Saturday, October 08, 2005

Where the Action is in Family Policy

My wife and I used to work for the U.S. Department of Education. When I got the providential chance to move to Kentucky, she was able to get in on the ground floor of Kentucky’s nation-leading education reform program. Some of our Washington friends thought she was making a professional sacrifice in moving to the provinces. But as she wisely said at the time, “in education, the states are where the action is.” Washington is not the place to be to make a difference in elementary and secondary schooling in this country. She is in the right place to make a difference (proud husband plugs the Kentucky Association of School Councils).

So where do you go for the “action” to make a difference in family life?

Families are the most decentralized of institutions. Every institution affects, and is affected by, family life, but none has the decisive leverage on them. Families exist prior to all other institutions, and are, at root, independent of them.

But back to the “action.” The government can affect families. I think the government has a greater capacity to create social problems than to solve them, but it can help in the most difficult and expensive cases. In any case, it is inevitable that the government be involved in family life, if only in defining the terms of the hundred ways families interact with the property-regulating system. But in the normal life of normal families, the government is not very relevant.

Work affects families in a thousand ways. Most of us work, in part, to support our families. Work policies about childcare, health benefits, and retirement are key family policy battlegrounds. Our jobs are the biggest competitors with our families for our time. But business does not have a full “family policy,” nor should it. Business only has policy for those areas where it can’t avoid affecting families, but businesses generally, and rightly, try to avoid entanglement with families as much as possible.

Schools could have a big role in shaping families. They interact with families daily. They shape the schedules of children, and thus of parents. “Family life education” is something that family policy debaters from across the political spectrum want schools to do more of. My family life class feeds a real hunger, especially among students who are close to marriage. Yet schools, especially public schools, have shied away from all but the most clinical aspects of family life education, precisely because “family values” politics has made the moral aspects of family life too controversial for risk-averse schools.

Religious institutions have a deep stake in how well families are working, and are constitutionally suited to promoting the moral aspects of family life. Conservative religious institutions increasingly define themselves by their pro-family positions, to the point of risking cultural captivity and displacing their primary God-oriented message. This is the lesson that some of the founders of the Moral Majority drew from the absorption of their religious crusade into secular party machinery. And on the other side, mainline churches, ironically, take their cues on family life from secular social science and ideological egalitarianism as much as they do from Scripture and their religious traditions.

So what does that leave?

First and foremost, the action in family policy is in families. Most people learn most of what they know about how to make families – how to be married, raise kids, take care of parents, and relate as a family to the world – from other families. They learn from the families they were raised in, and from more-experienced peers. There are family-based family policy organizations – Marriage Savers comes to mind – which are willing to do the hard, retail work of connecting one family with another. Families will always be the most important arena for effective family policy.

But the second-most-important arena for family policy is the one you and I are in now. The soft institutions that shape the culture – the “media,” broadly construed – are important in shaping how people understand family life. I don’t think that cultural institutions make families, but they do affect how we know what we are making. An anthropological proverb that I have always found useful is, “ritual precedes doctrine.” That is, we learn to do social practices by doing them, before we learn or understand why we do them. We make families from instinct and desire and habit, and then from well-understood reasons. But the complementary proverb should be (I am making this up), “ritual without doctrine becomes taboo.” Things we do without knowing why are defenseless; they are vulnerable to cultural change, willy-nilly.

I believe that we are at a crucial moment in our society’s understanding of family life. The normal practices – marrying, raising kids, sticking together, caring for our elders – are still the accepted ritual for most Americans. But the reasons that we do these things are being criticized. Most institutions are far out of practice in explaining what is a good family, and what is a good-enough family. I don’t think we are in a culture war between just two opposing armies. But I do think we are in a cultural competition, in which right and left vie for the hearts and minds of the middle about why we have families.

The action in family policy is in how the center responds to the competing ideas lobbed at us from the wings. This, it seems to me, is a good reason for the center to blog back.


Anonymous said...

[Note to the reader of comments: the following thoughts will appear disjointed.]

I would like to add to your thoughts on education and its role in family structure.

For one, I have noticed that schools, particularly at-risk ones, have a tendency to replace what a student knows as its family. The teachers become the parents, the other students siblings. This can be a positive thing for many students, especially those who lack solid family structure after 3 p.m. Some of the students where I teach seek refuge in the building and do not want to leave - to them, the school provides a safe environment where they can grow and be nurtured. However, the obvious problem is posed when one considers that not all teachers are necessarily the best role models for students - not to mention the additional pressure this places on teachers. We end up shouldering the responsibility of parents at times - teaching responsibility, respect, how to increase self-esteem, etc. - but this makes each teacher an actual parent to about 90 students in any given year.

However, in an unrelated way, I do see the family structure improving. There have been several sociologists who have credited "our" (meaning the 25-year-old range) generation as being the one that will restore family values, but in a way that promotes egalitarian relationships and sacrifice for one's children. However, we're also one of the first generations with options for family structure. I do see that some people trash the idea of "traditional" family so as to rationalize one's choice to have a more alternative family structure. But we're the first generation where it has actually been accepted to be married without children, to have children without being married, and to be in homosexual relationships with or without childen. This is a sort of liberty that hasn't always been present before. While this could end up hurting the idea of traditional family in the long run, as people begin taking this to the extreme, I can also see it as helping. People are having childen later so as to make sure that they are settled and ready to give 100% to said children. And people are viewing children as a choice, not an obligation. This right here - having childen when one is ready, and wanting them also - will help with family values more than anything else.

Gruntled said...

I agree with adriana. My only worry is that people who wait until they are "ready" will wait too long. This is especially true for children of divorce, which the Millennial generation is well-supplied with, who are very anxious about screwing up their own marriages.