Anyone meeting Matthew Daniels for the first time could easily assume that he is the product of a conventional, even privileged childhood. With his well-spoken manner, his Ivy League education, and his business card reading "President, Massachusetts Family Institute," Mr. Daniels is the picture of youthful American success.
But Daniels can tell a story that refutes those assumptions about his childhood. His father abandoned the family when he was 2. His mother took a job as a secretary. But on her way home one evening she was mugged, sustaining injuries that eventually left her unable to work. The family went on welfare.
Growing up in New York's Spanish Harlem, Daniels was one of only four white students until ninth grade. Despite a difficult environment, he stayed out of trouble. He even won a full scholarship to Dartmouth College, graduating in 1985.
How did he do it? He credits his mother's religious faith. "It's why I didn't end up like the guys in my neighborhood," he says. "Some went to prison." Although his father, a writer, didn't support the family, he maintained contact with his son, emphasizing the importance of books and education.
Because of his experience ("It was miserable, period"), Daniels has become a passionate advocate of the two-parent family. He sees it as an institution under cultural siege, generally supported by "the person in the street" but too often dismissed by those in academic and media circles.
Some of these groups, he says, have miscalculated the social consequences of "trying to convince people that there are all sorts of 'alternative' family forms." Even during law school, he encountered professors who were "openly hostile to the idea that we need two-parent families to have a healthy society."
Reporters and academics may not be the only ones ambivalent about marriage. A new study of college textbooks finds that many texts on marriage paint a pessimistic view. They emphasize divorce and domestic violence, the report says, and focus far more on adult relationships and problems than on children's needs.
Norval Glenn, a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, analyzed 20 social-science textbooks, published between 1994 and 1996, that include "marriage" or "family" in the title or subtitle. These books, the report states, "repeatedly suggest that marriage is more a problem than a solution." The study, released last week, is published by the Council on Families, a bi-partisan group of family authorities at the Institute for American Values in New York.
Critics of the report argue that publishers must acknowledge the realities of many students' lives in one-parent homes.
What will change the cultural environment? Daniels, whose bipartisan institute advocates public policies to help the two-parent family, would like to see religious, business, and community leaders "start to beat the drum" for two-parent families.
Other benefits, he believes, could come by revising tax laws to help families, changing welfare policies to encourage people to marry, and requiring pre-divorce counseling before granting a divorce. "A lot of marriages that go through divorce are functional enough to save," he says.
He also wants a bipartisan movement to fight fatherlessness.
"The goal here is not to blame single parents," Daniels says, emphasizing the often-heroic efforts single mothers and fathers make to rear their children alone. "It's simply to get the word out about an important social truth."
Getting that word out won't be easy in a media culture that glorifies independence. But for Daniels and all the other advocates working on the front lines of family stability, hope lies in gradually changing messages - and thus attitudes and behavior - one TV sitcom, one college textbook, one social policy at a time.