As the middle ground in our polity erodes, concern for the viability of the family as a basic institution becomes more difficult to discuss in sustained, thoughtful conversation. Yet the strong, productive family remains a basic foundation for making the important domains of our existence work.
When families aren’t capable of teaching their kids the basics of language, how to get along with others, how to listen, how to add and subtract, and other fundamentals, schools cannot teach them effectively. If families don’t instill in their children the basics of problem-solving and negotiation, then social service agencies can’t do it either. If families don’t build basic competencies in their members that enable them to attend to their own health care, professionals struggle to provide care effectively as well. The list of examples extends indefinitely: no service, care, or education system works without families — and parents in particular — who do their parts as teachers, counselors, coaches, healers, and mediators.
Frustratingly, if one takes a stance that defends the family as a fundamentally important institution, those on the left and the right are increasingly inclined to divert the conversation toward the concerns around which their own factions are organized. The term “family” can stir such anxiety that the basic point about its essential place loses traction.
If you make the family so important to your outlook, then some on the left hold that you must be a right-winger, opposed to gay marriage, or resentful of women’s liberation. Or you might be a closet racist, touting your “suburban” ideal of the family in its happy household led by a married mom and dad, preferably with the dad calling the shots. Or if you’re talking about a productive family striving for more self-sufficiency, you’re stuck in the past, yearning for a revival of the “little house on the prairie” from the days of rural America.
If you advocate on behalf of a strong family with conservatives, you’re labeled a hypocrite if you embrace gay families or a liar if you accept unmarried, single-parent families. Worse, if you argue that racial oppression has furthered the fragility of families among African Americans or Native Americans, you must begrudge the successes of hard-working white people and hold a double standard that absolves people of color of responsibility for the state of their social institutions.
If we are to move ahead together, diverse political views need to live in balance with a core of shared perspectives. Underneath the varied perspectives about it, the productive family needs the protection of a stable, political middle ground. Let’s agree on this institution’s basic importance, and do what’s necessary to make family life in its varied forms more vital and sustainable.
Our capacity to educate, prevent illness, care for the sick, maintain a vibrant economic life, and sustain a decent civil society depends on it.
Rich Kordesh is a resident of Oak Park. He is the author of “Restoring Power to Parents and Places.”