The heart of the matter

By , Chief editorial writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"Have You Hugged Your Kid Today?" read the yellow bumper sticker on the back of a sassy blue Honda. The sticker is a fast-selling item in many communities across the country."We've been bombarded with orders from parents and kids alike," said an official of the local youth commission in Needham, Mass. "We borrowed the idea from Chicago. With so many parents working these days, we thought it'd be a good idea to remind people about their families."

In a way, the bumper sticker is symbolic. For, in vividly simple form, it makes a point expressed in more sophisticated language by social scientist: namely, that however much families may look to outside sources -- industry, government, community institutions -- to help them cope with today's problems, solutions must basically come from within the family itself.

What makes for a "good" family?

Recommended: Default

There are as many answers as families. But some thoughtful analysts agree that successful ingredients include a strong commitment to the marriage and to the bringing up of children not only to have a sense of selfworth but of moral responsibility to the larger society. Robert Coles, the well-known Harvard child specialist, commented in an interview with U.S. News & World Report earlier this year:

"Family life has become, for a lot of people, a matter of materialism: How much does this family own, and how much can it hold on to? People are living very comfortably in the sense that they have several cars and an air-conditioning unit and a television; yet they are tearing one another's souls apart. Marrying and divorcing and marrying and divorcing. What does that say about our ethical life?"

Strongly critical of modern-day child rearing, Dr. Coles stated:

"Sensitive children see this [unethical] behavior in their parents and turn away from their roots. they drug themselves or knock themselves out with liquor or run away. They are running away from neglect and abuse by parents who are so wrapped up in their own personal trajectories that they don't offer their children some moral and spiritual vision to hold on to and to try to live up to."

Says a prominent university sociologist: "Society is trying to live without the Ten commandments. It's a great experiment but it's not working. We're operating with a large fund of desacralized values and it's therefore hard to restore the family."

This is not, however, an easy time to talk about morality, even less so Judeo-Christian morality.

With the mass media virtually ignoring most American's deeply held religious views and conveying the idea of moral pluralism, with the intellectual community by and large silent, with many Christian churches unwilling or unable to provide strong religious leadership, the subject of religioin and morality has been relegated to the background. It is given only passing, if any, mention in most discussions about the family and how to strengthen it.Yet the vast majority of Americans believe religion plays a positive role in their family life and a sizable segment (40 percent) believes family life has been harmed by a decline in religious and moral values.

In the view of Christian thinkers, it will take a reinvigoration of the nation's moral and spiritual life to reverse the widespread acceptance of sexual freedom and its devastating impact on marital life. Most needed, it is felt, is a renewed understanding of what marriage in a Judeo-Christian context is all about, a concept which has become obscured in the easygoing climate of modern society.

"Marriage has to do with one's whole understanding of the meaning of one's life," says the Rev. Elizabeth Achtemeier, author of the popular book "The Committed Marriage," "The only way you can understand yourself is not as a biological or a psychological being but as the creature of a sovereign creator. A lasting, faithful marriage cannot be constructed outside of that concept."

"Does a couple stay together only as long as both shall love?" Dr. Achtemeier asks rhetorically, replying: "That's nonsense. The only way a marriage can work is if two human beings have a total commitment to one another and in the context of their relationship to their creator and His will."

Also looking at the issue theologically, the Rev. Max Stackhouse of the Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts sees a shift in American popular thought about marriage away from the biblical idea of "covenant" to one of just "contract." "A contract you can break," says Mr. Stackhouse, "and one enters it for one's own benefit. But a covenant means we are under a higher order and have obligations not of our own making which we must live with. It has a higher purpose. Marriage requires a conception of self and a self in relationship with another human being."

While they do not speak in religious terms, many professionals dealing with family problems agree that the nation's high rate of divorce is due in part to inflated expectations of marital life, both material and emotional, and failure to work hard enough to keep a marriage together once it encounters strains. Yet it may be significant that today many young people, appalled by their parents' problems and anxious to do better, are beginning to approach marriage with more thoughtfulness. The tendency of youth to put off marriage -- the percentage of those aged 25 to 29 who have never been married has risen substantially since 1970 -- seems to bear this out.

One middle-class couple, both well educated, express concern about what they call the divorce "contagion." They see many of their friends and acquaintances opting for divorce almost because others seem to be doing it. "People have some romantic notion that each person gets everything he wants out of life," comments the husband, a professional in his early 30s. "It's all part of the 'me first' trend. TV has contributed to the idea that you walk out when something is wrong -- that you have to 'find yourself.' Too many people have unrealistic expectations -- they're living in a media dream world."

"Marriage takes work," adds his wife. "It takes a lot of compromise, compromise between what your 'dream' is and what reality is."

Much marital difficulty, social observers agree, springs from the changing attitudes about sex roles and the impact of the women's movement, which in many cases has led to wives giving less to marriage (and men not giving correspondingly more) than in previous periods of history. Currently there are some signs of change. Thus, many women now seem less inhibited by the feminist movement from choosing to stay home full time (feminists themselves insist they never intended to downgrade this choice). But with more and more women taking paid jobs their marriages often fall prey to conflicts over issues of "equality" and what men should be expected to do in the home. This has yet to sort itself out.

"As both men and women become clearer about their roles, they will go into marriage with a better understanding," says Mary Jo Bane, author of the family study "Here to Stay."

"More real communication is needed these days because of the trend to equality and higher expectation," comments sociologist John Mogey. "In a small unit like marriage both partners have to move together or there is greater and greater instability."

Marriages become especially strained when two people, by prior agreement, decide to work in different cities and maintain two households so each can pursue his or her own career. One young highly career-oriented wife, after trying such an arrangement for a year, came to the conclusion her marriage needed more than it was getting. As a result, she decided to take a job in the town where her husband worked. She explains her decision this way:

"We grew apart in that time. In a way we had to begin our marriage and our relationship all over again every time we saw each other. We're known each other a long time, but you can't count on past experience. I really want a true partnership -- not a 'you and me' marriage but an 'our' marriage and for this you have to live together. For what I'm expecting out of it just won't work with separate houses. Besides everything else, it makes it difficult to develop relations with men and women on the job and in the outside world."

If living under the same roof seems the obvious prerequisite for building a marriage, so a sense of parental responsibility is the self-evident requirement for the successful raising of children. Yet, paradoxically, the obvious has been submerged in recent years as parents have looked more and more to child development counselers, nursery school teachers, therapists, psychologists, social workers, and other experts to tell them what to do.

Significantly, however, there is an emerging rebellion against what is described as the "new class" of helping bureaucrats who have undercut parental responsibilities. Professionals provide a great deal of needed help but even many experts themselves concede that it is time to give children back to their often-intimidated parents.

"We keep telling mothers how they have failed and what they're doing wrong," says a sociologist at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. "We ought to let them be."

"The professionals have gone overboard," says a high government official. "They've convinced too many children they're aberrant."

"The professionals have done poorly," agrees another social scientist. "Even amateur parents do better."

Given so much cultural and moral confusion in recent years, it has been had for families to compete with outside influences. But it is widely agreed that parents have to establish authority and discipline in the home -- not through tyranny or preaching but through a willingness to stand firm and through their own example.

The crucial role of the family is seen, for instance, in combating the increasing use of drugs and alcohol by adolescents. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, a physician, told a government-sponsored family research forum in Washington in June that "there is no more effective antidote to youthful substance abuse [drug and alcohol problems] than parental intervention." Because of this, prevention programs at last are being designed to allow for more family involvement.

Parents, suggested Dr. Rosenthal, have to give up the popular notion of recent years that parents and child are "equal," that there should be a difference in values between the young and their parents, and that the purpose of parenthood is solely to have a personally rewarding relationship with children rather than prepare them to live as adults in the real world.

"Children will test," Dr. Rosenthal said. "They will seek more control over their own lives. They will demand freedoms before they are able to deal with them. . . . And I believe it is important that parents recognize this need for control, for limit-setting generally. . . ."

In this connection, he added, the way the parents themselves use alcohol or drugs and even medication is extremely important. "A child who grows up believing in the magical properties of chemical compounds is a poor risk to resist the circle of drug or alcohol users that exist in every school and every community," he stated.

How to foster moral and spiritual values in children at a time when society at large often seems to be flouting them is problematic. But the deterioriation of moral standards -- in sexual life as well as other areas -- disturbs parents and professionals alike. It is mostly evangelicals and such fundamentalist religious groups as the Mormons that speak out publicly on the subject. But even many in the mainstream community quietly voice concern.

"We're afraid to tell children they won't die if they wait until marriage," says one mother, a Presbyterian.

"Those who sense a commitment to values, like the churches, have to weigh in more," says sociologist Amitai Etzioni. "Liberals hesitate to speak up, while those who say 'eat, drink, and be merry' are heard loud and clear. There's a fear of being moralist."

"The family is the arena where you set examples and values and it ought to be reinstated as such," comments John Gardner, founder of Common Cause."In the last generation you could not talk about sex. Now it's hard to talk about morality. Of course we had to break out into freer ways of thinking after Vietnam but now, it seems, nothing is left standing."

Yet, Dr. Gardner says, the "contagion" of good values from one to another has an immense impact on society. In his words, "One exemplary act can affect millions of lives."

Viewed in terms of mankind's needs, the quality which many social critics feel should be nurtured in the home is a sense of responsibility toward others, toward the community, and toward the larger world in whose progress and stability the whole family of man has a stake. "We need a grand dialogue on this whole concept of 'self,' 'meaningful relations,' and 'maximizing one's own life,'" says Dr. Etzioni. "There's a feeling we went too far on all this, a retreat from the idea that 'everything goes,' but a public dialogue is not to the fore yet.

"Society needs today to strengthen its industrial capacity -- both for the nation's security and to be socially productive. This relates to families because of the need for self-discipline -- the ability to defer gratification and to weight its consequences for the community as well as self."

Tamara Hareven, the Clark University historian whose analysis of families was briefly described in the first article of this series, suggests that economic stress may force families back to a better balance between the individual and the collective and reverse the isolation in which many now find themselves. "The family is not a social unit now -- everyone is going off in a different direction and when they get together they watch TV."

Children need responsibilities, Dr. Hareven emphasizes, and if more teen-agers today were involved in, say, looking after the aged, "there would be a perfect meeting of need on both ends." With families growing smaller and people living longer, she notes, there will be a rising demand for such service.

Dr. Hareven believes, too, that revival of a practice once prevalent in American life -- the taking in of boarders -- would have a salutary effect on broadening people's outreach, as well as meeting the growing need for housing.

"I'm not saying we should interfere with the privacy of the nuclear family," Dr. Hareven says. "But it has to become more flexible and be expanded to include other people. It has to recover its ties with the community and its relationship with the outside world."

There are positive signs, meanwhile, that parents want to recover their role and responsibility. Throughout the country parents are working with parents, demanding that institutions be more sensitive to family life and help them combat trends undermining it. They are fighting for legislation to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia to young people and forcing schools to back them up with education programs. They are joining forces to improve television programs for children and to demand better schooling."There's been a resurgence of parental concern about schools and a desire to work with them," says Carl Marburger of the National Committee for Citizens in Education.

Parents in some communities are even banding together just to talk about their mutual problems -- without the presence of professional child specialists.

If America's families are in trouble, there is thus ample evidence to show they are determined to revive and endure. Some observers, in fact, believe this is the best era in history demographically for survival of the family because for the first time most people live to adulthood and children grow up knowing their two parents, each other, and their grandparents.

"There are a lot of tensions these days between rights and needs of the family and the individual," comments Dr. Achtemeier, who reared three children and earned her doctorate while pregnant. "But families have a lot of strengths and, if we can just restore a better balance between one's self-fulfillment and one's responsiblities, we'll be better off."

Speaking across the country, the Presbyterian minister says, she finds thousands of happy, lifelong, and faithful marriages, but the couples remain quiet about their satisfactions. "My message is that the time has come to speak out. The mass media are trying to convince young people it's impossible to have a happy marriage, and this is frightening. The common people have to find their voices. The nation needs to be told there is another point of view."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...