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‘Ward families’ may account for Utah’s marriage success

David Brooks calls for ‘forged families.’ Latter-day Saints already have ‘ward families’

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The “ward family” may help sustain Utah’s strong marriage culture.

Writer and social commentator David Brooks recently penned a 9,000-word article for The Atlantic titled, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The piece makes the case that the mid-century success of the nuclear family was anomalous. Brooks writes: “the constellation of forces that had briefly shored up the nuclear family began to fall away, and the sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since.”

In Brooks’ view, the nuclear family was destined to collapse in on itself; after all, two parents marooned on a suburban island are simply not enough to handle all the stresses and strains of family life. In most cultures, he argues, and across much of human history, families depended on many more than two sets of hands to make it all work.

University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and I engage Brooks’ ideas in a follow-up article also published by the Atlantic, titled, “The Nuclear Family is Still Indispensable.”

While acknowledging that, indeed, families are better off when woven into extended familial connections, robust communities and other social networks, we also point to hopeful signs that the nuclear family is actually improving in the United States. The Deseret News’ annual American Family Survey, for example, found that most Americans are unaware divorce rates are going down or that teenage sexual behavior is also on the decline. By many measures, communities are stronger and safer when they contain a critical mass of nuclear families. We also underscore the fact that children raised within a stable, two-parent environment often fare better on a variety of outcomes.

But, to Brooks’ point, the nuclear family, by its very name, implies that others will orbit its nucleus to provide support. And even the most self-reliant among us occasionally needs help from beyond our own four walls. Brooks makes the case that our own extended family is best suited for this role. But, he acknowledges, the uprooting mobility of our modern economy presents a challenge to returning to an entirely kin-based model of American family life.

Enter the ward family.

Latter-day Saints — in Utah and beyond — have long benefited from ward families. That is, they’ve benefited from their all-volunteer congregations in which Latter-day Saints embed themselves by geographic location. These communities of faith often function as surrogate families. From youth leaders and women’s relief society groups to ministering brothers and sisters; from church welfare and self-reliance support groups to ward campouts and cookouts, the “ward family” is there when you need it and it travels with you, no matter whether you live in Orem or Qatar.

No doubt in Utah, this strong nongovernmental safety net is one of several factors that help sustain the state’s unusually high marriage and birth rates. In the Latter-day Saint community, the nuclear family need not go it alone. And, especially in Utah, non-Latter-day Saint neighbors often also benefit. One bishop in a community south of Provo, for example, recently told me that it’s not uncommon for him to hear from the nonmember families in his neighborhood who might need assistance.

As columnist Megan McArdle describes it, inside these ward families “bishops keep a close eye on what’s going on in the congregation, and tap members as needed to help one another. If you’re out of work, they may contact small business people to find out who’s hiring. If your marriage is in trouble, they’ll find a couple who went through a hard time themselves to offer advice.”

Findings from Wilcox and University of Utah professor Nicholas Wolfinger suggest that church attendance among couples tends “to connect men and women to networks of friends who are living family-centered lives, and is also associated with a spiritually intimate behavior.”

And then there’s youth.

One scholar who studied Latter-day Saint young women and men attributed their relative behavioral stability to the sizable number of “religiously articulate adults” involved in their lives, helping “demonstrate how to approach their creed, community and understandings of vocation.”

In other words, at least in Utah — and also in the greater Latter-day Saint diaspora — the nuclear family is by no means marooned on a suburban island. The ward family supplements, overlays and reinforces. It begins to get close to what Brooks appears to be calling for — a community in which adults and children “live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms.”

If Americans continue to be mobile and independent, it seems unlikely that family life will return to large clans living in close proximity. Again, Brooks admits as much: “We can’t go back, of course. Western individualists are no longer the kind of people who live in prehistoric bands. … We value privacy and individual freedom too much.”

Brooks proposes “forged” families as an alternative solution. Forged families, according to Brooks, are families that come together out of necessity. I’m wary that these arrangements will work as effectively as the nuclear model. While Brooks’ sentiment is a noble one (we can all forge close familial ties no matter the biology) social science does not support the idea that such a model functions as an equivalent to a stable, two-parent household.

Perhaps, then, it’s worth considering whether the model of the “ward” as a supplemental safety net (for nuclear and nonnuclear families) offers an attractive alternative.

Certainly the ward family does not replace the nuclear family, but rather it’s there to help. One doesn’t need a nuclear family to join the ward family, but the community is made stronger by the presence of stable, two-parent households who, at different times in life, are expected to both receive help and lend it.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for a mass conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purely for the social benefits; rather, I believe we can look to the church’s model, and other congregational and communal models like it, as we seek to rebuild civil society’s infrastructure in an age that desperately calls for it.

The United States used to be brimming with unions, mutual benefit societies and other fraternal and sororal orders. They served a similar, albeit secular, social function. We can achieve that once again.

To be sure, anyone can still go out and join the Rotary Club or Kiwanis, but their safety net functions are largely relics of the past.

Perhaps they can be revived.

When norm creators in this nation aim to instantiate a social agenda, more often than not they succeed in achieving much of it.

As McArdle observes: “We have lots of secular authorities who could be encouraging marriage, and volunteering, and higher levels of community involvement of all kinds. Looking at the remarkable speed with which norms about gay marriage changed, thanks in part to an aggressive push on the topic from Hollywood icons, I have to believe that our norms about everyone else’s marriages could change too, if those same elites were courageous enough to recognize the evidence, and take a stand.”

Until then, it seems, old time religion will just have to suffice.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.