What’s so great about the family anyway?

by Harry on September 16, 2008

A while ago I asked for picture suggestions to advertise a talk I would be giving at the Humanities Center in Madison, and a couple of people asked that I post the text of the talk here. I apologise for the delay, which is not, for once, due to my laziness, but my reluctance to be seen to be breaking the anonymity of peer review. Absurd, really, because it is hard for me to believe that the referees had no inkling of the authors of the relevant manuscript, which manuscript anyway bears a very tangential relationship to the talk, but there you are. That’s all done with (so, I don’t have to feel so guilty about Ingrid’s complaint!), so here it is. I’ve tried to incorporate some aspects of the powerpoint presentation through judicious use of links. Also, bear in mind that it was an informal talk, and it is for the most part written that way. It’s long (4000 words), so it’s all below the fold. It was given in December, hence the two or three seasonal references.

Thanks for having me, and thanks very much to the Center for putting this event on. When they invited me they offered me a choice of dates and I should say that my choice reflected entirely the fact that in December people would already be thinking about my topic, it being that season, and not at all the thought that it was the most distant date and therefore the one I would least immediately have to plan for.

The work is collaborative, which means that when you like what I’m saying you should give both of us credit, but when you don’t you should assume that I bear the full responsibility for the defects. When Swift talks about the work, I’m reliably informed, he makes the same plea – credit to both of us, defects to Brighouse. So we’re on the same page and it is a harmonious collaboration.

We’ve been working together for several years on the family, having noticed that philosophers have not, in the resurgence of normative theorizing in the past 50 years, thought a great deal about the place of the family in a theory of justice. Feminist philosophers have done this, but they have tended to be interested more in issues of justice within the family than issues concerning the family within justice. We don’t style ourselves feminist philosophers, thinking of ourselves more as the beneficiaries, than proponents, of feminism, both in the intellectual sense that feminism has stressed the importance of and opened up for exploration dimensions of personal life that have hitherto been under-theorised, and in the more practical sense that feminism has delivered cultural changes that have made it easier for men in our and subsequent generations to play a fuller role in the day-to-day emotional life of the family, something that has been a huge personal benefit and also enables us to theorise about something we know about, rather than something we look at from the outside.

I thought I’d start by providing some pictures of some pictures of families, good, not so good, and in one case downright appalling. I promise you a picture of an unremittingly delightful family when we finish.

Family values talk tends, today, to be associated with conservatives, and especially with religious conservatives. When I was preparing for the talk I did some poking around at the various family values activist sites, and was a bit bemused by how difficult it was to find statements of what was valuable about the family – why it mattered – as opposed to statements of what mattered. It was easy to find comments about abortion and homosexuality and (perhaps surprisingly, to a lesser extent) divorce as enemies of family values, but beyond vague statements about how important the family is as a building block of society, not much argument. Not surprising, really, since there is a lot of agreement that the family is very important, and there’s the additional problem that if you start trying to justify the family from first principles (as we want to) you might find that the values you endorse end up supporting family forms that would not be to your actual taste. A great example of the latter problem can be found in Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite’s excellent book, The Case for Marriage, which argues very persuasively that marriage is very good for the people who get married on prudential grounds, thus leaving Maggie Gallagher seeming a bit of a loony for wanting to deprive same-sex couples of this very good thing. I did manage to come up with the Princeton Principles, drafted largely by the Princeton political theorist Robert P George, the main aim of which is to impugn same-sex marriage, but which nevertheless says some things about why marriage in particular, and the family in general, is good.

So here is a stylized, and I think fair, account of what moderate conservatives think justify the family. They see the relationships between parents and children as fundamental for the wellbeing of children, and for their development, in particular their moral development. They also see adults as having very powerful interests, which they would usually think of as justifying rights, in controlling their children’s development, even to the point of being permitted to shape their children’s moral views. Charles Fried puts it as follows:
“[Parents have] the right to form one’s child’s values, one’s child’s life plan and the basic right to lavish attention on one’s child [and these rights are] extensions of the basic right not to be interfered with in doing these things for oneself”

The impression that family values belong to the right is enhanced by the fact that the family, in its standard form, is clearly at odds with elements of justice such as equality of opportunity. Allowing parents to raise children, and giving them considerable latitude over how to do that – as the government must, according to our theory – inevitably results in some inequality in the quality of childrearing and, consequently, in the opportunities children go on to enjoy over the course of their lives. Hence the left-wing unease with family life:

With the introduction of the obligation of all citizens to work, woman has a value in the national economy which is independent of her family and marital status. The economic subjugation of women in marriage and the family is done away with, and responsibility for the care of the children and their physical and spiritual education is assumed by the social collective. The family teaches and instils egoism thus weakening the ties of the collective and hindering the construction of communism. (Kollontai, 1921)

It seems that even when fair opportunity (as it has been defined) is satisfied, the family will lead to unequal chances between individuals (Section 46). Is the family to be abolished then? Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines in this direction. (Rawls 1971)

One long-standing strand of radical thought imagines that without the family children could be reared more equally well, resulting in more equal chances for all. We doubt that is true, but it may be, and it certainly seems to be true that very stringent restrictions on family life would enhance equal opportunities.

And yet international human rights declarations tend to give great weight to the right to raise a family:

‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’ (United Declaration of Human Rights Article 16.3).

‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life’ (European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8) and ‘men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and found a family’ (Article 12).

If there is a right to raise a family it is a funny kind of right, being a right that individuals have not over themselves, but over other, separate, non-consenting, dependent and vulnerable beings. One puzzle is why there should be such stringent protections of parents rights over or with respect to children, given the damage they can do to children and the conflict with other elements of justice.

Normative theories of the family variously appeal to the interests of three different stakeholders: children, parents, and third-parties. Some theories of why the family is important focus exclusively on children, others exclusively on parents, and still others on the benefits for society as a whole. Our account of the value of the family focuses on the benefits it brings – on the goods the parent-child relationship distinctively makes available – to both children and parents. It has therefore been dubbed, correctly, a dual-interest account. Its not that we think that society has no relevant interests, but that the interests of parents and children drive our account, which, we think, is consistent with the vital interests of third parties.

Children have developmental and non-developmental (or immediate) interests, and the family is justified in part because no other institution will serve these interests sufficiently well. The developmental interests fall into four overlapping categories; physical, intellectual (or cognitive), moral, and emotional. One important point of the family is to serve those interests adequately well, and we, in common with most child psychologists, and most religious authorities, and most parents, believe that the family is the best arrangement for this, not least because in order for these interests to be well served children need intimate and loving relationships with one or more adults who is in a position to protect and advance those interests.

But even if alternative arrangements (such as state child-rearing institutions) could serve children’s interests better (which we doubt), they could not be justified because parents also have an interest in being able to have intimate relationships with their children in which they are the main agents responsible for meeting their children’s needs. The institution of the family allows adults to have a relationship of a kind that cannot be substituted for by relationships with other adults; they enjoy an intimate relationship with a dependent who spontaneously loves them, and a good deal of discretion over the specific means by which that relationship develops. Parents have a special duty to promote their children’s interests (including the interest most have in becoming eventually someone who has no need of the parent’s care), but they also have a non-fiduciary interest in being able to play a fiduciary role; it is valuable for their children that they play it well, but playing it is also valuable for them. The family is justified partly by the fact that it is the institution for raising children that provides this good to adults.

I want to break for an interlude, which concerns the role of philosophy in thinking about practical matters. Look at the quote on the slide from Jerry Cohen, who is Chichele Professor of Political Thought at Oxford and, in my opinion for what that is worth, one of the best political philosophers working today.

Philosophers, and, for that matter, non-philosophers, do not know how to compute, in general terms, the comparative weights of the values all of which deserve consideration: no one knows how to draw an “indifference curve” map of those values. But philosophers are sometimes better than others at identifying distinct and neglected values that are worth considering. We often have something novel to say about what ingredients should go into the cake even when we can say nothing about the proportions in which they are to be combined, not because that isn’t important, but because the problem simply doesn’t yield to general recipe-making. Philosophers sometimes end their articles by saying this sort of thing: it is a task for future work to determine the weight of the consideration that I have exposed. But nobody ever gets around to that further work. They wish they could, but they can’t.

I actually disagree with Cohen in part, but the paragraph is a good warning about what to expect from philosophers. We are trained, and very good, at identifying value considerations with a great deal of precision, sometimes more, though sometimes not as much, precision as you might want. We are less good at helping you think through what weights different considerations should have in the circumstances you face but, and here’s the disagreement with Cohen, I think we are professionally interested in doing so, and do have something to offer. We are, qua philosophers, entirely unskilled at formulating and justifying concrete policy recommendations, which activity requires. So although Swift and I have written a bit about family policy together, and I have written and advocated a good deal concerning education policy, most of what we have to say is quite tentative, and very explicit about what assumptions we are making about the empirical facts. In my case, on education policy, I have simply had to learn an enormous amount that has nothing to do with philosophy in order to say anything worthwhile (Swift has a slightly more eclectic professional training than I do, so is sometimes on firmer ground).

Let’s return to the conflict of the family with other elements of justice, specifically equality of opportunity. This ‘relationship-goods’ account of why the family is valuable can help us towards a resolution of the tension with which we started: the conflict between parental partiality and equality of opportunity. Our aim, simply put, is to leave room for parents and children to enjoy the goods that the family distinctively makes possible – goods that depend for their realisation on parents treating their children differently from other people’s children – while mitigating the extent to which the family undermines equality of opportunity. It is widely accepted that parents have a duty of care to their children. Assuming that they can, parents must ensure that their children’s interests are adequately met – that they are adequately fed, sheltered, kept safe from harm; that they experience the parental love that is needed if they are to develop into people capable of enjoying stable loving relationships with others, and so on. If parents fail properly to discharge that duty, then they forfeit the right to parent. But in addition to what they must do, morally speaking, for their children, there is the issue of what they may do for them. Given inequalities of resources (both economic and cultural) between parents of different children, and differences in the motivation to use those resources to benefit those children, parental acts to further their children’s interests are likely to generate injustice. The question, then, is in what ways may parents treat their children as special, beyond what is required of them by their duty of care, without exceeding the bounds of permissible or legitimate partiality? Here the answer that follows from our theory of family values is rather more controversial.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of mechanisms by which relatively advantaged parents tend to transmit their advantage to their children and that tend to produce inequalities between children, and to reproduce patterns of social inequality across generations:

•elite schooling/private tuition
•access to social networks
•parenting styles
•values transmission/ambition formation
•reading bedtime stories

We could discuss each of these in much greater detail, and social scientists might even try to estimate the relative importance of these different mechanisms in generating either the extent of the association between the position of parents and children in the distribution of advantage or the extent of the inequality between children. For current purposes, the interesting point is that as one reads down the list one progresses from more impersonal or ‘external’ mechanisms, such as leaving money or other property to children, or investing in their education, to more informal and intimate mechanisms, the paradigm case here being parental reading of bedtime stories.

For us, the key distinction is between those kinds of activities that are crucial to the ability of families to produce the relevant relationship goods and those that are not. As we saw early in the talk, noting the tendency of the family to obstruct fair equality of opportunity, John Rawls asked ‘Should the family be abolished, then?’ The account we have sketched answers that question negatively, because family values are more important than fair equality of opportunity. But only some of the advantage-transmitting and inequality-generating mechanisms in the list qualify as worthy of protection on ‘family values’ grounds. While the state should protect those parent-child interactions that are needed for people to realize familial relationship goods, those goods do not justify protecting the full range of things that parents currently do to favour their children.

Why is parental reading of bedtime stories a paradigm case of a protected activity? The parent reading the bedtime story is doing several things simultaneously. He is intimately sharing physical space with his child; sharing the content of a story selected either by her or by him with her; providing the background for future discussions; preparing her for her bedtime and, if she is young enough, calming her; re-enforcing the mutual sense of identification one with another. He is giving her exclusive attention in a space designated for that exclusive attention at a particularly important time of her day. Our theory says that there must be ample space for parents to engage in activities with their children that involve this kind of thing. Bequeathing one’s child property, by contrast, or sending her to an elite private school, does not stand in the same relation to the relationship-goods that we have claimed justify the family as the institution in which children should be raised. Thinking about why children should be raised in families, rather than in (possibly more egalitarian) state-run quasi-orphanages, we are not tempted to answer: ‘Because human beings have a vital interest in being able to bequeath property to their children, or to receive it from their parents’. That’s not why the family beats the quasi-orphanage.

So far we have offered a criterion for identifying those parent-child interactions that, though tending to generate unjust inequalities between children, are worthy of protection because they are important for the production of familial relationship goods. Our approach can be thought of as reconciling family values with an egalitarian theory of social justice because we claim that the scope of such interactions is considerably narrower than is commonly thought. We can properly respect the integrity of the family without permitting parents to bequeath property to their children or to invest in their children’s education. The suggestion that the state should limit the transmission of advantage from parents to children in these and similar ways is sometimes rejected on the basis that doing so would violate the integrity of the family. If our account is right, no such violation need be involved.

But our theory also aims to reconcile family values and egalitarian justice in another way. Although all the parent-child interactions listed above do indeed, in contemporary societies, tend to generate unfair inequalities between children, it is the way those interactions themselves interact with the social environment that produces much of the inequality in question. Protecting the space necessary for the realisation of family values is quite consistent with efforts to reduce the unjust impact of legitimate familial interaction. We could, if we wanted, allow parents to read bedtime stories to their children, or to talk to them at the table, or to take them on holidays, or to share their various enthusiasms – all of which are protected on our account of family values and their primacy over equality of opportunity – without also allowing children who have enjoyed those experiences to convert the skills or characteristics that they thereby acquire into social positions characterised by the kinds of inequality that we currently tolerate. Intimate and informal interactions between parents and children may indeed be worthy of protection on ‘family values’ grounds, but the inequalities of wealth and health that those interactions tend currently to produce are not. Reducing inequalities between outcome positions would make it less unjust that children born to different parents had unequal opportunities to achieve those positions.

So, we see powerful reasons for protecting the intimate activities through which, in the social environment we currently inhabit, parents tend to transmit competitive advantage to their children, but we also reject, as unjustified, attempts by parents deliberately to transmit such advantage and we point to the possibility of a radical restructuring of that environment so as to reduce the unequalizing effects of such familial interactions on children’s outcomes.

Just to demonstrate, in case demonstration is needed, that philosophers are less good at weighing values than at identifying them, I want to raise a conflict of values that I think is much more difficult than the equal opportunity case; the case in which indulging in relationship goods or family values has the cost that other people starve to death. This is the case of our, real, world, and from the argument that the family trumps equal opportunity, it simply does not follow that it trumps the value of saving people from starvation. My guess is that in our world there is a lot of over-indulgence in things that make us well off, by those of us who are in a position to save others from starvation with our resources. I guess at this point I might make my appeal that you think for a while about how much you are likely to spend on Christmas, double it, and donate it, now, to Oxfam.

I’d like to make a set of penultimate comments responding to an objection that I have reason to anticipate. Sometimes people hearing or reading our thoughts about this for the first time say that we are operating with a very specific conception of the value – one that is Western, modern, Eurocentric, and Christian. When Adam first pointed this objection out to me and asked how we would respond, I was mystified, because it seems to me to be an overly expansive understanding of our conception, which is, in fact, Northern Euro-centric, 17th century, and Lutheran.

Joking aside, we do not suppose that everyone everywhere has valued, or does value, their family relationships in the way that we have outlined. To the extent that they do not enjoy these relationship goods that we have described we think that they suffer a loss; to the extent that they do, but also value things in other ways, that is fine and compatible with our view. We have offered a normative account which justifies the institution, and helps to guide policy structuring it; and calling the account Eurocentric, or whatever, does not amount to an argument against it; we want to hear reasons for thinking the relationship goods we have identified are not good, or are not as good as other goods that are incompatible with them.

To see that our account, although it draws on some familiar conservative thoughts about family life, is compatible with a wider range of family forms than conservatives sometimes seem to favour, think about alternatives to what you might think of as June and Ward Cleaver ideal family. Can these alternatives realize the values that we have said justify the institutions? It seems blindingly obvious to me that same-sex couples can raise children, meeting their needs and finding fulfillment and flourishing in exercising the role of parents; it seems similarly obvious that a family in which the mother has a career and the father plays the primary caregiving role can be successful in the same way. A family in which two parents are working unrewarding 70-hour-a-week jobs seems to me to be one in which there is much less likely to be successful realisation of the relevant relationship goods than a family in which both parents have a good deal of leisure time to spend with their children; but while such a family situation may be the goal of some corporations and even some policymakers, it is not what most people want for themselves, which is why we need family-friendly labour market regulation and subsidies for poor parents (or, better still, the elimination of poverty). Adoptive families, again, it seems to me, can do just as well as genetically connected families, and in fact recent research strongly indicates that adoptive parents are just as successful as genetic parents with their children. My read of the evidence concerning single parents is less optimistic; it seems to me that single parenthood is a considerable struggle, and that the children of single parents do worse enough than those of married parents to justify investigation of ways of supporting parental relationships that would otherwise sever, and also ways of helping severed parental relationships to improve.

Ok then, what is so great about the family? It is that, when things go well, it provides these tremendously important goods. If some other arrangement could do that just as well, then it would be just as good. We need to arrange social institutions so that things are likely to go well, of course, and that justifies us in allowing the family to interfere with another, lesser, value, equality of opportunity. But we can still do a lot to promote equal opportunity without undermining the value of the family, or impinging on the important aspects of family life. And we should. The family might not be so great that we’d be justified in allowing it to interfere with saving people from starvation – but that might not be so surprising, given that saving people from starvation is so enormously important.

One more visual aid. All this talk of non-traditional family forms naturally makes me want to finish with a nice picture of my own family’s favourite non-traditional American family, the unremittingly delightful one that I promised earlier.



HH 09.16.08 at 6:25 pm

Families are unstable structures when they become extended. They do not scale up well, and this accounts for the poor performance of most clan-based groups in modern society. The best way to think of them is as structures of last resort. In an anarchic society, the family is the bulwark that preserves society. In an advanced society, it often gets in the way.

Attempts to put the family at the center of politics or society overload the structure and lead to political mischief, the Bush dynasty being a recent example. This recent “focus on the family” is yet another example of the atavism that plagues our species as we recoil from the vast outpouring of knowledge in the Internet age, rather than embracing it. Look for clans, tribes, dynasties, feuds, and vendettas to flourish in the years ahead. Can appreciative scholarship be far behind?


Sebastian 09.16.08 at 8:19 pm

Isn’t one of the values of the family that it gets adults to invest more heavily in children that you are likely to get out of a non-family structure?

If so, isn’t it possible that at least some of things you initially think are not protected by the family value become protected by it.

“So, we see powerful reasons for protecting the intimate activities through which, in the social environment we currently inhabit, parents tend to transmit competitive advantage to their children, but we also reject, as unjustified, attempts by parents deliberately to transmit such advantage and we point to the possibility of a radical restructuring of that environment so as to reduce the unequalizing effects of such familial interactions on children’s outcomes.”

Might it be the case that one of the reasons why parents are willing to so heavily invest in children is that they hope to transmit deliberately transmit such advantage. If we radically alter that, is it possible that we will damage the drive to invest so heavily in children?

Have you decided where you clearly divide the line between the intimate protected activites and the non-intimate non-protected activities?

For example ‘access to social networks’. If you can find a way to make access to particular social networks a non-issue with respect to equality, I suppose that is great. But if you can do that, it doesn’t have to be a ‘family’ issue at all. But if you can’t, I don’t really see why attacking it from the family angle is a particularly good idea compared to attacking it from any other angle.


Asher 09.16.08 at 9:06 pm

Marital monogamy is sexual socialism, in that it redistributes female sexual favors from the top 20 to 25 percent of naturally breeding males. In ape species polygyny is strongly correlated with sexual dimorphism; i.e. the greater the physical differences in height, weight, etc. the greater the ratio of breeding females to breeding males. The nuclear family incorporates males into society who would be otherwise socially useless and need to be killed for the good of society; it’s no secret that large male populations with no sexual access have very little reason for existing.

My suspicion is that the benefits of the the nuclear family have little to do with their impact on children and almost everything to do with male sexual access and how that affects social stability and cultural growth. The ideal concept of “one man – one woman” far predates the current Western mania over “childhood”.


mac 09.16.08 at 11:43 pm


A variety of caregivers is the key – not necessarily extended family networks either. The family unit has been shown to incubate all kinds of nastiness – everything from incest to “folks” who are bible thumpers or some other species of mono-minded crank. Just cos a kid happened on this world via a twosome, doesn’t mean he or she is better off being raised in that environment.

Plus it’s simply more fun and more fulfilling to experience different spaces and faces as opposed to being condemned to dealing with your biological “owners” day in and day out. Forget love – a lot of kids don’t even like their parents.


John Quiggin 09.17.08 at 12:54 am

The tension between equality of opportunity and the family can be resolved in the opposite way. A position supporting equality of opportunity while accepting highly unequal outcomes is not sustainable. Conversely, in a society with fairly equal outcomes, the capacity for families to entrench inequality is limited.


vivian 09.17.08 at 1:00 am

(reading this at what should be after bedtime is… suggestive)
I thought the bedtime scenario was going somewhere else, to the idea that parents are trusted with all of this power partly on condition that they give it up gradually, steadily to the kids. Starting with choice and/or veto power over stories. Emphasizing that this stuff is collaborative and self-limiting, at least if you want to transcend the “but you’re only justifying your own childhood” accusation.
Jerry Cohen aside, you need to say a lot more about what the bounds and obligations would be as society looks to deter divorce. That’s one of those things that I simply cannot imagine being done without making things worse, even though there is a lot other people/society could do to make marriages healthier and easier. But those means would probably make single-parenthood easier too.


mac 09.17.08 at 1:16 am

Re: comment 3 … was agreeing with points made by HH


Asher 09.17.08 at 1:44 am

I’m an atheist who grew up in a family and environment of Bible-thumping. I assure you that it’s certainly no worse, possibly better, than anyone else whose world-view begins with an abstract, ahistorical, unanalytical “ought”.

Leading with your “values” or “beliefs” is pretty much all the same regardless of whether it’s from “social justice” or “Jesus saves”. As Nietzsche pointed out the socialists out-christian the christians.

And if the family is “nasty” it’s only because life is, generally, nasty when compared to whatever the idealist worships as his or her concept of “ought”. As a non-idealist I, thankfully, don’t feel the need to attach the pejorative “nasty” to what are normal, and evolved, human functions.


mac 09.17.08 at 1:57 am

Attachment needs can be problematic, both from the parents and the child’s perspective. The transmission of emotion, patterns of thinking, can lead to a bit of a dead-end which is why fresh input is so important.

A lot of studies have been done of kibbutz living and there is a good deal of disagreement on early social experiments such as communal schooling, sleeping areas etc. But while there does need to be a balance between family contact and contact with the extended community, the excessive emphasis on the family unit brings its own set of problems – the God n’ family S. States model being a prime example.


Tracy W 09.17.08 at 9:04 am

Here is a non-exhaustive list of mechanisms by which relatively advantaged parents tend to transmit their advantage to their children and that tend to produce inequalities between children, and to reproduce patterns of social inequality across generations:

•elite schooling/private tuition
•access to social networks
•parenting styles
•values transmission/ambition formation
•reading bedtime stories

Can you support your claim that these methods are ones by which patterns of social inequality across generations? In light of the Korean adoptee study (summary at
http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/11/nature_nurture_.html), and the work Judith Harris summarises in her book The Nuture Assumption, this appears to be an very controversial claim. The current evidence I understand is that most parenting styles, values formation, reading bedtime stories, etc, has no effect once you have controlled for the genetic relationship between most parents and their children. (Very very bad parenting, eg hitting your child over the head with a frypan or locking them in a cellar for years on end, almost certainly have an impact given what we know about what happens to kids who receive severe head injuries by accident).

For example, the Korean adoption study I linked above is based on a adoption agency that, if would-be parents were accepted into the programme, they were randomly assigned children. The graph shows that of the adoptive parents, their biological children’s income on average rises with the adopted parents’ income, but the adopted children’s income on average doesn’t. It looks to me like “parenting styles, access to social netowrks, values transmission/ambition formation, and reading bedtime stories” play no role in reproducing patterns of social inequality across generations, with the probable exception of course of extremely bad parenting.


A. Y. Mous 09.17.08 at 9:09 am

Wealth, learning, love and affection can be had anywhere from anyone. Family is a contract without an exit clause. Family ensures security of relationships. You can’t divorce your parents/children.

Which leads me to your question on why yours is Western, modern, Eurocentric, and Christian (or for that matter even Northern Euro-centric, 17th century, and Lutheran). It is because family being defined with “man and woman” as the centerpiece, is all that. Elsewhere in the world, family is a genetic identification with a plurality of individuals (patriarchal or matriarchal or both) and joint prima facie claim on all available resources enjoyed by them. Uncles and cousins taking full charge and bequething the whole lot to children without parents is not only not rare, it is extremely common.

Also, no biological/genetic imperatives to ensure immortality (and hence, the overly loving importance of grand-parents/children)?


Lex 09.17.08 at 10:07 am

Telling people they don’t “own” their kids is all very well in theory, but is anyone here who actually has children prepared to yield control [and, implicitly, access] to social workers and “networks” – whatever that means??


Chris Bertram 09.17.08 at 10:25 am

#12 Wrong question. The right question is, “is anyone here … willing to agree to a law that gives social workers the right to take control of children away from parents under some circumstances.” The (only sane) answer to that question (in practice not “in theory”) is “yes”, where those circumstances include gross cruelty, neglect, abuse etc.


Lex 09.17.08 at 10:42 am

@13: yes, indeed, and that is so bleedin’ obvious as not to merit discussion, surely? Whereas any contention that one might go further, implied and explicitly raised in various posts above, is just silly. There’s always “someone” who needs their kids “taking away”, but we’ll never reach a situation where that “someone” is “us”, mr and ms average voter.


Harry 09.17.08 at 12:14 pm

Tracy W — that is a (common) misreading of Harris. The outcomes she considers (being a psychologist) are personality traits. Her data (or the data in the studies she studies), furthermore, concerns correlations of parental personality traits and child personality traits; the assumption being that parents are trying to replicate their own traits (this may be a good empirical assumption for all I know, but I don’t know any parents who do that, and she not only gives no grounds for thinking that they do but never makes the assumption explicit). Have a look at the papers in Bowles, Gintis, and Osborne Groves (eds), Unequal Chances, and trail back the literature from there.


Tracy W 09.17.08 at 3:05 pm

Harry, what reading The Nuture Assumption does, and adoption studies like the Korean one, is call into question every piece of research relating children’s outcomes to parental behaviour that doesn’t control for the genetic relationship between most parents and their children. Does the Bowles, Gintis, and Osborne Groves literature control for the genetic influence?

As for _The Nuture Assumption_, I don’t know why you think the assumption you describe is relevant to the results Judith Harris describes. Correlation studies are independent of theories about motivation – the high rate of haemophilia amongst Queen Victoria’s descendents is not evidence that Queen Victoria tried to create haemophilic descendents. If parenting styles had a consistent effect on children’s personality traits that should show up in correlation studies regardless of the parents’ motivations.
I suspect the reason Judith Harris never made such an assumption as you describe explicit is that she never made such an assumption at all.


lindsey 09.17.08 at 4:56 pm

Harry, I want you to post about parental licensing.


harry b 09.17.08 at 5:46 pm

Lindsey — ok, sometime.

Tracy W — yes, a good deal of that literature does, in different ways. Some doesn’t. All of it, by the way, is sceptical that bequest plays much role. As to Harris — well she doesn’t actually have any data about parenting styles (that’s not what her studies are about). She looks for correlation between personality traits of parents and those of children. If you assume that no correlation after controlling for genetic effects allows you to say that parenting styles have no effects, then you do, indeed, have to make an assumption about the aims of parents. Its a long time since I read Harris, and maybe she doesn’t claim that parenting styles have no effects, in which case there is no need to make the assumption, but what she says has no bearing on the effects of parenting styles.


Tracy W 09.18.08 at 11:20 am

If you assume that no correlation after controlling for genetic effects allows you to say that parenting styles have no effects, then you do, indeed, have to make an assumption about the aims of parents.

So you are saying that, say, in a hypothetical world where lazy, relaxed parents unintentionally produced over-anxious, anal-retentive children, (maybe because the children overcompensated for their parents’ laidback attitudes, and carried this attitude on into adult life), this would not show up in correlation studies, as the parents did not mean to pass on their personality traits?

While my interest in the topic immediately under discussion is only personal, I do deal with correlations a lot in my professional life, and this idea is sending chills down my spine that I have been doing it all wrong for years and years. I need to know when and where I have to make assumptions about the motivations of people in order to be able to draw the conclusion that no correlation implies no causation. And also I need to know what sort of assumptions need to be made. I am really really surprised and distressed that none of my statistics teachers or lecturers bothered to mention such a fundamental problem with correlation studies. Can you please provide the name of a handbook about how to do this? Or a teacher in this subject?

I am also extremely curious about the mathematics behind this result. We of course studied the correlation formulae, and least-squares regression models, and etc, in class, and I don’t recall anything in that that was at all dependent on the motivation of whatever correlation you were studying. I do love counter-intuitive mathematical proofs for their own sake – can you please provide a link or a reference to the proof that such motivations must be taken into account when doing correlations?


Harry 09.18.08 at 11:43 am

It just depends on what conclusions you want to draw from the studies, Tracy. And as I say, if Harris were drawing conclusions from studies of the correlation between parenting styles and personality traits of children there’d be no need for assumptions about aims. But she is drawing conclusions about parenting styles from correlations between parental traits and children’s traits, without any direct information about parenting styles. I don’t see how that works without making assumptions about the aims of parents. But of course if you could explain to me how, that would be great.


Tracy W 09.18.08 at 3:51 pm

Harry B – so there is no need to make assumptions about motivation in order to be able to do a basic correlation study? Please let me know on this one if I am wrong, and again, if I do need to relearn statistics, I would really appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of a textbook or a teacher, or something.

As for your main argument, I do not have a copy of The Nuture Assumption at the moment, that book shares with Gun Germs and Steel the feature of compulsive lending, so I cannot check your claim that Judith Harris does not use direct information about parenting styles. However Judith Harris has published some articles online. In http://home.att.net/~xchar/tna/devpsyjh.htm, she looks at studies on intervention effects.
From that study:
“A study that meets all the criteria for an experimental test of my prediction was carried out recently by Forgatch and DeGarmo (1999). There was a control group, the intervention occurred only at home, and the children’s behavior was assessed both at home and at school. Ratings at school were made by teachers who were blind to the children’s experimental group assignment. But, “contrary to expectations” (p. 718), the researchers found no differences between the teachers’ postintervention ratings of children in the intervention and control groups. “

So in this case there was a purposeful change in parenting behaviour, which had an impact at home, but not at school.
And in a summary of more general research:
” Similar conclusions have been reached in regard to programs designed to improve the school adjustment and academic performance of children living in poverty: “There is little evidence that parenting programs produce the hoped-for linkage between changed parent behaviors and improved child outcomes” (St.Pierre & Layzer, 1998, p. 7; see also White, Taylor, & Moss, 1992; Zaslow, Tout, Smith, & Moore, 1998).”

If parenting styles affected children’s success in life, then changing parenting styles should show some impact in terms of behaviour at school.

And she cites another study on parent behaviour and child (well teenage) behaviour:
” Reiss and his colleagues studied 720 pairs of same-sex adolescent siblings (identical and fraternal twins and full, half and stepsiblings) over a 3-year period, from early to mid-adolescence. The adolescents’ behavior and adjustment, and the behavior of their parents, were judged by observers, the parents, and the adolescents themselves; these multiple sources of information were combined to produce measures of unusual reliability.
Reiss has confessed that he was “shocked” by the results of his study (Paul, 1998, p. 46). The results are indeed shocking to believers in the nurture assumption (and Reiss, in spite of everything, remains a believer). Virtually all correlations between parental behaviors and child outcomes were accounted for by genetic factors. The parents did indeed treat their children differently but they were reacting to genetic differences among the children, rather than causing the differences.”

So Judith Harris does have at her fingertips studies of parental *behaviour*, not just parental personality. From my vague memory, she included these or similar studies in The Nurture Assumption as well, but my memory is of course unreliable. And I can hardly expect you to prove a negative. But if Judith Harris did include these studies that would explain why she didn’t make the assumption you mentioned explicit – she didn’t need to make your assumption at all.


harry b 09.18.08 at 5:03 pm

Good, that’s helpful. I, too, am disadvantaged by not having any of the three copies I have bought over the years in my possession. As I say, I read it years ago, and have been puzzled. Without reading the studied cited I should refrain from this, but in similarly designed studies I am always a bit puzzled by the confidence people have in their ability to observe behaviour (having once challenged some coding of a study in progress and been bemused by the absence of a rationale for it). This is a different response to your previous one; I apologise for my snarky final sentence in 20 (I plead early morning hurry with a lousy internet connection). I’m glad we agree on the fundamental methodological point.


Tracy W 09.19.08 at 2:46 pm

Harry B – thank you for explaining your answer. I am convinced by you that coding behaviour must be difficult – I am not an expert on the design of such studies but I am aware from my statistics studies that observer bias is a problem – which is why double-blind studies are the gold standard. This is why I think the Holt adoption study is a useful addition to the studies Judith Harris combines – income is less subject to coding problems than most forms of behaviour.

So now we are back to my original question – what evidence do you have that parents do tend to transmit their advantage to their children by the mechanisms you list? Judith Harris presents evidence that “parenting styles” and “values transmission/ambition formation” has very little impact once genetics is controlled for, I am curious as to what your evidence is that they are indeed mechanisms.


Tracy W 09.19.08 at 2:56 pm

Duh, that’s right, you told me that book. I’ll have a look for it. The one thing I really miss about NZ is the Wellington Public Library.


Hattie 09.21.08 at 3:20 am

The religious right is trying to hijack the issue of family. The essentialists talk a lot about apes. No one talks about love.

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