Neo-Family Values, Part 1: At Home

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
November 2, 2003

Follows Hymn #360: HERE WE HAVE GATHERED, and

READING: "Moving Forward Instead of Back"
From The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families by Stephanie Coontz

Family sociologist Arlene Skolnick suggests that social and cultural transformations typically go through a series of (three) stages. The first is a period of "individual and family stress" that occurs because old "understandings and practices are disrupted long before new ones have taken shape."

In this stage, most people do not recognize that they are facing irreversible social changes or new structural dilemmas that may be forcing them or others to behave in new ways. If we just tried harder, people think, we could get back to the way things used to be. They search their hearts, make new resolutions, and berate themselves for failing to keep them. Growing numbers of individuals "show signs of psychological stress—personality disturbance, drinking and drug problems." People experiment with ways of coping that may appear irrational or self-destructive, but in fact reflect the harsh reality that there is as yet simply no right way to behave.

The second stage of transformation, Skolnick suggests, is one of public debate and cultural struggle, as competing definitions of the problem are raised by different groups. Political and social movements arise, attempting to hold back the changes, push them in new directions, or shift their costs to someone else.

This is often, I would add, a period when the previous denial of new realities turns into a search for scapegoats. Having redoubled their efforts to preserve the old ways without much success, people get tired of feeling guilty or inadequate. The next step is to conclude that most of us have been doing the right thing all along, but that someone else has been undermining our efforts. If we could just bring those individuals or groups under control, the old patterns would fall back in place. There are always demagogues waiting in the wings to encourage this blaming impulse, and they often manage to whip it into a frenzy.

Only after the two stages of personal distress and social conflict have been worked through, Skolnick argues, does society reach a period of realization. When people gain an understanding of why change is occurring and what parts of it cannot be reversed, they begin to adapt their institutions, values, and cultural norms to the new realities. Most of the turmoil associated with the transitional period recedes. It’s not that the new equilibrium is conflict-free, or that it represents everyone’s interests equally But acceptance that the transformation is here to stay establishes a new baseline from which further change, modification, and adjustments can occur.

It is practically a historical truism that the longer the denial and scapegoating go on, the more the casualties of social transformation mount. A historical and sociological perspective can be of tremendous help to both individuals and society as a whole in getting us past the destructive stages more quickly, so we can move on to the period of reconstruction and restabilization.

SERMON: Neo-Family Values, Part 1: At Home

Each Sunday and at other times, we gather here, sharing our hearts' own song. This is A Beautiful Thing, to be in community, but it’s not always easy; even heart songs can clash or be dissonant. It can be hard to appreciate some music that sounds good to others.

But it’s usually worth the risk to come out of our homes to church. We come out of our homes, to be at church, or to be anywhere, really. We come out of our homes, emerge from our families, to link up with others. So it is no wonder that the lessons we learn in our families significantly shape our interactions in the wider world.

This happens for better or for worse, like it or not, and has been happening since families began. When we come out of our homes, we bring parts of our families with us, in one way or another. The family is a cauldron of activities and influences, in which we usually spend the most formative years of our lives, simmering over a low heat of shared heritage and culture.

What comes with us when we emerge from our families of origin are our values, the things we've learned are important. Thus the term "family values" attests to the primary role of the family in shaping our lives and behavior. There are no arguments about this fact. We might reshape ourselves or be reshaped later in life, but it's often hard because of how deep the original lessons go.

It used to be that most American families taught values that maybe changed gradually over generations, but very slowly if at all. Now, of course, rapid change—bringing "social transformation"—is a red-hot fire, often heating family cauldrons into a boiling mixture—not very stable at all. American families seem distressingly unstable these days. Witness the array of social problems and attitudes that are declared by some people to be problems caused by a lack of of "family values," or by too much diversity in what gets accepted as family values.

The often explicit implication of this posture is that if we could just turn down the heat of change and recover our wholesome but neglected "family values," things would stabilize, right? Or is this an unrealistic and overly simplistic attempt to go backwards, one that unduly leans on "denial and scapegoating"?

Well, I say it’s a "both/and-ian" situation: we can BOTH affirm the most inclusive "traditional" family values, such as an ethic of the good of the whole, AND we can move ahead, creatively, without blinders to the realities of our time. We can articulate a positive platform that makes sense and inspires us—now and into a hopeful future.

Before I give voice to a few "Neo-Family Values," let me look for a moment at our all-too-natural tendency to glorify what was, what in hindsight often appears nostalgically better. In this case, it’s the draw of so-called "traditional family values," which are held up by some advocates as the model we should all return to.

Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie & Harriet, The Donna Reed Show… Ahh, these once immensely popular TV shows gave us real family values in the 1950s and 60s! Every week they portrayed infinitely wise parents with kids who learned quickly from their innocent errors, showing how all problems can be neatly resolved within 30 minutes by a white, middle class nuclear family.

News Flash: these were not documentaries! It is seductive to imagine that life was always like that, and could be again! But alas, one need only sample social historian Stephanie Coontz’s stunning exposé, called The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, to find illumination of a truth more based in reality. (This book was so well received that she also published a follow-up, called The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families, from which today’s reading was taken. They are both stirring portrayals of a depth discussion about the social transformation we have been experiencing in recent decades.)

Coontz challenges many cherished assumptions about and images of our near and distant past, but especially those wonderful 1950s. For instance, we might, say, use high rates of teenage childbearing as an indicator of family values gone awry. The truth is that the highest rate of teen mothers was in 1957. Almost forty years later, in the mid-1990s, the rate of teenagers bearing children was half what it was in glorious 1957 [pg. 202].

It might be even more tempting to lift up "traditional family values" from way back in the Victorian Era, but alcohol consumption per capita in the late 19th century was three times today's rate [p. 4-5]. Oh, and by the way, the age of sexual consent back then was 9 in some states.

At the recent turn of the millennium, a scandalous 20% of American children lived in poverty, but a century earlier the same percentage of kids lived in orphanages—not so much because they lacked parents, but often because their parents couldn't afford to keep them.

The sociological statistics game is a little like "proof-texting" from the Bible—there’s so much to draw from that one can pound on almost any theme. But Coontz is relentless and convincing in making her main point: across the generations of changes in family arrangements and configurations, no one family form has ever automatically protected people from poverty or social upheaval. Therefore, trying to soften change by mandating a particular family form is at best misguided and perhaps disingenuous.

In fact, the top three predictors for stress in families are all economic: income insecurity, job disruption and financial reversals. It is simplistic and illusory to think that enforcing a nuclear family with so-called "traditional family values" will cure the ills of our time, which are often due to economic factors.

Go back a little further and you see that the economics of the Industrial Revolution forced an experiment that gradually created the nuclear family. The same stages of unstable social transformation we are in now were also present in the decades after the Industrial Revolution started, as more and more families had to adjust to new economic demands. They didn’t choose to go nuclear; they had to, pushed by larger forces that pulled a single "bread-winner" away to work in a centralized location.

Previously, on the farm or in the family business in town, both spouses had been much more collaborative in both bread-winning and child-rearing, with other live-in relatives also helping out, but this model could not withstand the new industrial landscape. There were decades of denial and scapegoating, but eventually the nuclear family mode stabilized, so that later generations thought it was only proper that women be the primary care-givers to children and men provide the family’s ostensible economic support. And the experiment became an assumption.

What I’ve described is only one rather superficial presentation of many eye-opening arguments that run throughout the pages of these fascinating books. I struggled to select which statistics and stories to draw into a short sermon. What may be most relevant—not a surprise, but extremely well documented—is Coontz’s explanation of why we yearn for the "fabulous 50s," say, even when confronted with clear evidence that there was actually more poverty then.

The compelling reason is that the fabric of our country in the post WW II era was woven through and through with economic optimism, the the kind of hope that most people today can only dream about, and then often awake with nightmares. The American Dream of home ownership and ever-rising income has evaporated for most people, accelerating its disappearance from the late 1970s on.

There are lots of numbing figures to support this. Take home ownership: in the 1950s and 60s, the average 30 year old had to spend 15% of a salary to buy a house [p. 264]. That 15% rose to 20% in 1973, but then doubled in the next decade to over 40% in the mid-80s. Meanwhile, in the dozen years after that memorable Oil Crisis of 1973, the median income for families headed by someone under age 30 dropped 27% (which just happens to be the same percentage drop per capita as during the Great Depression). Meanwhile, over those same dozen years the poverty rate for young families doubled, not surprisingly.

But, argue some voices, during the 1980s many economic indicators were positive, showing stability in the real income of most families, and an increase in per capita income. Coontz illuminates this with a statement that cuts to the chase:

"The reason economic decline did not always show up in averages was that young Americans preserved many trappings of the postwar economic dream by sacrificing many aspects of the postwar family dream."

During the years that young parents should be spending more time with their children, they now have to work overtime just to keep up. Second wage earners in nuclear families became necessary to maintain the expected standard of living. (By l989, almost 80% of home buyers were two income households.) But the nuclear family form is not really designed to accommodate two wage-earners, especially outside the home.

So along the way, marriage was postponed and fertility decreased, understandably. Families with two incomes and two or fewer kids began to outnumber both single-parents and two-parent families with more than two kids. These kinds of compensations kept alive the image of the economic dream; but the American family dream was in trouble.

Meanwhile, 80% of income increases in the 1980s went to the top 20% wealthiest households, which were not usually the ones raising young children. And it got worse in the 90s! So much for the "trickle-down theory" of Reaganomics. In short, the American family has taken the brunt of the rich getting richer. For example, studies have found a direct relationship between rising unemployment and rising child abuse.

One conclusion of all this historical sociology is this: changing family structures are a result of stressful economic decline, not a cause.

Emotional (and often religious) calls for a return to the old family structure—the one that reminds some people of an era of economic optimism—often come without any parallel calls for a return to the more balanced economic scenarios that used to inspire hope in all Americans. Hope now seems restricted to the wealthiest fraction that continues to get blindly richer, with little apparent concern for the good of the whole.

However, in the last decade or so, the success of a vocal rightwing political version of family values—often masquerading with righteous religious overtones—has awakened some of us to the need for an alternative voice to be heard. As Unitarian Universalists, we have a lot to offer, without apology, in the marketplace of values. We should be articulating positive "Neo-Family Values" that speak inspiringly to what we are and want to be in this new millennium.

So I'm proposing here a trio of Neo-Family Values, for your consideration and development. These are not really new values, per se. They reflect a heritage that still sings to our hearts, but perhaps in increasingly relevant ways. First is Idealism—certainly not a new virtue, but it counts as a Neo-Family Value because, if anything, it has become more important as a positive, progressive approach to growth, especially in the face of burgeoning cynicism.

What are your family's ideals? What are the messages you send about them? I draw here, selectively, from Dr. Benjamin Spock, the controversial but effective teacher of child development, who emphasized Idealism as a driving biological influence on young people. Early on, children always see their parents as larger than life, idealized, and thus the youngsters believe that they, too, can become or accomplish much.

This view of their parents will change after about age six, but it will not necessarily thwart their own ambition toward high-minded goals. A child’s emerging idealism can be cultivated or crushed in the years ahead by the ways their parents and other influential adults model a mature idealism—or not. If young idealism is encouraged and sustained by parents, it leads to high achievement. If parents lack vision or idealism, or wax passively cynical, their children's aims will likely shrink, too.

Spock holds a mirror up to American families and asks, what does your idealism look like and teach? If I had known about this process when I was a teenager, I might have explained it to my Unitarian Universalist parents. I was outrageously idealistic into my young adult years, which seemed to bother my folks, but it was my mom's fault! She modeled it for me by being so active in civil rights, anti-war, and fair housing movements! And here I am, still idealistic after all these years.

In one church I know, during a call to raise cash and pledges toward their collective ambitions, a five-year-old girl came forward and proudly offered a dollar toward the congregation’s goal. She had figured out from watching her parents that supporting the church was a family value—idealism at work! Some church experts note that the most reliable adult contributors are those who, when young, were able to participate in the Offering portion of church services, when the ideal of generosity was explicitly demonstrated.

Idealism is a general family value, spurring a variety of specific attitudes that portray in action the values a family holds dear. In UUism, we promote idealism in our seven Principles, the first of which affirms "the inherent worth and dignity of every person"—a very idealistic statement! But this is not just a vague maxim, unrelated to everyday living. It stands for the value of every person, including those who arrange their families in non-traditional fashions, such as single parents or shared custody or blended families or adoptions or same-gender couples.

It was once declared disparagingly that UU churches have the highest number of divorced people in them—and that may well be true, but it’s probably because we affirm people even after divorce and, wha’dya know, they feel more welcome here than in some other more judgmental religions. Hopefully, church ideals can contribute positively to a family’s values, but more on that in Part Two of this short sermon series (in two weeks on Nov. 16). It's important to articulate, model, honor and celebrate the life-affirming idealism that lives in our family values.

The second value I propose is another of Ben Spock's notions, a value which he believes is instinctual in children: in his words, "non-religious spiritual values." He defines this as if designed for contrarian UUs: to him, spiritual values are almost anything that isn't materialistic. So much of the American family's unraveling can be traced to materialism, which values comfort, pleasure and wealth over all else. Spiritual values are, for example, love, kindness, loyalty, service, reverence, musical discovery and appreciation, the good of the whole, etc., most of which are modeled and strengthened in home life.

Ben Spock insists that it matters less how you derive these theologically than how you uphold them in behavior. Again, this is not a new approach, but it belongs on my list of Neo-Family Values because in the face of the advance of an oppressive materialism, it continues to offer an important vision for our time and the future. Spiritual values are almost anything that isn't materialistic. Think about that.

The third of my Neo-family Values is an angle that I've tried to incorporate into my philosophy a lot: the value of being an ally, that is, intentionally looking for and sharing a common purpose and working together toward it. Certainly there are role distinctions and power differentials in family life. But I believe in the value of people being allies to each other, across the generations.

This might look different at different stages of life, but it can be a practical framework by which we support and challenge and assist and coach and do all the things allies do for each other. At times, of course, family members do struggle to even be friendly with each other, but hopefully they can still at least see each other as allies.

With the way things are changing in the culture around us, you can't have too many allies, and it can start ideally with family members. This may not be how we think of our parents, siblings, children—but think again: I predict being an ally will be an increasingly important Neo-Family Value for the 21st century as we find new ways to seek the good of the whole.

Now, these three suggestions are not overly specific on purpose, so that you might locate yourself and your family within their broad outlines, to design and articulate the particulars of your neo-family values. Perhaps you will factor in good doses of idealism, spiritual values, and lots of allies.

Even in—maybe especially in these economically cynical and distressing times, we are called to model and live out our positive values, which emerge from our family life, very influentially so. They come out of our homes whenever we do. To the extent our families value the good of the whole, America will prosper.

When "here we have gathered," side by side, singing our hearts’ own song—we are serving as allies for each other, called to celebrate our spiritual values in a circle of loving kinship that expresses enriching ideals. May all your steps From here carry you toward a future of prosperity; may the days ahead bring joy and fulfillment to your family, whatever its form; and may the Spirit of Life blow great value among us…

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