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  • Some experts stress personal responsibility, others focus on solidarity as the best way to rebuild families. Tweet This
  • To restore families, our messaging and actions should point young people to the stars. Tweet This

“Someone should just say, ‘Cut it out!’” proposes David Lebedoff, a Minneapolis writer and lawyer. He is referring to “fractured families,” a term he does not like.

“What we are really talking about is the fact that children need parents,” he says. “So let’s just say that.”

Writing in a symposium sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment (CAE) about what specifically might be done to “repair our culture of massive family fragmentation,” Lebedoff suggests that marriage advocates should look to anti-smoking campaigns for instruction. Some of them used images that portrayed the horrors of what smoking does to one’s body. They weren’t easy to look at, he notes, but they got the point across. Similarly, many people don’t like to look at the damage done by fragmented families, he argues, but it must be done. “If you show people where one road will lead,” he writes, “many may choose a higher path.”

In another essay, Larry Mead, a political scientist at New York University and an architect of welfare reform legislation, takes a similar approach and applies it to public policies. America’s social problems, he writes, “are all about behavior, not values.” Few people approve of crime or living on welfare without working, he points out, but those things still happen. Where there is progress against social problems, there is a combination of “better policies and stronger social authority.” Lawmakers required more welfare recipients to work, and have begun to raise standards in schools. “Attitudes shifted from tolerance toward an insistence on better behavior,” he notes—and, as he sees it, it’s working.

Similarly, he observes that few people are against the idea of marriage—but many people still do not get married. Why? Because we don’t have policies that “clearly expect better behavior,” combined with public support of those policies. One way to change that, he proposes, is by requiring youth still in school who have kids outside of marriage to attend “special, single-sex schools that prepare them only to go to work and support their children.” For these young people (both male and female), “work will preempt other opportunities like going to college.”

Just as strong anti-crime measures send the message to gangs that “the rules are changing,” so too do we as a society need to send loud and clear message to youth that, when it comes to unwed childbearing, the rules are changing. Mead recommends restoring some of the old stigma to future (though not past) “illegitimacy.” (He adds that free, long-term contraception for all lower-income young women is an important part of the plan.) “It would show that opinion can be effective,” concludes Mead.

“If you show people where one road will lead, many may choose a higher path,” writes attorney David Lebedoff.

Mead and Lebedoff’s emphasis on personal responsibility and raising public awareness about the harms of family fragmentation (especially unwed childbearing) were well-represented in the CAE symposium, to which my wife and I also contributed an essay that this blog will feature later this week. Fred Senn, an advertiser, suggests that we chronicle the dangers of unwed childbearing, put it on a big chart, and “move the big chart to a place where everybody can see it.” He proposes measuring the rate of births to unmarried women with the same urgency that we measure the unemployment rate, the crime rate, and the graduation rate.

These writers form what I call the Party of Responsibility. Though by no means a unified group, they share many of the same concerns and assumptions. They emphasize clear messaging, “preach[ing] what you practice,” public awareness of the harms involved, and rigorous public policies. Their essays suggest that the root problem consists in a lack of information, or at least a lack of clear expectations.

Other writers in the symposium form what I call the Party of Solidarity. They also talk about responsibility, but rather than emphasizing the irresponsibility of others, they tend to emphasize one’s own responsibility to look out for his neighbor. They seem to assume that most people want to be good fathers and lifelong spouses, but that childhood deficits (among other things) make it more difficult to practice what they desire.

Mary Ann Nelson, a one-time school teacher and school superintendent, recounts how her gruff Finnish grandfather would gather his grandchildren around for “children only” time, and talk to them about life over buttered saltine crackers. “We knew we were loved even as we were admonished,” she writes, and describes some of the messages she learned, such as: “You come from hardy stock—we’re counting on you to do the right thing no matter what.” She worries that many young people today don’t have the opportunity “to sit around the proverbial kitchen table to hear sustaining advice from parents and grandparents.”

In other words, instead of simply laying the blame at the feet of irresponsible youth, she notices an absence of connected adults—or “attuned other[s],” as psychiatrist Dan Siegel would put it.

“How powerful if each of us would reach out to individuals in need of a caring friend in the neighborhood or workplace,” writes Nelson. “With respect and understanding, we could help someone who is ready to listen to find a better path…. Personal connections pave the way to building resilience and self-confidence during times of stress.” She seems to be suggesting that no man is an island, and that with a little love and guidance, people have a better shot at thriving.

Similarly, Kathryn Hickok, the director of an Oregon scholarship program for low-income children, takes as her starting point the lived experiences of many young people: those from fragmented families have become “schooled in brokenness.” She diagnoses family fragmentation as a crisis of hope.

“The pain younger people have experienced growing up and the cynicism and fear their experiences have produced cannot be overcome merely by wishing for a return to traditional values regarding love, dating, and marriage,” she writes. “For many, these standards of behavior and patterns of life seem too remote when they have grown up confused about what love looks like and requires. They may even doubt love and commitment are possible.”

Because of their experiences, Hickok argues, many young people are afraid. Thus, she talks about “healing the culture” and inviting young people to embrace marriage as “an act of daring.” She suggests efforts to help children recover their dignity, and to practice reverence for themselves and others.

Our policies and messaging and on-the-ground actions should mercifully point young people to the stars—without setting off a revolt that pushes [them] further into the gutter.

I tend to think that the law is generally too blunt an instrument when dealing with family formation. I worry, for instance, that Mead’s proposal would put such a stigma on unwed childbearing that it would encourage more abortion, as well as further alienate people who already feel marginalized and judged. I also worry that top-down messaging along the lines of “Cut it out!” that emphasize harms will risk further alienating young people. Will young people listen or rebel? Some research suggests that “scared-straight” messaging actually makes problems worse.

I favor the Party of Solidarity’s approach of befriending and living with others, because it starts with young people’s own experiences of suffering and aspirations for a better way. I resonate with the recommendation of Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, who writes: if family fragmentation is to be reversed, “we must provide compelling examples, which will take great sacrifice. Perhaps that is why the Greek word for witness is martyr.” He mentions the importance of having models of loving marriages in every community, and suggests married couples mentoring the newly engaged, and making one’s home a place of friendship and hospitality, and supporting families through struggles.

But messaging does matter. Ideas and standards matter. What society says is good or bad matters a great deal. How to wield that influence wisely? That’s the question.

Chuck Chalberg, a retired community college professor, wrestles with this question. He concludes that when it comes to unwed motherhood, “it’s better to be individually helpful than collectively celebratory.” We can help a single mother or cohabiting father with their practical needs and welcome their children with love into the world, even as we refrain from celebrating unwed parenthood in general. Moreover, Chalberg proposes, we should expect and invite young people to practice “heroism”— a heroism to be different and to give the gift of one’s sexuality only until he is prepared to be a father and spouse, and until she is ready to say yes to motherhood and marriage. It takes heroism, but it’s in pursuit of goods that most of us want.

Chalberg points to an Oscar Wilde aphorism that I believe sums up the work ahead for those who want to reverse the course of family fragmentation: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Somehow, our policies and messaging and on-the-ground actions should mercifully point young people to the stars—without setting off a revolt that pushes young people who are anxious or ambivalent about marriage further into the gutter.