The Marriage Strategy

David Blankenhorn and Stephanie Coontz, Mirabella, 3/1/1995

What can save America's children? Is it as simple as restigmatizing divorce? David Blankenhorn and Stephanie Coontz, often on opposite sides of an increasingly bitter debate, meet-and argue-face to face for the first time.

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Subjects: Family, Marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn

Mirabella: What are the main problems and challenges facing families today?

Stephanie Coontz: There are many problems, but I do not believe there's any one-size-fits-all diagnosis or solution. Families in inner cities who don't have access to jobs, parks, libraries or any source of self-respect other than those that they can extort have different problems than couples who work long hours and don't have flextime or parental leave. Those are different from the problems facing families where one spouse is an alcoholic, or where a rich executive has decided his homemaker wife is too plump to stay with.

Some families, though, including non-traditional ones, are doing better than ever before. I see kids in my college classes who have better values, commitments and senses of social responsibility than my generation did. So there are serious problems but I don't have a doomsday scenario.

David Blankenhorn: I'd say the most serious challenge is a growing sense among many parents that it's getting harder to be a child in our society. I sense that the surrounding society is not very supportive of them as parents or of family life in general. Another big challenge is that the two sexes are not getting along very well, and so it's a real challenge to keep marriages together and hard to form them in the first place.

M: Who should bear the responsibility for raising children?

DB: It's often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and in a sense that's true, but I think it's more important that it takes two, married parents. Once you have that, it's great to have a village, too – aunts, uncles, Boy Scout troop leaders, you name it.

SC: At such an abstract level, we would have no disagreement. But I'd like to see if you're willing to stay with the statements from your book: married, two-parent families are best; stepfamilies are terribly fraught with bad outcomes; and fatherless children commit crimes. You say that a few exceptions may sneak by, but it's so important to emphasize parental responsibility that we will not discuss what makes good stepparents or visiting fathers. Is that correct?

DB: Fair enough, yes. Except for the "we won't discuss things" part. The basic point I'm bringing to the table is that we live in an increasingly fatherless society. Thirty-six percent of children in this country are going to sleep tonight in homes their fathers don't live in. Before they reach eighteen, more than half are going to spend some time living apart from their fathers.

If you look at our most pressing social problems – juvenile delinquency, crime, domestic violence against women, child poverty, school failures, declining mental and physical health of children – the main cause is the growing number of children who don't know what it means to have a father.

We have to strengthen marriage as a social institution, and we have to strengthen fatherhood as a social role for men. Specifically, this means that every child deserves a father.

SC: Since I got pretty close to saying what I think your thesis is, what do you think mine is? I hear rumors ...

DB: Good question. I read in your book a series of propositions that serve to say that family structure is not the real problem. You say it's not family structure, it's how economic trends affect things. You say, don't worry whether fathers are around – pay attention to whether there's love and nurturing in the home. Or let's look to social supports, fictive kin and so on. If we were more accepting of alternative family trends – that is, fatherless families – things would be better. As a historian, you argue that we've always had single-parent homes, and if anyone believes there's something new going on, they are nostalgic for a past that never existed. Lastly, you say there are worse things: abusive or alcoholic fathers, incestuous men in the home. So let's don't think so much about father absence – let's worry about other problems men often bring with them.

SC: I don't think you got as close. But I want to respond to your propositions. Does every child deserve a father? Yes, in the same way every child deserves a mother. I hope you would add adjectives: a good and caring father, a good and caring mother. At that abstract level, I am perfectly willing to say that since the majority of people [who have children] are heterosexual, when they make a baby they should try to stick together, be good parenting models and provide the healthiest possible environment. If that's all you want me to say, I'm happy to say it. And if that's all you're saying, I'm happy to hear it...

DB: That's not all I want you to say, and that's not all I'm saying.

SC: Where we definitely part company is that I'm afraid you're looking to the past and not recognizing how much change has occurred. Economic and legal coercions and inequalities that meant marriage was the only option are gone to the point that while we may slow some trends and get rid of the more frivolous ones, people will continue to leave marriages. We need to help people resist the narcissistic temptations in the society –

DB: Yes.

SC: – and commit to working in the family. And when a family breaks up we need to recognize, realistically, what their issues are. I object strenuously to the no-win situation the bulk of your book puts single mothers in – that their kids are probably going to drop out of high school and become criminals if they don't have a dad; but if the mothers marry stepfathers, who don't have biological investments, the children are probably going to do even worse.

DB: My book doesn't put people anywhere. Problems in single-parent homes and stepfamilics don't become problems simply because I say so – they are problems. We can talk about how to be a better single mother or stepfather, but that doesn't make problems go away.

SC: I have to reiterate that I do not see fatherlessness or motherlessness as the principal cause of the decline in child well-being.

DB: You don't disagree that there is a decline in child well-being?

SC: More kids are completing high school today than ever. University of Colorado research on violence suggests that there aren't so many more bad kids than there used to be, but the lethality of their violence and the collapse of community institutions that once held them in check has meant that they dominate more than they used to. With kids whose parents fight terribly, or are alcoholic or abusive, you'll find that the children's levels of self-esteem are actually lower than in families where the parent is absent and kids can blame that on the divorce, rather than internalize it as self-blame.

DB: All I hear is how complicated everything is. I agree: everything's complicated. Now, may we proceed to analysis? It seems we agree that child well-being is declining. Is that accurate?

SC: It depends in relationship to what. For example, there are fewer poor children now than in the fifties, but a lot more than there were in the seventies.

DB: I'm getting this complexity feeling again.

SC: Well, that's life. What do you tell the people reading this magazine? Fifty percent will be in blended or single-parent families. What are they to do? Are we to write off this generation on the wishful thinking that if we talk long and hard enough the next generation will grow up in two-parent homes?

DB: Let's get beyond how complicated everything is and have some analysis.

SC: Since I don't want to be wishy-washy, let me say that we have twice the proportion of children in poverty than any other industrial nation. This obviously is a problem. Poverty rates have risen and child health and well-being have fallen since the high point in 1970. Far too many kids at every income level don't get time and attention, and divorce and single parenthood arc not little hiccups in children's lives. On the other hand, I will not accept those statements being reduced into your propositions.

DB: What if President Clinton walked in with Newt Gingrich and said, "Professor Coontz, we're giving a joint speech tomorrow on TV declaring that we have to help America's children. Tell us what to say."

SC: I would say: for all of this country's sentimentalization of children, it really doesn't care much for kids, and we want to turn that around. We'll talk to people about the need to put kids first in their own personal lives. We'll go into areas where kids' well-being has declined most, like the cities, and start talking about job programs, better education, libraries and getting rid of not-in-my-backyard social services that make those communities impossible places for the best- intentioned two parents to raise families in.

We'll recognize that many women have to work and want to work, and this doesn't necessarily hurt their kids. We'll talk about more affordable child care and valuing it at least as much as we value people who push paper around on Wall Street. We'll rebuild jobs with decent wages, benefits, flextime and parental leave for both parents. Finally, for the significant proportion of children in one-parent homes or stepfamilics, we'll see how we can make those families work better, and not make the women and men feel totally guilty. Now, what would you say?

DB: I would say we have to increase the number of children growing up with their two married parents.

SC: All right, how do you do it?

DB: The first priority is to believe that's what we need to do. We have to change our minds about marriage and fatherhood. In what we teach in schools, how we structure public-policy programs, we should discourage out-of-wedlock childbearing. When you say, 'Don't feel guilty' – I say, 'Well, this is not a healthy thing to do.'

SC: And feel bad if you get divorced, too?

DB: Stephanie, it's like feeling bad if someone you love dies. Feeling bad doesn't have inherent character-building virtues. When tragedy happens, you feel bad about it. The big idea here is to commit as a society to reverse the trend of family fragmentation. Your prescription is a version of, Oh, we're concerned about smoking – let's get low-tar cigarettes. I say, Let's stop smoking.

SC: Your colleague Barbara Dafoe Whitehead at the Institute for American Values says: restigmatize divorce and unwed motherhood. You would stand by that?

DB: Yes. 'Stigma' is an intentionally provocative word, but if we take it literally – as a tragedy to be avoided – then, yes.

M: What constitutes a father?

DB: In some ways, this is the heart of the issue. Fatherhood is a social role that obligates men to their offspring. It is the main way human societies harness maleness, or get men to do things that are good for the society as opposed to being violent and self-centered. Men tend toward aggressive behavior, parental waywardness and sexual promiscuity.

M: And if men aren't fathers ...?

DB: There are other things they can do – become a priest or a military officer. But mainly it's the fatherhood role. Now you have to do a lot to get mothers to neglect or abandon their children, whereas fathers frequently do both. This is a disaster for society and for the children who grow up without fathers. We could debate this all day, but I urge readers to ask children what they think. All children want their fathers.

M: They want good fathers.

DB: If you are being a father, you're protecting your child, providing for your child, nurturing your child. And, lastly, there's this issue that I call 'sponsorship.' Fathers bring a particular set of abilities to the parental task that cannot be replaced by any other person, including the mother or a stepfather. Therefore, when children grow up with no father, they suffer losses that cannot be replaced by job programs, parental leave or support for single mothers. I'm a little emphatic about this point, because for twenty years, the whole discussion of family has been about women and children, and left out of that has been the role of men.

Mothers have influence over a father's fatherhood – which is not true in reverse. Fathers need the help and support of mothers. Sometimes that means mothers representing the father to the child, sometimes it means showing leadership, sometimes it means encouraging and coaching the father, sometimes it means deferring to a father. We now have 30 percent of all births in the country occurring outside of marriage. Growing numbers of women arc saying, 'I want to be a mother, but I do not want to be a wife and I do not want a father underfoot.' Commonly in this debate about children and families, we treat women essentially as victims, or as people without any real agency out there. Wrong! The decision to bring children into the world with no father is a wrong decision.

SC: Very few women who have kids out of wedlock said, 'Oh, man, I don't want a father.' So let's move on to the high rate of divorce. To what extent is that attributable to women not appreciating, encouraging and, when necessary, deferring to fathers' special roles?

DB: To a considerable degree. But I say blame the men more than the women. Because, to be a little bit facetious, it is unmanly for men to blame women. But let's not hold women harmless about the belief that they can, and have every right to, raise fatherless children – because those women arc wrong to believe that society owes them support or acceptability.

SC: I'm less interested in blaming men or women. All adults need help relating to kids. I don't confine love to biological connections –

DB: Nor do I.

SC: Well then, we need to get back to what you're really saying about stepfathers, because I found that deeply disturbing. You seem to have said that if you're not married, you cannot be a good father – and if you're not the biological father, you cannot be a good father. But are you also saying that women can tame stepfathers a little bit?

DB: For most men, marriage is the life – support system for effective fatherhood.

SC: The 'sponsorship' that men bring, the irreplaceable points they bring to parenting – to what extent are these monopolies?

DB: I agree with what I take to be your implicit point, which is that they are not. I'm not saying men should be distant authoritarian breadwinners who come home and sit in front of the TV and get waited on by a wife. I believe in hands-on, effective, nurturing fatherhood. Fathers [just] have a lopsided commitment to the breadwinner role. Protection and provision have historically been the things that men will say first about what it means to be a good father, and today they still say those things first.

M: And you support those priorities?

DB: I support them because they reflect what both men and women say is happening in their lives. Here's the most politically incorrect thing I could say here: men more than women are concerned with competition because of how men are wired. The breadwinning issue is important, primarily because the growing number of children in poverty is directly associated, in most cases, with the absence of a breadwinning father.

SC: This is where you've got to disentangle problems. Jobless individuals are four times less likely to marry in the first place, poor families are twice as likely to split up and girls who grow up in neighborhoods where there are no good jobs and very poor schools are six to seven times more likely to have a child out of wedlock. So, obviously, creating jobs is not irrelevant to creating more effective families. What happens if women value breadwinning, and work the same numbers of hours as the men? We know that the courts, in several recent cases, have defined them as unfit mothers. What is a woman's breadwinning job to be?

DB: I don't have a formula that everybody has to conform to. How do I feel about a father who wants to stay home and a mother who wants to work 100 hours a week at a law firm? First of all, I have absolutely no objection to it. And second of all, such couples are rarer than hen's teeth.

SC: Let's deal with a more common situation, in which husband and wife work. Should women play a role in keeping families together by not taking higher-paying jobs or, if they do, to downplay them? How much are today's marriage problems caused by women's refusal to play those roles?

DB: That's a negligible factor, primarily because those [scenarios] are rare among real mothers – although common among scholars who write about this subject.

SC: Okay. Fathers are a good thing: this is not an issue for me. But what I want to know is, what's a woman to do when she can't make a man into a good father – no matter how much she encourages and helps? What's a father to do when a woman leaves him, no matter how hard he's tried to be good?

DB: There are three basic groups out there. Group one, which is very small, is perfect married couples. In another group there's violence, alcoholism, incest and every terrible thing. But that leaves the middle 80 percent, where people do the best they can. The question is: do we want a society in which more and more of that 80 percent ends up single mothers and estranged fathers – or one where more of that 80 percent work out good-enough marriages?

SC: Of your middle 80 percent, I am sure some of those marriages split up for irresponsible reasons, and I would probably participate in any effective programs to help them stay together. But there is perhaps a higher proportion of people whose physical safety is not at stake, but there are serious problems that are not going to be solved.

DB: We have less disagreement on this point than maybe we realize. If we could, through changing our values and policies, lower the out-of-wedlock childbearing rate to 5 or 10 percent, where it was a generation ago, it would be much easier for neighbors, schoolteachers and traditional social services to come to the aid of those families.

SC: I have never met anyone who said, 'I did this because I can do it on my own.' I wrote my last book because I had so many agonized calls from single mothers and single fathers saying, 'What can I do? Have I destroyed my child's life?' The reasons for unwed motherhood and divorce often have little to do with trying to model Murphy Brown, but with a lack of alternatives. You cruelly underestimate the structural constraints that prevent families from forming or cause girls to think: this is the only way I can connect to a future. That disagreement remains.

DB: Right.

SC: Also, the most serious problems are often bound up with other social problems. For example, persistent poverty in the first five years of life creates an average I.Q. deficit of nine points, regardless of family structure, and lead poisoning is an even higher predictor of violent behavior among children than having single parents.

DB: Eating paint is worse than not having a father?

SC: I'm sorry. You can be flip about this, but lead poisoning is a serious problem –

DB: I certainly agree it is.

SC: – and it's concentrated in our most poverty-stricken areas. But it's so much easier for demagogues to blame slum mothers than to take on slumlords. You need to spend a lot of time explaining to those right-wing demagogues what's wrong with their interpretation of what you say.

DB: I do. As a lifelong Democrat, I argue about it the best I can. The strongest point in your argument is that the toothpaste is out of the tube. There's no longer the subordinate status of women to the degree there was in earlier eras – there is simply too much freedom and money sloshing around. We may be heading into what some sociologists call a 'postmarriage society,' where women will raise the children and men will not be there in any stable, institutional way. If so, we better build more prisons, even faster than we're building 'em now, gin up more special-ed classes and get ready, as Speaker Gingrich is threatening, to build orphanages.

If I believed your list of prescriptions could reverse the trend, I would abandon my position. I'm not being rhetorical here – I'm trying to say what is in my heart. But we don't know the future, and the only thing I can try for, in my feeble way, is to strengthen the mother/father institution.

SC: To the extent I'm right, it's not just because there's too much freedom and money sloshing around, it's also because of too few social solidarities, too high a gap between rich and poor and too much willingness to scapegoat racial minorities and others. And it is incumbent upon you to say, not just in private to the right wing, but in public, that this is not the major solution.

DB: That marriage is not the major solution? I believe it is the major solution.

SC: I just think it's so dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.

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