Rosenblatt Essay on Family Values

February 12, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST


ROGER ROSENBLATT: The deeper we get into this year’s Presidential campaign, the more we will hear about the inviolability of the American family. What inviolability? What family?

Historically, Americans have been working to pull families apart since before the nation was a nation. Under the poor laws in the 18th century, children were considered property. The state could and did separate them from their parents and make them go to work for others. The Boston Act of 1775 allowed the state to ship boys off to work for tradesmen, girls to serve as house maids. Poor and immigrant parents in the 19th century would see children removed from households for what was said to be insufficient moral instruction. The Children’s Aid Society bound out city kids in the mid 19th century in a forced immigration. They called them captives of urban wretchedness and sent them to live on farms.

There was an effort to Americanize ethnic children by separating them from their families and giving them a segregated education. Juvenile courts arose as mechanisms for taking children away from parents who were deemed unfit. Foster care developed with the aim of separating children from parents forever. Day care, economically important as it may be, was created in the interests of the labor market, not the cohesion of the American family. Even the indisputably successful Head Start program has functioned as a way to free parents to go to work.

Intentionally or not, and it has often been intentional, the government has forced parents to choose between the unity of the family and financial survival. What the government has not torn asunder, the people have done informally on their own. Divorce is so commonplace these days no one would consider entering a marriage without acknowledging that it’s a 50/50 gamble.

Once having embarked upon a marriage, which fewer young people are doing, fewer and fewer are having children. Children compete with grown-ups for money, resources, for love. Why have kids?

The clear message of such highly-rated TV shows as “Seinfeld” and “Friends” is: Don’t have a family. “Friends” is a crowded college dormitory room of arrested development adults. The theme song of “Friends” is “I’ll Be There for You.” Where? “Seinfeld” is about four or five very funny social misfits who couldn’t start families if they wanted to, and they don’t.

You can talk about the extended family or the differently constructed family, but those are not the traditional ideals in the American imagination. When political candidates exhume the American family, they mean Ozzie, Harriet, and the boys. The trouble is that Harriet is working full-time, the boys, if they exist at all, are out on the town, and Ozzie has probably deserted them. Maybe he has become a deadbeat dad, the faintly cute term the press invented for irresponsible criminals, perhaps to take the sting out of the crime. That guy who was recently arrested for failing to pay $1/2 million in child support, there’s a family man for you.

One could go on and on, but the matter is fairly easy to prove. The American family is closer to an oxymoron than a fact. Individual happy families thrive, of course, but the thrust of both government and society has been either to break up the family, or not to make one in the first place. It might be interesting in the coming campaign if the voters brought up this issue whenever the candidate starts spouting speeches about how wonderful it is that America has the family at its core.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.