from Parenting & Family and Books & Reviews
By A. Scott Loveless
Acting Managing Director
World Family Policy Center
Brigham Young University
In this age of diversity and the attempts of its proponents to redefine human society, one of the most-asked questions in the social sciences is "What is family? There are, after all, so many 'forms' of the family." The question and its accompanying assertion are usually posed as a wedge to open the question, "Why can't ____ be considered a family?" (Fill in anything from same-sex couples or groups to polygamous or polyamorous arrangements.)
Others lobby that the family is an outmoded institution in any event, intended merely to maintain male dominance over women, who should be freed of this encumbrance in order to find fulfillment in the workplace. One group wishes to redefine marriage and the family, the other wishes to simply abolish it altogether. Either way, the traditional notion of family denoted by committed marriage and bloodlines between successive generations is being challenged, and the advocates of these ideas are seeing success in the political arena. If these revisionist perspectives continue to gain traction, the family as we have known it in most world societies will be in jeopardy.
In January of 2007, Praeger Publishers, a division of Greenwood Press in Westport, CN, published a three volume set, "The Family in the New Millennium," for which I was privileged to serve as lead editor. More than 200 papers were gathered in 2004 during the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family. At the United Nations a year earlier, the State of Qatar was appointed to lead an international discussion on the topic of family. Numerous conferences were held around the world, culminating with the Doha International Conference for the Family, held in Doha, Qatar, in November 2004. Of the more than 200 papers presented, 67 were selected to comprise these volumes.
These books are intended as a reference set to provide a foundation for answering basic questions about the place and role of family in contemporary societies, to emphasize the critical and irreplaceable contributions of the family to all human societies, and to demonstrate that although family is indeed a flexible concept, it cannot be seen as infinitely malleable if we are interested in the optimal development of children, the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of parents and married couples, and the survival of our civilizations. Its core features of commitment, love, service, honesty, and mutual sacrifice are still very much necessary to a viable, vibrant society.
Other core characteristics involve life and procreation, societal regeneration, and the moral values taught, experienced, learned and practiced through the mutual caring for one another in a family. These core functions of the family are found in every culture and clime and legitimate "family form," and cannot be substantially modified or substituted for without a substantial societal loss. These volumes begin to address these issues in the context of many modern trends, such as no-fault divorce, increasing cohabitation, abortion, euthanasia, dating and marriage patterns, the importance of parents in children's lives, and sexual license. Finally, these volumes are intended to encourage governments and policy-makers to do everything possible to protect and strengthen the family in all world cultures.
Gathered in this set are papers from a cross-section of cultures, academic disciplines, and through what might be termed the "inductive/deductive or objective/subjective or quantitative/qualitative divide" - from the academically analytical to the prosaic level of life in the family. Empirical overview is valuable, but the experiential, subjective view from within the family is valuable in its own right, for this is the level at which family life is lived and where the family makes its quiet but uniquely valuable contributions to the individual lives of children and, hence, to the broader society. Attempts to redefine "family" away from its core kinship meaning would, over a generation or two, dilute the notion of family to the point where it would be thought of as an historical artifact. Its contributions could easily be lost, and society would be far poorer for this loss.
The volumes are comprised of six sections, two in each volume, each of which addresses a different aspect of family and/or family policy. Volume One, Section 1 addresses the family generally, its role in economic life of a thriving society (e.g., there a is contribution by Nobel laureate Gary Becker), the role of the family in procreation and giving society a future, the ongoing renewal of every society, the importance of family as reflected in the historical records of the oldest known cultures on Earth - Egypt and Mesopotamia, relatively aboriginal cultures in Africa, and the consequences of attempts to alter or artificially reshape the family - as in China's "one-child policy." The chapters in this section also discuss what happens to a society when children come to be perceived as a burden rather than an opportunity and blessing, i.e. the "demographic winter" portended by declining birth rates in most modern developed countries. Specifically, these chapters examine demographic trends in Western Europe, Britain and the U.S. as well as the countries of eastern Asia and discuss the long-term implications of such trends.
Section 2 in Volume One, looks at the relationship between parents and children, specifically examining the valuable and unique role parents play in the lives of their children and contemplating the critical value to the larger society of this voluntary sacrifice by parents in the interests of their children and, collectively, the next generation. The family provides a future, reason to move forward, an answer to nihilism. Some of the chapters in this section then return to the question of large-scale demographic trends in light of the role of parents in children's lives, taking Russia and the nations of the former USSR as an example, both projecting into the future and as providing lessons from the Bolshevik past, when the family was, for a time, actively devalued and discouraged. The lessons of that time should give serious cause for reflection on the trajectory of recent population trends and policies in the developed nations of the world. Any society that neglects its children or gives them less than the best that loving parents can provide is, in effect, writing its own epitaph.
Section 1 in Volume Two, Marriage, provides an in-depth look at marriage, the man-woman relationship that rests at the core of any family, including the unique contributions of each gender not only in generating and nurturing new life, but also in preparing children to assume their own responsibilities as adults. This section also examines the historical meaning and societal role of marriage as well as some of its traditional benefits. Against this backdrop, other chapters in this section examine the modern challenges to traditional marriage presented by proposals to broaden the definition of marriage to include alternatives such as "same-sex marriage" or to encourage women to leave children to find more fulfillment in paid employment.
Section 2, Human Dignity, examines some of the corollary aspects to man-woman marriage, such as procreation and respect for life itself - in the form of discussions of abortion, euthanasia, maternal mortality, and the related place and role of professional ethics - all of which affect and are affected by the views about marriage and family in any culture. One chapter provides an interesting discussion of the problematic effects of pornography on marriage.
Volume Three, Strengthening the Family, contains a section on "Family Values," exploring the vital, reciprocal link between morality and the family, whereby moral commitments strengthen the marriage that lies at the core of a family, and whereby the family serves as a training ground for the teaching of moral values in the rising generation. Several chapters explore some of the current issues in moral philosophy, their expression in modern cultures, and the family and societal effects of choices among moral philosophies. Specific perspectives on the societal importance of family are provided from major faith communities; namely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Some moral philosophies strengthen the family; others severely weaken it. Ideas matter, particularly ideas about human morality, our basic beliefs about what constitutes right and wrong in human action.
The final section in Volume Three probes the role that government can play in promoting and strengthening the family, or at least in preventing its degradation and possible eventual dissolution. Included in this section are chapters addressing the ongoing and deleterious effects of anti-family policies in New Zealand and the "no-fault divorce" wave that has swept the United States, attempts to rebuild the family in the post-communist era in Latvia, and conscious efforts being made by some countries to prevent the erosion of family commitments, for example in Malaysia. One chapter in this section, from Professor Donati in Italy, analyzes the relative strengths and weaknesses of various approaches governments may take toward family policy. The concluding chapter by Professor Richard Wilkins constitutes a frank and effective discussion of family-related trends at the United Nations and urges a close reexamination of the eventual outcome of such trends, calling for a vital course correction.
What is family? It is the basic cell of any healthy, thriving society. It is where children, the next generation, are born, nurtured, taught, and loved, and where they develop their core attitudes and beliefs about their role and place in human society and their responsibilities toward that society. Family is also, unfortunately, becoming a political battleground as various factions such as radical feminism and the homosexual lobby recognize the inherent challenge the family represents to the society they would like to create. These groups seek, respectively, to "free" women from the patriarchal bonds of marriage and family to the privileges of the marketplace or at least to eliminate from family the essential features of natural procreation and parent-child bonding and nurturance. Such views are premised on the notions that mothers' and fathers' unique roles can be adequately replaced with mass child care or that any form of sexual expression is equally as valuable to the long-term survival and health of human society as that of procreative and committed sexual union in traditional marriage. The sponsors, authors, and editors of these volumes hope to have demonstrated that such is not the case and that there are serious and important reasons to reconsider and resist some of the changes various social advocates would thrust upon us. We hope that these volumes will contribute to the preservation and strengthening of the family world-wide.
The Family in the New Millennium ($350) is available at: