In Defense of Families
“We all have one idea of what the color blue is, but pressed to describe it specifically, there are so many ways: the ocean, lapis lazuli, the sky, someone’s eyes. Our definitions were as different as we were ourselves.” — Sarah Dessen
I’ve been thinking about the information which is disseminated and shared about family through the media, through professionals who work with individuals and families and through the stories of people who experience family as something outside of “normal”.
Across the past week or two there have been a number of articles released nationally and internationally that have been putting family under fire. For me this flurry of writing began with a series of articles from the UK suggesting that the break down of the nuclear family and the rise in “broken families”may have contributed to the London riots (Aug 6-10, 2011) Closer to home, A Sydney University report, For Kid’s Sakes; Repairing the Social Environment for Australia’s Children and Young People advises that more children are suffering and are at risk in “fragile families” (read: non-nuclear).
Report author, Patrick Parkinson, professor of law at Sydney University states, “Governments in Australia cannot continue to ignore the reality that two parents tend to provide better outcomes for children than one, and that the most stable, safe and nurturing environment for children is when their parents are, and remain, married to one another.”
It’s time we put our critical thinking caps on and examine the ideas that are being put forward; that living in a particular sort of family (nuclear) with married parents will put an end to social ills and child protection problems.
We start with the notion that there is a simple, universally agreed upon definition of “family” and that this definition is “traditional”, Biblical even. In a Third Way article, Nuclear Family Nonsense, Christian author, Peter Pothan closely examines the concept that nuclear family is “traditional” or “ideal”. He acknowledges that when we rigidly define “nuclear” family the definition excludes a variety of people and alternative family forms, which are in fact “traditional”. He further suggests that we need to “revise our understanding of family” and “resist the hoax of the predominance or importance of the nuclear family“.
If the nuclear family is, as regularly suggested, a married couple who resides alone with their biological children, we’ll learn that definition is not necessarily relevant to the majority of families, nuclear or otherwise. Authors Bella DePaulo and Robert M. Milardo discuss ideas about “collateral” kin and the important contributions they make to healthy families and strong communities. They suggest that nuclear families aren’t as simple or confining as the definition would suggest. You can have a look at their discussion in the interview, Beyond the Nuclear Family.
As the Sarah Dessen quote above suggests, we may have an idea about a thing (what family is) but when we begin to discuss it (family), we quickly discover that there are many ways people see and experience family. For a very simple-to-read overview of family descriptions, you might have a look at this discussion found in An Introduction to Family Social Work by Donald Collins, Catheleen Jordan, Heather Coleman. It’s also worth noting that whilst the idea that nuclear family is traditional, it’s also an important aspect of conservatism, as is the notion that a narrowly defined nuclear family is central to stability in modern society.
It’s erroneous and destructive to place the onus of social problems on non-married or lone parents, many of whom arrive there with no choice in the matter, and who do an exceptionally good job of raising responsible, healthy citizens. Have a look at this week’s e-new’s book suggestion, In Defense of Single Parent Families where author, Nancy Dowd makes a compelling and convincing argument that “the quality of family functioning is related more to the level of economic and social support present than to the number of parents“. She feels strongly that society should support in meaningful ways the nurture of children and their caregivers regardless of family structure.
Alternative family forms are not responsible for the moral collapse of society, nor are they responsible for the failure to protect children. Insisting that families occur in one form and one form only, will not make problems go away. Penalizing families who don’t fit within a limited definition of family will not make them better parents. Mistaking correlation for causation will not further our understanding of the needs of vulnerable children, young people and their families.
The take- away messages for me are simple. We need to critically reflect upon the information we are being fed. It’s perhaps useful to know, for instance, that the For Kid’s Sake report was commissioned by The Australian Christian Lobby who will have their own particular biases and views. It may also be worth noting that the author of the report has a law background, not a history, or sociology or social work or other human services perspective. Patrick Parkinson’s work, like all of our work, is informed by his academic and practice framework, world view and life experiences. Whilst his perspective is a valid perspective, it’s not the only perspective and may in fact, be a limiting perspective.
Secondly many of us do valuable and complex work with a variety of families. It is our professional responsibility to be aware of our self-location and how it impacts upon the work that we do. We have to really consider the inclusivity of our language. We’ve got to be really aware of how our ideas and beliefs about family may value or privilege one set of experience whilst devaluing another. We need to be aware that our values, beliefs, opinions about family may be great for us – may even be great for a whole bunch of other people — but may also be patently untrue, or unhelpful for another person or group of people and may thus marginalize and exclude them.
Let’s make sure that we don’t push out, or punish people … families, who are already living on the margins.
Fiona McColl – Training and Sector Development manager, PeakCare