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Family Values - Cross-cultural Comparison: Pro Family Policies, Conclusion

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage Traditions

Family values and the value of families are not discrete entities. Rather, like the family, family values exist within social contexts. As such they can be studied in numerous ways including: intra (within), extra (without), and cross-cultural family analysis. An extra analysis takes into account the social milieu of families and a cross-cultural might compare attitudinal and systemic aspects of families in two or more countries.

Values are a society's general ideas about what is perceived as good and desirable for a society. For example, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are values that people in the United States hold dear. Thus, family values analysis considers general societal notions about what is beneficial for family life. Yet texts on marriage and family often either fail to include a discussion of family values or fail to specifically define the term. This occurs, in part, because there is a lack of consensus among marriage and family scholars concerning the issue of family values.

When the issue is addressed, it is frequently framed as a debate within the discipline about whether the family is in decline, as some scholars proclaim (Popenoe 1988), or merely changing, as others assert (Coontz 1997; Skolnick 1991; Stacey 1992, 1999). Proponents of the family in decline camp cite high divorce rates, a high of rate out-of-wedlock births, an increased proportion of single-parent households, and the continued rise of individualism as evidence of the decline of family life and diminished family values. A New York Times survey in which respondents ranked independence higher than being a spouse and parent is the type of evidence presented to affirm the decline of family values (Cherlin 2001).

On the other hand, proponents of the family is changing perspective argue that the family itself is socially defined and as such acts upon and responds to a society's unique social, economic, and political environment. Those writing from this view, as does Steven Nock (1999), maintain that: "Institutions like the family are bigger than any individual. So when large numbers of people create new patterns of family life, we should consider the collective forces behind such novel arrangements."

Side-stepping a definition of family values, marriage and family texts generally cite indicators or measures of the presence or absence of family values. An intra family-values analysis then might include a survey of peoples' attitudes about various aspects of marriage and family life. For example, in a poll of sixteen countries, including India, Singapore, Taiwan, United States, Guatemala, Thailand, Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Lithuania, Hungary, Colombia, Germany, France, and Iceland, the vast majority (between 70 and 90%) of those surveyed expressed the attitude that having a child without benefit of marriage is not morally wrong (Gallup Poll 1997). Half of the U.S. respondents said that having a child out-of-wedlock was morally wrong, yet the United States has a higher rate of out-of-wedlock birth than any of the other countries. Asymmetrical attitudes and actions have long been problematic for family-values research, but more important, point to the dilemmas families face as they: ". . . believe in both the traditional and the modern version of the family simultaneously (Wolfe 1998)."

Counter to the family is declining thinking, the same poll found that well over a majority of those surveyed in fourteen countries agreed that it was necessary to have a child in order to feel fulfilled (the United States and Germany were the only two countries in which fewer than 50% of the respondents supported this view) yet most respondents in thirteen countries indicated they wanted few children—two or one. A family in decline view might argue that limiting the number of children reflects the alarming rise of individualism, whereas a family is changing perspective suggests that the material conditions of families (the ability to economically support children), influence decisions about children.

Another intra measure of family values is time spent together. A recent survey of 3,155 children ages two to eighteen about their daily exposure to the media found that more than half (53%) had televisions in their room (Roberts et al. 1999). The average child spent almost four and one-half hours in his/her room engaged with media, often using two media forms simultaneously. Four and one-half hours in one's bedroom leaves little time for family interaction—not to mention study time on school nights.

A family in decline framework would find the results compelling, whereas the family is changing proponents might cite the independence of children as positive. Others might interpret the findings in terms of Arlie Hochschild's work (1996), which suggests that home is not always an emotional refuge where parents and children salve each others' wounds and bolster egos. The study implies that sometimes it is a place of tense relationships with members distancing themselves from each other. Nevertheless, a recent Radcliffe Public Policy study of 1,008 male workers found that 70 percent of men in their twenties and thirties would give up time at work in order to spend more time with their families (Grimsley 2000). The family in decline proponents would be interested in whether respondents' attitudes coincided with their behavior.

One study asked parents and children if they thought they spent enough time together (Galinsky 1999). Forty-nine percent of mothers with children aged thirteen through eighteen thought they spend too little time together, whereas only about one-third of children felt the same way. Sixty-four percent of fathers thought they should spend more time, whereas 39 percent of the children responded similarly. A family is changing perspective maintains that parents feel both burdened and a sense of ambivalence as they strike a fragile balance between work and family. Parents too often: ". . . are reluctant choosers when it comes to the modern family. . . . They feel not so much liberated by opportunity as weighted down by obligation" (Wolfe 1998).

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