The Family and Society

If we allow the family to continue to deteriorate, so will democracy, capitalism, and freedom.

“All I am, or can be, I owe to my angel mother, ” are the famous words of the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was one of the great men of our time who truly deserves to be called great.  Surely, he was one of the most positively influential men in the history of the United States and he attributed all that he was to his upbringing.

It is my cherished belief that happiness and success start at home.  Improving  family life will promote both the well being of the individual and the betterment of the societies in which we live. To explain this thought, I would like to examine the words of Clayton Chistensen, Harvard Business Professor and author, from a commencement address he gave at Southern New Hampshire University. Christensen discussed some searching questions, the likes of which Lincoln, Washington, and other great defenders of democracy were well acquainted with. He asks; is there a situation where democracy will not work?  Yes, absolutely.  Democracy can only function in a society where most people, most of the time, voluntarily obey laws.  Otherwise, people will commit crimes much faster than a democratic legal system can handle.  Without willing compliance, there would not be enough policemen to uphold order and democracy would fail.  The same can be said of capitalism.  An advanced economy can function only if people can expect that when they sign contracts, the other party will voluntarily uphold their obligations.  Free markets only work when people willingly keep their promises.

Having explained that, Christensen then poses what I think is the question of our time, and one that makes our discussion on founding fathers and free markets pertinent to the subject at hand.  He asks, “Because democracy is possible only when most people most of the time voluntarily obey the laws, what institutions can we rely upon to inculcate this instinct amongst the American people? And how can we strengthen those institutions, so that they do this better?” (1). What institutions, indeed?  Where are citizens taught to be honest, law abiding, truthful and good? How does an entire nation come to the collective conviction that all men are created equal, that freedom, liberty and justice are for all?  It must be taught.  But who can be relied upon to teach such essential, transcending truths? Should we trust the survival of our nation’s ideals to daycare employees?  Are our children’s schoolteachers responsible for their moral conviction?  Perhaps this chore is for Sunday school instructors who in one-half hour per week should be expected to instill nobility and integrity in our youth before they arrive in executive positions and on Wall Street.

Now, I know all thoughtful parents out there bristle at these provocative suggestions. Knowing, as you do, that it is the mandate and privilege of the parent to teach good character to their own child.  But I wonder, if parenting is so important to the survival of our society, why does society look down on the woman who is “just a housewife”?  Why instead do we idolize women who are merely famous and beautiful, but who show no moral fervor? Why does society blindly praise the businessman who excels in the marketplace but neglects his family relationships? The value of the family, of parenthood and marriage, are being forgotten, it would seem.

Sure, the tired parent may be thinking, but no individual family meal is really that meaningful. Getting through a pile of laundry or doing the dishes at night, these seemingly endless tasks are usually menial at best.  No one gets a Nobel Peace Prize for wiping a tear or changing a diaper, you’re lucky if you even get a nap.  Pep talks rarely come out eloquently. Teaching moments happen subtly; change and progression are slow to bloom. Usually family vacations are a lot of hard work and family fun isn’t complete until someone is crying. It seems ironically true that every teenager goes through a phase where mom’s very presence is painful.  Being a parent is often a thankless job.  Although in an abstract way we all know the importance of family life, sometimes it is difficult to see the forest from the trees.

That being said, I would like to diverge into a discussion of sociological research and findings about the family.  Specifically, we will look at family meals and fatherlessness, since there seems to be an abundance of research on these topics. However, I feel that could accurate research be found on a multitude of other family functions, the results would be similar. The facts are these:
Children who come from homes where time is dedicated to eating family meals together have been shown to have fewer behavioral problems and higher achievement scores (2). There is a strong association between regular family meals and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, suicidal risk, and eating disorders among teens (3).

Not surprisingly, almost the complete opposite is true when the father is not present in the home.  Fatherless households have been shown to produce more children who suffer academically, have a greater tendency to commit crimes, and engage in early sexual behavior.  Not to mention that one-half of single parent, mother-headed families live below the poverty line. In fact, researchers believe that “absent or inadequate fathering is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation, and the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society,” (4 and 5).

Ironically, any child can tell you what these experts and educated sociologists have painstakingly proven, that their mother and father are the most important people in their world. A child’s wisdom makes these findings superfluous, though reassuring. Real conviction on the importance of the family comes from experience.  Those who like Lincoln have experienced home at its best can attest to the priceless value of good parenting. Perhaps raising a child is a thankless job.  Perhaps we have allowed the roles of father and mother to be trivialized and undervalued in the popular public opinion. But the facts and findings are a powerful reminder of what we are giving up when we undervalue the home.

We cannot undervalue the father, mother and home without simultaneously jeopardizing our great heritage as Americans. The family is where democracy is upheld and defended.  The family is where free markets flourish.  The family is where the conviction to value honesty and integrity and to respect other people’s rights and property are born.  The family is the guardian of freedom, including the freedom from want and the freedom to be employed which are brought to the forefront of our collective concern today.

We improve society by improving the home.

Can we do better for our children?  Can we restore honor and respect for traditional values? As I have shown, I have a lot of questions about the modern home and family in America. Despite these questions, I feel that the majority of parents are responsible, thoughtful and worthy of their charge.  Although popular culture may not accurately represent the nobility of mother and father, I praise the many educated, talented, successful women who are choosing to be at home and raise their own children.  I applaud the good men who put family first because they recognize that it’s worth the sacrifice.  This post is for you, in celebration of you, and designed to uplift you in your work, both the monumental and simple.

(1) Clayton M. Christensen, “The Importance of Asking the Right Questions” (commencement speech, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, N.H., May 16, 2009).
(2) Hofferth, S. L. “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997.” University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Center Survey, January 1999. National probability samples of American families with children ages 0-12, using time diary data from 1981 and 1997. Findings on how time use is associated with children’s well-being are reported in Hofferth, S. L. (2001). How American Children Spend Their Time. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 295-308. Also: Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. Putnam reports on the decline in dinners, using national probability samples of married couple households.
(3) Council of Economic Advisers to the President. (2000). “Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: An Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement.” Report released May 2000. Analysis of the Adolescent Health Study, using a national probability sample of adolescents and parents.
(4) Blankenhorn, D. (1995). Fatherless America: Confronting our most urgent social problem. New York: Basic Books.
(5) Popenoe, D. (1996). Life without father. New York: Free Press.


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