(An excerpt from Why Do I Love These People?,
for everyone who thinks family is in rapid decline)
So much of our disappointment and
frustration with family is a function of our expectation. We have a
tendency to idealize certain notions of family. This by itself isnt
bad, because its good to aspire. But when we come to expect the
ideal, and we assume the ideal is prevalent, were quickly let down by
our reality. We feel cheated and resentful and often give up when
our experience is actually fairly representative.
In the same way, we generate
excessive tension by worrying whether our experience is abnormal. We beat
ourselves up because we worry were falling short of the ideal, or we
fear weve lost something essential that prior generations had. Im
not talking about the public debate angle, here how one television
pundit beats up some other pundits vision of family. Im talking
about how we do it to ourselves how we load ourselves up with guilt
and consternation to the point of being frazzled, so much so that we
are unable to enjoy our experience.
Lets consider some of the
fears that come from comparing ourselves to presumed sociological
stepfamilies and alternative families are a new phenomenon to
we have lost the traditional nuclear family
we have lost stability in general
divorces are so common
the elderly are neglected
we dont spend as much time with our kids
children are exposed to too much these days
These are real issues in
some families, but as a society we are doing much better on these counts
than we give ourselves credit for.
For instance, a much higher
percentage of children lived in stepfamilies during the Colonial period of
the United States than do today. Parents died young and remarried
continuously. In late 17th century Virginia, fully half of all
children would lose at least one parent by the time they were thirteen.
Almost half of those would lose the other parent as well and be orphaned.
Households have always been mixed and complicated affairs. Throughout the
18th and 19th centuries, it was common to take in
orphans as wards and to share the house with boarders. Sharing a house
with another family was common a hundred years ago. Living with mom and
grandma was routine in the late 1800s for African-Americans and
Mexican-Americans because adult male mortality was so high. Today, were
prone to thinking adoptions are the new way to build a family. Actually,
the number of adoptions is not rising it has only held steady, during
some decades when the overall family population has surged. The result:
the percentage of U.S. families who adopt has dropped almost by half since
1973. In the U.K., adoptions were four times more popular just thirty
years ago. Alternative family arrangements are indeed common today but
theyre not new. They have always been prevalent.
In fact, the so-called
traditional family may never have been a majority, even in the 1950s
and 1960s, the supposed golden age for family. If you define a traditional
family as male-breadwinner/mother-homemaker, then even in the peak year of
1960, over 40% of all U.S. children were being raised in
non-traditional families. If you add to that definition the standard
that the children were from both parents first (and only) marriage,
then never have a majority of children lived in a traditional
family. In fact, when young families starting moving to the suburbs in the
1950s, it was controversial. Many sociologists decried that it was
breaking the extended family apart as the older generations were left
behind in the cities. It was considered unwise to be having so many
babies, reversing a 300-year-long trend to bear fewer children. In other
words, the golden age for family was not considered so golden at the time.
Now, for the commonality of
divorce. Never has a single statistic been so overly relied upon to
indicate what is going on. Marital disintegration is traumatic to children
and families, but divorce is only one measure of disintegration. So are
death and desertion. Desertion was a huge problem a hundred years ago. Men
simply left their families. They didnt bother to get a divorce, or they
couldnt. Separation also didnt show up in the divorce statistics. In
the late 1940s, for instance, the divorce rate spiked. There was one
divorce for every four marriages unheard of. But for every divorced
family there were 1.5 separated families. So actual marital disintegration
was much higher than the divorce rate captured. Marriages were never as
stable as we imagine they used to be. Just because divorce was uncommon
doesnt mean kids didnt have to endure instability. A hundred years
ago, a third of all U.S. children lived in a single-parent family by their
mid-teens, whether the missing parents had died, or deserted them, or
laws on divorce have changed so significantly that any measure of the
historical divorce rate is just not apples to apples. Divorces were
uncommon because they were hard to get. The sudden rise in divorce in the
1970s stemmed from a change in its legal availability, not a sudden and
drastic change in the level of marital unhappiness.
divorce is often criticized for being the easy way out. For many women,
thats a blatantly unfair smear. Consider that in the U.K., it is
estimated that one in every three divorces involve domestic violence. In
Canada, half of divorced women have been victims of abuse. Is that just
poor people? Even in middle-class marriages in the U.S., violence is cited
in over twenty percent of divorces. If you were to add to that all the
divorces due to chronic infidelity and alcohol abuse, youve got a huge
chunk of divorces that should be cheered, not criticized. For many,
divorce is not the problem, its the solution that brings a better day.
Thankfully people have the right today to leave terrible marriages.
Shaming them is misguided.
Do we want stability? Of course.
Do we want long, happy marriages? Absolutely. But good marriages are not
measured by the divorce statistics. Just because people stayed married
didnt mean the marriage was any good, or that it was a healthy
environment for children.
Kids are not being shortchanged
today to the extent we fear. Yes, far more children are in child care as
both parents work and the work hours are longer. But sociologists
conduct time-use studies in which parents keep diaries recording how they
spent their day. Theyve been doing these studies since 1915. It turns
out that while moms used to supervise their children all day, they
werent necessarily interacting with their children. They were doing
chores or cooking while little Timmy ran around with his siblings or
played next door. Heres the kicker: parents spend slightly more
hours directly interacting with their children today than any other decade
thats been studied. This is true in the U.S. and the U.K. and just
about everywhere. You might wonder how this is possible. Well, we sleep
less, and we do less housework. And, I suppose, we dont just let kids
run around. We engage them.
Certainly, children are exposed
to a lot of potentially bad influences. But if you are prone to panic over
this, you have simply joined a club that has existed for hundreds of
years. People have always panicked over this. I found an article in the
1875 New York Times decrying our inability to protect children from
the perilous circumstances to which they were constantly surrounded. I
have magazines cover stories from every decade in between, wailing over
this same concern.
The true history of childhood is
brutal and unmerciful. Kiss the ground on which your children live today.
In 1851, there were four million children in England under the age of
twelve. According to the census, one in five lived on the streets as an
urchin. Then a place was found for them: factories. In 1873, there were
120,000 children working in factories around New York. Twenty percent of a
working-class familys income was earned by children under the age of
fifteen. At the turn of the century, the New York City branch of the
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took in 15,000 children
in one year alone. The further back in history you look, the worse it
1920, only sixteen percent of children graduated high school. Today, 84
percent of children graduate high school. The legal notion that children
have emotional and developmental needs is not that old. In the mid-1800s,
legal briefs argued that children were not merely chattel. In 1925, the
phrase the best interests of the child was coined by a judge in the
New York courts. But the full notion of that idea was not accepted by the
Supreme Court until 1968.
There are two schools of thought
over what role a family plays in preparing a child for the world. They are
similar to the old arguments over the nature of man (before civilization)
between the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and
the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau believed that early mans experience was idyllic before it
became corrupted by modern stresses. Hobbes believed that early mans
experience was nasty, brutish, and short. Thus, a family adhering to the
Rousseau philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by
creating a safe haven from judgment and antagonism. A family adhering to
the Hobbes philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by being
a representative microcosm of what is to come. You can expose your
children to too much, but you can also shield them too much.
Ever since the Victorian era,
families have wanted to create Rousseau-style childhoods. But they kept
turning darkly Hobbesian.
In fact, most of the statistics
that make our society look so bad are actually indicators of emerging good
things that women and children have rights, that we value some privacy
and independence, and that we hold the quality of marriages to a higher
Weve got it pretty good. The
golden era for family is not in our past, its in our future.
We need to appreciate how the
radically changing world has forced families to adapt. People used to
respect their elders, but it wasnt just for their sage philosophy about
life. Elders used to have very valuable practical knowhow. They could tell
you when to plant your crops and how to build a cabin and how to sew a
sweater. You listened to them because you needed to. For the last 150
years, every generation has grown up in a newly minted world. My
grandmother cant fix the wireless card in my laptop. Weve had to
find new reasons to hang on to our relationships, and largely, we have.
Its a miracle how well weve held together, considering all the
changes thrown at us.
Im generally not a believer
in statistics because they can be so easily manipulated. For instance, we
hear that children are terribly overscheduled, that they are rushed from
their tutor to soccer practice to their violin lesson. But we also hear
the children watch way too much television, slumped on the couch. So which
is it? It cant be both. We also hear that more and more African
American babies are born out of wedlock. Well, the chance that an
unmarried black woman under the age of 24 would have a baby is no higher
today than in the late 1960s. Whats happened is that African-American
married couples are having fewer children, so the out-of-wedlock babies
are a higher proportion of the total a problem, but not a bigger
Then theres the dire news
about marriage, the general conclusion being that todays generation has
delayed marriage so long that many will never marry. Is that true?
Consider the group of women who will turn forty in 2006. About 71% of them
had married by age 30. Somewhere around 83% of them had married by age 35.
And two years ago, a census report projected that 92% would marry at some
point in their lives. Even if the actual results fall short of that
projection, that hardly sounds like doom and gloom for the family.
Why am I bothering to clarify
all these numbers? Well, because the-Family-is-in-trouble spin is
destroying our confidence that we can have decent families. We are letting
myths destroy hope. When I talk to young adults in their twenties, its
amazing how many of them are scared of starting a family. Its not just
those who had a bad experience with the shellfish. A remarkable proportion
of those who dont want to have children are educated,
soon-to-be-successful, and their own parents are still married. They hear
the doomsday reportage, and they believe it. Why bring another child
into this world? they ask.
Instead, they declare that their
friends are their family. By this they really mean that their friends are
their extended family. As everyone knows, having family a mile away
is a lot different than having them in the next room. In my research, I
found that when people tried to take it to the next level of commitment
for instance buying a house with friends the relationship changes
under that constant pressure and close contact. Or maybe curdles is
a better word for what happens. The great thing about friendship is its
fluidity and non-exclusiveness. You can float among your friends as you
see fit, and you can always be supportive. When you move in together
theres a tendency to be more demanding and to start controlling each
other hey, you gotta wash your dishes! You start acting like
capital-F Family again, with the peculiar set of problems resident to
interdependence and sharing a bathroom. Its a bit like weeding
dandelions. I thought I got rid of my family! Now my problems are back!
Just because you are not biologically related doesnt make family
dynamics go away. In fact, the biological/non-biological distinction we
draw is absurd. Im not biologically related to my wife. She was a
complete stranger the day I met her at a baseball game. Then she became a
friend. Marrying her hasnt made our problems go away.
Should we all rush to create
families? Please, no! But we shouldnt be so terrified of making that
leap. Its easy to fall into the trap of wondering if were fully
ready. Most changes in life happen without waiting for anyone to be ready.
Life is asking us to rise to the occasion.
other words, if you think of yourself as even close to ready,
thats more of a head start than most get.