My freshman year, at our dorm Crossing the Line event, there was one question whose answer I still remember. Our moderator asked us to cross the line if our biological parents were divorced or separated. Fewer than a quarter of students walked across the room.
That response gave me pause then and still does today. Divorce rates in the United States for the first marriage are generally estimated to hover around 50 percent. Add in the children born out of wedlock to parents who never marry in the first place — four out of 10 babies in 2007 — and the statistics for America as a whole become staggering.
So what does it say about marriage that, at least according to my completely unscientific survey, the world’s most successful, driven, bright kids — measured by their admittance to Stanford — tend to come from families where both parents are still married? Might stable marriages lead to more successful children? And if so, might the Right be right about the importance of the nuclear family and community in fostering responsible, virtuous young people?
My opinion is: sort of.
There’s no doubt that two-parent families confer a series of advantages on children. Most obvious among them is time: time parents spend reading with kids, time invested taking them to and from productive after-school sports and extracurriculars, time enjoyed having meaningful conversations over real, healthy, home-made meals, time spent obsessing over test scores and grades — in short, time not spent leaving children in front of the television or video games munching on a Big Mac while working an exhausting second job to pay the bills a wife or husband might otherwise be able to help pay. Raising a child successfully takes enormous amounts of work, and two-parent families have an advantage in splitting what can be a formidable workload for single moms and dads.
In his influential new book “Coming Apart,” libertarian thinker Charles Murray argues convincingly that American social life is increasingly becoming polarized between two diametric demographic opposites: an elite upper class that tends to marry and stay married, connects with the surrounding community and has at least one college degree, and a lower class that doesn’t marry, never forms meaningful social connections and rarely graduates from high school, let alone college.
These data mesh discouragingly with the message of Robert D. Putnam’s thought-provoking “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” which examines declining levels of participation in civic networks among American families since 1960. Putnam argues powerfully that the average American is less connected to her fellow citizens, possesses shallower social networks and is less involved in her local community than ever before.
In these respects, I think there’s actually something valuable to be taken away from the generally absurd conservative outrage over “Julia,” Team Obama’s recent digital poster-child. As Ross Douthat points out in the New York Times, Julia “seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (‘Julia decides to have a child,’ is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26.” That is a dark vision of the good life, indeed.
So far, so good. Family and community can have noticeable positive effects. But here’s where the Right goes wrong.
By adopting cutthroat fiscal policies that make it harder and harder for working-class moms and dads to find the time and money to spend meaningful time with growing kids, conservatives are themselves undermining the family values they profess to promote.
By making it impossible for gays and lesbians to marry, conservatives are preventing the formation of stable nuclear families that they (quite rightly) aim to support.
By refusing to acknowledge the lingering influence of racial discrimination in this country, conservatives are missing the opportunity to target family-friendly social and economic policies toward especially high-risk minority communities, where the two-parent families are particularly rare.
By supporting wars overseas — and in this criticism I include President Obama — conservatives are removing tens of thousands of fathers and mothers from the lives of their children at some of the most vital moments in their emotional development — moments stolen from them by a helicopter flight in Kabul or a firefight in Helmand. Even worse, sometimes those absences are permanent, tearing a family apart forever.
So sure, let’s encourage stable marriages, happy families and community morality. But let’s do it honestly, and without the disingenuous hypocrisy that mars too many conversations about the family today.
If you have better data than a Crossing the Line event from three years ago, Miles would love to see it. Email him anytime at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.