State of Family and Marriage Research

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Terri Carrol, a sociology professor at Bowling Green and the co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR), has a lot of interesting information to share in the article “State of the American Family” that was recently published in BGSU Magazine. But what goes unsaid in fact speaks far louder. Behind the litany of sociological observations, one gets the sense that Carrol and the researchers at the NCFMR think that the movement away from the traditional family ideal is a positive and perhaps liberating change.

“Pervasive,” “15 year aberration,” and a “nostalgic myth” are a few of the terms used to describe traditional families as exemplified in the 1950s show Leave it to Beaver. While the Cleaver family in the 1950s sitcom was certainly unique to the time period in many ways, a more traditional family model seems to be guilty by association. Far more “pervasive,” though hardly aberrant, is the primordial model of the human family consisting of a monogamous mother and father and their children — no nostalgia or myth-making necessary. After we read that only 15% of people now belong to such traditional families, Dr. Susan Brown (another BGSU sociology professor) is quoted as saying, “But the era represented by ‘Leave it to Beaver’ is long gone, reflecting rapid social, cultural, and economic changes. We have more options today. There is no longer one, uniform model of family life.” Here again the language carries an amount of implicit interpretation of the data. Changes to the normal structure of the family are called simply “options” and the existence of such options implies, in Brown’s estimation, that any prior model of family is losing its relevance.

The crucial question not being asked is this: Because there is a movement away from the traditional family structure, does that mean there ought to be? Does the fact that many modern families increasingly fail to fit into more traditional models imply that such a failure is in fact a success? We realize of course that these days, any and all “change” is something we are expected be “hopeful” about, but does that hold true for the changes observed by researchers at the NCFMR?

We can and must reflect on where our families are now (as has been done by the NCFMR) but we cannot interpret what that means without some sense of where families should be.  We can say where we are on the map, but we cannot say our location is good or bad unless we know where we are going. In the same way, we cannot begin talking about the “state of the American family” without putting thought to what a family truly is — what it ought and ought not be.

Without any sort of ideal of what the family should be, we cannot say (or imply) with any weight whether or not the current state (or states) of the family is better or worse off. However, this seldom deters us from putting blind faith in “progress.” It is a purely modern prejudice to assume that we are better off now than in the past, simply because the past is the past. We speak so often of “progress” though we have no idea where we are progressing to! Brown has told us that we have many new “options” for what the family might be, but she has not told us whether or not any of these options are good options (at least not explicitly). If we want to be able to make any qualitative statements about the “state of the family,” then we must have some criteria or ideals by which to evaluate.

We surely can agree about some things that make a family healthy and good, but we rarely find it convenient to follow such intuitions to their conclusions. We all intuit the value of commitment. For example, commitment of fathers and mothers to each other and to their children has always clearly been regarded as a good thing. Any first or second-hand experience of divorce or separation can show us that commitment belongs to the ideal family. We like families that last. We also don’t like adultery. Anyone who has been “cheated on” can say that is not a good thing. Such things may be “options,” but are they not options to be avoided?

Families should ensure the welfare of children. In fact ensuring the wellbeing of the next generation is one of the primary purposes of family. Thus we have another easy ideal with which to question the health of the modern family: does it care for children? Does it put their needs, their rights, and their welfare first? What type of family structure or parental arrangement is best for children?

Unless evidence can show that the traditional “option” of a mother and a father in a committed monogamous relationship is not ideal, why do we so hastily dilute the meaning of the word “family” to include any and every new set of circumstances? Brown asserts the validity of these options with no justification other than the fact that they are new, available, and have been  occurring in society.

Certainly, the data paints a picture of fragmentation and flux regarding family structures. We would imagine that even those 15% of families that resemble what is considered “traditional” have more than their fair share of dysfunction. Fathers and mothers have left their children and spouses, most families are divorced or broken in one way or another, and young parents are frequently underprepared for the necessary responsibility and commitment. We heartily affirm the valiant efforts of loving individuals who attempt to pick up the pieces of such unfortunate circumstances, but we do them no good by attempting to re-label their circumstances as merely “new options”.

The fact that there is infidelity in many marriages says nothing against the goodness or possibility of marital fidelity. The fact that many children grow up without a mother or a father does not mean that mothers and fathers are not the ideal parents for a child. The fact that separation, division, irresponsibility, betrayal, and selfishness break up so many families and cheat so many children out of a normal life does not mean that we should throw up our hands and calls such circumstances “options”. In fact, we must realize that the ideals of what a family could and should be are what allow us to affirm our best efforts in imperfect situations. We say such things as “he is like a father to me” or “they were the only family I ever knew” precisely because we recognize the heroic love and sacrifices that often occur in less-than-ideal situations. Either there is such a thing as an ideal family, and loving individuals in less-than-ideal situations strive to provide something like it, or there is no such thing as an ideal family, and all of our judgments, opinions, praise, criticisms, and “family and marriage research” are meaningless.

The data in the “State of the American Family” is interesting and certainly has its place in the public discourse; it tells us where we are currently at and clues us in to how we got here. However, even Dr. Wendy Manning recognizes that there is something of importance intuited in the primordial family relationship:

Everyone has a family. As the primary organizational group in our society, people are aware that healthy families are key to a healthy society. People sense intuitively that families are evolving and, therefore, are interested in our findings. 

Dr. Manning, we couldn’t agree more: everyone has a family, healthy families are key to healthy societies, and the state of the family is drastically changing. The first two observations, if taken seriously, should give us great pause in light of the third.

We are in need of frank, courageous, and honest consideration of the traditional, primordial model of the human family which the researchers at the NCFMR so readily marginalize. Let us think carefully on the nature and purpose of family, not in order to condemn best efforts of loving individuals in tough situations, but in order that we may plot a course of true progress, even if it means retracing our steps.

This article was written by BGSU Alumni, Rob Hohler and JonMarc Grodi in response to “State of the American Family” published in the BGSU Magazine.

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