Thursday, March 03, 2005

family values

Recently someone made a comment about the animated movie Lilo & Stitch – specifically that “The message about what constitutes a family is a very good one for everyone, especially certain [right-wingers], to learn.”

For those who haven’t seen it, the family in Lilo & Stitch consists of two orphaned sisters and a violent alien whose anti-social instincts are tamed by the love of the two girls.

Anyway, the statement reminds me of the flap Dan Quayle got into about Murphy Brown, etc. back in the 80’s. Dan’s point, as I remember it, was that Murphy’s choice to have a kid on her own was an example of how TV and movies contribute to the disintegration of traditional family values. Quayle took all kinds of heat for that. If memory serves, the show opened the next season with an in-your-face-Dan-Quayle episode, wherein lots of alternative family structures were trotted out, and the basic message was “And are *we* not a family? Huh? Huh? I’m talking to YOU, values-boy!”

Anwyay, I’ve been trying to figure out how to express what it is about this issue that frustrates me. Not sure I’ve got it yet, but below are some things I think are true.

First of all, nobody said alternative family structures aren’t families. The key ingredient for a family is love, defined (by me) as concern for others’ well-being, interest in and commitment to their welfare, and emotional closeness – shared experience, thoughts, and desires. Also important (and overlapping) are respect, attention, physical caretaking, support, etc. These items are a lot more important than how many parents/kids/grandparents/uncles/aunts/cousins/pets are involved. BUT…

Parents have a responsibility to their children to give them every reasonable advantage in their quest to become physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually healthy people. It seems to me that creating a new life intending from the get-go that the child will have only one parent instead of two is not fully living up to that responsibility. I’m not saying that the child is doomed, or that the choice is evil – just that the issue should be acknowledged. I feel it is irresponsible, just as it would be to conceive another child with my wife if I knew I were terminally ill and she had no means of support after my death. I think there would need to be a lot of other counter-factors (extended family support, financial security, etc) to outweigh this issue.

Something that’s very valuable to children as they grow up is STABILITY. I don’t mean living in the same house/neighbourhood (although that can very comforting for a kid), or even going to the same school (although that’s also very nice if it can be achieved). I’m talking about a kid having a feeling of safety and security – that the people around them will be consistent and reliable in their love and care and availability.

This is of extreme importance, and is a major reason why divorce is so hard for kids. The most important – and heretofore permanent – figures in their lives are suddenly only there one at a time. No matter how amiable and convenient the custody arrangements, the kids now only get half their love and stability ration at any one time. The two things they loved most are now incompatible. And if Daddy went away, who/what else might go away?

Man and women tend to pair up – it’s how we’re made. A male-female couple is the most natural and usual structure for conceiving and raising children. It is preferable to a father-only, mother-only, father-and-uncle, or two-mommy structure. The traditional configuration is to be desired, to be encouraged.

Kids benefit from having both a father and a mother – to set examples of what to be and what to look for. I have seen many single-parent kids make crappy choices in a spouse because they have nothing to measure the opposite sex by. Girls without dads seem especially weak on how to judge men (maybe that’s just the samples I’ve seen rather than an actual trend.) A two-parent household has many advantages that a single-parent household must do without. This isn’t about putting down single parents; they’re to be applauded for what they accomplish. But when one has a choice, one should choose what’s best for one’s children.

And how does one discuss these issues without seeming to imply condemnation of other people or other arrangements? Most divorced parents have already gone through some measure of misery and guilt and difficulty – they’re often good people making the best of a bad situation – so who am I to bring this issue up? Divorce happens – it’s a fact of life. Some family situations are already toxic; separation is a blessing. In my opinion, it takes two to keep a marriage working – if one partner has checked out, it’s a rare situation that the other one can hold things together for everyone.

And we’re trained to think about life as a series of opposites: good/bad, black/white, yin/yang. If it’s not good, it must be bad. If it’s not evil, it must be okay. If I don’t say your situation is the best, I must be saying you’re no good. If I don’t agree with your choices, I must be condemning your entire life. It’s very difficult for us to see that much of life just IS – the past is gone, and we are where we are – any value judgment comes with what we DO about it from now on.

For the record, I support single people or gay couples adopting children. The benefit to the child (having a family) far outweighs the disadvantage of not having one parent of each gender – the two-gender thing would just be icing on the cake.

But “family values” isn’t about labeling or evaluating or measuring any particular person or family – this is about generalities, about philosophies. It’s about agreeing on what is best, about deciding what we are going to hold as good, what we are going to strive for. Of course we won’t always achieve it. We’ll do our best and fail; others’ choices or outside circumstances will thwart our best intentions, but that doesn’t change what our goal should be.

By all the reasonable measures I can think of, it’s better to have two legs than only one or none. The fact that some people lose their legs, or are never issued any, means neither that they are lesser people, nor that legs are unimportant. Legs are not essential to personhood, but they’re still great if you can get ‘em.

With family values, as with many other social issues, we’re now afraid to state the obvious for fear of making “one-legged” people feel bad. We’ve decided that instead of lauding people for doing their best in difficult circumstances, we’ll pretend that their circumstances are no different or less desirable than any other circumstances. This is stupid and cowardly.

In my opinion, the most vocal anti-family-values contingent is not actually the hardworking single mothers, the grandmas taking care of abandoned grandkids, or even the gay couple with the adopted son. It’s people who want to escape the responsibilities that come with being sexually active, and/or the responsibilities of parenthood. It’s men who want to wander the country scattering their seed in every fertile field they come across. It’s single moms (or dads) who badly want a partner, so they let their boyfriend/girlfriend move in even tho they’re lousy parent material. It’s people who reject the idea that marriage or long-term commitment is best for kids; they want the love that children can give, but don’t want to set up the best possible situation for their child. It’s people who don’t understand the idea of trade-offs: children are wonderful, but you don’t get to have children AND maintain the same lifestyle/habits you might if you were not a parent.

These are the people who pompously spout “Ah, family values. But whose family? Whose values?” as if it were some deep mystery what we’re talking about. As if the fact that there are many opinions automatically means that all the opinions are equally valid, and all standards equally valuable.

Just to clarify for them: when we talk about “family values”, we’re talking about valuing traditional family structure, about commitment to children’s needs, about discouraging early sexual activity, about sexual responsibility -- sexual continence, for pete’s sake. We’re talking about parents making responsible choices in lifestyle and habits (eg, avoiding drug use, late night amateur drag racing, spending the groceries on horse races, running with scissors, hanging out with pirates, etc). We’re talking about committing to marriage rather than bailing just because not every day is a barrel of fun, or because we met someone who rings our chimes a little louder than the one we’re with.

When conservatives rant about decline in family values, this is usually what they’re on about. (Okay, I imagine a certain number of them are just envious because it looks like other non-family-valued folks are having way too much fun – but trust me, that’s not the main issue.)

And even if 90% of family values proponents *were* actually just envious and repressed, that still doesn’t make the other 10% wrong. It’s very easy to dismiss people with “They’re just…”
They’re just pot smokers, so what they say about legalization is wrong.
They’re just religious fanatics, so what they say about morality is wrong.
They’re just perps, so what they say about police brutality is wrong.
They’re just X, so what they say about Y is wrong.
Using that kind of ad hominem approach means we don’t have to address others’ arguments – and when we say “Conservatives are just uptight, hung up, narrow-minded social luddites”, that’s exactly what we’re doing. All very glib and very handy, but also completely dodges the issue of whether “family values” might be worth thinking about.

I don’t know how many single parents won’t be my friend any more after reading this. I don’t intend any disrespect; this is just how things appear to me. I’m ready to be told I’m full of crap if people can back it up.


At Thu Mar 03, 04:20:00 PM PST, Blogger Always Smiling said...

thank you.that was interesting. I love reading things that make me think..and stay with me for time as I try to sort out what i agree with..what i question. :-)

Being a cautious person i don't make decisions like that immediately..but i can tell you feel very strongly about your opinions.

Thanks for sharing...

At Thu Mar 03, 06:22:00 PM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

But sweet cheeks, it's so Hollywood to divorce and I just wanna fit in. My kids will be okay, I'll take 'em on the road. ;)
Lois Lane

At Sun Mar 06, 05:35:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. With your myriad points, however, I find it a bit incongrous to slip in:
"For the record, I support single people or gay couples adopting children. The benefit to the child (having a family) far outweighs the disadvantage of not having one parent of each gender – the two-gender thing would just be icing on the cake."
"icing on the cake" treats this issue waaaay too casually." There's a whole lot more at stake here. It's especially distressing when there are so many two-gender couples longing for a child. It's not as if, well, any family is better than no family like the kid is going to live the rest of his/her life in an orphanage. There's a surplus of two-gender parents who badly want children!


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