Reading time: 19 minutes
In this essay, our executive director Frank Furedi provides the context for our conference The Family in Crisis: The problem of socialisation in Brussels on 7 December 2023. Register for the conference here.
The survival of the family depends on the restoration of adult authority
The assault on the moral status of the conventional family is also directed at the authority of adulthood
Why have policymakers begun to regard the traditional family form as outdated and, in some cases, undesirable?
This question immediately raises another: what is the family, and why is it important?
The reason why these questions are frequently posed is because an institution that has served as the cradle of modern social order for hundreds of years can no longer be taken for granted. Throughout most of the modern era, the idea that the family, in its conventional nuclear form, which served as a foundational institution of society in the West, was rarely challenged. Yet today, this institution and the ideals associated with it are frequently decried and described as outdated, discriminatory and oppressive.
During the past fifty years, the authoritative status of the family has come under sustained attack by a coalition of social engineers, therapeutic and so-called caring professionals, academics and supporters of identity politics. The phrase ‘war against the family’ used by the sociologist Brigitte Berger captures an important development that emerged in the 1970s and remains in play to this day (1). The tendency to devalue the moral status of the conventional family and its norms enjoys a formidable cultural valuation. It is also widely supported by academic experts and policymakers directing family affairs. In mainstream academic literature and related policy documents, finding an unambiguous positive affirmation for the traditional nuclear family is difficult. On the contrary, in the Western world, in academic literature and official policy documents, the family tends to be associated with a variety of problems. The term ‘traditional family’ is usually treated with suspicion. It is frequently represented as an anomaly. No sooner is the term ‘two-parent family’ mentioned, but it is quickly followed by the declaration that it is only one of many other family forms, such as blended and single parent.
The pluralisation of family forms is based on a relativist premise that deprives the family of its normative content. This approach adopts an instrumentalist and pragmatic approach that focuses on the functions associated with family life. Since functions such as clothing and feeding a child and providing a home can be carried out by a variety of means, all family arrangements are represented as of equal worth, and no family form can be construed as better than the others. While it is true that the family structure is responsible for carrying out certain key functions – reproduction, the socialisation of children, and providing shelter and resources for survival – it is more than a repository of functions. It is also the principal source of identity and the provider of the relations that bind people to one another and previous and future generations. A family connects its members to the wider community and plays an important role in creating the bonds that bind the wider community members. It is through the family that society’s moral codes are cultivated, and a broader sense of solidarity gains definition.
The core of family life
Of course, in different societies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, families and their relation to a wider community are mediated through different cultural practices and norms. However, in most cases, these different cultural practices share important ‘bedrock features characteristic of the family’. Based on the available ethnographic literature, Brigitte Berger has identified six important features that characterise family life in different societies. These are:
- The organisation of human sexuality by means of some form of marriage that serves to socially legitimise the sexual union, regardless of whether manifested in the form of monogamy or polygamy and its subcategories;
- A taken-for-granted acceptance that the core function of this union revolves around the procreation and protection of children;
- An acknowledgement of the rights and duties between the spouses as well as those of the spouses to their children;
- Some clearly designated residential arrangements for husband, wife, and children commonly called a household;
- A set of more or less precisely established reciprocal economic obligations between husband and wife and of both to their children;
- A socially legitimated system of reckoning descent.
Though these features of family life are expressed through different conventions, rituals and practices, they are all experienced as binding, authoritative and taken-for-granted ways of conducting human relations. Moreover, they enjoy a widely accepted normative status. Therefore, they can serve as a medium for transmitting values to the young and play a key role in their socialisation.
Until the 1970s, the rules and practices associated with family traditions were widely accepted and, in many instances, even idealised in Western societies. It was, of course, recognised that problems were related to the conduct of family life. Family breakdown was a frequent subject of discussion. At various times, concerns were raised about absent fathers, working mothers or the loss of support from the fast-disappearing extended family. There was widespread debate on ‘problem families’ in the post-war period. These discussions referred to specific problems that were seen as the exceptions. Invariably, a sharp distinction was drawn between a relatively small number of problem families and everyone else. During the 1960s, attitudes towards the family took a sharp turn, and the problems associated with this institution were less and less conceptualised in such specific terms. Gradually, there was an expansion of the range of family problems until the authority of this institution was called into question. These sentiments, first articulated by academics and sections of the caring profession, became politicised by the 1960s counterculture, and eventually gained the blessing of the prevailing cultural elites.
Understanding the erosion of traditional family life
Since the 1970s, the traditional family has been systematically devalued and even demonised by progressive experts and policymakers, cultural influencers, and academics. The main driver of this anti-family sentiment is hostility towards the traditional ideals and practices associated with this institution. These sentiments often echoed the claims of psychologists who insisted that the family was the source of mental health problems and dysfunctions due to its authoritarian and patriarchal character. In many instances, experts and members of the therapeutic professions cast the family into a negative role. The family was criticised for its supposed authoritarian and patriarchal practices. Increasingly, the family was represented as a dark place where dysfunction reigned.
By the late 1960s and 1970s, attitudes towards the family had fundamentally altered. The family was now viewed with hostility as ‘a dangerous source of individual repression and mental pathology’. Critics of the family argued that this institution was characterised by repressive practices, which in turn led to a range of psychological and social issues. Though attacks on customary family practices were politically motivated, their authors claimed they were merely guided by the science of psychology. A radical revision of how the family was perceived led social workers and therapeutic professionals to alter their approach towards their work. Until the 1970s, their goal was to keep families intact and assist in maintaining family stability. But from this point onwards, the significance attached to this goal diminished. This shift in attitude had as its premise the conviction that the intact family often hid various sins. Parental authority and discipline were now represented in a negative light because they were deemed repressive and responsible for a variety of mental health deficits.
Given the loss of authority in the conventional family, divorce was less and less seen as a problem. Regardless of its consequences, divorce was represented as a preferable alternative to an unhappy marriage. Inevitably, the expert’s support for the normalisation of divorce called into question the status of marriage and the desirability of a two-parent family. The devaluation of the traditional nuclear family and changing attitudes towards divorce and marriage inevitably loosened the bonds that assisted the conduct of relations within the family. It also undermined the values through which family members gave meaning to their experience. In such circumstances, instability and breakdown became increasingly common, and for many young people, the conventional family form lost some of its appeal. Many contributions about the erosion of the cultural authority of the traditional family assert that this development was the outcome of rapid socio-economic change and the transformation of the status of women. Their socio-economic deterministic account overlooks the role of politics and culture. The erosion of the cultural authority of the traditional family was not a spontaneous outcome of wider external development. Nor was the changing position of women responsible for the demonisation of the traditional family. It was, above all, the consequence of a sustained cultural attack that sought to politicise the private sphere and the conduct of family life. In the Anglo-American world, the perspective of the ‘personal is political’ led to the targeting of the conventional family. It promoted an ideology that pathologised family ideals and suggested that pre-existing images of a smiling two-parent family embracing their happy children were merely a mystifying myth. From this point onwards, academic textbooks, Hollywood films, Netflix and other mainstream media outlets tended to focus on the ‘Dark Side of The Family’. Increasingly popular culture turned against the traditional family and promoted a script that consisted of dead-beat fathers, victimised mothers and neglected or abused children.
The fragmentation of the family
The cultural assault on the traditional family had two immediate and important consequences. With the tendency to highlight family deficits instead of their positive contribution to the reproduction of society, the normative bonds and relations within the family were called into question. Family policy became fragmented. It focused on saving the child, helping women gain independence from their spouse and diminishing the father's authority. Increasingly, the family was less represented as relational and underpinned by a common interest but as a site encompassing individuals with potentially conflicting interests. Hence, the absurd formulation of such policy-related terms as ‘child poverty’ rather than family poverty.
Policymakers widely pursue a fragmented framing of the family. For example, the policy of the European Union on this issue seldom treats the family as a coherent unit. As Dr Ashley Frawley pointed out in her study for MCC Brussels, Families in Fragment: Why The EU Must Bring Back The Family,
‘The European Union does not have a family policy so much as it has an anti-family policy: an approach that fragments families into discrete individuals, who in turn become seen as tools or problems to policymakers in the quest for often-conflicting goals. From this perspective, the family is not only conceived of in fragmented terms, but also as a target for interventions designed to break ‘cycles’ of social problems such as poverty and to root out unwanted values, beliefs and behaviours’.
From this perspective, the family is regarded as a collection of individuals rather than the site where the primary relations within society are conducted.
The second immediate and important outcome of the assault on the moral authority of the traditional family was the growing tendency to pluralise the family. In professional and official circles, the conventional family was depicted as one of several different family forms. Marriage and parenthood shared by wife and husband had become an option alongside cohabiting couples, single parenting, and various other arrangements. The White House Conference on the Family of 1979 sanctified these developments. This conference's outcome was redefining the family's conventional meaning. As Berger noted,
‘To accommodate a wide variety of domestic arrangements—ranging from single-parent households, blended families, same-sex families, cohabiting couples to more exotic makeshift groupings—that had made their entrance during the preceding decade, the term “family” was replaced by the term “families” without further ado. All domestic arrangements, and were they yet the most fleeting and far-fetched, were now held to be equally acceptable and, of course, deserving of public recognition and support’ (2)
Until the displacement of the ‘family’ by ‘families’, society possessed a clear normative ideal of what a family should look like. In practice, this ideal was not always realised. Nevertheless, adults were able to transmit to the younger generation values and ideals regarding a foundational institution of society. It meant that single parents, like two-parent households, had a similar reference point that helped them socialise their children. Much was lost once society lost the confidence to provide young people with a familial model that could inspire them.
Until recently, cultural support for the pluralisation of the family form in Western societies was far from universal. At the turn of this century, Berger could write of a ‘paradoxical situation in which the cultural elite was eager to deinstitutionalize the family in its conventional form and celebrate the rich variety of lifestyle options available, while ordinary people remained to be guided by more conventional ideals’ (3). To a considerable extent, Berger’s observation retains its relevance to this date. At least in terms of rhetoric and ideology, the elites and the professional classes constitute a section of society which is most estranged from the institution of the married mother and father-managed nuclear family. Yet, in practice, the upper classes are more likely to get married than other sections of society.
Like the traditional family, marriage has increasingly become a lifestyle option. The principal reason why this institution lost its commanding influence and is represented as an option is because it has been dispossessed of its normative content. The loss of its normative content does not merely mean that marriage and two-parent families have declined and that divorce, family breakdown and childlessness have increased. These all too apparent and widely commented upon developments are only symptoms of an even more significant issue: the loss of the authoritative status of adulthood and the lack of clarity regarding the assumption of responsibility for the socialisation of young people.
The rise of the rights of the child
The lack of clarity and confidence towards the conduct of parent and child relations has led to ideas and policies that encourage the so-called democratisation of the family and the constitution of children’s rights. Outwardly, Children’s Rights appear to be a sensible democratic formulation. But since children lack the maturity to be rights-bearing individuals, their so-called rights are voiced by experts and professionals who speak on their behalf. The cumulative effect of promoting children’s rights is not an advancement of their interest but the erosion of the authority of adults. This outcome seems to be the objective of activists at the forefront of promoting children’s rights.
Inciting children to conclude that the problem they face is the behaviour of their elders is a central feature of the Children’s Rights movement. To realise this objective, Children’s Rights activists seek to raise the moral status of the child so that it trumps that of adulthood. Their approach resonates with a prevailing cultural trend towards dissolving the traditional boundary between adulthood and childhood.
Policymakers actively promote children’s right to justify their intervention in private life. The EU’s Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee, promoted by the European Commission, aims to ‘better protect all children, to help them fulfil their rights and to place them right at the centre of EU policymaking’ (4). Invariably, the cause of protecting children’s rights involves constraining those of their parents and undermining their authority.
As I discussed in my study Why Borders Matter, the Western world has become estranged from the exercise of adult authority. In effect, through the dissolution of the boundary between childhood and adulthood, the moral authority of adulthood has been downgraded. The parallel process of the infantilisation of adulthood and the adultification of children most strikingly captures this trend. Supporters of children’s rights do not simply treat youngsters as adults. They also implicitly represent adults as immature grown-ups.
One important manifestation of the imperative of adultification is the rhetorical lionisation of childhood. The adulation directed by adult society at Greta Thunberg, the teenage face of the climate change ‘school strikes’ movement, is paradigmatic in this respect. The old adage of ‘out of the mouths of babes’ undoubtedly led to her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The veneration of the children involved in the ‘school strikes’ movement is justified on the grounds that adults have failed to take responsibility for dealing with the problem of the environment. ‘Adults are failing us on climate change, that’s why I am striking,’ is the bold headline of a post on the Friends of the Earth website.
It is important to realise that the adultification of childhood is not simply about recycling a political agenda through the voice of children. It is about recycling all forms of adult obsessions – including sexual ones – through children. The sexualisation of children – including the very young – is integral to the adultification imperative. In the Anglo-American world, the casual insertion of drag queens into children’s lives is justified by many because kids are never too young to be exposed to the intricacies of adult sexuality. Sex education of pupils is fast giving way to sexuality education, which encourages children to experiment with their identity. Predictably, we have seen the emergence of child drag queens. And at least for some – thankfully, a very small number of adults – children are represented as suitable targets of their sexual desire. The invention of the identity of ‘minor-attracted people’ is entirely in line with adultification. Paedophiles can now draw on the cultural resources that promote the role reversal between children and adults.
The trend towards the adultification of childhood is a symptom of cultural decadence. At the very least, it implies the abandonment of adult authority and irresponsibly using children to voice the concerns of grown-up society. At worst, it encourages the sexualisation of childhood to the point that they become the victims of decadent adult fantasy.
The decline of adult responsibility
Historically, the conventional family played a central role in exercising adult responsibility towards the younger generation. The authority of the family, the status of adulthood and the exercise of adult responsibility are interconnected developments. That is why its decline has contributed so much to the erosion of the boundary between adults and children. The most significant manifestation of this trend is the erosion of adult responsibility.
Throughout history, communities have acted on the assumption that adults bore a responsibility towards the direction, education, and socialisation of the younger generations. Grown-ups are not just individuals but members of a wider world of adults. By their very existence, they represent adulthood to the younger generation and, through their behaviour, send clear signals about what we ought to expect from children.
From a sociological perspective, the actions of adults can be viewed as a collective response to social necessity – not simply a collection of arbitrary responses by individual grown-ups acting in terms of their self-generated personality traits. Adult responsibility should be conceptualised as a species of collective responsibility for the future well-being of the younger generations. This is a shared responsibility since neither individuals on their own nor a single institution such as the family or the school can be expected to cultivate the desired attributes and character in young people successfully. The development of moral virtues and character has the exercise of adult responsibility as its premise.
There is considerable evidence that in the 21st century, adults have become estranged from taking responsibility for the younger generations. Contemporary culture has distanced adults from interacting with young people, and grown-ups often feel they lack the authority to guide young people other than their children. There are many reasons for the estrangement of adults from childhood – growth of single households, childlessness, having children late in life, and the rise of individuation – but our hypothesis is that the primary influence is the erosion of the moral status of the family.
Rhetorically, adults are still expected to look after the welfare of the young. But when adulthood, like the family, becomes denuded of substantive moral content, responsibility becomes disassociated from obligation and duty. When grown-ups act as if they are freed from obligation and duty, they cease to be adults. That is one reason so many biologically mature grown-ups find it difficult to fulfil their historical role in society. Many do not feel an obligation to take responsibility for the welfare of other people’s children. Nor do they feel a sense of responsibility for contributing to the reproduction of society. The idealisation of the life of the singleton and the reluctance to become a mother or a father are, in most cases, symptoms of the infantilisation of adulthood.
Back in 1954, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt warned what would happen if the authority of adults lost its legitimacy. In a passage of great interest to those concerned with the family's future, she observed the crisis of authority:
‘has spread to such pre-political areas as child-rearing and education, where authority in the widest sense has always been accepted as a natural necessity, obviously required as much by natural needs, the helplessness of the child, as by political necessity, the continuity of an established civilization which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers’. (5)
Almost 70 years ago, Arendt spelt out the problem that confronts us today. In the contemporary era, the de-authorisation of adulthood has become far more widespread than in Arendt’s time. That is why we must take seriously her fears for the ‘continuity of an established civilization’. The cause of upholding the family and protecting its moral authority is intimately linked to civilisational continuity.
This essay was written to provide context for our conference The Family in Crisis: The problem of socialisation in Brussels on 7 December 2023. Register for the conference here.
(1) B. Berger (2002) The Family in the Modern Age: More than a Lifestyle Choice, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p.23.
(2) B. Berger (2002) The Family in the Modern Age: More than a Lifestyle Choice, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p.27.
(3) B. Berger (2002) The Family in the Modern Age: More than a Lifestyle Choice, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p.23.
(4) Cited in https://brussels.mcc.hu/publication/families-in-fragments-why-the-eu-must-bring-back-the-family
(5) Hannah Arendt, 'What is authority?' in Between Past and Future (Penguin, 1961). Read it here.