Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why I Don’t Believe in Children

A decade ago, the American Sociological Association created a new specialty section on the Sociology of Children (now Children and Youth). I had long been a member of the section on the Sociology of the Family, and was drawn to the new group. In fact, I served as first secretary of the section. It is a good section, and does honorable work. However, I decided that I should not continue with it, but should stick with the Family section. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that I don’t really believe in children as a sociological group. Children are, of course, real, and important, and I cherish my own kids. But sociologically speaking, children are, I believe, best understood as a subset of families. And children who are not part of families are in desperate trouble.

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.

5 comments:

ken mcintyre said...

Does the binary opposition presented by the Lockean radically free individual and the Durkheimian radically determined individual represent the only two ways to understanding the relationship between the individual and community? Certainly, Herr Hegel would suggest that this is a false and abstract opposition which must be overcome. It is quite true that practices/traditions/communities condition individuals. However, they are, in turn, constituted by individual choices.

Michael W. Kruse said...

I take a both/and approach to this one. I believe that interaction between individuals creates culture. Culture then shapes individuals. They in turn shape culture. I think it is a ongoing indivisible dynamic. (Then again, I could just be a split personality. It comes from having studied Symbolic Interationism and Demography at the same time.)

I do agree that family is the key institution in forming individuals and it should stay that way. The family is the only barrier between individual and the state. The family is the insitution most likely, most often, to have the best interest of the children at heart. Remove the family and the individuals merely become raw material for the state's purposes. I think you are right on target to emphasize the family unit. (For what its worth. **grin**)

SPorcupine said...

I think Gruntled is offering us a marsupial theory. We know the children are individuals, but we know they need a LOT of shelter, nurture, and direction. We're used to rehearsing the dilemmas involved in dependency before birth, but less used to realizing that newborns belong in a family "pouch," and it takes years and years for them to grow into their own independent kangaroos.

Notably, I think Locke did realize this. What he wrote about fathers and children is harder for us to remember. The liberty part connects to lots of ideas spinning through the culture, and if we read theory in college, it also fits our actual lives as "adolescent libertarians." The paternal duty and authority part just slips out of our minds.

Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that children could survive if their parents lost track of them at the age of two or three. He preached that and practiced it, without mentioning the church orphanages that picked up the wee ones he left behind.

Gruntled said...

I don't think that radical freedom or radical individuality are the only choices. I also don't read Durkheim as a determinist. Durkheim makes what I think is the more interesting argument that the concept of the individual emerged historically only when modern society became sufficiently complex to produce them. Yes, of course, children are born distinct critters, and have unique personalities, to boot. It is only in modern society, though, that we can think that nature -- Nature -- produces Individuals, who then contract to create society.

The actual creation of thee and me is the result of a dialectical process (where Hegel is some help). I think the family is the fulcrum in the great back-and-forth between individual and society. And the family produces BOTH.

(Good comments, everyone. Way to raise the brow.)

Michael W. Kruse said...

"I think the family is the fulcrum in the great back-and-forth between individual and society. And the family produces BOTH."

Well said! Thanks.