Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

Director's report

Family values or valuing the family?
Don Edgar

Abstract

The Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies states that the Institute's view is that better public understanding of the many factors affecting marital and family stability will improve family wellbeing. 'We do not believe that all forms of family behaviour are acceptable. Far from it. Violence, abuse, inequality and subjugation mar the lives of many families. But we do believe that the family unit is central to society because it is constructed, interpreted and transmitted from one generation to another. The family is both individual and societal at one and the same time. It is not a passive vehicle for ideological or social forces, though it can work that way. Rather, the family is an active crucible in which both personality and society are forged, in which we hammer out in constructive real life action how our lives will be led, given the resources and constraints that limit our control, and given the wider sources of change that compel us to accept, adapt or resist.' The author concludes by reviewing some of the Institute's research from the perspectives of valuing the family, and family values.

 

So much of this Institute's past and current work involves questions of 'values' that we decided to focus this issue of Family Matters on them.

Values indicate those standards by which we estimate the worth or esteem of some product or behaviour. They are symbols of our life priorities, what is significant, weighty, of concern to us, of virtue, merit, permissible, approved.

It is relatively easy to value the worth of land, of housing, of a meat pie, even of someone's job because we have a system of monetary values as a yardstick. But what is the value of children, of family life, of truth, justice, democracy? We are immediately into a tangle of conflicting beliefs, judgements - of objective versus subjective standards.

For values depend upon our interpretation of life's meaning, which is in turn dependent upon collective interests and the social power to impose a particular view of the world upon others. Whether or not there are such things as 'absolute values' has been debated throughout human history, but even here the way they are applied varies widely in social time and place.

Then there is the problem of how to measure values. Is it sufficient to ask what people's attitudes are to premarital sex, to having children outside legal marriage, to abortion, to fathers sharing the housework? Or are values really only revealed through actual behaviour, the decision to act on what one believes in, to fight against what is wrong or turn a blind eye to it? Even here our values may be very clear about what ought to happen, but our capacity to act and/or our sense of power may prevent behaviour being consistent with belief.

The Institute has had to take a fairly pragmatic view of such dilemmas. We do ask families about their beliefs and attitudes, about their sense of control and about the resources they can muster to reach the goals they espouse. We also look closely at the politico-legal expressions of 'public values' in terms of both their stated objectives and their actual impact on people's lives. There is many a slip between policy, administrative practice and everyday effects. And it is often difficult to unravel the threads between high- sounding rhetoric and the intended versus unanticipated consequences of its implementation.

The best thing to do with value positions is to state them clearly and let others judge whether or not they are achieved in practice. With the Institute, there is a clear belief that better public understanding of the many factors affecting marital and family stability will improve family wellbeing. We do not believe that all forms of family behaviour are acceptable. Far from it. Violence, abuse, inequality and subjugation mar the lives of many families.

But we do believe that the family unit is central to society because it is the place in which social behaviour is constructed, interpreted and transmitted from one generation to another. The family is both individual and societal at one and the same time. It is not a passive vehicle for ideological or social forces, though it can work in that way. Rather, the family is an active crucible in which both personality and society are forged, in which we hammer out in constructive real life action how our lives will be led, given the resources and constraints that limit our control, and given the wider sources of change that compel us to accept, adapt or resist.

Perhaps the best illustration of the family as the crucible of change lies in our changing work structure and its impact on gender roles. Wider economic and demographic forces provide the framework. Unskilled work decreases; the service sector grows; birth rates drop so more women must be trained and kept in employment; the population ages and the dependency ratio becomes a worry. At the value level, the logic of individualism (which is, formally, gender free) works through into equal opportunity, equal pay, anti- discrimination legislation and an assertion of joint partnership responsibilities in marriage and divorce.

Note, however, that these changes do not bring about widespread value change unless and until they are worked through by particular couples in particular family settings. It can also be said that legislative and program changes are themselves driven by value changes constructed in the negotiation of everyday family life throughout the society. At both levels, the family and its central role in reality construction and renegotiation is undeniable.

It is in the family that economic and legal constraints are translated into practice, into who shares the income- earning and caring tasks of everyday life. The fact that some couples reach a new agreement in their marital conversation is the key sign of social change. And the fact that rigid work structures are beginning to be challenged by men and women struggling to forge a more equal partnership, a more sensible division of work and family time, illustrates that change is as much driven from within family structures as from the social structures without.

'Social Place' of the Family

Institute Research

The Institute's research focuses on the dynamic 'social place' of the family. At one end, we monitor the trends and the family impacts of shifts in the labour market, the composition of the population, the nature of urban and rural environments. We also examine closely the politico-legal context of Australian family life, the externally-imposed changes in laws affecting families, the tax-transfer system, wage rises, the economic recession, the public/private mix in housing policies, child care, family support programs.

It is at this level that we can assess key elements of 'valuing the family'. Are families seen as important in political terms? Which families are given priority treatment, either deliberately or by default? Are those with children treated favourably or inequitably? Is formal marriage a preferred status or do children count regardless of their parents' situation? How does Australia juggle the relative responsibilities of 'private' families versus the public? How are parental responsibilities for children, both in terms of monetary support and day-to-day contact and care, viewed and what is the role of the State in insisting that those responsibilities are shared, carried out well? At what points does the State step in if family life is dysfunctional, or damaging to some of its members? What is the broad level of support in the policy/program mix for helping families fulfil their tasks and lead satisfying lives? What is the impact of work structures on family life and do employers see themselves as having any relevance to the wellbeing of families?

Our recently published report, Work and Family: Employers' Views, by Ilene Wolcott, reveals how far we have to go in achieving an understanding of the close links between work and family.

Our Australian Living Standards study, which goes into the field next month, will show us how varied is the impact of regional support services, access to employment, transport, etc, on family life. That study will enable us to address more closely than ever those issues of public/private responsibility, the policy impacts of urban (non)planning, the changing pressures of work on marital and parental relationships.

When we come to 'family values' in the sense of what families and their members value in their lives, the Institute's research is equally revealing. Our follow-up of 1500 of the 2500 young adults first interviewed in 1981 on Family Formation gives us a unique insight into how values translate into behaviour and how circumstances alter people's stated intentions. We are looking at changing attitudes to marriage, premarital sex, living together, having children, who should care for them, as well as the strong links between generations despite a supposed 'decline' in the importance of family life.

In addition, our massive study of over 8000 five-year- olds on 'Early Child Care Contexts' is revealing much of the conflicting priorities young parents face. The need to work, the desire to work; the need and desire to be with one's children in the early years; the problems of managing a young family caused by separation and divorce; how much adjustment (or how little) in traditional mother - father roles has taken place according to the job demands of both parents; the search for quality child care and the guilt and dissatisfaction that results when such family support services are inadequate; are all issues that reveal the dynamic process that links values and behaviour. We plan to publish a series of working papers based on this study of early child care contexts.

The Institute's support for the ANU's National Social Science Survey has yielded a rich payload, as illustrated in the articles in this issue by Audrey Vanden Heuvel using the data on male - female differences in family values.

We have also followed up the divorce sample of the book Settling Up: Property and Income Distribution on Divorce in Australia and the teenage sample from our 1983 study of Children in Australian Families. The former are now several years down the track from divorce, many are remarried and the study gives a fascinating insight into how family ties linger on, thrive or twist into new knots. The latter are now 20-year-olds, and the interviews focus on what it means today to 'become adult'. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s the pathways were fairly standard - from school to work, to marriage as the marker of independent adulthood - in today's world it seems even the notion of 'transition' from youth to adulthood as separate stages or statuses may not be an appropriate way to look at it. A young person may have a partner but no job, or vice versa, may have left the parental home and returned via 'the revolving door', may feel adult, without any of the status markers we once expected of an adult. The values of such young people tell us much about what the future holds for Australian family life.

We have also recently published two books which reveal both internal family values and the public value of family life.

  • Images of Australian Families, edited by Kathleen Funder, shows how diverse are the ways in which people 'construct' their family as an entity. Different research methods throw that process into new relief and we cannot assume our own 'image' is shared by others, even by our own kin.
  • Paying for the Children documents how private (separated) couples react to the public imposition of shared parental responsibility for child support payments. As a major legislative change widely accepted in the community, it is again revealing of how such public values are applied in the family context itself. It is not an easy 'fit' for many of those involved.

We trust that these forthcoming reports, briefly outlined in this issue of Family Matters will stimulate new thinking, new policy insights and new challenges as we move towards the International Year of the Family in 1994.