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A Responsibility to Say Something

An article from Fragmented Families and Splintered Classes: A Symposium

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One approach to address the increase in out-of-wedlock births and divorce is for those of us who are civic and religious leaders to start speaking up.  We must start talking about values.  We must teach about dignity, generosity, honor, and discipline.  I am not convinced that this approach will totally reverse these disturbing trends, but it is worth trying. 

As I look at our cultural landscape, it seems that values are no longer taught or even discussed.  When we do discuss poverty, it is only in the context of materialism.  We are no longer comfortable looking at the spiritual and social issues involved in a life of poverty. 

Recently, I attended a church meeting where one of our social agencies was showing a video about a family it had recently helped get settled in a new home.  The family consisted of a very young mother and two children.  There was never any mention of a father.  There was nothing said about the mother’s employment status.  We were told that these families end up this way because the poverty rate is increasing.  They were in this situation because others are greedy and uncaring.  This did not make sense to me. 

I found myself keeping silent out of fear of sounding mean or being accused of blaming the victim.  I wanted to ask about the father.  I wanted to ask if this family was part of a faith community.  I wanted to ask how their extended family might have helped in this situation.  I wanted to ask if the mother had been able to find employment. 

On a more general level, I wanted to ask if the rise in the poverty rate had anything to do with the rise in out-of-wedlock births.  I wanted to wonder aloud if part of the struggle for many families of all classes results, in part, from a breakdown in a shared value system. 

I asked none of those questions.  If I had, we might have begun an important conversation—one that might really lead to helping people out of poverty. 

I was raised in the 1970s and ‘80s.  My parents divorced when I was two years old.  Both of my parents remarried, and I became part of two large stepfamilies.  Both families had their share of problems with alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, and more divorces.  Yet in the end, all of us kids, with one exception due to mental illness, turned out to be productive and respectable citizens.  Out-of-wedlock births and divorce also have been the exception.

I can name many reasons for why we turned out all right.  Our parents watched us like hawks.  We could not get away with much.  We had two sets of parents watching us—our fathers were intimately involved in our lives.  We did things together as a family.  We raised animals, traveled, fished, and hunted together.  We ate supper together every evening.  Our parents never let us sit in the house in front of the television; we were regularly rounded up and sent outside to play.  We did not attend church as much as we could have, but our parents told us about God and prayed with us.  Our parents never took our side against a teacher who disciplined us. 

As we became teenagers, our parents expected us to have jobs.  No job was ever demeaned; work had its own dignity. 

Our parents talked to us about history and politics, even though none of them had an education beyond high school.  The evening news was on every night before dinner, and we actually discussed and debated what we had seen.

We cannot force families to live this way, but we can start teaching these values in our communities.  These are not liberal values or conservative values.  They are commonsense values.  These values can help raise healthy productive children, whether they are raised by a single parent, step-parents, or parents of the same gender. 

This all makes me sound like a crabby old man, but I am not that old.  But I am old enough to know that in my lifetime something has shifted in our value system.  In a noble effort to be more inclusive and tolerant, we seem to have left off having any expectations or boundaries.  What I learned as a child was taught to me by my parents, step-parents, older siblings, and our extended family.  This leads me to wonder if the problem is the composition of the family system or the lack of values being transmitted to the next generation.

Those of us who see the problems existing and worsening have a responsibility to say something.

The Reverend Paul D. Allick is parish priest in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota.

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