It is precisely because we want the family to work as a place for real intimacy and long-term commitment that Friends of Families is unequivocally committed to the full equality of power for women in family life, and to full respect for the rights of children. It is important to understand that the patriarchal family structure that predominated in the nineteenth century does not function any longer, and that attempts to re-create it inevitably backfire and undermine family life. Women will continue to leave family situations that are oppressive to them: this is a development that cannot and should not be stopped. So if we want to preserve two-parent families, we must ensure that these families provide an equality of respect, power, and financial opportunity and responsibility that are the only stable bases upon which long-term intimacy can be based.
In this way we must understand that the movement for equality of power and respect for women represents a force for strengthening family life by creating women who will insist on the kinds of relationships that have real potential for genuine love and intimacy. The breakdown of family life through much of the twentieth century in the United States was often based on the following pattern: women being forced into subordinate and un-respected roles in the family and slowly building up resentment and anger until the stress of the situation broke through, either in the form of behaviors that are labeled “hysteria,” “depression” or “psychosis,” or in resentful actions that are called “bitchy” or “self-centered,” or in leaving the family and seeking divorce. It would be not only morally incorrect but also practically unworkable to try to save the family by convincing women to accept this subordination. If two-parent families are to work, they will do so because this destructive dynamic has been removed and because women have gained real equality of power and respect, at work and at home.
But it is important to emphasize that it is not in the name of unrestricted individual rights that we make this argument. Rather, it is because we share with many people on all shades of the political spectrum the fundamental belief that a truly human vision is one that is based on the mutual inter-connectedness, dependency, and love between people that we then proceed to argue for those changes that could make these loving relationships possible.
It is for the same reason that we insist that children be treated with respect in families—not out of a commitment to individual rights as the highest value, but out of an understanding that truly loving relationships cannot be compelled and rarely emerge out of force or power plays. It is precisely when children feel most respected that they are most able to give the kind of energy and enthusiasm to their families that make families work best. We do not mean to imply here that equality of respect requires equal power in decisions for children. What it does require is that when limits and restrictions are placed on children they are explained in ways that are appropriate to the developmental level of the child. It also requires the opportunity for children to express their feelings, including negative ones, about the situations they are facing in their family life.
Anyone who has raised children knows how difficult this is. Children quickly learn the “I have rights” rhetoric of the larger society and can use that to resist even valuable instruction that parents have to offer. So it is important to have a community of people who share your values so that parents in any given family are not seen as being merely arbitrary power-mongers when they impose limits on their children. This is increasingly important as television, I-phones, the internet and texting overwhelm parents and shape children into the values of the marketplace way earlier than used to happen in previous historical periods. Here is one of the critical arenas in which Friends of Families needs to create a counter-culture that resists the pressures of the marketplace as they get communicated by the increasingly prevalent pressures imposed on families by the individualizing impact of the new technologies. These new technologies are not value-neutral—they have a powerful shaping impact precisely because they are perceived as private arenas for children that take them outside family life—for example, by texting during dinner, family trips, family entertainment or family discussions of important shared concerns. So we need to support parents to put limits on the use of these technologies. One important step is to re-establish the family meals as “time outs” from any use of technologies and instead a sacred time for family interactions without outside distractions. While we support these strategies for parents to provide a nurturing environment for children, we do not believe they should be legislated but we do hope that these approaches to family life will be promoted by government, corporations, social and religious institutions and the like.