James Q. Wilson, our most distinguished criminologist, wrote in The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, that
For a century or more, reformers tried to find ways of helping the child without hurting the family. They thought they succeeded, but all they really did was to decide that it was the individual more than the family that deserved protection. (135)
Among students of society in the broad middle of the spectrum, this may be the Great Divide: is the individual the basic unit of society, or is the family? This is a rich question, with many good arguments on both sides. For me and my house, though, I believe that families are the basic social unit. Families come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It is my conviction that at the core of all family forms (families as social structures, not any individual family) is the mother-child unit, to which any enduring society finds ways of attaching fathers.
Liberal social thought (think John Locke, not today’s left/right kind of liberalism) believes that individuals are created by nature, and they construct society. By contrast, I follow the great sociologist Emile Durkheim in thinking that individuals do not produce society, but society produces individuals. And the social unit that does the most to produce most individuals is the family.
Sometimes children are not in families. Alex Kotlowitz wrote about them in There Are No Children Here, about slum kids trying to make it without families in a community with few functioning marriages. This was not a story of the happy independence of individuals; it was a disaster story about “the other America.”
This is why I think it is such a mistake to treat marriage as just another “close relation” that individuals can choose to enter into. Why discussions of marriage and divorce which look only at the adults are so wrongheaded. And why well-meaning and politically savvy efforts to expand social welfare programs, such as health insurance, by starting with services to children taken separately from their families are risky. We enjoy many benefits from having a bias toward the equality of individuals. But an individualistic bias is most dangerous when we are talking about children, and not their families.