Nurture and Support
Devising a decent family policy for Illinois
March 10, 1994
What to do with—and to—parents who do not care for their kids has troubled official Illinois for decades. Deciding on a public family policy requires us to think about what a family is, or ought to be. That isn't as simple as it seems, as notions of family change as societies change.
The nuclear family is an artifact of the Victorian era in the West, when a newly emerged middle class believed parents to be wise and well-meant and children to be angels in disguise. Like all popular prejudices, this one eventually informed (or rather infiltrated) public policy; the first White House Conference on Children in 1909 declared home life to be the highest product of civilization.
The seminal State of Illinois programs for children were modeled explicitly on this idealized Victorian version of the family. The Juvenile Court for example replaced the defective or absent parents of its charges with a state-sanctioned substitute. In this experiment in paternalism, the benevolent judge exercised all the authority—if seldom the wisdom—of the perfect father.
Woe is us if the family of the 1990s is the highest product of our civilization. The biggest source of violence toward children is their own families, as families in all social classes have broken down under the pressures of poverty and crime, divorce and dysfunction. Even where it survives, the now‑traditional nuclear family is smaller than it used to be, often living transiently in anonymous neighborhoods, and headed by working parents able to spend less and less time at home.
Extended families are seldom close at hand as a source of support in raising children (except in certain newer immigrant communities). One result is that much serious child abuse is committed by parents who simply don't know how to parent, there being no one at hand to teach them. Nor is it only the poor who are confused. A recent Chicago Tribune story was, in its way, as sad as any tale of starved and beaten kids. Two dozen mothers gathered at a Schaumburg seminar were told that it is okay to let toddlers just play. Asked one incredulous mom, "They don't have to know the alphabet before they go to kindergarten?"
In spite of its evident inappropriateness in the social and economic environment of the 1990s United States, the traditional nuclear family remains the preferred vehicle of Illinois policy. Deviations from this family model are assumed to be failed versions of the nuclear family, not viable alternatives to it. In the 1970s the non-traditional family, meaning the single female head of household, enjoyed a temporary legitimacy among policy‑makers and academics. Both now dismiss that model, saying that the fatherless family is bad for kids and expensive for taxpayers who end up supporting so many of them on welfare.
The assertion that the traditional nuclear family is another white plot to impose an alien cultural norm on black people is not merely racist ravings. Many black DCFS field staff assert that black families are different, an insight that is outside the pale of official opinion. Whatever its inadequacy to sustain itself economically, in social terms the provisions for the bearing and rearing of children in many poor black neighborhoods resembles the kind of extended matriarchy familiar from Africa where that form of social organization is common. The popularity of trying to impose a form of family on people that is as inappropriate to their culture as state-sanctioned polygamy would be to a Baptist's may be assumed, but its wisdom and feasibility may not.
Even within cultures there are vexations. Most people would agree that the ultimate point of the family is to nurture the child, and in that most people are wrong. The sentimental focus on the child as the point of family formation blinds us to its much more important role, which is to socialize dangerous young males. The family, writes James Q. Wilson, is essential to discipline the former's sexual behavior and to reduce their competitive aggression. Instead we argue about how to make marriage attractive—indeed, unavoidable—for mothers.
The focus, legal and therapeutic, of child welfare policy began shifting from the family to the child in the 1930s and 1940s. Freudian psychology had concentrated therapists' attention on the individual psyche and away from social problems as the cause of kids' troubles. Child-centered social policy was reinforced beginning in the 1960s as reformers sought to armor the individual child (mainly through extension of due process protections) against the misbehavior of states like Illinois that had long since proven themselves anything but all-wise.
In dependent families, the focus on the child weakened the very family structures that the child needs to sustain him, and social conservatives in the 1980s began to deride liberals for treating children as a constituency separate from families. But this championing of the revived Victorianism was a couple of generations too late. A century ago children were essential to the prosperity of most Illinois families as a source of cheap labor. The postwar prosperity of this century enabled well‑provided-for children to be cherished as trophies of affluence, polished and shown off like a new car. Today, with faith in an ever-expanding economic future shaken, children are beginning to be seen as a drag on prosperity, their value to their parents being substantially sentimental or therapeutic. What does the family owe society (and vice versa) if children are more valuable to society than they are to families that are expected to raise them?
Even if we solved the problem of who we still confront the problem of how. The angelic Victorian child is no more, driven from our domestic heaven by the drug-taking, gun-toting, parent‑killing preteens of today's headlines. Kids are seen (if only subconsciously) as seeds of evil that need only to be watered by the influence of the outside world to sprout into monsters. A Hinsdale woman last year confessed to the Wall Street Journal her anxiety that if she "said the wrong thing" to her boy he would turn out to be serial killer. In a world suddenly turned too dangerous for children, the family has become the world for children, an impossible burden for even privileged parents.
Private paranoia may become public policy. As expectations of family increase, so do the grounds for state intervention when families fail. A child's basic needs have grown beyond clean water, decent food and shelter, light and fresh air to encompass emotional nurturing and intellectual stimulation.
A couple of years ago the chair of the Illinois State Bar Association's Committee on Community Involvement warned that children will be "damaged" "if the adults around them are too busy and distracted to nurture and support." Adding distraction to the list of parental misdemeanors will not make that job any easier to a generation that worries more about failing their children than they do about their children failing. ●