Family Values

views updated May 08 2018

Family Values

Family values and the value of families are not discrete entities. Rather, like the family, family values exist within social contexts. As such they can be studied in numerous ways including: intra (within), extra (without), and cross-cultural family analysis. An extra analysis takes into account the social milieu of families and a cross-cultural might compare attitudinal and systemic aspects of families in two or more countries.

Values are a society's general ideas about what is perceived as good and desirable for a society. For example, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are values that people in the United States hold dear. Thus, family values analysis considers general societal notions about what is beneficial for family life. Yet texts on marriage and family often either fail to include a discussion of family values or fail to specifically define the term. This occurs, in part, because there is a lack of consensus among marriage and family scholars concerning the issue of family values.

When the issue is addressed, it is frequently framed as a debate within the discipline about whether the family is in decline, as some scholars proclaim (Popenoe 1988), or merely changing, as others assert (Coontz 1997; Skolnick 1991; Stacey 1992, 1999). Proponents of the family in decline camp cite high divorce rates, a high of rate out-of-wedlock births, an increased proportion of single-parent households, and the continued rise of individualism as evidence of the decline of family life and diminished family values. A New York Times survey in which respondents ranked independence higher than being a spouse and parent is the type of evidence presented to affirm the decline of family values (Cherlin 2001).

On the other hand, proponents of the family is changing perspective argue that the family itself is socially defined and as such acts upon and responds to a society's unique social, economic, and political environment. Those writing from this view, as does Steven Nock (1999), maintain that: "Institutions like the family are bigger than any individual. So when large numbers of people create new patterns of family life, we should consider the collective forces behind such novel arrangements."

Side-stepping a definition of family values, marriage and family texts generally cite indicators or measures of the presence or absence of family values. An intra family-values analysis then might include a survey of peoples' attitudes about various aspects of marriage and family life. For example, in a poll of sixteen countries, including India, Singapore, Taiwan, United States, Guatemala, Thailand, Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Lithuania, Hungary, Colombia, Germany, France, and Iceland, the vast majority (between 70 and 90%) of those surveyed expressed the attitude that having a child without benefit of marriage is not morally wrong (Gallup Poll 1997). Half of the U.S. respondents said that having a child out-of-wedlock was morally wrong, yet the United States has a higher rate of out-of-wedlock birth than any of the other countries. Asymmetrical attitudes and actions have long been problematic for family-values research, but more important, point to the dilemmas families face as they: ". . . believe in both the traditional and the modern version of the family simultaneously (Wolfe 1998)."

Counter to the family is declining thinking, the same poll found that well over a majority of those surveyed in fourteen countries agreed that it was necessary to have a child in order to feel fulfilled (the United States and Germany were the only two countries in which fewer than 50% of the respondents supported this view) yet most respondents in thirteen countries indicated they wanted few children—two or one. A family in decline view might argue that limiting the number of children reflects the alarming rise of individualism, whereas a family is changing perspective suggests that the material conditions of families (the ability to economically support children), influence decisions about children.

Another intra measure of family values is time spent together. A recent survey of 3,155 children ages two to eighteen about their daily exposure to the media found that more than half (53%) had televisions in their room (Roberts et al. 1999). The average child spent almost four and one-half hours in his/her room engaged with media, often using two media forms simultaneously. Four and one-half hours in one's bedroom leaves little time for family interaction—not to mention study time on school nights.

A family in decline framework would find the results compelling, whereas the family is changing proponents might cite the independence of children as positive. Others might interpret the findings in terms of Arlie Hochschild's work (1996), which suggests that home is not always an emotional refuge where parents and children salve each others' wounds and bolster egos. The study implies that sometimes it is a place of tense relationships with members distancing themselves from each other. Nevertheless, a recent Radcliffe Public Policy study of 1,008 male workers found that 70 percent of men in their twenties and thirties would give up time at work in order to spend more time with their families (Grimsley 2000). The family in decline proponents would be interested in whether respondents' attitudes coincided with their behavior.

One study asked parents and children if they thought they spent enough time together (Galinsky 1999). Forty-nine percent of mothers with children aged thirteen through eighteen thought they spend too little time together, whereas only about one-third of children felt the same way. Sixty-four percent of fathers thought they should spend more time, whereas 39 percent of the children responded similarly. A family is changing perspective maintains that parents feel both burdened and a sense of ambivalence as they strike a fragile balance between work and family. Parents too often: ". . . are reluctant choosers when it comes to the modern family. . . . They feel not so much liberated by opportunity as weighted down by obligation" (Wolfe 1998).

Cross-Cultural Comparison: Pro Family Policies

The discussion thus far has focused on family values attitudes within families—a debate that shows no signs of abating. However, perhaps most significant to keep in mind when thinking about the family and family values: Is the family valued by society? It is important to examine the value families have for the social system as indicated by pro-family policies. An extra and cross-cultural analysis considers a few important measures of family support in five Western industrialized countries, including the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Sweden. Three factors that have an impact on families' well being (especially in light of an increasing proportion of dual-earner couples worldwide) will be addressed: maternity leave, family leave, and childcare. The information for all countries has been obtained from the Clearing-house on International Developments in Child, Youth, and Family Policies at Columbia University.

Maternity leave. In France women as mothers are valued by their country in at least two ways: First, they can take advantage of job-protected leave six weeks before and ten weeks after the birth of a child with 80 percent of their pay. Second, medical care related to pregnancy is paid by the state. Great Britain allows more release time from work than does France: eighteen weeks job-protected time off, with 90 percent of wages for six weeks, then twelve weeks at a lower rate of pay. Italy's maternity leave, which was instituted eighty-nine years ago, is more generous than Great Britain. Pregnant women can take a leave from work eight weeks prior to birth and stay out for twelve weeks after the birth with 80 percent of their pay. Another perquisite that any mother would appreciate: Italian women who work full-time are entitled to a two-hour rest period during the day for the first year after giving birth.

Sweden offers the most generous maternity leave. Swedish women can take up to eighteen months off work with 80 percent of their pay for twelve months. Of the five countries examined, the United States has the least family-friendly maternity policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is useful for those who meet the conditions. First, a worker must be employed by a company with fifty or more employees (companies with fewer than fifty are exempt). Second, the employee must have worked 1,250 hours in the previous year. If those conditions are met, then the employee is entitled to apply for a twelve-week job-protected unpaid leave for birth or adoption of a child or other medical needs of a family. An important caveat: a company is not required to hold the same job the employee held before the leave, only a job.

Family leave. What do countries do for families once the child is born? French workers are entitled to job-protected parental leave after one year on the job and can take up to five paid days a year to care for a sick child. An attractive feature is that both parents can take the leave simultaneously. Although not as generous as France, Great Britain also acknowledges the needs of the family concerning this issue. Britons are permitted an unpaid job-protected leave up to thirteen weeks that can be taken until a child reaches 5 years of age. Italy demonstrates its pro-family stance by giving working parents unlimited job-protected leave to care for a sick child less than 3 years old. Sweden's policy is not as generous in terms of time, but it enables parents to take up to sixty days a year to care for an ill child or if the child's caretaker is ill. The United States does not have a policy beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act noted above.

Childcare. Affordable, safe, convenient childcare is one of the most important components for parents to put in place when they are employed outside the home. In France, childcare centers serve children age three months to two years and parents pay about a quarter of the cost. France also has preschool education for children two to six years old. Most parents take advantage of the preschool. Great Britain's childcare support is meanstested. That is, it targets children of the poor. Nevertheless, poor parents must pay 30 percent of the cost. On the other hand, Italy's working parents have publicly funded childcare available for children age three months to three years, with working mothers and poor mothers having priority.

Sweden appears to be the most supportive of its families in the area of childcare. It guarantees childcare for children aged one to eleven for parents who work or who are students. Early childhood education centers provide universal coverage for children less than seven years old. In the United States federal subsidies have been instituted that coincide with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that were meant to facilitate the shift from welfare to work for those who need childcare. Then, too, there are Head Start and Early Head Start programs for low-income families. These programs have a dual purpose of preparing poor children for school as well as acting as childcare for their parents who work. Unfortunately, the programs are in danger of being cut because of the U.S. tax cut in early 2001 and the slowdown in the U.S. economy. Other forms of assistance exist for low- to moderate-income parents (parents earning less than $30,000) in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit and a Dependent Care Tax Credit to assist with childcare expenses.

This cursory comparative overview underscores Cherlin's assessment that: ". . . the U.S. down right stingy in its family benefits (2001, p. 243)." A concentration of resources for families with young children helps explain why France and Sweden have single digit child poverty rates well below 10 percent. It could explain, too, why the United States has a higher infant mortality rate (higher than twenty-one other industrialized countries).

More U.S. subsidies are means-tested than those in other countries. This correlates with the U.S. ideology of individualism and the notion of family self-sufficiency. It explains, too, why there has been so much resistance to welfare in the United States. As the family-assistance policies are currently written, few are entitled to receive aid. It is instructive to note that the United States, which offers less support for families, outspends all other countries on prisons. In the last decade spending for prisons in the United States has increased in the same proportion that spending for education has decreased.

Family-friendly policies require a collective sacrifice on the part of a citizenry and many countries are currently chafing under the burden of widespread economic stagnation. Nevertheless, the costs are more palatable because the benefits are, for the most part, universal, meaning all can participate to some extent. Thus, in the long run, families have healthier members and states have healthier citizens. The family is changing, but if the family as an institution declines, it does so, in part, because the challenges facing families are not accompanied by supportive family policies.


It is not that some families have values and others do not, or that family values should be placed on the endangered list, or that there is a finite list of values that one can review to determine if a family has values or not. Family discourse about family values requires understanding the social context of families as well as the material conditions of families. Both influence present attitudes as well as expectations about the future. Valuing higher education is not an inherent condition, it is learned from those who have an expectation that its achievement will become a reality. Measuring leisure time spent with loved ones as an indicator of family values has validity only where the conditions provide family members discretionary time.

Although most people prefer to view the family as a private "haven in a heartless" world (Lasch 1977), the family is shaped by its social milieu. The political and economic environment exults or diminishes the family. The family's private troubles are connected to the public issues (Mills 1959). When the state enacts family-friendly policies, it exhibits a reverence for the institution of the family, reinforcing not only family values, but that the family is valued. Where it fails to do so, it contributes to family disintegration. Even at that, the family-values debate will continue.

See also:Evangelical Christianity; Family Policy; Family Strengths; Global Citizenship; Religion


cherlin, a. j. (2001). "the transformation of motherhood." in public and private families: an introduction, ed. a. j. cherlin. boston: mcgraw-hill.

coontz, s. (2001). "what we really miss about the 1950s."in family in transition, 11th edition, ed. a. s. skolnick and j. h. skolnick. boston: allyn and bacon.

galinsky, e. (1999). "what children think about theirworking parents." in ask the children, ed. e. galinsky. new york: harpercollins.

grimsley, k. d. (2000). "making family a priority." washington post weekly, may 8.

hochschild, a. r. (1996). "the emotional geography ofwork and family life." in gender relations in public and private, ed. l. morris and e. s. lyon. new york: macmillan.

lasch, c. (1977). haven in a heartless world: the familybesieged. new york: basic books.

mills, c. w. (1959) the sociological imagination. newyork: oxford university press.

nock, s. l. (1999) "the problem with marriage." society.( july/august):20–27.

popenoe, d. (1988). disturbing the nest: family change and decline in modern societies. new york: aldine de gruyter.

roberts, d. l.; foehr, u. g.; rideout, v. j.; and brodie, m.(1999). "kids and media @ the new millennium." report from the henry j. kaiser family foundation. menlo park, ca.

skolnick, a. (1991). "the state of the american family." inembattled paradise: the american family in an age of uncertainty. new york: basic books.

stacey, j. (1992). "backward toward the postmodern family: reflections on gender, kinship, and class in the silicon valley." in rethinking the family: some feminist questions, rev. edition, ed. b. thorne and m. yalom. boston: northeastern university press.

stacey, j. (1999). "the family values fable." in americanfamilies: a multicultural reader, ed. s. coontz. new york: routledge.

wolfe, a. (1998). "the culture war within." in one nation, after all, ed. a. wolfe. new york: viking penguin.

other resources

gallup poll special reports. (1997). "global study of family values." gallup poll news service, available from

kammerman, s. b. (2001). clearinghouse on internationaldevelopments in child, youth, and family policies at columbia university. available from

barbara a. arrighi

Family Values

views updated May 21 2018

Family Values


Family values refers to those norms that emerge from our experiences within the family structure and that inform our understanding of that social construction we call the family. Just as family structures have changed over time and vary across cultures, so too have attitudes about the family, its relationship to society, and its relative value in the social order. These changes within the family and society often have occasioned fierce debate and have led to contested claims about the nature and definition of family and those values that represent the many and varied forms of family life.

In the late-twentieth-century United States, political conservatives and liberals battled for culturally accepted definitions of the family and family values. According to sociologist James Davison Hunter, the family is the most conspicuous field of conflict in the culture war (1991, p. 176). This battle was an extension of a campaign by the Moral Majority, an organization formed in 1979 and composed of conservative, evangelical Christian activists. Among its stated tenets was opposition to feminism, gay rights, abortion, and pornography. The Moral Majority championed the patriarchal nuclear family as a biblical ideal and warned that the failure of the family would lead to the demise of American culture.

Family values as an ideological battleground came to prominence in U.S. political debate during the 1992 presidential campaign, when particular values were espoused by the New Right, a movement that brought together religious and political conservatives who emphasized individual responsibility and the primacy of Christian moral values coupled with traditional gender roles. One powerful New Right group, Focus on the Family, claims, for example, that the church, the family, and the government are the three basic institutions ordained by God for the benefit of humanity. The traditional family as described by such conservatives presumes heterosexual marriage, patriarchal authority within the family, and the production and care of children. The term family values was adopted by the New Right and functions in public debate as shorthand for this conservative ideology of family. Family values proponents often carve out their position over and against social forces which they believe threaten the traditional family; they are antichoice (in regards to abortion), antigay, against sex education other than promotion of strict abstinence, against hate-crime legislation, against the separation of church and state, and against a host of other issues that they believe threaten the traditional family structure.

History tells us that rather than privileging the nuclear family, definitions of the family have changed with time and culture, as have the values attributed to family. In classical Greek culture, for example, the paterfamilias (the male head of a household) was responsible not only for his immediate family but also for his current slaves, former slaves who were now clients, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates or tenants. And even in the ancient world there were disagreements about the value of the family: The philosopher Aristotle thought that family life was an obligation one fulfilled for the good of society, whereas Plato argued in The Republic that private, individual families detracted from the social good.

Historian Stephanie Coontz notes in The Social Origins of Private Life (1988) that the model of the nuclear family idealized in contemporary conservative politics emerged in the United States after the Revolutionary War as a response to changing economic and political realities. The Industrial Revolution provided new sources of income, facilitating the growth of a middle class. The wives of this emergent class were expected to devote themselves to the domestic sphere; their most important political contribution was to raise patriotic children while men worked outside the home to support the family and society. This was, of course, a privileged ideal that was not realized in, for example, slave families. Even today, poor and working-class families continue to find it difficult to thrive outside of extended kinship networks that provide both financial and emotional support. With an increasingly diverse U.S. population, traditional family values fail to account for the variety of family structures that emerge from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Despite conservative claims that traditional family values are divinely ordained and hold the key to the ideal society, recent social science research indicates that values are of secondary importance when it comes to social mobility as an indicator of success. In a longitudinal study Patrick L. Mason assessed the importance of family values and class status on interracial inequality and intergenerational mobility (1999). Mason found that although family values do have some effect on economic mobility from one generation to the next, class considerations (and the intersection of these with race) are more significant in predicting inequality. Put another way, although values may shape our perception of our place in society, material considerations have a greater influence on our ability to actually change that place.

Any contemporary attempt to define family values must take into account the multiple and varying forms in which family life takes place in diverse communities, including single-parent families, unmarried heterosexual couples with or without children, gay men and lesbians with or without children, and other nontraditional groupings who form families of choice. The family is a cultural construction that has undergone multiple transformations throughout history without being destroyed. Despite family values rhetoric to the contrary, the family will survive future transformations, opening new horizons of human affiliation and identity.

SEE ALSO Family; Family, Extended; Family, Nuclear; Religion


Abbott, Pamela, and Claire Wallace. 1992. The Family and the New Right. London: Pluto Press.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1988. The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 16001900. New York: Verso Press.

Hunter, James Davison. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books.

Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby, eds. 1993. Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mason, Patrick L. 1999. Family Environment and Intergenerational Well-Being: Some Preliminary Results. In The State of Black America 1999. Washington, DC: National Urban League.

Okin, Susan Moller. 1989. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books.

Elizabeth A. Say

Family Values

views updated May 14 2018


FAMILY VALUES became a popular and political term in the late twentieth century. While it has entailed subjective meanings throughout U.S. history and contemporary usage, it can be described as a set of beliefs or morals that help provide for family unity and social interaction as well as providing for a societal view for childhood development. These beliefs have encompassed such topics as the roles of marriage, divorce, childbearing, gender roles, and sexual activity and have shaped not only the family's interaction with society, but also legislative policy.

In November 2001 the Institute for Social Research produced a report ("Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States") that combined the research of five separate studies tracking family attitudes and values back to the 1960s. The study concluded that there was increased tolerance for diversity in values and behavior outside of traditional family relationships. The values discussed included attitudes towards sex roles, divorce, cohabitation without marriage, extramarital sex, and childbearing.

The results indicated an increasingly positive attitude regarding the equality of women in family relations and the decision-making process as well as the involvement of women in previously traditional male roles. The study found that paradoxically while there was a higher level of acceptance for divorce, the majority of Americans believed that marriages should be a lifetime commitment and not ended except under extreme circumstances. While unmarried cohabitation was somewhat novel in the 1960s, the study concluded it was no longer the societal stigma it once was. Americans tended to accentuate fidelity in a relationship as a desired value and extramarital sex was one moral choice that seems to have become less tolerant among the U.S. populace in the late twentieth century. While the concept that marriages "ought" to produce children had diminished considerably, most of the people interviewed believed parenthood was fulfilling.

Studies such as these have led scholars to different conclusions regarding the family and their values. Some, such as David Popenoe, indicated a decline in family values because of a weakening in parental influence of the child and the child's well-being with the loss of power to institutions such as the workplace, schools, and the state. He maintained that the seeming desirability of self-fulfillment and egalitarianism helped reduce the values of the family. Other scholars, like Stephanie Coontz, stated that "traditional families" are something of a myth and that values depended on a supportive economic and social environment.

In May 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California regarding the strengthening of the family. The speech became famous for its attack on the television show Murphy Brown and the main character's decision to have a child out of wedlock. The Republican Party touted a return to "traditional family values" that propelled the discussion onto the national level in that year's presidential race. Democrats used the issue to introduce legislation that would support family leave from work in times of need. The debate from that year helped bring about several federal laws in the following years.

Previous federal laws have been passed that either directly affected the morality of the family or specifically mention the family. The Comstock Act of 1873 prohibited the mailing of information related to contraception or abortion. The Social Security Act of 1935 had in mind as one of its goals the preserving and strengthening of the family. The late twentieth century saw a profusion of federal legislation claiming to promote the well being of the family. Among the laws passed during this period were the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (a federal crime to willfully fail to pay past-due child support); the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (allowance of up to 12 work weeks' unpaid leave to care for family member); the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (a federal crime to cross interstate lines to kill, injure, or harass a spouse or intimate partner); the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (a spouse is defined as the legal union between one man and one woman); the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform); and the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 (allowing the withholding of wages for child support). These laws have been enacted because of a perceived deterioration of family values that contributed to the necessity of increased governmental assistance.

The concept of family values has changed dramatically from colonial times, when the emphasis was on the notion of a household, with very few values attributed directly to families but rather to the community at large. By the twenty-first century, this evolved to values instigated and nurtured by the family in order to integrate their children into society. While there has been an increase in tolerance of once frowned-upon subjects such as divorce, single-parent families, and gender roles, idealistic reflections of family values have led to its use as a political stratagem and a sometimes scapegoat for perceived societal problems.


Adler, Libby S. "Federalism and Family." Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, no. 8 (January 1999): 197–236.

Arnold, Laura W., and Herbert F. Weisberg, "Parenthood, Family Values, and the 1992 Presidential Election." American Politics Quarterly, no. 24 (1996): 194–220.

———. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Gillis, John R. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Popenoe, David. "American Family Decline, 1960–1990: A Review and Appraisal." Journal of Marriage and the Family, no. 55 (August 1993): 527–542.

Thornton, Arland, and Linda Young-DeMarco. "Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s." Journal of Marriage and the Family, no. 63 (November 2001): 1009–1037.

George R.BurkesJr.

See alsoDivorce and Marital Separation ; Gender and Gender Roles ; Marriage .