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Traditional Family Values and Breakdown of the Family

Digital History TOPIC ID 67

We hear a great deal these days about traditional family values. But precisely when did traditional family values reign supreme? Certainly not in the world of the Old Testament or classical antiquity. Let's go back 2,000 years and see what families were like then.

For one thing, the world of classical antiquity had no word for family. This is a case where the Greeks didn't have a word for it. Wealthy people had families that contained not only spouses and children but servants, slaves, and a host of relatives and non-kin. At the same time, many slaves had no families at all.

Secondly, women in the ancient world married at or even before puberty. In ancient Greece, the average woman married between the ages of 12 and 15. Men married much later, usually in their mid or late 20s. A very substantial age gap between husbands and wives made families very patriarchal. Women usually were not allowed out of the house unless chaperoned and covered in heavy robes.

Thirdly, the ancient world permitted a wide range of practices that we find abhorrent. The most startling practice was called "exposure." In ancient Greece and Rome, newborn children were left out of doors, so that handicapped babies - and many daughters - would die. These aren't the only practices that we would find inconsistent with traditional family values. Most ancient societies permitted divorce on demand, polygamy, and concubinage - the cohabitation of people who were not legally married. This was an earlier form of surrogate motherhood.

When, then, did the modern family emerge? When did romantic love become the basis of marriage? When did the emotionally-intense, child-centered nuclear family appear? When did mothers become the very center of family life? Surprisingly, the modern family is just 150 years old.

In colonial America marriages were not based on love. Ministers described romantic love as a form of madness and urged young men to choose their mates on the basis of rational consideration of property and family. Marriages were often quite brief. In colonial Virginia, an average marriage lasted just seven years. Till death do us part meant something quite different than it does today.

Families were large - too large to allow parents to give much attention to each child. The average woman bore between 8 and 10 children. Fathers, not mothers, were the primary parent. Child rearing advice books were addressed to men, not women.

In colonial America, children were sent away from home at very young ages. Children of just six or seven were sent to work as servants or apprentices in other peoples' homes. There was no adolescent rebellion when adolescents didn't live at home.

It was not until the mid 19th century that the family patterns that we call traditional begin to emerge. For example, it was only during the Victorian era that middle class women began to make motherhood and housekeeping self-conscious vocations. And it was only in the 19th century that modern household architecture with an emphasis on personal privacy emerged. It was only then that houses began to have hallways and separate bedrooms.

And yet, we must be careful about assuming that the 19th century was truly an era of traditional family values. Prostitution was extremely widespread in 19th century America. Our best guess is that between 5 and 10 percent of young urban women practiced prostitution in 19th century America.

Americans dramatically reduced birthrates during the 19th century - but the major method of birth control was abortion, which was legal in virtually every jurisdiction before the 1880s.

Above all, families in the 19th century were just as fragile and unstable as families today. The proportion of single-parent, female-headed families was almost as high in 1900 as it is today - because of the higher death rate.

Today, we tend to assume that families are weaker and more fragile than those in the past. But I think this view is wrong. From an historical perspective, however, we invest much more emotional and psychological significance in family life than did our ancestors. We regard family ties and intimacy as the key to our personal happiness. And as a result, when our family relationships are unhappy or abusive, we get divorced. Our high divorce rate doesn't reflect a low valuation on marriage; it reflects our overly high hopes and expectations.

Let me make one more point. Our high expectations have also made family life more conflict-riven. We have eliminated many opportunities to blow off steam and to reduce the intensity of family relationships. Four centuries ago, only 8 percent of homicides were within the family, compared to 50 percent today.

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