Is the Traditional Family Still Viable?
We've certainly heard that perspective often enough from the media and from influential people. For example, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made it the theme of her Mother's Day commencement speech back on May 8, 1994, delivered at George Washington University. She said, "If it ever did, [the American family] no longer does consist of two parents, two children, a dog, a house with a white picket fence, and a station wagon in the driveway. Instead of families looking like the Cleavers on Leave It to Beaver, we have families that include test-tube babies and surrogate moms. Instead of Sunday-night family dinners, we now have crosscountry telephone conference calls. Instead of aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas, we have nannies and day-care centers."
Mrs. Clinton went on to recommend what she called an "extended family" to fill the void as traditional families dwindle. She urged the graduates to look out for their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens as they would members of their own families, and concluded by saying, "When the traditional bonds of family are too often frayed, we all need to appreciate that in a very real sense we have become an extended family."1
Well, the First Lady was correct in reminding us of our responsibilities to help and care for one another. We should be especially attuned to the needs of single parents who are struggling to raise children on their own. But Mrs. Clinton's remarks that day conveyed another message--that the traditional family is ineffectual and no longer viable. She expressed no regret over the social and governmental forces that have assaulted the institutions of marriage and parenthood. She did not urge the graduates to preserve and support the traditional family unit. Nor did she speak of its vital role in the culture. Rather, Mrs. Clinton began with the supposition that families as we have known them are gone forever, and then suggested ways of replacing them.
It was a familiar theme, to be sure. For the past three decades, we've been hearing about the family's imminent demise from politicians, radical feminists, homosexual activists, and liberal journalists. Then they've hurried to tell us how society should be reorganized in the absence of lifelong marriage. This propaganda began to appear in the early seventies with the publication of a book entitled The Death of the Family, by British psychotherapist David Cooper. He emphasized the need to abolish the traditional family unit and to substitute new forms of human relationships.
Actress Shirley MacLaine added her two bits in a 1971 interview published in the now-defunct magazine Look. She said:
"All this goes back as far as Christian culture, to what Mary and Joseph started. . . . You know it's just a million things that have been handed down with the Christian ethic, so when you begin to question the family, you have to question all those things.
I don't think it's desirable to conform to having one mate, and for those two people to raise children. But everyone believes that's the ideal. They go around frustrated most of their lives because they can't find one mate. But who said that's the natural basic personality of man? To whom does monogamy make sense? . . . To a muskrat maybe . . . Why should they then adhere to this state of monogamy? In a democratic family, individuals understand their natural tendencies, bring them out in the open, discuss them, and very likely follow them. And these tendencies are definitely not monogamous."2
Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, the runaway best-seller in the seventies, also predicted the eventual death of his family. In the same Look article, Toffler said:
"My own hunch is that most people will try to go blindly through the motions of the traditional marriage, and try to keep the traditional family going, and they'll fail. And the consequence will be a subtle but very significant shift to much more temporary marital arrangements, an intensification of the present pattern of divorce and remarriage and divorce and remarriage to the point at which we accept the idea that marriages are not for life. I'm not endorsing it, but I think it's likely to be the case."3
That was the common wisdom of the day. Those predictions of domestic disaster could be heard regularly throughout the seventies on network-television talk programs. One of the most offensive, The Merv Griffin Show, often featured vacuous guests who delighted in ridiculing the family. I happened to be watching late one afternoon when a particularly hostile woman said this about marriage licenses: "It's just a two-dollar piece of paper from a rotten government which tries to tell us who we can sleep with." She also said she was married for 30 years and cheated on her husband at least 50 times during that period. She said she wouldn't recognize his voice if he called her on the phone. The guest then concluded by saying that the problem in the world was that we had too much religious fervor. "We need to get rid of that!" she exclaimed.
Given the viciousness hurled at the family through the years, it is amazing that the institution has survived to our day. Unfortunately, the attacks have not abated. More recent critics have begun citing bogus statistics to "prove" that the traditional family is dead. For example, former U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D--Colo.) proclaimed a few years ago that only 7 percent of all families were "traditional."4 Her statement went unchallenged by the media and was widely quoted in secular literature. Therefore, I invested considerable effort to track down Schroeder's statistic and to determine on what it was based. What I learned is that she defined traditional families as those having a father who supported the family, a mother who chose not to be employed, and precisely two children at home! What nonsense! By that definition, my wife and I would not qualify as a traditional family because our children are grown and because Shirley serves as unsalaried chairman of the National Day of Prayer. My friends Randy and Marcia Hekman are not traditional because they now have twelve children instead of two. A married couple expecting their first child would not satisfy the criteria. A family in which the wife works ten hours a week in the husband's place of business wouldn't make the grade. Come on, Ms. Schroeder! This phony attempt to document the death of the family is nothing short of dishonest!
It is true that the traditional family has been buffeted, damaged, weakened, and undermined in recent years. Congress has legislated against it decade after decade. The divorce rate is far too high, and many still-intact marriages are beset by alcoholism, pornography, infidelity, and other virulent infections. No, I would not deny that there is trouble on the home front, but the reports of family disintegration have been exaggerated greatly.
Thus, when Mrs. Clinton said, "If it ever did, [the American family] no longer does consist of two parents, two children, a dog, a house with a white picket fence, and a station wagon in the driveway," she joined the chorus of those who want us to believe something that is not true. In fact, 75 percent of children live with two parents.5 Millions of husbands and wives today are deeply committed to one another in bonds of affection that will never be shaken. Many of them even have dogs and houses with white picket fences. Mrs. Clinton was right about one thing: The station wagons in the driveway are long gone; they have been replaced by minivans and campers.
- Hillary Rodham Clinton, commencement address at George Washington University, 8 May 1994.
- John Kronenberger, “Is the Family Obsolete?” Look (26 January 1971): 35.
- James Q. Wilson, “The Family Values Debate,” Commentary (April 1993): 24.
- Statistical Abstract
On today’s edition of Family Talk, Dr. Tim Clinton continues his discussion with author and pastor, Kyle Idleman, focusing on his new book, One at a Time: The Unexpected Way God Wants to Use You to Change the World. They discuss the impact of influence, how God expanded Kyle’s definition of compassion, and how we are to model Jesus by loving people differently.