March 6, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an 8,100-word essay in The Atlantic (The Atlantic, 3/2020). In response, the Institute for Family Studies sponsored a symposium to discuss Brooks’ work (IF Studies, 2/10/20). There were eight respondents, including Brad Wilcox, Kay Hymowitz, Andrew Cherlin and others. All put together, their responses totaled more words than Brooks’ original piece. Then Brooks took about 1,000 words to respond to the symposium’s responses to his article (IF Studies, 2/24/20).
With that small blizzard of words, you might think the august writers would have covered the waterfront. You might think that they’d have pretty well exhausted Brooks’ thesis that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Completely wrong.
That’s because not a single one of those nine, highly intelligent, highly knowledgeable people noticed the proverbial elephant in the room. Oh, they know plenty about the sociology of the nuclear family and something about its history and their writings are well worth reading. Plus, some of the symposium members agree with Brooks and some, like Hymowitz and Wilcox, pointedly do not. So, taken all together, the original article, plus the symposium, plus Brooks’ response produced a healthily wide range of thought and opinion.
And yet the elephant is still there, unnoticed by the lot of them. Amazing but true.
The elephant of course is law and public policy. If the nuclear family is under fire, it’s because we’re the ones shooting at it. If we were to stop doing so, maybe it could stand up and march forward as the single most valuable asset any civilized society possesses.
But the scientists who diligently track the trends in what our families consist of, who lives in poverty and who doesn’t, what benefits children and countless other things all (along with Brooks) seem to accept on faith that whatever is happening regarding the nuclear family is some sort of natural phenomenon, like the weather. The idea that our elected representatives and policy-makers produced the decline of the nuclear family and continue to do so on a daily basis, plainly never occurred to any of them. The closest any of them got to that screamingly obvious fact is this from Hymowitz:
The disaster confronting less prosperous Americans is not the nuclear family, but the erosion of socio-economic conditions that help them sustain lasting pair bonds. To do something about the disconnection and instability infecting American life, we need to start there.
Yes, dear reader, that’s the extent of it. That fly-by is the nearest thing Brooks and the symposium authors got to identifying a cause of the problem and suggesting ways in which to address it.
How is it possible that not one of them managed to consider public policy and legal initiatives like no-fault divorce, child protective services, the adoption industry, child support, alimony, popular culture and more that daily, consistently militate against nuclear family formation and maintenance? How did they fail to notice the dogged resistance, by family lawyers and the DV industry, to healthy alternatives like equally shared parenting? How could they miss the fact that, year after year, state legislatures stymie shared parenting reform? Brooks said he’s spent the last three years travelling the country talking to people about his subject. How did he manage to not speak to a single person who’s concerned about family courts?
I can’t say exactly what our society would look like if we made a few sensible, science-backed reforms aimed at buttressing the nuclear family, but I can say that, at the very least, we need to make those reforms and find out. Until we do, people like Brooks need to open their eyes and notice that huge grey beast that takes up so much space. Nothing about the decline of nuclear families is inevitable. We created it and we can do something about it.
Brooks calls himself a Conservative, but there was a time when conservatives valued taking responsibility for one’s wrongful behavior. Well, our public policy elites have been behaving badly for a long time now. They’ve unleashed their dogs on the family and the family has suffered. Any conservative worth his salt would excoriate those elites for the widespread damage they’ve done to kids, parents and society generally. Not Brooks. His “solution” to the problems faced by the nuclear family is to wanly propose that other forms of “family,” i.e. groups of unrelated people coming together to try to do what families always have, are an acceptable substitute. They’re not and never have been, as the many attempts over the centuries at creating Utopia amply demonstrate.
The nuclear family may be under fire, it may even be retreating, but it’s not going far. That’s partly because of biology. The biological attachments between biological parents and their children are what make the nuclear family and what mean it’s here to stay. Children do better with both biological parents caring for them and most parents know it. Plus of course, humans are pair bonders, a fact noted by Hymowitz. That, plus their parent-child bonds mean the nuclear family is now and will continue to be the bedrock of society.
The only remaining question is how to make society more conducive to the formation and maintenance of those families. A lot of people have a lot of good ideas about how to do that.
Too bad David Brooks isn’t one of them.