Canadian Commentary: Society

Family Values

January 1998

We are being subjected to a new push for "family values". A new report from the faithfully right-wing C.D. Howe Institute has encouraged conservative commentators to start attacking the usual "anti-family" issues: single-parent families, divorce, day-care, and working women.

The preferred tactic is to strongly assert the obvious, implying that opponents ("liberals") disagree. The prime example is the assertion that two-parent families are better than one-parent families. Well, OBVIOUSLY a healthy two-parent family is better than a one-parent family. As if anyone would disagree. But the reason these families are single-parent in the first place is that the two parents were a very unhealthy couple. If they stayed together, the child would grow up in an atmosphere of tension, fighting, infidelity and absenteeism. This situation is certainly no better for a child than growing up with only one parent.

The next myth is that modern divorce is easy, and that couples with children do it wilfully and casually. As if couples with kids actually choose to divorce if there is an alternative. Divorce with children involved is inevitably expensive and traumatic, and leads to ongoing difficulties and costs. People do not go through that process unless the alternative is worse, and keeping such a disfunctional couple together would not improve the situation for the children involved.

For the majority of couples with kids who do stay together, the family-values crowd also has an accusation - that it would be better for one parent (somehow it is always the mother) to stay home taking care of the kids than to send children to day care. This is another statement of the obvious - nobody thinks that day care is better for kids than being taken care of by their parents. Unfortunately, the only way for parents young enough to have children to be able to support them decently in our brave new neo-conservative world is for both of the parents to work. Furthermore, in the flexible labour market so adored by the same family values commentators, you need two working parents as insurance, because one of them could lose their job at any time.

In fact, this brings to light the most fundamental contradiction in the family-values argument. The reason we have mothers going back to work after having children is precisely the neo-conservative economy the same commentators are constantly pushing. These parents are simply acting like the individual economic units neo-conservatives want them to be. They have to both work because, if they don't, they will get left behind by the economy and won't be able to support their children. It is precisely the flexible labour market and lack of government support which conservatives love so much which forces both parents to go back to work as soon as possible.

If conservatives want a flexible labour market, then shut up and accept the consequences for the family. If conservatives want mothers (why not "parents"?) to stay at home, then they will either have to accept the Japanese system of guaranteed jobs-for-life (which they hate so much - despite the fact it produces the kind of structured, conservative society they long for), or the European system of having the state supply extensive support (at considerable taxpayer expense) for new parents - very long maternity leave, and paying a parent to stay at home and support their children beyond that leave, while guaranteeing their jobs back when the children get old enough.

Basically, if you want a strong social structure, you need to operate in such a way that your population and your society act in a social manner - which includes strong, active government at all levels, and corporations which operate deliberately with the society's interests at heart. If you want a neo-conservative world in which there is little government and in which corporations and individuals act only in their own self-interest, you have to accept that people will act this way in all aspects of their lives, including their family. You can have one, or the other, but you can't have both.

Finally, we come to the conservative's ideal - the family of the 1950s, where the mother stayed at home to take of the kids while the father worked. In fact, of course, this was a historical anomaly - for most of history, both parents in most families have worked (however, in pre-capitalist societies, most work was performed in or near the home, so child care could be integrated with work). Even then, conservatives should really ask themselves if they are SURE this form of parenting is what they want. After all, what kind of children did these bored mothers and distant fathers of the 1950's produce? Why, they produced the baby-boom generation - precisely the generation that introduced extensive pre-marital sex, high divorce rates, working mothers and children in day care. That ideal 1950's parenting style produced the kind of kids who broke down all of the social structures so dear to conservative hearts. Is that really the kind of parenting conservatives want?

January 21, 1998

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