Family Values: Yours, Mine, or Whose?

by Pat Hartman

(This essay originally appeared in Nomos #42 (1993)

 

When it comes to family values, what are we talking about here - the Addams Family? The Kennedy Family or the Corleone Family or the Simpsons or the Jukes-Kallikack clan?

Or maybe we're talking about the family of contemporary philosopher Rosie Scenario, whose values "would include mistrust of outsiders, infighting and ever-shifting feud alignments, enmeshment manifested by psychosomatic disorders, and a perennial reservoir of trashy fake sentiment."

Many values that people accept as meaningful and important really do not hold up. On closer examination, we find a perversion of something basically good. Respect for one's parents, for example, is a wonderful thing. Except when it's warped into an ultra-machismo code of honor where a guy's gotta kill anybody who says an uncomplimentary word about his mother. Though he'd probably ice mama himself for a couple days' supply of crack.

It's been said that family are the people who, when you're in trouble, have to take you in. I asked a family-values-oriented friend, "You mean if your kid becomes a junkie and steals everything that isn't nailed down, you have to take him in?" Answer: "That wouldn't happen in a family with good values." Oh.

The ideal of family is warped into the reality of ownership. There is something irksome about the necessity to speak of "having" children. Do you have any? I have a son. If I didn't have any kids I'd.... This built-in feature of the language encourages the viewing of children as possessions that are owned, body and soul, by their parents. This ownership concept leads to massive infringement upon children's spiritual and religious development, to child battering, to having the little bastards incarcerated for disobedience and incorrigibility, and all kinds of other undesirable consequences.

I once knew a women who addressed her child as "Daughter." Not just now and then, but in every utterance, there was the reminder that the kid's sole purpose on earth was to be her mother's creature. I was ready to pick up a blunt object, and wouldn't be surprised if "Daughter" actually does that one day.

The tendency to define people by their family affiliations is disturbing. In a recent newspaper piece about viewers' reactions to a TV movie about Joseph Stalin, each respondent was identified by name, age, profession and family status: Mother of daughters, 11 and 13. Single. Mother of sons, 26, 31, and 36. Like, who cares? If the subject had been Sesame Street, that would be different. In what way does one's parental history have a bearing on one's qualifications to be a TV critic? When my drain is plugged up and I look at a plumber's ad in the yellow pages, the information I seek is not how many children he has fathered.

It seems that, for many, what the "family values" thing boils down to is a synonym for "no sex" - which is strange, because without sex there would be no families.

Another warped concept of family values is found in parents who spend all day creating the kind of world where poverty and injustice enslave millions, then spend their home time trying to protect their kids from the results produced by that kind of world.

Making an idol of "family values" not only leads to child repression but to its obverse, child worship. The cult of family can lead kids to think too highly of themselves, and become infected with a sense of entitlement that won't always be satisfied in the big mean world out there.

*****

There is a very impolite slang term for the parents of children: breeders. Sorry if that upsets anyone, but some of us are pretty upset by the way the f-word, "family," has been co-opted by the breeders. When a business lures customers with "bring the whole family" or "family entertainment," they're talking about kids. But hey - a wife and husband team is a family, whether or not they've reproduced. Yet places offering "family entertainment" are the very ones a child-free couple would likely choose to avoid. An octogenarian dad and his middle-aged daughter are a family, but when lunch time rolls around, Chuck E. Cheese is probably not their first pick. In many cases, neither blood nor legal relationships have any bearing. As Mike Gunderloy says, your family are those people you find.

It's clear that any discussion of family values can easily crash and burn before leaving the define-your-terms stage. What constitutes a proper family, anyhow? Apparently single motherhood isn't okay, unless of course Mom's only "single" in the sense of raising the kids alone while Dad is away. Dig it: while the official government stance is to deplore the broken home, it has for much of its existence conducted a program that creates one-parent families, a program known as the U.S. Armed Forces.

Religious chauvinism is rife. In the dictionary, "fundament" is a synonym for anus, and that says it all. Fundamentalists claim all familial virtues for themselves, while ignoring the history of their own sect, which was virulently anti-family. Jesus himself denied his own mother, for God's sake. (Little joke there.) The early church did not encourage its members to procreate. The biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply applied to mankind before the birth of Christ. Once the messiah had arrived on the scene, there was no need.

Family values are, of course, notoriously ethnocentric. Among the native Australians, knocking out a kid's front tooth was an important tradition. Few Americans would advocate this, though no doubt some hard-core members of the fish cult would welcome such foreign customs as a government-imposed death penalty for adultery.

*****

Back in the neolithic era, says Reay Tannahill, the end of sexual freedom for women coincided with the discovery that sex led to childbirth. Once men realized the role they played in producing children, they got all possessive about it. A man sweats and schemes his way through life to provide for his progeny, and damned if he's gonna pay for some other guy's brat's orthodontic work. And that's the ugly truth behind the custom of monogamy.

The chief family value is, of course, holy wedlock, the importance of which is exposed in such parental wisdom as that offered to the girl who lets her boyfriend go too far: "He'll never marry you - why should he buy a cow when he gets his milk for free?" This of course acknowledges the true nature of marriage as legalized prostitution.

Historically, the family has been about marrying off daughters and sons for financial, political and social gain. The primary purpose of the family has in all times and places been financial, and no amount of sentimental bovine excrement can disguise it. That there is such a structure for the orderly transfer of wealth may or may not be a good thing, but let's see it for what it is.

What constitutes a proper marriage? Exactly what circumstances allow another person to be covered by your insurance or Social Security, use your credit card, inherit your money, give the hospital permission to pull the plug on your life support system, or rent an apartment with you?

If you think marriage is a contract with your spouse, think again. It's so only to a very limited extent. If you get too creative in your private arrangements with each other, the state will step in. There are firm boundaries concerning such matters as property, inheritance, adultery, bigamy, and so on. Even when you follow all the conventions of marriage, but make a private agreement to, for instance, try a little sixty-nine action, the government can put you in prison.

To marry is to affirm that the state and/or church has the right to give you permission to ball one person, and take away permission to ball anyone else. The bottom line on marriage is, it's a contract with the state in which you agree to adhere to one sexual partner.

Some people ignore the government and do it their way. Polyfidelity, for instance, is a fidelitous marriage of more than two adults in which all partners are valued equally (no primaries or secondaries.) Those who have successfully entered the lifestyle say it needs the same ingredients that make a monogamous relationship work - communication, honesty and love - only more so. It is very similar to the two-person arrangement. But as Stephen Gaskin points out, the difficulties are exponential. Keeping three people together is four times as hard and keeping four together is sixteen times as hard. The rewards are also said to be exponential. In San Francisco, Kerista is a group marriage involving dozens of people, which has existed since 1971.

Meanwhile the debate goes on over whether marriages between those of the same sex should be allowed, and whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt children or keep their biological children.

The very same people who are so sold on family are the most picky and exclusive about their definition of it, adamantly insisting that it must be the one true and correct kind of family: the patriarchal model, one partner of each gender, man on top. "He for God only; she for God in him."

Eric Hoffer notes that women often find in marriage the same benefits the True Believer finds in a mass movement - a new purpose, future, and identity. But like a mass-movement leader, a husband will sooner or later reveal his feet of clay. The wife, who has invested so much dedication, loyalty, and self-surrender will, like any disillusioned follower, want to make him pay.

It's been said that woman is the nigger of the world. If so, the agency that enslaves her is matrimony. American women are better off than most, on paper, anyhow. Legally, a wife can't be executed on her husband's say-so, as is the case elsewhere.

In practical terms, what this means is that he might instead hire someone to execute her, or do the job himself. An American woman has a much greater chance of being murdered by her husband, boyfriend, ex-husband, or some jilted wanna-be, than by a total stranger. The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of matriots. Being killed in massive numbers by their significant others, is the price women pay for the comparative freedom of American citizenship.

*****

John Lennon said most of us were born out of a whisky bottle on Saturday night. It's true that people have kids for all kinds of reprehensible reasons, of which being drunk and irresponsible is certainly one. Wives try to hold onto wandering husbands by getting pregnant. Among the poor of the ghettos and barrios, the act of conception is twisted into an end in itself, since recognition of the individual as an adult occurs only when he or she has sired or borne a child.

People allow fertilization to take place thoughtlessly, unconsciously, or for the wrong reasons. They realize it's a mistake, they're not ready, they're never going to be ready - but it's too late. Then they make a virtue of necessity by touting the supremacy of the family.

People use their children as weapons to express their own hostility. The spectacle of a bratty kid being allowed to run wild says to me, "Here's a mother who wishes she'd had an abortion instead. Here's a father so resentful of having a child that he is determined to inflict as much misery as possible on the world at large."

It is common knowledge that many competent medical people believe most of the caesarean sections performed by obstetricians are unnecessary. But Mary Calderone points out an interesting statistical anomaly: approximately 90% of abused children were born by C-section. Who knows why? Maybe some crucial motherlove hormone is released in the last stages of labor. The surgical mother is more likely than the birth canal mother to be deeply anesthetized, too zonked to get with the baby and do that immediate bonding thing. Maybe women subconsciously resent having been butchered in what they can never be entirely sure was a needed procedure. The more traumatic the birth experience, the greater the likelihood that Mom will mentally associate the trauma with the child, especially if there are long-range consequences. If she got a blood transfusion and lives in fear of AIDS, or if her husband is turned off by the scar on her tummy, Mom isn't gonna be too happy.

Why are so many unnecessary caesarean sections performed? Aside from being more convenient for the doctor, surgery pays better than natural childbirth. Could it be that the availability of funds from the government is the cause of the proliferation of this unwarranted interference with what would in many cases be a normal birth process? Could it be that the government health care system, which so many see as a blessing and want to expand, is actually a dark force responsible for the creation of abusive parents? Just asking.

Even when surgery isn't involved, Frederick LeBoyer and others have documented the unnecessarily violent nature of standard hospital delivery procedures. For anyone truly concerned with changing the world, birth without violence must be a top priority.

*****

Actually, during the two years when the Addams Family graced network television, a psychologist went on record saying it was the best show on the air for children. Every individual member of the Addams Family, he pointed out, was loved and accepted and accorded unconditional positive regard. The Mom and Dad were obviously nuts about each other, not just tolerating their marriage until the kids grew up and they could get the hell out.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my friend's parents in their kitchen, smiling and flirting and hugging each other. I had never witnessed such an astonishing sight.

An unhappy childhood is not a prerequisite for the libertarian, but it sure helps. My parents taught me to question authority by the example of their own use of power in arbitrary and neurotically motivated ways. People who have been brought up in secure and loving homes have a tendency to project their feelings onto the government, and buy into the myth that the state is a nice, caring, mommy/daddy that only has their best interests at heart. Contrast this with the childhood reminiscences of Anne Alexander:

"It was the hypocrisy that got to me. I was always asking, if going to church is so good for me, why don't you do it? If slamming the door is bad when I do it, why do you get away with it? 'Don't do as I do, do as I say,' was the program. 'Because I said so' was the justification. What I learned at my mother's knee was to hold a grudge forever, and whenever there's a hassle, bring up everything your opponent ever did wrong since the day she was born. If Mom was miserable, everybody had to be miserable with her or it was a personal betrayal. My Dad demanded respect without doing anything to earn it. 'Who do you think you are?' I was asked. 'You don't know what you want,' I was told. It was a great training ground for anti-authoritarianism."

Father was a bully, mother was cold....It must be a real treat for a shrink when he runs across a patient with something new to say.

Lying, by word or deed, is probably the worst thing you can do with children. Harry Browne advises never telling a child something you intend to reverse later - not even about Santa Claus. It's no good to say, "We'll tell him this for now - time enough for the sordid facts when he's older." The instances where a child benefits from being lied to are very few. The dishonesty will be found out eventually and do more damage. Even a seemingly well-intentioned lie can be harmful. To tell a child "Mommy's not crying," when she clearly is, is to set the stage for schizophrenia.

*****

More than one critic has pointed out a major disadvantage of Social Security: people can abuse their children because they don't have to worry about who will take care of them in old age. The state will do it, so why bother to keep on the kids' good side?

That's an extreme position, but for many in my generation, the big question now is, how much do we have to sacrifice for our aging parents? Do we owe it to Mom or Dad to give up a great job offer because it would involve moving out of state? Do we have to show up every Sunday for dinner?

Marianne Alireza, in her book about Saudi Arabia, describes how it's common for a woman, aged or widowed, with no means of support, to spend her time visiting various branches of the family, for months at a time. "With them," she says, "it was true hospitality and true generosity, never smacking of condescension or charity." How is it that we have become a society that willingly hands its senior relatives over to the clutches of the government? Why is Social Security taking care of the old folks, and not the true social security of the family?

One reason is because having extra people in the home is a real hassle if you're cramped for space, or your lease says you can't. Perhaps if people weren't paying so much in taxes, they could afford bigger houses where extended families could live with comfort and privacy. On the other hand, inflation and the necessity for two incomes, especially when there are children, may paradoxically herald the return of the extended family, with Grandma or other relatives housed and paid a living wage in return for child care.

Perhaps what we need to examine is why people find it such a pain in the butt to have their parents around, and what we can do to make our kids want to have us around.

*****

A local politician, running on the family-values platform, offered this definition: "Family can be summarized by a commitment to sacrifice personal dreams for others." (Then why is he out making speeches instead of home playing Candyland with the tots?) Personally, after living 18 years with my parents' interests paramount and another 18 with my daughter's interests paramount, I decided enough was enough and declared my independence.

In the classic How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Harry Browne reminds us that marriage and family are usually the source of the greatest restrictions on our freedom. He counsels those in love not to marry, and recommends that those already married get a divorce. If marriage equals unfreedom, doesn't it seem awfully suspicious that the state is so concerned about getting everyone safely tucked into marriages?

An acquaintance tells this story: "My favorite relative, Uncle Ray, was in the Navy. He'd come back on leave once a year, but mostly he was at an overseas base where he had a local lady friend. Uncle Ray's mother kept ragging him in every letter and every time he was home, to quit the service and settle down. He finally gave in, retired, married a nice American girl, had five kids in four years, and died at age 42 while shoveling snow. I'm staying single."

Another friend says, "I got married because of family pressure. My folks were all bent out of shape because we were living in sin, and his grandmother was dying and it would make her so happy to know he was married, so we did it. Biggest mistake I ever made."

But okay, suppose that people voluntarily decide to sacrifice themselves. They should be free to do so. At the same time, we must ask why the state takes such an all-consuming interest in the cultivation of this trait? Could it be that once people are in the habit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the family, it's easier to convince them to sacrifice themselves for the state?

Family is closely tied up with and charged with promoting religion, with its promises of an afterlife. As Tom Robbins points out, "the faithful are usually willing to risk their skins in whatever military adventure their government may currently be promoting." The well-indoctrinated father is convinced that he can only hold his head up in society if his son enlists; the thoroughly-brainwashed mother believes it's a glorious fate to see her son die for his country.

*****

There is a saying that children are little hostages to fate, and the first thing to know about kids is that the saying is true. The more of them you have, the more vulnerable you are to being jerked around by the state. It's harder to take the risks involved in conscientious objection, tax resistance, and other forms of civil disobedience when you have kids to worry about.

If family values are so darn important to the state, why is there such an objection to alternative schools or home schooling? Surely, one value found in a functional family is concern for the kids' education. Why is it made so difficult for families to opt for schools other than public, if that's where they think the good education is? What greater family value could there be, than for parents to want to teach their kids at home?

With compulsory public schools come all the rules about attendance, dress codes, and so forth. Since parental prerogatives are usurped by the state, parents can only continue to enjoy a feeling of power over the children by identifying with the state's decisions, and playing the role of enforcer. The result, family-wise, is that youthful rebellion against the education system is directed against the easily accessible parents, rather than the distant and powerful state.

The parents who have gone up against the state in court, over their children's right to wear a certain tee shirt or haircut, are contemporary heroes of freedom. It's too bad there aren't more like them. For many parents, their role is limited to helping the kids sell frozen pizzas and Gold-C coupon books to raise money for playground equipment because all the other funds have gone to the tax receptacles known as administrators.

If your minor child doesn't love you enough to want to stay in your house, you can always get the police to bring him back. This is convenient for authoritarian parents. Conversely, the state reserves for itself the right to remove children from the home, sometimes for the most capricious reasons. Leaving aside those extremes, how can family life be conducted for the benefit of all concerned?

*****

It's only by accepting people as they are that you free them to change. This is especially true of teenagers, who are very touchy about personal autonomy. If you don't say anything about the weird haircut, it might go away. But if you freak out, you're gonna be seeing that haircut for a long time. It will definitely not go away.

Resistance causes persistence. If a five-year-old announces he will never eat peas again, best to ignore it. A noncommittal response might allow the child to gracefully eat peas the next time they appear, but making an issue out of it will certainly be counterproductive. He can't do anything but dig in and defend his position.

Of course, parents can't let kids do just any old thing. When it's a question of sticking a hairpin in the electric outlet, or putting the gerbil in the food processor, a parent has to discourage the behavior. But most of the time, there's no need to do things inconsistent with freedom.

There's a way to let even the youngest child practice making choices, while doing the right thing as a protector. If you let a child choose between spinach and carrots, or between the red hat and the blue hat, she gets in some practice at being an autonomous individual, while still eating vegetables and bundling up when it's cold out.

Harry Browne advises letting children face the consequences of their actions. If you remind a kid to lock up his bike so it doesn't get stolen, and he doesn't lock it up, and it gets stolen, the worst thing you can do is go out and buy another bike the next day.

Raising children is about the hardest job there is. Parents are so anxious to do it well that they will even turn to books for help. Thousands have turned to the writings of Leon Louw and Frances Kendell, whose successful parenting methods have had the not-so-incidental benefit of introducing libertarian ideals to the lives of those stuck in the authoritarian mode.

Some people take the concept of freedom and get it all bass-ackward. They feel free, in other words, to be their worst selves at home. They put on their company manners for others, while the nearest and dearest get the dregs.

I once knew a man who claimed to be a real freedom-lover. On the few occasions when I saw his wife and child, they looked nervous and never smiled. Later, after the divorce, the truth came out. He had been an absolute tyrant at home. The smallest details of domestic life had to have his permission before proceeding. No door could ever be closed. Life with this extremely vocal libertarian had been a hell of repression and fear.

People run all kinds of numbers on each other. They try to manipulate each other by withdrawal of affection, passive-aggressive ploys, and many other dishonorable strategies. It's possible to goad someone until he lashes out, then guilt-trip him for years. It's possible to ignore someone's needs until she has no choice but to give up and walk out. To simply adhere to the principle of non-initiation of force isn't enough.

The thing that all families would do well to remember, whether children are involved or not, is that the love of a free person is the only kind worth having. The way we relate to our loved ones is the truest indication of who we really are, and, in the end, the only thing that really matters. This is especially true for those of us who are politically active. If we can't get it together in the basic unit of society, the home we share with those we love, what makes us think that a world reshaped to our specifications is gonna look any better than this one?