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Family values: What family? Whose values?          Send a link to a friend

[AUG. 13, 2005]  URBANA -- Although traditional family values were credited with being the decisive factor in the 2004 presidential election, the institution of marriage in the United States looks less and less "traditional" to family life specialists.

"Clearly American families have changed, especially when we use the 'Leave It to Beaver' family as a benchmark," said Angela Wiley, assistant professor in family studies at the University of Illinois. "The two-parent, single-earner family made up only 7 percent of American families in 2002."

It's not just the number of families with two working parents or the rise in the number of single-parent households -- now 31 percent of all U.S. families. The average age of first marriage has risen to age 25.1 years for women and 27.8 years for men, and women are increasingly postponing or not having children.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of cohabiting couples increased 72 percent between 1990 and 2000. Government statistics reveal that 41 percent of American women age 15 to 44 have lived with a partner outside of marriage at some point in their lives, said Wiley.

"At the National Council of Family Relations meeting two years ago, there was a lot of discussion about what's happening to marriage," Wiley said. "Researchers asked: Are we seeing a change in the way couples get together? Is marriage becoming almost pass?"

There are many voters for whom "family values" is a compelling issue, but Wiley believes that many people have gotten trapped in a nostalgia myth.

"Even in the 1950s, many families did not fit the 'Leave It to Beaver' mold," she said, citing historian Stephanie Coontz's book "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."

"But for some reason, we believe there's a set of American values that were somehow purer, safer, morally better, and there's a sense that we're diverging radically from that."

Same-sex marriage

Ironically, just as many Americans are opting out of traditional marriage, gay and lesbian couples are clamoring to make it their own.

"Marriage in the United States is a gateway to social legitimacy, economic benefits and legal security; that's why many gay and lesbian couples want to marry," said Ramona Oswald, an associate professor of family studies at the U of I.

"In my mind, same-sex marriage is very pro-family," she said. "It would allow gay and lesbian couples to protect and provide for each other. It would protect the rights of children if parental death or divorce occurs."

In most states, same-sex couples who have done as much legal documentation as they can possibly do -- they have powers of attorney, wills and own a home together -- still face challenges that heterosexual married couples don't.

"If one partner is ill, a hospital doesn't have to honor the medical power of attorney the other partner has; and that power of attorney ends the moment the sick partner dies," Oswald said. "The surviving partner doesn't even have the right to make funeral arrangements."

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Perhaps nothing worries "family values" advocates more, though, than the children being reared in such nontraditional families. What is the outcome for children of gay couples who become parents or for children of heterosexual couples who live together without marrying?

"That depends on so many factors, including whether both parents are committed to the child and whether the parents' relationship involves excessive conflict," said Wiley.

Oswald said that two decades of research have consistently found few differences between children of gay and straight parents. "Differences that have been found seem rather positive," she said, citing findings that children of lesbian mothers may have slightly better social skills and feel less confined by gender stereotypes.

Need for tolerance, respect and good social policy

Wiley worries that family values battles pitting "us versus them" are tearing at the fabric of community that supports a healthy society. "American society was built on the notion of religious tolerance and respect for differing points of view," she said, noting that research shows spirituality is an important component of personal well-being.

"And religion offers added benefits beyond spirituality -- a supportive religious community and practices that give the believer's life meaning," she said. "We know, for example, that ritual is important in managing stress.

"But when members of a religious group try to convert others to their beliefs, they risk violating another person's boundaries. It's important to respect people's right to their own way of thinking."

In light of the changing composition of the American family, Wiley calls for domestic partner recognition and benefits for unmarried couples; supportive policies and benefits for single parents, including improvements in child-care options and availability; and improved diversity training in the workplace, including religious diversity and tolerance.

Oswald believes that we need to distinguish between our personal values and good social policy. She challenges people who oppose legal rights for gay and lesbian families to really think about what that lack of rights means.

"Is it OK with you if a parent can't enroll his child in school because he has no legal rights? Is it OK with you if a hospital can block a partner from seeing her dying spouse? That's where the conversation needs to be," she said.

[Phyllis Picklesimer, University of Illinois]

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