The Two-Parent Family and Current Taboos

YOU would think that the intact, two-parent family would have lots of champions and that its advocates would not have to worry about being pilloried. Wrong. Social historian Barbara Defoe Whitehead has found this out twice - the hard way.

The first time was last year when an opinion piece she wrote about Murphy Brown and the media romanticization of single parenting found its way into a packet of media clips used for preparing Dan Quayle's now-famous speech on the breakdown of the family. Mr. Quayle, and, indirectly, Ms. Whitehead, were ridiculed.

Four months ago, Whitehead stood up to take a few lumps on her own.

She wrote a long cover story for The Atlantic magazine, which the editors (to her discomfort) titled "Dan Quayle Was Right." Since its publication, the article has stimulated more letters to The Atlantic than any article in three decades, and perhaps in its history. Most attacked Whitehead.

What Whitehead (a Democrat) did was swim against a tide of some comfortable academic assumptions that the growing diversity of types of families is good for our culture, that what this country needs isn't better marriages but more amenable divorces, and that, all in all, the kids are all right - and that whatever does ail them, government programs can fix.

In clear, disturbing prose, Whitehead reviewed the growing body of social-scientific evidence now rolling in, and the story is grim.

In the post-World War II generation, more than 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents who were married to each other; by 1980, only half could expect to spend their entire childhood in an intact family.

"If current trends continue," she wrote, "less than half of all children today will live continuously with their mother and father throughout childhood. Most American children will spend several years in a single-mother family."

Whitehead believes that many single parents raise successful, happy children; but in her view, such children are the exception.

Children in single-parent families are 6 times as likely to be poor; 2 to 3 times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. More than 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes.

What was especially effective about her article was her description of the moldering values behind the statistics.

In 1976, less than half as many fathers as in 1957 said that providing for their children was a life goal; less than half of all adult Americans today regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue.

Whitehead pointed to "an uncomfortable and generally unacknowledged fact: What contributes to a parent's happiness may detract from a child's happiness."

Many of the negative letters were from teenage parents who said, in effect, "I have chosen this lifestyle, and you're making it sound worse than it is."

As Whitehead points out, we should not entirely trust teenagers' views; older single parents offered a different, more pessimistic description of single parenting.

After The Atlantic article, several newspaper columnists countered that "Dan Quayle is still wrong." And much of the academic community was not impressed, including professors at the University of Chicago, where Whitehead received her doctorate. She was pilloried at academic conferences.

The reaction to Whitehead's article was, however, balanced somewhat, by the letters of praise Whitehead received from teachers, family court judges, pediatricians, and older single mothers.

"One might assume that single mothers would be highly critical, but their view - at least among the older ones - was that the media doesn't do a good enough job telling how difficult it is for them and their children," says Whitehead.

The most poignant letters were from adult children of divorce. Letter after letter offered variations of this sentence: "It's been 15 years, but I can still close my eyes and see Dad in the doorway saying, `I've fallen in love with another woman and I'll be leaving your mother.' "

Veteran teachers wrote Whitehead about the troubling changes they have witnessed in their classrooms, especially the emotional neediness of children and increasing disciplinary problems with young boys, which teachers attribute largely to family disruption.

The astonishing thing is how taboo the topic of family disruption has become. As Whitehead writes, for nearly two decades "the policy and research communities backed away from the entire issue.

In 1980 the Carter administration convened a historic White House conference on families, designed to address the growing problems of children and families.... The result was a prolonged, publicly sub-sidized quarrel over the definition of `family.' "

Currently, the academic and policy-making communities view family breakup, according to Whitehead, as "an inevitable feature of American life, and anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in nostalgia or trying to turn back the clock."

But if we fail to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and the declining well-being of children, she adds, "then it will be increasingly difficult to improve children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds.... Worse, we may contribute to the problem by pursuing policies that actually increase family instability and breakup."

The dominant view in popular media and academic circles today continues to be that diversity of family types is a sign of progress; the facts suggest otherwise.

In some quarters, Barbara Whitehead is being pilloried for simply suggesting that the emperor and his ex-wife have no clothes.

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