Waldlaw Blog

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Conversations on Children and Contemporary Families

It is time for a national conversation on who is a "parent" and what is a "family." Our traditional, Judeo-Christian definition of "family" is a biological mother and a biological father raising their biological children -- the prototype of a "nuclear" family. This is a definition held dear by many, for many reasons, and one that a broad range of people across the political spectrum are ready to fight hard to preserve. It is a model of family that has worked well for a great number of children, and that represents much that we value as a society. The problem is that it leaves an increasing number of children on the margins. Lesbian and gay families seem to be the poster children for the "destruction" of this model. But lesbian and gay families are only a small sector of the huge number of contemporary families that fall outside the "traditional" family model. When you look at families created through the use of assisted reproductive technologies, adoptive families, foster families and single-parent families, all of whom fall outside the most narrow definitions of what constitutes a "traditional" family, it quickly becomes apparent that "non-traditional" families are a force that can't be ignored. For example: Between 1989 and 1999, the number of babies born per year using assisted reproductive technology in the United States mushroomed from 4,800 to 31,000. In addition, approximately 125,000 children are adopted each year; and approximately 500,000 children are in foster care. Beyond this, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, approximately 28% of children were being raised by single or unmarried parents. In other words, there are a huge number of children being born and/or raised outside the context of the "traditional" family each year. Yet we still cling to our traditional definitions of what constitutes a family. It is time to re-examine these definitions, and to look at the experiences and questions facing the real families around us, and to search for new models that work for more of the children in our midst. Unfortunately, this job of redefining the family is left all too often to the courts. This is not because there are a bunch of activist judges out there seeking to recreate the world in their own image, as Bill Frist would like us to think. It is, instead, because these issues are so complex and controversial that the Legislatures are afraid to act, don't know how to act, are unable to act -- and then the courts are left with real children appearing in front of them and no good rules to go by -- and judges with consciences are forced to act in the interests of those children, even if this means becoming "judicial activists," because the children and their needs to be cared for won't wait. What's the solution? All of us who work with children -- parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers -- need to be engaging in a conversation about children and contemporary families. We need to be talking with each other about the real issues confronting the real children and families we see in our lives. We need to acknowledge the strengths of the traditional family model, and also recognize its weaknesses. We need to promote a national conversation that addresses the needs of all the children we encounter, not just those that live in "traditional" families. Maybe, if we start talking and refuse to stop, people will actually listen....

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