Politicians are famous for creating titles for programs or ideas that bear little resemblance to their namesake. Chief among these is the clamor about “family values.” The phrase is used as a feel-good label, slapped on a candidate like just another bumper sticker on the family station wagon. We hear that Candidate A stands for Family Values, yet we’re never really told just what those values are. This, of course, is how it’s intended to be. Left on our own to deduce what “family values” means, we tend to assume that the candidate’s views must be the same as ours. So the candidate gets credit for being friendly to families without ever having to define what that means. It’s a lot like “New and Improved” grocery items where the only improved element is the design on the package, and “new” refers to the smaller size.

The reason that this whole “family values” thing is so important though, is that a stabile, progressive society is dependent upon the family unit to turn out stable, progressive citizens. And in order to fulfill that expectation, the family must rely on society to provide the tools it needs to be successful. It is a symbiotic relationship that demands the best results even when it offers up less support.

If “family values” is going to be a benchmark from which to measure a candidate’s suitability, by reason there should be a definition of what those family values are. For that matter, there should be a firmer definition of what constitutes a family so far as the family values discussion applies, and what the goals of a family unit are. Once we know what we are talking about, we can more accurately estimate if a candidate truly does further the goals of families or whether they are just full of hot air.

So what exactly is this family whose values we are longing to support? The simplest definition of a “family” is probably the best one to use, but it is also the first thing people will disagree about. No matter. For purposes of clarity and by reason of Common Sense, a family consists of two committed adult parents and at least one child. Without a child, or children, you are only a couple, or even a single. It is with the addition of children that the family unit is formed. The exception to this definition would be the single-parent family, but despite studies and findings that may disagree, two parent families are both more practical and better suited to the purpose of families in general. That purpose is really quite simple: it is to raise the child(ren) to adulthood, having taught them to become a responsible, productive, and hopefully happy member of the society. If society is the total combination of individuals and their actions, then the family is our training ground.

In order for families to be successful, they must first be stable, both financially and emotionally. Like the foundation of a house, the parents are the base on which a family is built. So our first family value is stability. But we all know of the statistics showing half of all marriages end in divorce, and many of those marriages produced children. For that matter, how many of the politicians spouting about family values have been divorced? Don’t get me wrong here. I understand that there are great reasons for people to get divorced. Abuse and deceit are certainly among them. And I’ll readily concede that in these kinds of situations it is better that children don’t have to live in that environment. But how many divorces are just the result of people who married before they were ready, or people who decided that their own self-actualization is of greater value than their children’s well being? We hear plenty of talk about “strengthening marriage” that all boils down to making sure the parents are of opposite sex. A real show of strength would be to help reduce the number of divorces, especially when children are involved.

Families are expensive. Kids require a lot of food and education and health care. So another family value would involve embracing a system of health, education, and retirement reforms, such as those described in previous essays on Common Sense, that would alleviate some of the stress placed on parents who are caught between the costs of daily life and the need to treat a sick child or pay for school. Lowering these costs and improving the services would allow parents more time to spend with the children and less time slaving to pay the bills. And with more one-on-one time between parents and kids, cultural values like respect, honesty, and responsibility would have a better chance at being passed down from one generation to the next, having a positive effect of society as a whole.

Because children mimic what they see and hear, as cultural excesses become more prevalent it becomes more difficult for families to instill a sense of right and wrong in their children, especially in an environment where both parent are working long hours and are turning over the child rearing to video games, television, or the neighborhood hang-out. Especially damaging to society as a whole is the amount of gratuitous violence found in our art, music, and media. While I don’t advocate artistic censorship by the government, I wholly support selective censorship by parents, and in many cases, expect it. Yes, we all know that the world can be a violent place, and we all know that at some point we need to teach our children to be careful, but how many of us actually expect to be massacred at summer camp? How often does a satanic cult kidnap the neighbor’s new baby? And do our children really need this in their lives? As adults, we know these things are created for entertainment, but children don’t know the difference, and parents are often remiss in making sure they understand, or worse, expose them to things before they can really distinguish the difference between right and wrong. Reducing the amount of desensitizing violence we expose our kids to should be among our family values, preferably through parental education, but if necessary through legislation.

Finally, we should reform our family laws to better assure that innocent children are not punished for the wrongs of their parents. We should stop empowering government agencies to disrupt family life unless verifiable abuse has occurred. We should resist any attempts at laws that would discriminate against two committed parents of the same sex from adopting or otherwise providing a stable, loving environment for a child. And in cases of divorce, we should insist upon amicability between parents and a civil dissolution coupled with continued financial and emotional support schedules.

These are the things that we should expect from any politician who says that they stand for family values. We should ask them how they’ve applied these goals to their own families, and examine their record to see if their actions back up their words. You may have noticed that none of these family values focused on religion. The reason for that is simple. At its most basic level, religion is not a social value or need, but rather an individual one. And while I would never deny that religion espouses many of the same ideals of behavior that secularists cherish, the immense permutations of religious belief and doctrine would virtually guarantee that no consensus would ever be met with regards to “family values.” So religion is out the window, at least when it comes to the political and practical definition of “family values.”

The next time you hear a politician talk to you about family values, take a moment to ask them what they mean. Odds are you won’t get a specific response. But you’ll probably get a lot of gobbledygook about gay marriage and zero-tolerance. Families are the building blocks of any society, both of its social fabric and its economic stability. Supporting families, then, is naturally in the best interest of society. It is not enough to just do the best you can within your own family. You must also make sure
that those elected officials who claim to support you, who claim to believe as you believe, who claim to be looking out for your interests, are really doing all those things, and not just wearing a friendly label, hoping you’ll never ask what it means.