Valuing Families

On Monday night of orientation week, right after Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 spoke about intellectual morality 34 million Americans tuned in to watch Murphy Brown become an unwed mother. The television character faced an accidental pregnancy and a non-commital father. Her decision to have the child was haded as a maternal act of courage.

Murphy would have liked to have a wonderful companion to spend the rest of her life with and false the child. But she was not certain which of two men was the father--and didn't want to marry either prospect. In the past, unwed women were encouraged to wed if they became pregnant. Today, society recognizes that, if she chooses, Murphy Brown is capable of raising a child on her own.

Murphy Brown's saga reflects a growing trend in society away from married two-parent families. This trend, far from being thought of as harmful, is viewed as one of the signs of a very healthy larger movement away from old social taboos (divorce, step-families, unwed pregnancy, and sex) and narrow traditional family values (married two-parent families).

Many argue that Murphy Brown's situation, and many similar real-life situations, are inevitable. We can either deal with them or sweep them under a rug, leaving the Murphy Browns of the world with either social ostracization or miserable lives with Mr. Wrong. The same argument is used for supporting distribution of condoms in public schools.

But pre marital sex is generally not perceived as courageous. Murphy Brown's decision was. Her lionization in the media, and by society as a whole, sent an unmistakable signal: that a good single parent is the equivalent of two married parents.

This message should be avoided. Although two parent families are hardly free of problems, overall they do contribute to much more stable, happy children and family life. In an article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," in the April 1993 Atlantic Monthly, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead" writes:

"After decades of public dispute about so-called family diversity, the evidence from social science research is coming in: The dissolution of two-parent families, though it may benefit the adults involved, is harmful to many children, and dramatically undermines our society... Children in single-parent or step-parent families are more likely than children in intact families to be poor, to drop out of school, to have trouble with the law--to do worse, in short, by most definitions of well-being."

As disheartening as it is to admit that Quayle is ever right, in this case, he is. We should not engage in moral relativity, assuming that all parental decisions are equal. Our society has a clear interest in emphasizing that two-parent families are much less dysfunctional than single-parent families and stepparent families. We should stop believing that parents' choices do not affect their children.

One root of this value-neutrality might be society's unwillingness to admit that the trend toward single-parent and step-parent families is harmful. We tend to respect parents' free choice in decisions about marriage--decisions that, in many cases, benefit the parent. When people divorce, they gain expanded freedom and escape from unhappy marriage. When they remarry, they gain added companionship and further economic stability. When they choose not to marry at all, they maintain their freedom to live as they choose. But this happiness too often comes at the children's expense. "The amount of deviant behavior in society has increased beyond the levels the community can afford to recognize," claims Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In addition, parenting seems to be losing much of its force. Motherhood is no longer the first priority of many women, and increasingly fatherhood is not of paramount importance to men. According to one survey, in 1976 fewer than half as many fathers as in 1957 said that providing for children was one of their life goals.

For women, the de-emphasis of family has provided previously untasted freedoms in career and personal lives. This is certainly a good and very late-coming change. But the general devaluation of family life, a phenomenon that cuts across gender, goes beyond the question of women's freedom of choice; it displays a disturbing societal prioritization of sex, career and money above family.

What can be done? In the realm of public policy, ideas have been proposed to financially assist single mothers. The Family Support Act of 1988 requires states to impose legal child support obligations on an increasing number of fathers, and to force a greater percentage of those fathers to meet their obligations. Many support even more stringent regulations.

Policymakers can also seek to ensure the child's best interest in case of divorce. Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon has proposed a "children first" principle in divorce. Judges would first determine the best possible package of benefits and services for the children before dividing other marital assets or determining alimony.

In addition to helping single-parent families, public policy can help reduce the number of single-parent families. A two-tier system of divorce law would make marriages with minor children harder to dissolve. The welfare system could be changed to eliminate its marriage disincentives.

The "family values" slogan Republicans used at their last convention does not really advance the cause of family. Speakers such as Patrick Buchanan, who has allegedly made anti-gay and anti-Semitic comments, and Pat Robertson,, who carries the flag of the religious right, deflected the real issues. "Family values" were perceived as a shallow ploy to appeal to voters. The phrase became detached from its original meaning and was associated instead with homophobia and bigotry.

Americans need to dismiss the rhetoric of family values and begin once again to value families. We should reach beyond the partisan bickering and public policy squabbles to address the root problem. Viewing family as a noble endeavor, giving parents the respect we so easily dole out to athletes and actors, would rebuild the institution of family--the two-parent family.