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  • The family our students will form matters  monumentally to their ultimate success and  personal agency. Tweet This
  • The type of family that has been found to be most beneficial for the prospects of young adults and their future is an intact, married, two-parent household. Tweet This
  • Ian Rowe offers 4 steps to inspire the rising generation to raise more children in stable, married, two-parent households—one of the best predictors of a life of agency. Tweet This
Category: Marriage, Education

The future of the family is a matter of enormous and incalculable importance, and the strength, health, and integrity of marriage and family life constitute an absolutely essential precondition for all other social, economic, and political goods. — Wilfred McClay

In 1860, Milton Bradley created the Checkered Game of Life board game. His patent application made it clear that "in addition to the amusement and excitement of the game, it is intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice." The game's red-and-ivory checkerboard presented a 64-square obstacle course featuring character traits—bravery, idleness, industry, honesty—that could lead to wealth, suicide, prison, disgrace, fame, ruin, or happiness.

The deeply religious Bradley explained that the game represents "the checkered journey of life." The most successful player would "gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress." Part of your life outcomes were in God's hands; other parts were in yours. As each player twirled a wooden teetotum, they were offered key life decisions and character traits to choose from (e.g., "Bravery or Idleness" and "College or Fame") that led to next steps. While landing on "Cupid" meant going directly to "Matrimony," landing on "Gambling" led directly to "Ruin."

For Bradley, challenging circumstances at any point in life did not have to dictate outcomes. If a player landed at the Poverty square immediately after Infancy, they needn't fear. It is "not necessarily a fact that poverty will be a disadvantage." "School" and "Ambition" were both accessible from "Poverty." "Perseverance" could lead to "Success." The game's original game was clear: choices matter. Redemption was an ever-present possibility. Honor was in your grasp, even if you had committed a crime. The traits a player chose to adopt determined whether they achieved the overarching goal of the game-to live to a "Happy Old Age."

The Checkered Game of Life sold millions of copies. On its centennial in 1960, however, Hasbro Company, which had purchased the Milton Bradley Company, released a new version with a truncated name: Game of Life. The revamped edition bore no resemblance to the original. There was no teetotum, no vices like "Disgrace" or "Idleness" to be avoided, no virtues like "Honesty" or "Perseverance" to be embraced. The new version defined success as a function of how much money a player amassed and involved practical matters like choosing a college or profession, buying insurance, securing a mortgage, or playing the stock market. In a 2012 lecture to Harvard University students, historian Jill Lepore described the 1960 Game of Life as "incredibly grubby . . . just a shamelessly amoral and cash-conscious monster of a board game."

Perhaps in a nod to Milton Bradley's inclusion of Matrimony, the 1960 Game of Life did put its thumb on the scale in one area. Each player had to go to church and get married if they wanted to succeed. And you could only add a baby girl or boy if you were already married. The new requirement—Bradley's original version simply presented marriage as a virtuous choice—prompted no moral outrage. It merely reflected cultural norms concerning marriage and childbearing in 1960, since at the time 95 percent of all babies were born within marriage. Imagine what the reaction would be today.

Indeed, nearly 50 years later, in 2007, Hasbro again revamped the Game of Life. According to Hasbro's promotional materials, "The Game of Life: Twists and Turns puts a new and modern spin on Hasbro's classic family board game. It is a game of choices, where players can 'test drive' different lifestyles, take their chances and experience the twists and turns of real life."

There are no absolutes in the new version—virtually anything goes. The only commonality is that each player is given a branded Visa credit card (ironically, with the name of Milton Bradley). Marriage is no longer required. If a player lands on a space that offers the marriage option, choosing that option does not guarantee a particular outcome. Moreover, if a player chooses that option, all other players have $1,000 automatically drained from their bank account for a wedding gift. Thus, in today's Game of Life: Twists and Turns, marriage is not mandatory, and moreover, your friends have a perverse incentive to encourage you not to get married.

The family our students will form matters monumentally to their ultimate success and personal agency—and the type of family that has been found to be most beneficial for the prospects of young adults and their future children is an intact, married, two-parent household.

As Lepore noted in her Harvard lecture, the new version's "only object is to experience all that life has to offer. With Milton Bradley's Visa card in hand, you can do whatever you want. It doesn't matter. No one cares. There are no consequences." However, real life, unlike the Game of Life, is not a game. There are choices in real life and those choices have consequences for adults and their children—all of which brings us to the role of the Family in FREE (which stands for: Family, Religion, Education, and Entrepreneurship).

As we have seen, the family our students will form matters monumentally to their ultimate success and personal agency—and the type of family that has been found to be most beneficial for the prospects of young adults and their future children is an intact, married, two-parent household. It bears repeating that millennials are taking divergent paths toward adulthood and family formation, paths associated with markedly different economic outcomes. Millennials are much more likely to flourish financially if they first earn at least a high school degree, then find full-time work, and then marry before having any children. According to an Institute for Family Studies study, 97 percent of millennials who make this ordered series of decisions—the Success Sequence—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young-adult years (ages 28 through 34).

Despite all this—and despite the fact that there has been a resurgence in the number of children living with two parents in recent years—there is reason for both worry and action. In 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics division of the Centers for Disease Control released a report on attitudes toward marriage, childbearing, and sexual behavior. It found that the percentage of respondents aged 15 through 44 who thought it was "okay for an unmarried female to have and raise a child" had increased over time. Among women, 70 percent agreed in 2002 and 78 percent agreed in 2011-2013. Among men, 59 percent agreed in 2002 and 69 percent agreed in 2011-2013. An even higher percentage of women aged 15 through 24 (77 percent) agreed with the statement in 2011-2013, while only 60 percent of men in the same age group agreed.

If we want to inspire the rising generation to have more children born into stable, married, two-parent households—one of the best predictors of a life of agency—I recommend four steps:

  1. Re-create or revitalize a social norm concerning work, marriage, responsible family formation, and parenthood.
  2. Make family structure a standard measurement category of child outcomes.
  3. Implement family-friendly policies that do not penalize marriage.
  4. Declare the reduction in nonmarital births to women aged twenty-four and under to be a "winnable battle."

Ian Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies. This essay is excerpted from Chapter 13 of Mr. Rowe's new book, Agency: The Four-Point Plan (FREE) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power (Templeton Press, May 2022). It has been reprinted here, in part, with permission.