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Relocations: Goodbye, Ozzie and Harriet

In early 1996, Hillary Clinton published “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” The book became a best seller and the marker of a fault line between our two major political parties. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that year, Bob Dole said, “I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.”

The substantive expression of this party divide has been disagreement over funding of federal programs that help families, such as paid sick leave, subsidized child care, and early childhood nutrition and education. The salient symbolic expression was their disagreement over same-gender marriage. Thus, in the 2008 Republican platform the most extensive section on the family was “Preserving Traditional Marriage.”

“Because our children’s future is best preserved within the traditional understanding of marriage,” it called for passage of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. But neither party has asked whether the nuclear family, whatever its gender configuration, is up to the job of raising children even with support from well-funded social programs.

Two things have occasioned my asking this question. The more immediate but less important one was the Utah legislature’s recent decriminalizing of polygamy, which I discussed last week. The other, more important, one is the large number of abused children in the care of child protective services, most frequently because their parents are chemically dependent.

What we’ve learned from “Big Love” and “Sister Wives,” two popular TV shows about polygamous families, is that the multiple wives form a support system to help deal with their children and, not insignificantly, with their husbands. There are tensions, but there is bonding. How representative these families are I can’t say (and “Big Love” was fiction). We’ve heard of some dreadfully abusive polygamous families. But children experience dreadful abuse in “mainstream” families as well. And in truth, few children emerge from their families unscarred.

Among world cultures, polygamy isn’t rare, although it is mainly confined to the wealthy. But large households prevailed before the Industrial Revolution, and the villages that raised children were extended family members and neighbors and older children, not public programs run by professionals. In addition to sharing workloads, these arrangements provided multiple and overlapping social relationships and moderated aberrant behavior.

Oregon’s DHS workers are obligated to reunite children with their parents if at all possible. There are many instances of parents turning their lives around (with extensive help from taxpayer-supported programs). But I am unsympathetic to the assumption that “our children’s future is best preserved” in the parental home, which underlies this legal mandate. These children’s futures have been severely jeopardized by their experiences in the nuclear family. I would prefer that state law focus exclusively on the welfare of the children.

For many decades, average household size in the U.S. has been shrinking, in part because of a declining birth rate, in part because of an increase in single-parent families. We are heading toward a norm of one child raised by one parent, the bare minimum of human relationship. That pattern echoes our larger cultural dynamic of disconnection.

We shouldn’t just tolerate, but appreciate group living arrangements, including multiple voluntary co-habitations with or without sexual intimacy. After all, isn’t this an apt description of our senior living communities, which have become a bulwark against isolation and neglect for older Americans?

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.