The Decline of the Moral Authority of the Family

Written by: Anonymous

Many transformations in family life have occurred as the result of the modernization of pre industrial society. Life in modem societies is fundamentally different and better because modernization radically improved the conditions of life. Although pre industrial family life was difficult and had many imperfections, the moral authority of the modem family structure has declined as the result of changing beliefs about how the world should work as well as how people should behave. Changing notions of love and growing acceptance of divorce, premarital cohabitation, one parent families, and poor parenting have caused the weakening of the traditional family institution. The result of the decline of the moral authority of the family is Jack Levin's notion that "we have allowed the peer group to fill the void in our youngsters' lives."

According to Rodney Stark, "human societies contain internal clusters of people devoted to fulfilling primary social needs..." (387) These "clusters" are called institutions, and the family is a traditional universal institution. The family can be define d in numerous ways, such as "a small kinship structured group" which fulfills primary social functions such as economic, emotional, and educational support of its dependents, mainly including children. In assessing the family institution it is necessary to address the question of whether or not the family fulfilled its functions better in traditional times than it does today. The role of the family has changed dramatically since pre modern society.

Life in the traditional pre modern family was very difficult. It was characterized by much hardship, so that the family structure was an adaptation to the harsh lifestyle of this society. For example, this is illustrated by the fact that bonds between p arents and children were weak. These emotional bonds were weak, however, because of high infant mortality. According to Stark, "one of every three infants died before the age of one, and another third died before reaching adulthood." (348) In addition, emotional bonds were weak because due to economic necessity children had to leave the home by age 10, to take full-time employment.

Another example of how the pre modern family structure adapted to the harshness of the lifestyle is illustrated by the relationships between husbands and wives. Because people were dependent on their inheritance to provide their livelihoods before indust rialization, keeping property in the family was a major concern, so marriages were mainly economic arrangements between families. As a result, emotional attachments were of no importance and "neither the bride nor the groom expected emotional fulfillment from marriage." (402) As a result, marriages were characterized by resentment and anger.

Today, many transformations in family life have occurred as a result of the immense social changes that have resulted from modernization. Today, the standard of living is much higher than in pre modern society, and our lives are not plagued by the hardships characteristic of pre modern society. We do not suffer high infant mortality rates and we do not have to unhappily marry for economic reasons unless it is our choice to do so. In the absence of these severe pre modern conditions, our family structure shouldn't be flourishing in a society composed of a high standard social mobility, and th e freedom to pursue happiness? Nevertheless, the modem family structure is characterized by the same imperfections of the pre modern family, only they are caused by different adaptations to changing social norms. For example, Stark contends that female-h eaded households were as common in the past as they are today. Because of death, "the average married couple had only about ten years together..." (399) Today, the primary cause of female-headed households is divorce, not death. Therefore, as was illustr ated in the pre modern family, the family structure adapted to meet the demands of a harsh life situation. Today, the modem family structure has adapted to our cultural acceptance of divorce, premarital cohabitation, single parent households, and poor pa renting skills. These factors have produced negative affects on the children, as the current family structure is not thorit of the family. Meeting their needs, and has, in turn, caused a decline in the moral authority of the family.

The growing acceptance of divorce has is one of the imperfections of the modem family structure. Research done by Katherine Trent and Scott South proved that modernization, including urbanization and economic development, reduces the importance of the fa mily and increases rate of divorce. This illustrates that, like pre modern family structures, the modem family structure has adapted to changing social norms, specifically divorce. Data supports that marriage has become an unstable institution, with alm ost half of all marriages ending in divorce. One of the reasons why divorce has increased is because "the opportunities to get divorced have e increased. " (409) Stark contends that our society , over the past eighty years, saw the need to initiate legi slation which would strengthen the family itself by allowing intolerable marriages to end. Therefore, laws regarding divorce have become much less restrictive. Divorce has contributed to the decline of the family structure because "two thirds of divorces occur between people who have children." (407) Stark contends that "in the case of divorce, children must split their loyalties between parents," thereby fostering weak attachments to each parent. (413) In addition, because of the fact that in 900/o of divorces children stay with their mother, divorce contributes to the number of female-headed households. (412) The primary consequence of female-hea ded households is poverty, because of the lack of a two-person income. Because of this, today many welfare programs and service agencies have assumed responsibility for supporting many dependents because the family has failed in its ability to do so. Th ere are many negative effects on the family structure due to lack of income. Perhaps the most debilitating effect on a single parent family is time. When there is only one parent, supervision of children may be reduced greatly. In addition, Stark asserts that "children whose parent's divorce have lower levels of well-being,...including behavior problems, delinquency, self-esteem, and psychological adjustment." (411) This illustrates that the family structure in some instances is not fulfilling its function of providing emotional support for children, as the exis tence of "divorce, child abuse, extramarital affairs, and runaways.." suggests. (399)

Like divorce, the "illegitimacy ratio" contributes to the number of female-headed households, thereby perpetuating poverty for women and children. According to Stark, 25 out of every 100 babies are born to unwed mothers, the majority of who keep their ba bies. This single parent household produces the same effects on children as are characterized by divorce, thereby undermining the role of the family structure.

In 1970, "half a million American couples were living together without being married." (41 1) Today this figure is well over three million and is common among those who tend to reject traditional values concerning marriage, who are less opposed to divorce, and who are reluctant to make lasting commitments. The implication is that the type- of people who live together are prone to divorce anyway, so this is not reducing the divorce rate whatsoever. This, in effect, has contributed to the weakening of the family structure in the same way divorce and illegitimacy have, by undermining the value of marriage and p romoting the existence of single parent households characterized by poverty.

According to Stark, research does find that "poor parenting, regardless of the structure of the family, is a primary cause of deviant behavior among children." (413) One of the major problems with parent-child relationships is "lack of attachment." (414) Therefore, Jack Levin hypothesizes that where traditional institutions like the family have become weak, "we have allowed the peer group to fill the void in our youngster's lives." Therefore, "bystander apathy" and teen violence can be explained by the di fferential association theory. This theory proposes. that because all behavior is the result of socialization through interaction, deviant behavior occurs in association with others who engage in this behavior. If a child has become attached to persons who reward deviance, the child will tend to deviate. Levin illustrates this with his assertion that even when a human life was at stake, "everybody was concerned about being rejected by friends. In addition, this differential association theory is stron gly supported by the evidence of "offending families" revealed that the majority had an immediate family member who had been or was spending time in prison. For example, 52% had at least one immediate family member in jail/had served time. Twenty-five p ercent of fathers had served time and 25% of brothers and sisters. The implication is the children who are raised by parents who display "lack self control and commitment... " will be socialized accordingly. (I 87) The moral authority of the family has b ecome so weak that the influence of peer groups largely determines the behavior of our youngsters."

Another sociological theory relevant to the decline of the moral authority of the family are the structural strain theories. The cultural acceptance of divorce, illegitimate children, and premarital cohabitation have propagated the number of female-headed households, and, therefore poverty. Structural strain is the frustration or discontent caused by being in a disadvantaged position in the social structure. Structural strain theories blame deviance on the stress of structural strain, that perhaps people commit crimes because of their poverty. Children born into poverty, according to this theory, will tend to turn to crime, because as long as they "stick to the rules and obey norms, they will fail to achieve wealth, happiness, fame, comfort, influence, and all the other things socialization has taught them to value." (I 96) The resulting strain forces them to resort to deviant behavior, for people who are poorly placed in the "stratification system" will find themse lves unable to achieve their goals and dreams, or at least unable to achieve them as easily as someone better placed in the system. Thus, accepted social norms like divorce create poverty, which causes a decline in the moral authority of the family, beca use children are negatively affected by divorce. One of these negative effects is the predisposition to turn to crime as a result of their desires for a better life.

According to Emile Durkheim, society would suffer from normlessness, or anomie, as the result of modem urban societies. I disagree. I think that now more than ever people know what norms are, and attachments motivate them to follow those norms. When I say this, I remember the first girl who got pregnant in high school, and then all the others who followed, until eventually a nursery was added at the school. Many things such as divorce, teen pregnancy, and single moms are accepted today that were not tolerated twenty or thirty years ago, and I feel that now more than ever people look to each other for cues about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in our modem society. The way our attitudes have changed regarding what the value of marriage is, how convenient divorce should be, and for who is it socially acceptable to have children have influenced the state of our family structure. Today most people divorce, and many families are single parent fa milies and live in poverty. More than ever, it seems we do as we wish and the children are stuck with the leftovers of a family structure which is only partially existent. Along with that comes drastic implications upon their lives. Our social and mora l integration has degenerated, for we have lost our attachments to our family members and our beliefs in what type of life is best for the children.