Society's Stake in Parenthood

Jack C. Westman, M.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The word family is used to refer to a variety of relationships ranging from two persons living together to the entire human family. More precision is needed when public policy depends upon how a family is defined.

Societies have come and gone, but childrearing families of some kind have endured throughout the ages. The integrity of every society ultimately depends upon the competent parenting of children in family units, but questions about how that should take place arise periodically.

Recently the "nuclear" family (two parents) has been beset by a storm of controversy as described by Judith Stacey:1

"Anthropological and historical studies convince me that the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics...This concept has been employed primarily to signify a heterosexual, conjugal, nuclear, domestic unit, ideally one with one male primary breadwinner and a female primary homemaker and their dependent offspring. This unitary, normative definition of legitimate domestic arrangements is what my book defines as ephemeral with little regrets, because of the race, class, gender, and sexual diversity it has occluded and the inequities it has exacerbated."

There is no question that families can spawn racism, sexism, and social inequities. But that occurs when prejudice and discrimination filter down from subunits of society that influence those families. It is not because of the nuclear family per se.

Most families are not dominated by socially destructive, prejudiced values. They are permeated by love and mutual respect between parents and children. To indict the nuclear family as the cause, or as the result, of racism, sexism, and social inequities is inappropriate. Families that foster those conditions are influenced by reference group values.

In order to separate political trends from reasons why society should preferentially value families, a specific definition of the family is needed.

The Essence of a Family

The definition of a family varies according to the political climate of the times. Currently domestic living units that are not devoted to childrearing seek to be defined as families in order to qualify for financial and employment benefits awarded married couples and childrearing families. A married couple has been regarded as the precursor of a childrearing family.

Defining a family is further complicated by the fact that a family is not a living unit but is a network of relationships. Family relationships can be biological, adoptive, foster, step, and in-law. Although family members live together while children are young, families continue to exist in kin relationships throughout life. Family relationships also do not depend primarily on financial or friendship considerations.

From the point of view of society, the essential core of a family is parenthood -- the parent-child relationship. The purpose of the family is to prepare children for productive lives that advance the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens. In this light parenthood is the social institution that prepares and sustains individuals for life in society.

The essential core of parenthood is mutual attachment bonding. In order to promote committed parent-child relationships essential for the stability of a society, financial benefits have been awarded to married couples who are regarded as future parents. The number of marriages and cohabiting relationships that do not progress to childrearing has undermined society's intent that domestic couples should have special benefits because they are rearing children.

To further complicate matters, nonmarital childrearing families have become more visible and numerous, revealing that marriage is not essential for meeting the developmental needs of children and parents. The number of single-parent childrearing units in particular has increased dramatically. In the process, the developmental needs of children for both mothering and fathering has been obscured, as has been the importance of the relationship between a child's mother and father for both the children and the parents.

Parenthood is a more appropriate basis for defining a family than are social and political definitions of the family based on competition for financial and resource benefits. Parenthood focuses on the developmental needs of children and parents.


Parents susceptible to trends currently are foundering because they fail to recognize that childrearing requires both an authority line that permits parents to guide their children and mutual respect that permits children and parents to grow together. The linear model of parents as caregivers to children needs to be replaced by a more realistic paradigm in which parents and children are seen as interdependent with parents in charge of the childrearing family.

Parental authority over children has been supplanted by the dispersion of authority among family members. Many postmodern parents, harried and stressed out themselves, believe that the stress on young people today is relatively minor, and that, in any case, their "mature" children and "sophisticated" teenagers can handle it. In fact children today are under much greater stress than were children a generation ago, in part because the world is a more dangerous and complicated place in which to grow up, and in part because their needs for protection, nurturance, and guidance are being neglected.

David Elkind describes "authentic parenting" in which unilateral authority is needed for manners, morals, and values.2 Mutual authority is needed in matters of taste, preference, and style. Elkind forecasts that as the vital sentiments of committed love, authentic parenting, and interdependence become more commonly held, they will affect our perceptions of parenting. He advocates the "reinvention of adulthood" in which we recognize that children, adolescents, and even young adults may not yet have a set of internalized rules and standards, nor an adequate set of controls over their emotions and behavior. As adults, we need to explicate those rules, standards, and controls.

We also need to recognize each child's uniqueness. As parents and teachers we need to emphasize who children are and what they can do, rather than who they are not and what they cannot do. By focusing on each child as a unique and special person, we recognize the diversity of all young people.

At the same time the desire to be authentic parents conflicts with the equally authentic desire of adults to achieve career goals and ambitions. History records legions of people who have been more committed to the authentic expression of their personal needs and ambitions than the needs of their offspring. Pablo Picasso is a notable example. He had a number of affairs and had children by several liaisons. Parenting was subordinated to the expression of his artistic genius, which gave him personal wealth and enriched civilization. The mothers of his children parented them.

Society and Parenthood

When the conduct of day-to-day affairs is dominated by the immediate interests of individuals, the developmental needs of children can be perceived as burdens to be delegated to others, and the developmental needs of parents are eclipsed. The focus is on "parenting" as a set of functions that can be delegated to others rather than on "parenthood" as a life style. The model is that of wealthy parents, who can afford to delegate all parenting functions to others without becoming involved in the process of childrearing. Even the word "childrearing" (common usage has combined the two words) implies a unidirectional process in which persons are caretakers of, or caregivers to, children. Parenthood describes childrearing as an interactional process. Until it became controversial, the word family described a lifelong process of interdependent relationships with parenthood at the core.

Our society reflects the fruits of individualistic life styles, such as Picasso's. The life style of the wealthy (money supports a viable individualistic life style, poverty does not) is adulated in contemporary society, epitomized by the quest for "having it all." Missing in the lives of individuals whose children are raised--or not raised--by others is the developmental satisfaction that comes from generativity, so well described by Erik Erikson.3

When we think beyond ourselves, when we do things for the next generation out of a genuine commitment to its future well-being, we give evidence of generativity. Our failure to commit time and energy to meeting the needs of the next generation has resulted in the neglect of children on a scale unimagined in previous generations. The problems of poverty, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, absentee parents, latch-key children, violence, and drugs are no longer confined to the ghettos, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett points out in her book When the Bough Breaks 4 and with Cornel West in The War Against Parents.5

How do we honor the uniqueness of children and respect the interests of the next generation? Every impulse based on satisfying the needs of individuals now mitigates against competent parenting and societal planing for the future. But if we take seriously our knowledge of individual-survival and species-survival instincts, we will find that there are powerful forces that move us in the direction of Eriksonian generativity.

The challenge for any society is to promote childrearing that will insure its prosperity and survival. Our society must recognize that its long-term interests depend upon valuing parenthood. This can be done by focusing on the developmental benefits of the life style of parenthood.

Both women and men are attracted to procreation and childrearing. The instinctual disposition toward altruism enables parents to endure the burdens and sacrifices of childrearing and for nonparents to support parenthood. These communitarian impulses constitute a foundation for a social climate that supports, rather than impedes, parenting. With education and persuasion trend-oriented parents can be encouraged to devote more time and energy to filling their own needs as parents and their children's developmental needs.

However, as we have learned in all of our efforts to influence the behavior of individuals to conform to social values, persuasion and education are not enough. Most of the child neglect and abuse that generate our social problems do not occur in settings that are susceptible to persuasion and education. As is the case with crime, which crosses socioeconomic and racial boundaries, regulation in the form of laws is required to insure a reasonable degree of compliance with a social value.

One can argue convincingly that morality and childrearing competence cannot be legislated. But it is equally true that society expresses its basic values through laws. The nuances of decency and respect for others is shaped by prevailing attitudes, but the implementation of basic values, such as deploring child neglect and abuse, depends upon laws.

Our society is moving toward the prevention of social problems because of the burdens posed by habitual criminals and welfare dependent parents. The prevention of crime and welfare dependency inevitably draws attention to the ways in which children are neglected and abused. The prevention of habitual crime and welfare dependency depends upon the prevention of child abuse and neglect. The desire to prevent major social problems leads to the goal of insuring that every child in our nation is competently parented.

Standards for Parenting

The differences among individuals in our society need to be integrated by a sense of community. A sense of community recognizes that, despite our ethnic, racial, gender, and socioeconomic differences, we share common goals, aspirations, and responsibilities to other persons and to childrearing families.

Everyone knows, but few will acknowledge, that there are some people who should not be parents. They are unable to handle the responsibilities of their own lives, much less the responsibilities of parenting.

Our reluctance to face the fact that biological parents should be held to the same standards expected of foster and adoptive parents is a clear expression of prejudice against children, an offshoot of the self-centeredness characteristic of individualism.

If we wish to establish the goal that every parent is competently parented, we must face the fact that children will be conceived and given birth by individuals who are not competent to parent them. This means that we should establish standards for parenting and thereby highlight the need for parent education and training.

Standards for parenthood would not be needed if each person who conceives and gives birth to a child was capable of parenting that child. Unfortunately, the individuals who are the most ill-prepared for parenthood are the most likely to irresponsibly conceive and give birth to children. They also are the least likely to profit from persuasion and education. If the interests of their children are to be respected, these parents should be required to meet basic standards. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, we should follow our child abuse and neglect statutes and terminate their parental rights so that their children can be adopted by competent parents.

If we make the connection between our social problems and incompetent parenting, we can have the society that we all desire. Hoping that all parents will be competent will not achieve that goal. Setting standards for parenting would be a significant step toward that goal.


1 Stacey, Judith (1993) Good Riddance to 'the Family'. A response to David Popenoe. Journal of Marriage and the Family 55: 545-547.

2 Elkind, David (1994) Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 Erikson, Erik (1950) Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

4 Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (1991) When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children. New York: Basic Books.

5 Hewlett, Sylvia Ann & West, Cornel (1998) The War Against Parents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright © 1998 Jack C. Westman.

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