About the Author

Avatar photo

Theodore Dalrymple

Family structure matters

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

Never having lived in an age other than our own, I do not know whether the capacity of people to deny the obvious was ever greater than it is now. Suffice it to say that our own capacity in this regard is by no means negligible or to be despised.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in regard to family structure. Immense intellectual, or at least mental, efforts have gone and continue to go into denying the obvious, that on the whole family stability is better for children than instability, and that not all forms of family, or perhaps I should say household, life are equal from the point of view of children’s welfare. The terrible saga of the Kahui twins is but another illustration of the obvious.

The techniques of denying the obvious are by now only too familiar to me. Here are a few of them – I do not claim that they exhaust the subject. When it comes to denial of the obvious, even the most unimaginative can think up an infinity of rationalisations.

First is the argument that the ‘traditional,’ relatively indissoluble family was often the locus of conflict and deep and lasting misery. This, of course, is perfectly true. I know it from personal experience because I am the product of such a family myself; and, before I knew better, I supposed that the misery I suffered in it was the greatest possible. Having since knocked about the world a bit, I now know a lot better.

The argument that the stable family is often the site of misery and conflict is decisive only to those who have a very simplistic, adolescent or utopian view of what human relations might possibly be (and unfortunately we are entering the first age of the adolescent geriatric, of people who have never really left their late teenage years behind them). The notion that there is some system of human relations that will eradicate dissatisfaction, misery or conflict is deeply unrealistic. Our choices in this life are not between perfection but between various forms of imperfection, some of them far worse than others, and some more likely to lead to happiness than others. The fact that surgery sometimes makes people worse or kills them does not mean that surgery as a whole is not a blessing to humanity.

The second argument is that many children do very well notwithstanding non-traditional or unstable families. Again this is undoubtedly true. Very little in the human world is without exception. I remember a patient of mine, a severely alcoholic single mother living (thanks to her alcoholism) in the utmost squalor, whose adolescent son not only looked after her with saintly devotion, but performed very well at school and had a clear, constructive and realistic view of how to improve his life. But no one would suggest that living in squalor with an alcoholic mother, therefore, was an ideal upbringing for a child. The question is one of what kind of home life is best for children on the whole; and there the statistics are not only decisive, but there are plausible intuitive reasons, at least for anyone with the slightest knowledge of human life, as to why they should be decisive.

A third argument is that the state has no business to impose a family morality upon the people in its jurisdiction. This is a very slippery argument. It is impossible for the state, in practice, not to favour some family structure or other (and even the argument that it should not favour stability because it should favour no form of family life over any other is itself a moral argument), at least not so long as it, the state, maintains high rates of taxation. For the state to favour, by fiscal or other means, some arrangements rather than others is still not the same as imposing them, however; the choice remains. It is simply that advantages will always attach to some arrangements, and not to others. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that where the state is, in effect, a parent to the child, its coercive powers of taxation on everyone else will have to increase, because parenthood is very expensive.

What few people will doubt is that the state, in New Zealand as much as almost anywhere in the world, has progressively undermined the basis of stable family life. It has turned what was once a limited problem, the plight of the single mother and her child or children, into a mass condition; it is now constantly attempting to sweep up the mess that it has left behind, by the same means that it created the mess in the first place.

The statistics show, again for very understandable reasons, that instability of family life is associated with all kinds of abuse of children. The state is to much of that abuse what the pimp is to the prostitute.