Let’s get real about American families
As the electoral season hits full throttle, more and more voices are intoning the mantra of “family values.” The Institute for American Values and its offshoot, the Council on Families in America, and other groups crusade on behalf of the supposed superiority of married-couple nuclear families, branding all other kinds of families second-rate—or worse. They are using the apparently objective language of social science to preach a sermon that we used to hear mainly in the fire-and-brimstone tones of the religious right. This quieted-down approach is having a major effect on Democratic Party and media rhetoric on family issues.
These groups pretend to speak for an overwhelming consensus of social scientists when they blame family “breakdown” —by which they mean primarily the rise of divorce and unwed parenting—for just about every social problem in the nation. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, for example, calls fatherlessness ‘the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. He writes that “it is the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women.” The somewhat more temperate David Popenoe concedes that there are many sources of social decay but insists that “the evidence is now strong that the absence of fathers from the lives of children is one of the most important causes.”
However well intentioned and appealing, most of the claims made by family values crusaders are blatantly false as well as destructive. As a sociologist, I can attest that there is absolutely no consensus among social scientists on family values, on the superiority of the heterosexual nuclear family, or on the supposed evil effects of fatherlessness. In fact, the best research and the most careful, best-regarded researchers, among them Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University, confirm that the quality of our family relationships and resources is far more important than gender or structure. The claim that intact two-parent families are inherently superior rests exclusively on the misuse of statistics and on the most elementary social science sins—portraying correlations as though they were causes, ignoring mediating factors, and treating small, overlapping differences as gross and absolute.
Take, for example, the hysteria that the family values campaign has whipped up about the “doomsday” effects of divorce. Certainly, no sociologist—no reasonable adult I can think of—would argue that divorce is a meaningless or minor event for a family. No one among the many scholars of the family who share my views would deny that some divorces unfairly serve the interests of one or both parents at the expense of their children. Still, the evidence resoundingly supports the idea that a high-conflict marriage injures children more than a divorce does. Instead of protecting children, the current assault on no-fault divorce endangers them by inviting more parental conflict, desertion, and fraud.
Moreover, research shows again and again that poverty and unemployment can more reliably predict who will marry, divorce, or commit or suffer domestic or social violence than can the best-tuned measure of values yet devised. One study conducted by University of California-Berkeley psychologist Ralph Catalano found, for example, that workers laid off from their jobs were six times more likely than employed workers to commit violent acts and that losing one’s job was a better predictor of violence than gender, marital status, mental illness, or anything else. Those who really want to shore up marriages should fight for secure jobs and a living wage instead of stigmatizing children whose parents lack both.
You don’t need to be a social scientist to know that living with married biological parents offers children no magic shield against trouble. Indeed, a recent Kaiser Permanente study of youth and violence found that 68 percent of “youth highly exposed to health and safety threats” were living in two-parent households. Poignantly, even in two-parent families, fathers were among the last people troubled teens said they would turn to for help: 44 percent said they would turn to their mothers for advice; 26 percent chose their friends; and only 10 percent picked their fathers.
Harping on the superiority of married biological parents and the evils of fatherlessness injures children and parents in a wide array of contemporary families, including the millions of children who live with gay or lesbian parents. Blankenhorn castigates lesbian couples who choose to have children for promoting “radical fatherlessness” and advocates restricting access to sperm banks and fertility services to married heterosexual couples. Popenoe claims that biological fathers make distinctive, irreplaceable contributions to their children’s welfare.
Yet here the social science record is truly uniform. Nearly three decades of research finds gay and lesbian parents to be at least as successful as heterosexuals. Dozens of studies conclude that children reared by lesbian or gay parents have no greater gender or social difficulties than other children, except for the problems caused by homophobia and discrimination. Ironically, some of the worst risks these children suffer stem from our failure to legally recognize the actual two-parent families in which many live. For example, a child whose lesbian birth mother dies often loses a second parent too, as Kristen Pearlman did in 1985 when a Florida court placed her in the custody of her grandparents rather than her surviving co-mother, Janine Ratcliffe, who had helped parent her since birth. Anyone who cares about the welfare of children should campaign to extend full marriage and custody rights to their parents rather than belittle them for lacking a father or mother.
It is time to face the irreversible historical fact that family diversity is here to stay. Of course, two good parents of whatever gender generally are better than one. But no one lives in a “general” family. Our unique, often imperfect, real families assume many shapes, sizes, and characters. Each type of family structure has characteristic strengths, vulnerabilities, and challenges, and each needs support and deserves respect. We can’t coerce or preach people into successful marital or parenting relationships, but we can help them to succeed in the ones they form. If we really care about real families, we need to do all we can as a society to foster successful family bonds in as many patterns as we can create. We need to promote—instead of divisive, self-righteous family values—inclusive, democratic, and compassionate social values.