On “Family Values”

“Family values” is a big buzzword in American politics. (Right up there with “San Francisco values” for conservatives.) I note that “family values” is generally identified as a prizing of the nuclear family and a rejection of other types of families. The term generally conjures up an image of a mommy, a daddy, some children, perhaps a dog. Picket fence. Two cars. They are Christian, of course (often Evangelical specifically), and they have generally conservative beliefs. You get the general idea.

The idea of this grouping as the upright, “moral” example of the family is not exclusive to the United States, of course. Lots of other nations have similar ideas about families and what makes a family, and it’s worth exploring these ideas, and what the function of the “family” really is. And other cultures place a heavy emphasis on the extended family, and multiple generations living under one roof. Others may not necessarily view genetic linkages as a necessary prerequisite for “family” and have family groups which may function very differently.

For me, the family is a unit which creates a safe space. Within the structure of the family, people are supported and loved. They have access to a safe, warm place to live. They are fed. They are given emotional support. While members of a family may not necessarily live together, they are in contact with one another and they may help each other monetarily. Family is who you are supposed to call when there’s a problem, family is the first person you call with good news. Family is a group of people who are bonded, often in more ways than one, and who work together to protect each other and to help each other. Family, for me, is not necessarily genetic, and you can have more than one.

I was raised by a single father, which automatically skews my view of family. And I’ve interacted with people from a wide variety of family dynamics, including the “traditional family,” of course. I know lots of children of gay and lesbian parents, for example. I know people who live in triads or more complicated relationships, creating families which may also include children and other relatives like parents, siblings, aunts, uncles who live together and create a network with each other. I know people who live in traditional extended family environments, with several generations living together in one home or compound.

And I know people from all of these groups who have come from deeply dysfunctional and harmful families, just as I know people who have come from rich, loving family environments in which everyone is valued. The determining factor when it comes to harmfulness isn’t what kind of family it is, but what kind of people are in the family. Harmful people make harmful families, basically.

I don’t know how many studies have been done on differing family arrangements and family dynamics, but I would not be surprised to learn that science backs me up here, and that family type doesn’t make a difference as much as the character of the people in the family. Of course, any studies would be complicated by the fact that studying people in marginalized family types carries layers of complexity because family members experience outside pressures related to their rejection of society. It can be hard to have a healthy dynamic when your family is under attack.

The reification of “family values” is something concerns me because it happens at such a basic level in American society. This view of the family is structured right into our language and the law. It’s one of the many factors at root behind the idea that a marriage can only involve two cis people at opposite ends of the gender binary. It’s the thing which shapes the way child services intervenes in situations when people are in harmful families. It’s the thing behind discrimination in adoption services. It’s the thing which says that couples without children aren’t really “families.”

If the “family values” people really care about building a strong society, what’s with the fixation on one family type? And with the singleminded focus on only one type of “values”? It’s curious to me to see “values” weaponized and used to tear families apart because they don’t meet with someone’s definition of what “family values” should be. And to see these families not counted in the Census, ignored in discussions about families, because there is no space for them; American society has decided that there’s only one version of the family which counts and that everything else is “alternative.”

Are we going to see a shift in norms and an eventual rejection of “family values” politics? I don’t really know. I honestly doubt it, because America is very much a country which privileges Christianity, always has, probably always will. This is also a nation which very much grants control of morality to the Right; people on the Left even reinforce this on occasion by recognizing bigotry as a form of moral code (“we respect your beliefs”), rather than calling it what it is.

Until we can recognize that morals are not one size fits all, it’s going to be difficult to address or even recognize the fact that families can in fact present in a wide variety of forms. It’s going to be hard to promote acceptance of families beyond the nuclear family when our society secretly believes in and reinforces the idea that there is a Right Way, and an Alternative (Wrong) Way.

Living in a family compound isn’t “alternative.” Raising a child on your own isn’t “alternative.” Being in a long-term triad isn’t “alternative.” These are all families. And they have value too.

3 Replies to “On “Family Values””

  1. It’s a dog-whistle, of course. ‘Family values’ is right up there with ‘tough on crime’ and ‘good schools and good neighborhoods’ and ‘fiscally responsible’ to allow folks — whether working in media or aspiring to public office — to communicate that they, like their constituents, are decently bigoted against the right sorts of people. The coding has been in place since Lee Atwater coached the Creature from Yorba Linda.

    It’s offensive on so many levels. As you point out they don’t mean families like yours or mine. (And the family structure they value so highly is very rare — there are many more families that don’t fit their ideal than actually do and the stresses of trying to achieve that ideal are damaging*) But they also think we aren’t paying enough attention to know what they’re actually saying.

    * An example of this damage can be found in amphetamine use among suburban women trying to be the perfect wife and mother. The ideal isn’t ordinarily achievable by a lone human working unsupported. Some exceptional few can do it. Most of us, being unexceptional, can’t. But if you don’t have to sleep you have more time to keep up with everything you’re expected to do. And as a bonus it keeps you from feeling hungry much so you get to stay nice and conventionally thin too.

  2. It used to be all “family values” all the time, here. These days, it’s “working families”, with a related but differently-loaded set of dog-whistles.

  3. I must honestly say I hav elittle concept of “family values”, except from conservative news media. We do have a government-led (sort of)”discussion” on “norms and values”, and some family bias is thrown in there. I am not sure how much gay or otherwise non-traditional families are being devalued here since I hardly hear of it. (Maybe that in itself is devaluing: almost all “family” you hear about in the media, etc. follows the “traditional” lines.)

    I do have a problem, but that is personal, with the overemphasis on genetic family. I, for one, have relatively little contact with my parents and sister and never interact with my extended family except for occasionally my grandmother. I get frustrated each holiday season (and easter and what else have we got?) when it is emphasized that you’re supposed to “spend time with family”. We are non-religious, so if I spend time with my family, it is not necessarily related to a christian holiday. Some places where I’ve lived have pretty much obliged me to go to my parents anyway (cause else I’d have to go days without staff). This is getting off-topic though. However, one point, meloukhia, and I am sure you weren’t meaning to imply this, but a little reminder that there are people who have very few or no people they could count as family either genetic or otherwise. In that case, “family values” can be troubling even if they aim to be inclusive of non-traditional families.

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