Traditional Family Values

Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

Your family, my family—

which is composed

of an immediate family

of a wife and three children,

a larger family

with grandparents and

aunts and uncles.


THOSE OF US WHO grew up in the 1950s got an image of the American family that was not, shall we say, accurate. We were told, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet were not just the way things were supposed to be—but the way things were.

Things were not that way.

It's probably good that life wasn't like the television shows in the '50s—we wouldn't have many women now. Take a look at the ratio of boys to girls on the most popular family shows. Ozzie and Harriet had two boys, no girls. Leave It to Beaver had two boys, no girls. Rifleman had one boy, one rifle, no girls. Lassie had one boy, one dog (supposedly a girl, but played by a boy), and no girls. My Three Sons had—well, that one's obvious. Bonanza had three grown-up boys. Although Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in real life had one boy and one girl, on I Love Lucy they had one boy. The only shows with daughters were The Donna Reed Show (one boy, one girl) and that lighthouse to womanhood—despite its title—Father Knows Best (one boy, two girls). Grown to maturity, that's a late-1960s dating population of fifteen men to three women.

Whatever trouble he's in,

his family has the right

to share it with him.

It's our duty to help him if we can

and it's his duty to let us

and he doesn't have

the privilege to change that.

The Big Valley

Almost all the households were mama-papa-kiddies: the nuclear family. (The exceptions were My Three Sons and Bonanza: Steve Douglas [Fred MacMurray] and Ben Cartwright were widowers.) There were no prior marriages, no children from prior relationships, no threat or even thought of divorce, and the closest thing we saw to physical abuse was Ralph Kramden's, "One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . to the moon!" There were no infidelities, no drinking problems, no drugs (not even prescription tranquilizers), no racism (How could there be? With the exception of Hop Sing and Ricky Ricardo, there was only one race; even the Hispanic gardener on Father Knows Best was named Frank Smith). There was no dropping out of school, no political discussion (much less political differences), no unemployment (except for Ozzie's early retirement), no severe economic problem (except for a crop failure on Lassie, when they had to sell all the livestock, including Lassie; but just before being carted off, Lassie pawed the ground and struck oil, and everything was okay again. Except for Lassie, who looked as though the Exxon Valdez had dumped its forward holding tanks on her). The father was the breadwinner; the mother was the bread maker (the only mother who came close to working was Lucy, becoming the spokeswoman for Vitavita-Vegimen or that afternoon at the candy factory). There was no fear of the bomb (which is what we kids were terrified about in the '50s), and no severe disobedience (although white lies, mischief, and misunderstandings were needed for laughs). Life was wholesome, wholesome, wholesome.[*FN]

[*FN] As much as the religious right likes to point to 1950s sitcom wholesomeness as the Ideal American Family, these shows, in fact, had a remarkable lack of religion. What religion were these people? They certainly weren't Jewish. And, other than possibly Ricky Ricardo, none of them was Catholic. They were probably safely mainline Presbyterians. But that was the name of the game: play it safe. In playing it safe, there was less mention of God and religion on these shows than actually took place in American families in the '50s.

That life doesn't exist anymore. But then, it never did

When I was a boy, my family took

great care with our snapshots.

We really planned them.

We posed in front of expensive cars,

homes that weren't ours.

We borrowed dogs.

Almost every family picture taken

of us when I was young

had a different borrowed dog in it.

In her book, The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz explains,
Pessimists argue that the family is collapsing; optimists counter that it is merely diversifying. Too often, both camps begin with an historical, static notion of what "the" family was like before the contemporary period. Thus we have one set of best sellers urging us to reaffirm traditional family values in an era of "family collapse" and another promising to set us free from traditional family traps if we can only turn off "old tapes" and break out of old ruts. . . . The actual complexity of our history—even of our own personal experience—gets buried under the weight of an idealized image.

Families have always been in flux and often in crisis; they have never lived up to nostalgic notions about "the way things used to be."
Here are some facts about "the good old days":

  • In 1960, one in three children lived in poverty.

  • Fewer than half the students who entered high school in the late 1940s ever finished.

  • The United States has had the highest homicide rate in the industrial world for almost 150 years.

  • From 1950 to 1959, 257,455 cases of polio were reported, mostly in children; 11,957 died of it.

  • In 1940, one American child in ten did not live with either birth parent. Today the figure is one in twenty-five.

  • More couples reported their marriage "happy" in 1977 than did in 1957. (The "happy marriage" index dropped slightly by the late 1980s, but still remained higher than it was in 1957.)

    So four men and four women
    have sealed themselves off
    inside Biosphere 2.
    No contraceptives are allowed
    and if a woman
    gets pregnant she's expelled.
    This is progress?
    Sounds more like high school
    in the 1950s.

    • A woman over thirty-five has a better chance of marrying today than she did in the 1950s.

    • In the mid-1950s, 25% of the population lived below the poverty line.

    • In 1958, 60% of the population over sixty-five had incomes below $1,000.

    • In the 1950s, one-third of the white, native-born families could not get by with the income of only one working parent.

    • In the 1950s, racism was deeply institutionalized. 50% of black families lived below the poverty line; migrant workers suffered appalling working and living conditions; people of color were not permitted to take part in the American dream.

    • In 1952, there were 2,000,000 more wives working outside the home than there were at the peak of wartime production.

    • Women who failed to conform to the June Cleaver/Margaret Anderson role of housewife and mother were severely criticized. A 1947 best selling book, The Modern Woman, called feminism a "deep illness," labeled the idea of an independent woman a "contradiction in terms," and explained that women who wanted equal pay and equal educational opportunities were engaged in a "ritualistic castration" of men.

    • Women were often denied the right to serve on juries, convey property, make contracts (including leases on apartments), and establish credit in their own names (including mortgages and credit cards).

    When Harvey Clark tried to move
    into Cicero, Illinois, in 1951,
    a mob of 4,000 whites spent
    four days tearing his apartment
    apart while police stood by
    and joked with them.
    The Way We Never Were

    • Men who failed to marry were considered immature, selfish, or homosexual. A man without a wife found it difficult finding work or getting promoted.

    • Unmarried men and women were routinely paid less than married men and women because, it was explained, their needs were less.

    • The witch hunts against communists extended to homosexuals and other political and social "deviants." During the 1950s, 2,611 civil servants were fired as "security risks"; 4,315 resigned while being "investigated."

    • In her book, Private Lives: Men and Women of the '50s, Benita Eisler quotes film producer Joel Schumacher: "No one told the truth. People pretended they weren't unfaithful. They pretended they weren't homosexual. They pretended they weren't horrible." The uniformity we sense about the '50s, with everyone happily "fitting in," was, in fact, a great number of frightened people pretending to fit in—and pretending to enjoy it.

    • A "sure cure" for homosexuality for either men or women was marriage. This myth was propagated not just by popular culture, but by psychologists and psychiatrists as well. When marriage failed to be the "cure," as it always did, having a child would surely take care of the problem. When that didn't work, a second child was "prescribed." When that didn't work, well, the least you could do is pretend to be heterosexual and do your duty—for your children's sake.

    • Congress discussed nearly two hundred bills to deal with the problem of "juvenile delinquency" in 1955—the year Rebel Without a Cause was released.
    • Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America of 1958, revealed in 1991 that her wealthy, respectable father had sexually violated her from age five until eighteen.

    10,000 Negroes work
    at the Ford plant
    in nearby Dearborn,
    [but] not one Negro can live
    in Dearborn itself.

    • Alcoholism soared in the 1950s.

    • Wife-beating was not really considered a crime. Many psychologists explained that battered wives were masochists who provoked their husbands into beating them.

    • A husband raping his wife was not a crime at all, but a sign that the woman was deficient in fulfilling her marital obligations.

    • One half of the marriages that began in the 1950s ended in divorce.

    • During the 1950s, more than 2,000,000 legally married people lived separately.

    • Staying together "for the children" surpassed baseball as the national pastime.

    • Far from Beaver and Wally telling Ward and June carefully edited versions of their daily adventures over the dinner table, more often the evening meal was a TV dinner on a TV tray in front of the TV.

    • What the TV couldn't numb, tranquilizers could. A New Yorker cartoon illustrated a 1950s couple, floating down the river in a gondola, surrounded by beautiful flowers, singing birds, and playful butterflies. The husband asks the wife, "What was the name of that tranquilizer we took?" In 1958, 462,000 pounds of tranquilizers were consumed in the United States. A year later, consumption had more than tripled to 1.5 million pounds.

    I was a loner as a child.
    I had an imaginary
    I didn't bother with him.

    • By the end of the 1950s, when Redbook asked readers to supply examples for an upcoming article, "Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped," they received 24,000 replies.

    • The number of pregnant brides more than doubled in the 1950s.

    • In 1957, there were more than twice as many births to girls aged fifteen to nineteen than in 1983.

    • The number of illegitimate babies put up for adoption rose 80% from 1944 to 1955.

    Ms. Coontz concludes, "The historical record is clear on one point: Although there are many things to draw on in our past, there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world."

    Depending on whose statistics you read, today the traditional nuclear family represents anywhere from 6% to less than 50% of the American population. One can fiddle with the statistics endlessly. Should the household have only the male as the breadwinner? Should there be no one living in the household except the mother, father, and children? Should the household be in a single-family house, or will an apartment do? Does a couple living alone without children count? However we look at it, the point is clear: even taking the most generous estimate, today more than half the country lives outside a nuclear family.

    What really causes marital abuse
    is small families.
    If all women had a lot of brothers,
    this would never take place.

    Are those who want to return to traditional family values saying half of America is doomed to lives of quiet desperation? It's obviously not true, but that is what the rhetoric proclaims.

    We must understand that the family is not the basic building block of society, the individual is.

    The people who want us to return to traditional family values are the ones who had it good in the 1950s: white, male, married, Christian heterosexuals. The '50s were a bad time for women, minorities, homosexuals, political dissidents, and anyone who was in any way "different." Naturally these groups have been demanding what they are rightfully due as citizens of the United States.

    Take, for example, this rather simple statement: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."[*FN]

    [*FN] The Equal Rights Amendment fell three states short of the thirty-eight it needed for ratification.
    Straightforward. Clear. Fair. And yet, here's what Pat Robertson had to say about it:

    It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

    Human beings are not animals,
    and I do not want to see sex
    and sexual differences treated
    as casually and amorally as dogs
    and other beasts treat them.
    I believe this could happen
    under the ERA.

    The prejudice is obvious, but do we also detect a little fear? Pat Robertson wants to marry June Cleaver, not Murphy Brown. He finds it more comfortable that way.

    An unprecedented economic boom hit the United States in the 1950s that had never happened before and, almost certainly, will never happen again. The United States was almost the only industrial country untouched by World War II. The international competition lay in ruins; the United States was ready to switch from wartime production to peacetime production. It didn't matter what we made—it sold. The gas-guzzler—one of the most inefficient objects assembled by humans—is an icon of that era. (By the late 1950s, Germany was already challenging the American automotive vise-hold with its Volkswagen. Japan made a sneak attack with its transistor radio. American industry would never be as fat and sassy again.)

    We will never have the economic domination of the world we had in the 1950s, nor will the white, male, Christian heterosexual be able again to dominate the women, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, gays, and the rest. There's no going back—nor should there be a going back. It never should have happened in the first place.

    Families are important because human infants require three years of care before they can manage without the help of an adult. (If three years seems young to be without parental care, it is far from unheard of in third world countries, or in countries torn by war or natural disaster.) But who says the child needs more than one adult? And who says the adult needs to be a birth parent? Only tradition. Long before the nuclear family, tribes raised children collectively—a system that continues in many parts of the world to this day.

    The knowledge of the world
    is only to be acquired
    in the world,
    and not in a closet.
    letter to his son

    Our modern concept of two people raising their children under one roof grew out of feudal necessity. The absolute minimum number of people necessary to maintain a plot of land during the Middle Ages was two. As the lord of the land wanted his serfs to "be fruitful and multiply" (thus multiplying the wealth of the lord), it was necessary that one of the two people be a man and the other a woman. Serfs were paired until death did them part. Love had nothing to do with it. (The only people who had time for such luxuries as love were those in the royal court—hence the term courtship.) The man tended the land all his waking hours, and the woman tended the house, livestock, and children. Even if a husband and wife hated each other, all they had to do was wait a little while: what with disease, war, childbirth, and an average life span of about thirty-five years, most marriages lasted less than five years. The departed partner was immediately replaced, and the system continued—not because the serfs liked it, but because it was economically viable for the aristocracy.

    The system worked so well and the aristocracy was so pleased, they got the church involved. A marvelous theology developed (marvelously useful to the landowners): work hard in this life (which is but a blink in the eye of eternity), serve your lord (who represented the Lord), and you will have paradise for all eternity—and that's a long, long, time Mr. and Mrs. Serf. Rebel against the lord (Lord), and you will spend all eternity (which is a long, etc.) in hell. Be true to your spouse (not being true to your spouse would take valuable time away from essential serf stuff), work hard, and eternal paradise will be yours.

    What is a family?
    They're just people
    who make you feel less alone
    and really loved.

    Today, of course, the idea that two people are the minimum to make one economic unit is no longer true. With labor-saving devices, reduced work hours, and prepackaged everything, one person can make a living and raise a child perfectly well. So can twenty.

    So what are these "family values" we want to maintain?

    In a 1989 Newsweek survey, only 22% of the respondents believed that family was directly tied to blood lines, marriage, children, and adoption. More than 74% said a family is any group whose members love and care for one another. It's too bad former Vice-President Quayle didn't read this poll before he accused Murphy Brown of destroying traditional family values by having a child without the formality of marriage.

    As Diane English said when accepting her Emmy for creating Murphy Brown,

    To all you mothers out there who are raising your children alone either by choice or necessity, don't let anyone tell you you're not a family.

    America's "traditional family values" are love, support, tolerance, caring, nurturing, and—if you don't mind my adding my favorite—a sense of humor.

    Isn't that what the situation comedy is all about? We find ourselves in a situation (life) and are faced with the fundamental question: do we laugh or do we cry? The choice is up to us—choice being a traditional American value, too.
    Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press

    And Always Keep In Mind The Most Important Factor

      "What we live with we learn,
    and what we learn
    we practice, and what we
    practice, we become...
    and what we become
    has consequences"...
    AND almost always, I have
    found, who we become
    has little to do with who
    we were meant to be.

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    (Est. 4.15.96)

    DISCLAMER: Before you start to look at the material that I have assembled for you I want to make clear that I claim very little original authorship here. Even where I don't give credit I probably should because there are very few original words of wisdom left in recovery. I want to especially thank Terry Kellogg, whom I do believe has a lot of original stuff, John Bradshaw whom I believe has the ability to synthesize others material better that anyone I know, and I guess if we wanted to be completely accurate we should not quote the serenity prayer out of content nor without giving credit to the author. I also want to give permission to anyone to use anything on this site for the benefit of recovery as long as they do not make any more money off of it. This offer only extends to what I have the right to give.

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