Family Matters

by Mark T. Mitchell on July 27, 2009 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Kearneysville, WV. The debate, such as it is, between liberals and conservatives frequently centers on issues pertaining to that oldest of institutions, the family.  On the one hand, there are those who insist that the so-called traditional family is merely a form of patriarchal power masquerading as domestic bliss and that we can choose better arrangements built on mutual respect and equitable distribution of power. On the other hand, there are those who seem fairly to worship the nuclear family as the sum total of God’s intention for the family. Both views, I think, overlook important elements about the family that are easy to miss in a world characterized by autonomous individuals roaming the earth seeking personal satisfaction or fulfillment.

Those who deny that the traditional family is in any way normative argue that people are first and foremost individuals who have needs and desires and the capacity to choose. Furthermore, any decent society will work to ensure that individuals possess the political and economic freedom to exercise their autonomy to the fullest extent possible, limited only by the rights of other individuals. This view of human nature will result in a bursting forth of new and unique family structures, each tailored to the needs and desires of those participating in it. One man, one woman, and a handful of children? Fine, albeit a bit old-fashioned. Surely someone is being oppressed and likely abused. Two men and a baby? Wonderful. Traditional roles are merely social conventions that should be overturned. Two women, three kids and a dog? Sure. The white picket fence adds a nostalgic veneer over this novel arrangement. Three men, one woman, and children fathered by all three? How progressive. Only a judgmental prude would think to object. As long as there is love and no one is being coerced, then the family that emerges is just fine.

But are things really that simple? Can individuals call the tune and expect nature to caper forth ready to dance? Or are there limits imposed by the structure of reality that constrain the ways that we arrange ourselves socially? Of course, we can choose to ignore limits and let our imaginations run unfettered, but ignoring or even denying natural norms is not the same as making them disappear. One can, presumably, dance on the edge of a precipice, but sooner or later gravity is going to demonstrate some very old-fashioned truths.

What are the natural limits, the natural structures, to which the family ought to conform? Note, in passing, how the simple word “conform” causes a slight shudder. We have been taught, by word if not by deed, that conformity is evil or at least in bad taste. We should, instead, think in terms of novelty. Each person should be an original. Of course, such thinking is really the product of the autonomous individualism and the progressivism that so infects our collective self-understanding. Is conforming to something a bad thing? Only if the thing to which one conforms is a bad thing. If one seeks to conform to standards that are good and natural and healthy and sane, then conformity is clearly a good idea.

Certain standards do exist for the family. First, one function of families, perhaps the most important, is to provide a loving, healthy environment in which children can be produced and nurtured with the hope that they will one day be mature adults capable of raising families of their own. In short, families are the means by which the human race and human culture is perpetuated. On the biological level, there is only one way that babies are naturally made. One man, one woman, a few sparks, a few months, and out comes junior. It’s all quite simple.  Elegant, really.  Biological reproduction seems as natural as eating, sleeping, and email.

It seems, then, that from a biological view, a family necessarily begins with one man and one woman. This arrangement is the norm for humans as cultures naturally built upon the normative structures imposed by the natural fact of biological reproduction. The two parent (one male and one female) family has been a constant in most societies throughout human history. This near universality, of course, does not automatically mean it is the best or that is it morally superior, but when biology and culture both point in the same direction, surely the burden of proof is on those who seek to invent a different standard.

There are those who will point to the single mother or the single father or the home in which two men are raising a child and say “what about them? Aren’t they normal?” First, it’s admittedly odd that in a world where conforming to a standard is so denigrated, people would long to be considered normal by the rest of society. Second, the existence of families that deviate from the norm does not obviate the norm nor does it necessarily condemn those who do not conform to the norm, just as the existence of blind people does not obviate the fact that seeing is normal or imply condemnation of blind people. The existence of single mothers, for instance, does not force us to admit that single motherhood is the ideal toward which all families ought to aspire. A norm is an ideal representing the way things should be if all things were perfect. Unfortunately, the world is not a perfect place. But to say the world is not a perfect place is to tacitly admit that a standard of rightness exists, a standard by which we can compare the world and recognize its imperfections. In terms of the family, the two parent (male and female) model is the norm. That this standard is rooted in biology is obvious. That the vast majority of societies have affirmed this is not conclusive, but it does provide evidence that cannot be ignored even if one objects to the standard.

So a family based on the biological unit of a mother and father is the norm for the creation of children. It appears, then, that the nuclear family emerges as the standard, rooted in nature, representing the norm for the family. Here we need to pause. While it is undeniable that a man and a woman are the necessary elements for the begetting of children, men and women do not exist in solitude prior to their union. They, themselves belong to families. The parents, themselves, were inculcated into a particular set of social traditions mediated by the family into which they were born. When a man and woman join to form the basis of a new nuclear family, they bring with them the stories, memories, habits, customs, practices (as well as the social and genetic anomalies) of their respective families. When the two raise their children, they are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (and busybodies) both alive and dead, that envelopes the family they have initiated.

The nuclear family may be the norm for the simple production of children, but it has not been the norm for their upbringing. In a pre-industrial world where people tended to stay put, extended families created an atmosphere of nurture, care, discipline, advice, meaningful work, as well as stories that provided the narrative context for the lives of each individual. In the west, the intact extended family has largely given way to the transient family that encounters family members outside the nuclear family only at reunions and holidays at the beach. In a mobile age, where leaving home is as easy as calling U-Haul, the nuclear family has come to be seen, by many conservatives, as the ideal. Forgotten is the richly textured world of multi-generational interaction made possible when nuclear families were embedded into the larger structure of the extended family.

The family has not escaped the individualism that pervades our society. The isolated nuclear family, existing as a lonely island on the sea of society, is not the ideal, and it can be seen as a step in the direction of a fully fledged individualism where any unchosen attachment is deemed undesirable. Of course, in particular cases, this sometimes cannot be avoided, but exceptions are different than expectations, and when exceptions become the norm, propriety has been lost.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille July 27, 2009 at 7:29 am

Actually, I don’t think the nuclear family is history’s norm; the extended family is. The nuclear family is an isolated affair, better than no family to be sure, but severely limited. Children need not just parents, but grand-parents and cousins, uncles and aunts.

But then, I am prejudiced. I have two-and-a-half grandchildren, and as the old saying has it, if I had known that grandchildren were this much fun, I would have had them first.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell July 27, 2009 at 11:17 am

Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, but that is exactly my point. Idealizing either the nuclear family or the family born merely of individual choice are both wrong.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 27, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Not to further muddy the waters but in earlier days, a homestead included a variety of help, usually lodged on premises, sometimes seasonal or migratory but just as surely integrated into the nuclear family as the less than still-productive grand parents. Sure there were distinctions between blood and outsiders but familial loyalties and interactions were quite a lot more complex than today and so it is no wonder that the relativism of today would seem to be destroying any remaining meaning or norm in the concept of family. Historically, the family was the basic unit of self-reliant subsistence and it extended to the Clan when required. Much of the value of the family, like an awful lot in this commodified paradise of diminishing service jobs has been deflated in value because a lot of it is not based upon familial responsibilities any longer…at least to a meaningful degree. Needless to say, the Clan is now a virtual clan. The cause and effect-averse “modern” society has inflated the value of sentimental love and deflated the meaning of love defined by shared responsibility. Parents want to be friends of their children and children want to distance themselves from this “friend”. Much of modern family life is manifested in sentimental yearnings made ever-more inchoate by the odd compulsions of individuals that are expressed in groups today. There is little time together in the “modern” nuclear family and so there is little time for anything beyond the most facile sentimental expressions. Even time spent the car or watching movies or television is not time really interacting so much as time spent in co-spectatorship. This does not mean deeply abiding love and responsibility are absent, they are simply muddled and intruded upon by a very noisome popular technocratic culture. Conservatives are arguing with liberals over something that is already gone…to a degree.

The Pursuit of Happiness planted a seed that oddly bears a fruit called ennui.

Medaille, you lucky dog. My kids have yet to produce the grandkiddies and will likely delay it until I’m enfeebled because during a moment of peevishness, I once suggested that I could not wait till they had kids themselves so I could show up with a Trampoline, some Twinkies and Peppermint Schnapps and re-pay them their various and sundry insurrectional behaviors.

avatar John Médaille July 27, 2009 at 1:19 pm

DW, yea, well they took their time. I kept wanting to send them “how do it it” books, but my wife kept vetoing the idea, which just shows how unreasonable women are.

avatar Empedocles July 27, 2009 at 3:43 pm

What is needed is a discussion of norms and normal. Are we talking historically average? Currently average? Something other than average? I suggest we become familiar with philosopher Ruth Millikan’s notion of Normal (with a capital “N”). Normal is not average, or even necessarily frequent, but the conditions under which something historically is successful at performing its function. In this sense one man and one woman is Normal for the production of children. The question is that what are the Normal conditions for the successful raising of children? At last count 40% of the children being born in this country are born out of wedlock, up from 2% in the 1950s–an increase of 2000%. A vast body of research shows that children raised in single-parent homes are at far greater risk of poverty, school dropout, delinquency, teen pregnancy, adult joblessness, and other problems. It seems to me that having at least the two parents who conceived the child raise the child, is thus Normal for raising children.

avatar Carl Scott July 28, 2009 at 12:31 am

Great, great, stuff Mark, I can tell even from my 75% of sentences read skim! Keep at it. I recommend chapter 7 from Chantal Delsol’s Unlearned Lessons of the 20th Century for further reflection. I also seem to recall some worthwhile stuff in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History on the family…i.e., worthwhile as far as the endless seductive whirlpool that is Hegel goes.

avatar Lew Daly July 29, 2009 at 12:14 am

Mark: Thank you for this post. I notice that you did not mention marriage and wonder what you think about the fact that in Sweden parents increasingly co-habit rather than marry, yet Swedish children are much more likely to live with both parents than children here are, where marriage is more prevalent. How important is marriage from the standpoint of children? It seems to be very important here (where cohabitations are less enduring and children in cohabiting households fare less well) but less so elsewhere. I wonder why.

I also second your concerns about the dissolution of extended family living. Actually, this is an area where Marx (or a Marxist point of view) is revealing and sympathetic. I interpret it as a question of the family economy–not family production but the non-money economy of nurture, learning, moral formation, and intergenerational support. The value of these activities–call it our combined family capital–is not small compared to the value of market goods and services. The problem is, this family value is not commercial. Locally-centered extended families expand the amount of time and energy devoted to non-market exchange. They create too much decommodified space, time-use, risk-pooling, etc., for capitalism to thrive.


avatar Dan July 29, 2009 at 10:16 am


A good read and I think you’ve right that larger issues of family and culture are often neglected in the political debate regarding the family. Unsurprisingly I think traditionalists need a greater appreciation for the argument that,

“the so-called traditional family is merely a form of patriarchal power masquerading as domestic bliss and that we can choose better arrangements built on mutual respect and equitable distribution of power.”

This is not the sum of the family as you rightfully argued. The debate should be about how we live together, how to best hand down culture, and how to preserve human dignity. Traditional marriage has often been a tool of patriarchal power that has violated human dignity.

The most obvious example is the tradition of spousal rape which is often legally sanctioned (It’s illegality is very new and counter to the tradition of spousal sexual obligations). In many states in this country it is a lesser crime, often falling under mere spousal abuse.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell July 30, 2009 at 12:27 pm

You raise a very interesting question. Of course, in the back of my mind I was thinking in terms of marriage as the best way to ensure an intact family, but your Sweden example is interesting and I don’t know enough about Sweden to answer. Do Swedish couples who co-habitate but do not marry tend to stay together? If so, why? Is there a social expectation that couples (married or not) who have children are obligated to remain together for the good of the family? If so, that’s an interesting and good dynamic.

It seems to me that when marriage is seen merely as a “life-style choice” based on mutual consent and a civil contract that can be broken at any time for any reason (no-fault divorce), marriage is not really doing the job it traditionally has done. Marriage as a sacrament or a solemn covenant entered into in the presence of God and only exited with much difficulty does, among other things, encourage stable marriages (but not always happy ones).

Ultimately, it seems to me that once the stigma of out of wedlock births was removed, and once sex and procreation was clearly, obviously, and easily separated, then the complex connections between sex, marriage, and children was lost. When those natural bonds were dissolved, then these things that were tightly joined and served to form families and keep them intact were lost. Sex, marriage, and children were all reduced merely to individual choice. The question, then, is this: can strong families, based on two parents but including extended family members, exist in a culture where individual choice is elevated to the highest value?

I think the answer is no. If that is true, then either a) we must be willing to forfeit the good of strong families on the altar of choice, or b) we need to find a good higher than individual choice. That points us back in the direction of teleology, God, religion, the common good. Such notions might warm the heart of a traditionalist but they will raise the hackles of plenty.

avatar Dan July 30, 2009 at 1:46 pm


“The question, then, is this: can strong families, based on two parents but including extended family members, exist in a culture where individual choice is elevated to the highest value? I think the answer is no.”

Questions. Do we live in a culture where individual choice is elevated to the highest value? Are there strong families, based on two parents but including extended family members? Do you feel that these families then exist today a ruins of a past civilization? Given enough time do you believe they will cease to exist in our current culture? Is it passable to re-orient the culture to prevent this? If so how? Is not a return to traditional marriage merely an invitation to its destruction a second time? How would traditional marriage thrive when you believe it was crushed by the assent of modernity? What will make it a sustainable institution that was lacking previously?

avatar Empedocles July 31, 2009 at 9:12 am

“we need to find a good higher than individual choice. That points us back in the direction of teleology”
Yes, we need to concentrate on the function (or end) of marriage, which is the successful raising of children. The great mistake was in seeing love as the function of marriage. Virtues are those features of a thing which allow it to perform its function. Love is the primary virtue of marriage (there are others), not its function. It one of the things that allows marriage to perform its function of successfully raising children.

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