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"The American Home Economics Association has determined that the family is a unit of two or more persons who share values and have a commitment to one another over time. Unfortunately, such all-encompassing definitions, which at first glance may appear bland and academically accurate, actually extend the meaning of family to include anyone and anything from group marriages to homosexual and lesbian couples who want to adopt children."
The question is, why is this "unfortunate"? If the purpose of the family is economic-if, that is, the family is an institution that is entered into by its members in order to improve their overall standard of living and provide themselves with a measure of security during hard times- why isn't any group of individuals who live together for these purposes properly considered a family? If another function of family life is to provide moral and emotional support for family members when they are demoralized, disgraced, or defeated, why isn't any group of individuals who live together and support each other in this way properly considered a family? If still another function of the family is to provide education in living skills for children, why isn't any group of adults and children who live together properly considered a family? If it weren't possible for biologically unrelated individuals to interact satisfactorily as family members, conventional marriage-that is, marriage to nonrelatives- would be impossible, as would adoption. The old adage that you can choose your friends but not your relatives is universally acknowledged to be untrue when it comes to husbands, wives, and adopted children. Why then is it true of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings?
In fact, people have been exercising choice with respect to their family members for hundreds of years, albeit in a more informal manner than the one that typifies legal marriage or adoption. All of us have heard people remark of unusually close friends that "I love him like a brother," or "I love her like a sister," or "She's been like a second mother to me," or "He's like the father (or son or daughter) I never had." Many of us have known people who have informally adopted other unrelated adults into their families, shared holidays with them, and named them "honorary" aunts or uncles of their children. Many of us have friends who are looked upon by all the members of our biological families as loved ones and who are entitled, in our minds, to the same treatment we would extend to our own brothers or sisters. We tell these friends to feel free to visit any time, even on an unannounced basis. We tell them to "make themselves at home." We lend them our money and our cars and our irreplaceable treasures- things we make a policy of never lending to anyone else. We give them keys to our homes, trust them with our children, turn to them for moral and emotional support. And we feel able to call upon them in any emergency, just as they feel able to call on us. What are these special friends but adopted family members, people we have adopted without the usual bureaucratic rigmarole that ordinarily accompanies adoption, but adopted nonetheless?
Social observers Karen Lindsey and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy see this phenomenon of "friends as family" as the wave of the future. But as we have seen, it might equally be regarded as the wave of the past re-establishing itself after a brief apparent absence during the 1950s. For most of the past two centuries, with the exception of that brief but crucial period of slightly more than a decade, the "traditional" family has been merely one of a number of possible household units, all of which have been common. It may be useful at this point to repeat the admonition of Levitan and Belous that "with diminished social pressures to follow any one pattern, a good portion of the reported increase in this behavior [unconventional family types] may represent only the increased willingness of people to be open about what has always taken place."
But of course such increased openness can only serve to encourage those who waver between following established social practice despite the fact that they find it unrewarding and doing their own things, unconventional though those things may be. Inevitably, some of the apparent increase in unconventional family life that we seem to see all around us is new, is a real increase. It is the natural tendency of market economies to gradually increase the personal wealth of almost all who participate in their operation. And increased personal wealth means wider personal choice-in the current vernacular, more options. So it is that as per capita income has grown in our country, it has become increasingly possible for more and more people to live in untraditional households. The expanding market for goods and services has led to the establishment of an expanded market for types of families. And the majority of Americans have voted with their feet and their pocketbooks and their hearts for untraditional family lives.
And what should be the role of government in all this? There is widespread consensus that it should be an active one. Letty Cottin Pogrebin speaks for the political left, but no right-wing defender of the family would disagree with her when she writes, "Families might be less sophisticated political activists than the farm or tobacco lobby... but who's to claim families are not more entitled to federal supports and subsidies?" No, the only real argument between the liberals and the conservatives when it comes to government family policy is over which kind of family should be singled out for benefit-traditional families or untraditional families. The reactionary right would have government set up incentives so that Americans who opted for traditional family life would be rewarded, often at the expense of those who prefer untraditional family life. The liberal left would have government subsidize untraditional family life, often at the expense of those who prefer traditional family life.
I say a pox on both their houses. To each his or her own. Let government adopt a family policy of laissez-faire. Let each man and woman, and to the extent that it is feasible each child, do what he or she wants. They have, all of them, the inestimable advantage of knowing much better than any government bureaucrat exactly what they want, and what price they are willing to pay to get it.
Reason contributing editor Jeff Riggenbach lives with his wife and two children in Oakland, California.