Our family myths

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday March 26, 2006
By Staff

Families have never been perfect, says Stephanie Coontz, author and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families in Chicago. Yet many of us still perpetuate the myths, says Coontz, one of several family scholars scheduled to speak at a free public conference Thursday and Friday at Emory University. In a different place, in a different time --- we believe --- we were closer, kinder, more organized and self-sufficient. Truth, however, tends to be air-brushed with time. And Coontz --- who cites seven key family myths --- hopes that parents will re-evaluate what they see in their own homes against a more accurate portrait of life through the ages.

1. Families used to be harmonious and stable until modern individualism undermined their solidarity.

For most of history, families looked stable from the outside because the husband and father controlled all the property and could enforce his will through physical violence. Even after wife and child abuse became illegal, most states had "Head and Master Laws" until the 1970s, giving husbands the final say over many family decisions.

2. Parents today don't sacrifice for their kids or spend the kind of time with them that parents did in the past.

Families didn't use to save up to send their kids to school. They pulled their children out of school to work for the family. Most mothers and fathers today --- even in two-earner families --- spend more time with their kids and invest more in their education than ever before.

3. Couples don't work at their relationship the way they used to.

For thousands of years, marriage wasn't about love but about raising capital, sealing business deals or military alliances, expanding the family labor force, and reinforcing male authority. It was only 200 years ago that we invented the radical idea of marrying for love. Today a marriage that works can be fairer, more intimate and more loving than most couples of the past ever dared to dream.

4. The male-breadwinner family was the traditional model.

Until the 20th century, most wives not only brought home half the bacon but also raised the pig, helped butcher it and took it to market. It wasn't until the 1920s that a bare majority of kids grew up in a home where the wife wasn't working beside her husband in a farm or business and the kids were at school instead of working on farms or in factories. That family faded during the Depression and World War II, made a comeback in the '50s, but was a minority again by the end of the 1970s.

5. People are much more tolerant of nonmarital sex.

Premarital sex is much more accepted than in the past, but disapproval of coerced sex and underage sex is much higher than it used to be. Until the 1880s, the age of consent for girls was 10, 11 or 12 in most states --- 7 in Delaware. Marital rape was not considered a crime until the 1980s. And the percentage of people who believe it is OK to be sexually unfaithful in a marriage has fallen over the past 40 years.

6. Divorce rates began to rise only after the 1950s.

Conservative myth: Divorce rates started rising because of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Liberal myth: Divorce rates were a result of the economic stress on families that began during the 1980s.
Rising divorce rates were an instant side effect of the growing emphasis on married love. As soon as people began to marry for love, they began to demand the right to leave a marriage that felt loveless.

7. Traditional families always "stood on their own two feet" and never needed help from the government.

In the 1950s, 40 percent of young men starting families were eligible for veterans' benefits. Thousands of working-class men got an education or training for middle-class jobs and were able to buy homes because of those benefits. Plus, the government paid 90 percent of the costs of massive highway projects that opened up suburbia to home buyers and provided blue-collar workers with jobs that paid a family wage. Today's families receive far less government support, even though job security and real wages are falling.

Source: Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families

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