NOT so many years ago, the answer was simple: A family consisted of people related by blood or marriage. Then came the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Divorce rates soared. Marriage rates fell. Although birth rates dropped, the number of out-of-wedlock births increased. The Census Bureau even created a new category - POSSLQ (Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters) - to designate the growing number of unmarried couples living together.
In 1981, the White House Conference on Families bogged down in heated debate over what "the American family" was supposed to be. More recently, a fledgling advocacy group, California Family Action, wrestled with similar semantic questions.
"They spent about six months trying to define 'the family, says Judy Pope, executive director. "They decided they couldn't say it's made up of a mother and a father and grandparents. So they defined families by their function."
Those functions include providing food, clothing, and shelter; teaching social skills; providing conditions for growth, self-esteem, and security; providing emotional support for all family members; and providing a place of comfort and respite from the stresses of daily life. "When you look at that kind of definition," she says, "it covers grandparents raising children, single parents, and unmarried partnerships."
Yet social historians and family advocates worry that this anything-goes approach threatens to devalue the word "family." As Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University, explains, "if the word 'family' includes every relationship, then you don't even have the language to focus on what anthropologists and sociologists would call the family, namely a group that contains more than one generation."
David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied the decline of the family, sees another danger.
"The whole ethic of tolerance, which is so pronounced in American culture today, has many good aspects," he says. "But it does mean that the message people have received from the culture over the years - that family and children and child-rearing and sacrifice are important - has diminished. The message passed along now is much more a do-your-own-thing message."
That and other anti-parent messages are reinforced in the media. "If you study TV shows and literature - the popular portraiture of parents in society - we've gone from a good-parent model to a bad-parent model," says Barbara Whitehead, a social historian in Amherst, Mass. "Parents have sort of lost the halo they once had. The old presumption was that most parents were trying hard and generally succeeding in meeting their economic and moral responsibilities. Today's presumption is that most parents are n
ot doing their job."
Part of that changing perception, Ms. Whitehead continues, stems from media coverage that focuses on dysfunctional families and dysfunctional parents. People lose a sense of what a good model is.
"If you look at TV, with notable exceptions such as Cosby, you find examples where parents are the problem," she says. "Instead of 'Father Knows Best,' it's 'Kids know best.' If you study 'L.A. Law,' parents are very problematic. In one episode, a child was kidnapped. Another showed a custody fight - the child was stolen from the mother by his estranged father. All of this has skewed our sense of competence and has very much affected parents' sense of their own ability."
Ms. Glendon sees another problem - what she describes as "a very strong ideological bent on the part of opinion-makers and opinion leaders to speak always in gender-neutral terms. Gender-neutrality is very desirable as a matter of fairness in public policy, but it is not helpful if you're a social scientist trying to find out what needs attention."
This "relentless" gender-neutrality, she argues, causes Americans to overlook the fact that women are still doing most of the caretaking of children, elderly people, and those who are frail. Noting that 90 percent of single-parent households are headed by women, Glendon says, "It is foolish to blind ourselves to that."