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Are 'family values' outdated? Traditional family becoming the exception rather than the norm

Related story: Family structure counts

This week the New York Times' 'Room for Debate' forum provocatively asked a panel of scholars, policy experts and activists whether the "ideal of heterosexual, monogamous, married couples who have children in a nuclear family" is still a worthy ideal for public policy given that "this model is not the reality for a growing number of Americans." The question was explicitly asked in light of how "family values" emerged in the recent contest for the Republican nomination.

The panelists who found "family values" outdated focused on the fact that the traditional family is fast becoming the exception rather than the norm for child rearing. Several emphasized how discriminatory it can feel to those who find themselves outside of traditional nuclear families when public policy and societal expectations are built on this ideal. Some noted that a family values ideal was becoming politically unsustainable because of the country's changing demographics. Others pointed out the variability of family structures throughout history, thereby questioning the universal value of the intact nuclear family.

On the other hand, the panelists who embraced a continued emphasis on a traditional family ideal focused on the positive results delivered by intact nuclear families, citing the mounting social scientific evidence linking social and economic success with the traditional family. They also noted similar evidence of the marked social and economic deprivation associated with growing up with only one biological parent.

We appreciate that the very concept of family is fraught with emotion. Families usually form because of strong emotional attachment, and they typically fall apart when those emotional bonds are betrayed. Strong feelings, some positive and some negative, etch everyone's family memories.

But family policy needs to step back from politics and emotions and consider that there may be tremendous agreement about what we want from families. If we can identify those shared ends, we might begin to look to the evidence about what works to achieve those ends. Such an effort could pattern itself, for example, on how we consider physical health — choosing desirable outcomes and then identifying and cultivating habits and practices that contribute to those outcomes.

We believe that many would agree that success in family life includes, at a minimum, providing for the basic physical and emotional needs of children and nurturing them to self-sufficient adulthood, while also maintaining the basic physical and emotional well-being of parents.

If that minimalist definition of success could be agreed upon as a basic value, what would the evidence teach us about how to achieve it?

The data on the well-being of children is quite clear. Children who grow up in homes where the relationship between their biological parents remains intact generally enjoy greater emotional, physical, economic and social support. As Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur reported in their seminal study of the issue, "Growing up with only one biological parent frequently deprives children of important economic, parental and community resources, and … these deprivations ultimately undermine their chances of future success."

Less clear, given the stresses of parenting, employment and potential fluctuations in adult relationships — and how those issues are portrayed in popular culture — is how to maintain the well-being of couples as they take on the responsibilities of parenthood. A comprehensive analysis of that issue, however, is now available from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in its recent report "The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2011," in which researchers carefully evaluate the characteristics of parents who thrive emotionally as couples, even as they face the stresses of child rearing.

They discover that intentionally embracing specific contemporary and traditional values provides significant resilience and happiness in marriage. The contemporary ethic they identify as marital generosity, in which domestic tasks are shared, personal interests of a spouse are encouraged, spouses go out of their way to show affection and forgiveness, and romance and intimacy are fostered. The traditional values that make a significant difference in happiness and stability include fidelity, commitment, thrift, supportive friendships and weekly family participation in religious services.

Maintaining healthy families has never been an easy task. Nonetheless, if society is serious about maintaining the physical and emotional well being of children, it can't be neutral about supporting the bonding of biological parents. And if we are eager to support successful parental bonding, we can't be neutral about the importance of marriage and the values, habits and behaviors that keep it resilient and healthy.

Instead of questioning whether family values are outdated, we should seek to foster support through policy and civil society for what we know works to achieve the ends that we agree on.