Let’s talk for a minute about the family unit. If you had to define it, what would you say?
Today, it is unlikely that any two people would describe that term the same way. There was a time, however, when it was assumed that the ideal family unit consisted of a husband and wife and their biological children all living together under one roof. Social and legal incentives abound, still, to encourage its perpetuation, and membership within it carries a subtle privilege.
But we know that the family unit has evolved from this narrow and exclusive grouping to something that is harder to define. That neat little box can no longer contain the reality that is the 21st century family. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 46% of American children are now born into families with two married, heterosexual parents in their first marriage, as compared to 73% in 1960. And 41% of American children are now born outside of marriage, compared to 5% in 1960. Other studies estimate that between 1 and 9 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent who is lesbian or gay, compared to 1960 when most gay parents were still closeted.
But where does all this evolution in the family leave the children? Here at Kids First Center, our focus is on supporting families in transition and lessening the negative impact of divorce, separation and recoupling on children. We see drawings coming out of kids support groups that would both lift your spirits and break your heart. When asked to draw a picture of their family, a few kids will depict some version of a bright sun shining down on one group of smiling parents and kids and pets and new, sometimes same-sex, partners, with simply two houses in the background instead of one. Others might draw two very separate households, each with a parent inside, and themselves standing smack dab in the middle of the lonely space between them. And then others create scenes depicting tornadoes and invisibility cloaks and unhappy faces, with parents as far away from each other as they can possibly fit them.
It has been said that the external struggles of parents become the internal struggles of their children. Warring mothers and fathers who badmouth one another in front of their children seldom realize the negative effect that such denigration of their child’s bloodline has on their child’s sense of self-worth. Our children’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships of their own is heavily influenced by the good-or-bad-behavior modeling of their parents, together or apart.
The same simple concept can be applied to our society at large when considering the ways in which we influence the identities and self-esteem of future generations and equip them to face the challenges of their times. The power that we possess can be intoxicating! Concepts like sexism and racism must be taught and, sadly, often are. Beliefs about sexual preference and the right to discriminate based on arbitrary criteria are often passed down through generations, creating hardened adults who have little insight into why they react so negatively toward certain other human beings.
And when our politicians, religious leaders, educators, friends, and relatives continually hark back to the family values of yesterday, they are planting the seed in the hearts of innocent children everywhere that they are less. The kids whose parents are divorced, gay, unwed, or absent – these kids begin to believe that they themselves are somehow lacking. A cloud forms, and our society’s external struggle becomes our children’s internal one.
And so, amid all the difficult situations that this country is facing – heightened racial tensions, violence at home and abroad, climate change and marriage equality – one of them just got easier. This week’s landmark Supreme Court decision over the right for gay people to marry was a step in the right direction for the American family. The children of these unions deserve nothing less than the right to feel like their family is normal. To feel like the society in which they are raised values their family every bit as much as it values those with heterosexual parents, supports their parents’ legal marriage, and roots for them to stay together. And if their parents can’t stay together, these kids deserve to feel like that’s normal too, and just another part of the evolving family landscape that a society rich in tolerance and well versed in the language of acceptance can absorb.