among its people to grow by nearly fifty percent.

In my experience talking about family issues with the general public, I’ve found that once you let people express the concerns they have about individual behavior and morality, they are surprisingly willing to accept a critique of institutional behavior and “structural” immorality. The right wing may regret raising the family values issue precisely because it does speak to such pervasive concerns about commitment and morality. Once they start thinking about it, most Americans agree that our society needs more than a revival of obligation within the family.

As even a noted business writer has commented, it “desperately needs an economy based upon notions of mutual obligation and reciprocity.” People should be able to expect “that our home, our church, our kid’s school, our bank, and the place where we work will stay put.” Without such commitments in the economy and polity, family life will remain precarious no matter how many family values people embrace. It’s building such commitments that the socialist agenda is all about, and leftists should be active contributors to the current dialogue on family values, interpersonal commitments, and the needs of our society’s children.

November-December 1992, ATC 41