Nuking the Family 

by Roger E. Bissell


Which is better for the well-being of children—the nuclear family or the extended family? There are trade-offs, and one arrangement is not obviously better for everybody than the other.

The presumption is that blood relatives tend to have a child’s best interest at heart more than do non-blood relatives, and that a child is better off with blood relatives and more at risk with non-blood relatives. For instance, a child is not as likely to be raped or physically abused by a non-blood relative in a nuclear family as in an extended family. On the other hand, it is true that in an extended family setting, the irrationality of parents is more likely to come to light, and children are more likely to find sympathetic people to help them cope with family stresses. (Also, there is some belief that non-blood relatives are in the minority of child sexual abuse cases, and that the majority of abusers benefit from the greater privacy afforded by the two-parent home.) 

In a nuclear family, there is less reason for trust to be violated than in an extended family. On the other hand, with the relative privacy and predictability of a nuclear family, there is more opportunity for trust to be violated than in a relatively chaotic and public extended family.

The tendency of addictions to perpetuate generation-after-generation is easier to curtail in a nuclear family than in an extended family. There is less pressure to preserve the family's "good name" or image in the community by keeping "family secrets," because they’re less of a “dynasty” effect in play in the nuclear family. On the other hand, addiction tends to be acted out in secret, and the nuclear family is more conducive to keeping people in the dark about trans-generational patterns.

Thus, it is true that there is a downside to the nuclear family. But if the parents are measurably more rational and humane than the grandparents, aunts, and uncles, why would they want their children to enjoy the epistemological "richness" of being exposed to the emotional sickness of their relatives? That would be like sending your child to a Progressive nursery school, because you didn't want him or her to have the epistemological "poverty" of thinking that all pre-schools were like a Montessori preschool.

I agree that children and adults are not natural enemies, any more than business and labor or men and women are. The problem is systemic, i.e., structural, and arises from massive levels of government intervention that impact family relationships. (See below.) And this both fosters and is supported by a virulent strain of philosophy of personal irresponsibility—namely, the idea that if someone else will care for you, you don't have to; that if someone else will care for your parents or children, you don't have to. (See below.)

The odds are quite low that one will grow up in a "totally" non-abusive, rational family. But the ills of the nuclear family are not inherent to it, but rather are due to distortions on various levels—structural, cultural, personal—caused by excessive government involvement in our lives. The nuclear family is one of a number of family structures that can work better or worse, depending upon the character of the people in it and the level of stress they have to deal with. But the nuclear family is not as prevalent in societies in which government does not take an activist role in providing "safety nets" for the unfortunate.

Thus, its preeminent role in latter twentieth century culture is a sign of government interference; the nuclear family has become the relatively stable, equilibrium arrangement for child-rearing, and assumed the role that the extended family filled in the days of smaller government. In other words, the movement toward more nuclear families is an adaptation of the human race to the environmental-cultural-economic distortions caused by government welfare programs. More people are involved in nuclear families than should be, fewer in extended families than should be—and by "should," I mean would, if we had a freer society, because there would be much less pressure on them to set up living arrangements that are not in their best interest.

Only 50-100 years ago—long after Engels had his say—people were still considerably less mobile than today, and many fewer ventured hundreds or thousands of miles from where they grew up in order to seek a fortune and raise a family. The extended family was much more prevalent. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but I'd date the breakdown of the extended family in America from about 1935, the beginning of Social Security. Once there is a governmental safety net in place for any group of people, guess what happens?

Those who would naturally (in an extended family or, as you say, "tribal" situation) take care of that group do the natural thing: they make like Atlas and "shrug." So, once the elders were "provided for" by Social Security, the young-uns didn't feel as obliged to stick around and take care of them in their old age. So, off they went.

But that's not the end of the story. The nuclear family took its own beating with the onset of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) programs in the 1960s. Once children were provided a governmental "safety net" ... goodbye fathers, hello single-mother households. Those were the irresponsible fathers. On the other hand, the responsible fathers stuck around and worked like slaves, as did more and more mothers, because the higher and higher tax rates that pay for welfare and Social Security made it increasingly impossible to get by with only one income earner. More mothers had to work outside the home, which left kids with less and less contact and guidance from their primary caretaker. And with the grandparents (and assorted other relatives) left behind, there were no ready-made babysitters with a familial interest in the child—instead, families shelled out more dollars from already strained budgets for child care from people who did not know the child as well or have as much of an interest in the child's well-being. (It is an established fact that children are more at risk for neglect and violence from non-relatives than blood relatives. The evil stepmother is not a myth, but merely an exaggeration of a normal, statistically demonstrable, biologically explainable tendency.)

And with only one parent to care for a child, or with two absentee parents warehousing their child in between brief, stressed-out periods of interacting with their child, is it any wonder that child abuse has not declined in our more "enlightened" times? We may know more about what is good or bad for children, in terms of psychology and education, but the "structural" conditions are weighted heavily against our being able to put that knowledge into effect. (If there were ever an issue—or cluster of issues—that was ripe for a three-level, Sciabarran dialectical analysis, this is it!)

When my wife and I grew up in the '50s, our mothers were both at home until well into our school years. And when we had our children in previous marriages back in the '70s and '80s, both she and my ex-wife spent the first several, formative years at home with the children. And when we had our little girl together three years ago, we resolved that my wife would stay home with her for at least six months if possible, which we extended to a year, then to two years. And when my wife finally had to go to work, we managed for yet another year to take turns with the child care, and avoided resorting to care by a non-family member. Others may think this excessively protective, but to me and my wife, it was a necessity for our daughter's well-being. This was at considerable cost to our standard of living as well as our individual free time; it took (and still takes) lots of juggling in order to make it work, even partially. I know lots of people who don't bother to go to all this trouble. And because of that, among other reasons, I fear for our future.

The problem is not with the nuclear family. The problem is with Big Government nuking the family. The ills of the family and of several generations of children-to-adults are due to systemic, structural conditions that reward irresponsibility and that reinforce the philosophy that supports such irresponsibility. And I'm not talking about altruism. I'm talking about caring for those whom you brought into the world, defenseless and utterly dependent—and caring for those who cared for you when you were defenseless and dependent, when they become so.

It is normal and natural to want to provide such care, on both ends and in both directions of the parent-child continuum. These feelings, however, which are prevalent in a free society, are largely damped down when government presumes to take over the role of caring for needy children and elderly folks.

Consider, as just one example, how the elderly and near-elderly tend to view Social Security as an entitlement, for which they have paid, but which will be financed by the continuing tax-payments of the people from their children’s and grandchildren’s generation—and consider what this forced payment for anonymous elder people does to the natural benevolent feelings of younger people toward the elderly. In many ways similar to this, the government thus not only nukes the family, but also people’s feelings about their loved ones who are in need of help.

With such a weight from "above," I don't see how even a dedicated movement from below directed specifically at the child-rearing issue can labor successfully against it. Not so long as being hard-working and responsible is regarded as being stupid or being a sucker by the hordes of freeloaders coasting on governmental programs and paychecks.

I don't see how the problem can be reversed until the paternal state is dismantled or severely pared back, and the pernicious effects of the various governmental "safety nets" eradicated. Yes, the answer lies in a more rational philosophy guiding our culture, but the tail is wagging the dog right now, and it needs to be "bobbed" as tightly as possible. It will take a second American Revolution to do that.

Maybe once the Baby Boomers pass through the Social Security pipeline 10 years from now, the younger generations will rebel and refuse to pay the vastly increased taxes needed to foot the bill, the system will finally break down, and we'll have to start from scratch. Looking at what passes for a "younger generation" these days (present company excepted!), I am not optimistic that we will have a philosophic turn-around. But for the same reason, I see some likelihood that they will pull the rug out from under the structural props to the very system that spawned their own irresponsibility. In other words, we will see a socio-political backlash against the taxes needed to support the elderly.

If I thought that Objectivists or libertarians such as the Cato Institute or Reason Foundation were capable of having a significant influence in the outcome of this impending face-off, I would be more optimistic. But I think the problem is going to be much bigger in the near-term than anything that we and our friends can fix with our ideas and policy proposals. I think we'll be lucky if society doesn't collapse within fifteen years—and this is from someone who pooh-poohed all the gloom-and-doom talk from hard-money and cycle theory folks during the past 25 years.

I sure hope I'm wrong, that our social fabric is more resilient than I fear. But I think that Atlas Shrugged is going to turn out to have been amazingly prophetic, in abstract terms. The producers—that is, those expected to produce, what we now call the "Generation X-ers"—will shrug, and the house of cards will come tumbling down. Then Madonna will trace the sign of the dollar in space and say, "We are going back to the world."

The alternative is for Congress to gather up enough common sense and political will to junk the paternalistic state before the decision is taken out of their hands by the course of events. Maybe I'm getting too old and have lost my imagination, but I simply cannot envision a good outcome to this. Beam me up, Scotty.