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65 JUNE 2004
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“Good families don't ...” (and other family myths)

Heather Coleman

"Don't be ridiculous," said the mother. “Good families like ours do not have farts. What would the neighbours say?" – from Robert Munsch, Good Families Don't

The family is often considered to be the basic building block of society. Its importance has taken on greater significance in the last couple of years amidst a cry for a return to “traditional family values.” While these values have been inadequately defined/ they are heatedly debated. Some assume them to mean that the “olden days" were a better time for the family. Others would like to see the family once again become the private sphere where mothers remain at home with the children and where fathers seek refuge at the end of the workday. Perhaps this pressure is due to the bad press that the family has received in the past couple of years. There is widespread family breakup, single parent families, and family violence in all its forms.

In spite of the problems, we cling tenaciously to the beliefs that there are socially acceptable and socially sanctioned patterns of family behaviour. The family seems to have taken on a life of its own – a living organism. What is often neglected is that “family" is a social construction – that its definition and character are both a creation and a servant to the larger social order/both an idea and an ideal. Schaefer (1970) proposed the term “fiction" to refer to “an organized set of beliefs and a corresponding way of defining facts" (p. 347). He also suggested that when fictions crystallize into immutable assertions about reality of the world, they become myths. Without a willingness to dissect the fiction guiding Child and Youth Care practice with families, we run the risk of operating from myths that are passed on as practice wisdom to future generations of Child and Youth Care workers. The danger ultimately becomes one of rigid practice that is based upon rigid beliefs.

Post-modernism or deconstruction theory has been useful in the social sciences to deconstruct existing beliefs and myths that have posed as theory. Such mainstream beliefs have systematically excluded alternate views expressed through the pressure for change emanating from those who are peripheral to the mainstream. This includes women and minorities. Thus myths have been generated from those in power positions where the definer as defined the world. Beliefs and myths as inventions about the family I as much about its observers as they do about the existing social order. For example, Morrell (1987) suggests that in the helping professions most practice theory is male-centered and the product of a male view of one world, a view in which masculine is the standard against which women are measured. She also argues that the theories are infused with masculine values. Since the male point of view has been used to define and evaluate the family, it is not surprising to see that the Ideal Family has benefit males the most. As such, theories in the human sciences can be analyzed a deconstructed for hidden political and social agendas rather than being accepted as statements of facts. What has generally been taken as facts about families are in reality opinions that are pandered as objective.

The family ideal
Pleck (1987) provides a critique of family myths as they relate to family violence. These myths are equally applicable to general family function and embrace beliefs about family stability, conjugal and parental rights a family privacy. In the playing out of these myths the family has been idealized and romanticized. The myths have emerged in part as the result of dichotomous thinking “that for every state there is its polar opposite. The opposite of masculine is feminine, the opposite of rights is responsibility and the opposite of public is private. Dichotomous thinking has been played out in the family to create myths that have been socially constructed, socially sanctioned and ultimately socially constrictive.

Family privacy
We believe that our public and private lives are mutually exclusive and that the family is a haven from the outside world. Our lives have become artificially dichotomized as we adopt these private and public postures. “What we think of the family, and then think of the world that surrounds it, we tend to think in terms of contrasts ...” (Goldner, 1988, p. 24). Embodied this principle is the belief that intimate family relationships should be free from state intrusion and the meddling of others. “Modem defenders are likely to argue that the family has a constitutional right to privacy or in saying that the home is the only setting where intimacy can flourish, providing meaning, coherence, and stability in personal life” (Pleck, 1987, p. 8).

The right of the government to intervene in family affairs has been seriously challenged over the past decade. Child Welfare legislation, for example has taken the stance of least intrusive measures, suggesting that only under severe conditions should public agencies intervene in private family lives. This makes prevention difficult and allows intervention only after problems are severe (a family members harmed). The debate about the impermeability of family boundaries and the right of the government to intrude into family life, however is a line-drawing exercise, particularly in child welfare. The line is vague.

Unfortunately, in the last two decades it has become increasingly apparent that the family is not the safe refuge that it once was considered. “You are more likely to be physically assaulted in your own home at the hands of a loved one than any place else, or by any one else in our society" (Gelles & Straus, 1988, p. 18). Ironically, the belief about family privacy has attained primacy at a time when it has been recognized that the family is not a haven for many of its members. This has never been so apparent as in the statistics on family violence. It is a myth that family violence is a new “discovery." There are well-documented cases of all forms of family violence historically (Pleck, 1987). The feminist movement has been responsible for exposing the problem and bringing it to public attention. Increased power of women has enabled them to make a private issue public.

Privacy then becomes a serious impediment to the well-being of family members, particularly those who are victims of abuse. Rigid and impermeable boundaries surrounding families often creates problems for the victims of family violence and protects perpetrators who more often than not are the male “head." Gordon (1985) suggests that “outrage over intervention into the family has often been outrage over a territorial violation challenging male authority or outrage at exposing family conflict and the family head's lack of control" (p. 219).

Garbarino and Gilliam (1987) further argue that social isolation has become the downside of privacy by removing family problems from scrutiny and detection. Family privacy sequesters family members from sources of social support and information from the outside world. When there are problems in the family, the problems often escalate to severe proportions before assistance is required or asked for because of a reluctance to give up privacy. Many families with problems seen by Child and Youth Care workers are in fact socially isolated. Their connection to the outside world is tenuous at best. Often they are distrustful of aid and are lacking adequate personal resources and interpersonal social support to acquire assistance before problems reach crisis proportions. It makes intervention with these families difficult and creates ambiguity and uncertainty for workers as they decide where to draw the line.

We have erected an ideological boundary around the family as well. Identical behaviours are labelled differently depending upon whether they occur outside or inside the family. For example, sexual abuse of children outside the family unit is paedophilia while inside the family becomes the product of a dysfunctional family system. Yet, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is little difference (Conte, 1986). The same is true for other abuses within the family. One set of behaviours is criminal behaviour while within the family the same is framed as a “family problem." One behaviour is best dealt with in the criminal justice system while for the other, some therapists often prefer to operate independently of legal and political systems (MacFarlane & Buckley, 1982; Badgley, 1984) and therapy becomes an “alternative" to the criminal justice system. Furthermore, “the care of young children is described as mothering or babysitting if it is done at home; it is transformed into day care or early childhood education when it is relocated outside the home" (Baines, Evans, & Neysmith, 1992, p. 36).

While locating the primary source of distress within the family, we have failed to identify the ecological embeddedness of families in the larger society. We are led to believe that individual and family behaviour in the unit is governed by a different set of rules dissimilar from those of the outside world. Social issues are not peripheral to therapy; rather they create the context where therapy becomes necessary. Family Stability Much of our work is aimed at keeping families together. Giovanonni (1982) proposed that the “very concept of child mistreatment derives from social choices between two basic societal values: the autonomy of the family and the protection of children" (p. 105). Ironically this propensity has also been accompanied by child welfare cutbacks and a recognition that it is inherently cheaper to maintain children in their own homes than it is to provide institutional or foster care services. We have thus failed to address the issue of to what degree individual rights should be superseded by the value of family stability. Many therapies with families have failed to respond to this concern (Johnson, 1986). When is removal from the home justified and who should be removed? Ultimately this too becomes a line-drawing exercise that shifts with the social climate.

Some lament the time of “traditional family values" when families were more stable and women remained at home to raise children and provided a haven for the breadwinner at the end of the day. Myths have been perpetuated about harm to children of working mothers, yet the peripheral role of fathers has not been addressed. There is a lack of evidence, in fact, that working mothers harm children. The role of the father has been made invisible or beyond reproach.

It is believed that traditional gender roles pose little threat to family stability while the converse suggests that a divergence from these roles is unhealthy for families. A central theme proposed by promoters of traditional gender roles is that the greater independence of women have gravely weakened the family and that all the problems stem from the independence of women. Thus all solutions require the reinforcement of male dominance (Cherlin, 1983, p. 428). Family stability is thus best captured by the statement that “the concept of the autonomous family, in fact, as it is manipulated in contemporary political discourse, is generally used in opposition to women's rights as autonomous citizens" (Gordon, 1985, p. 218).

In families where there has been violence, gender roles are often the most traditional. For example, Judith Herman (1981) in her study of incestuous families noted that traditional “the informants described their fathers as perfect patriarchs" (p. 71) and that sex roles were rigidly defined and male superiority was unquestioned (p. 72). Additionally, the mothers were “economically dependent, socially isolated, in poor health, and encumbered with the care of many small children (p. 78).

The return to traditional family values may mean increased stigma for alternate family forms and which then are seen as increasingly deviant or at least deficient. Only 10 percent of all families are the father-headed, female-at-home family form at any one time (Goldner, 1988). Yet this is this structure that society holds to be the ideal.

Mothers are made the focal point of therapy since she assumes responsibility for family well-being. Not only is it more in keeping with the traditional gender roles of the family, but the fact also remains that if she rocks the boat too hard she will be tossed overboard and not know how to swim. As recounted by Goldner (1985) “... she knows that she has much more at stake and much more to lose if things don't work out than the man she married" (p. 41) since “... the breakdown of the traditional family has too often meant a new kind of freedom for men and a new kind of trap for women" (p. 41). Lack of pay equity, the feminization of poverty and the emergence of pink ghetto jobs attest to this. Women lose on all counts and children suffer even more. Other studies (Dietz & Craft, 1980; Truesdall, McNeil, & Deschner, 1986) underscore the high rate of wife abuse in incestuous families, suggesting that they may be co-victims rather than co-conspirators. A major determinant of abused wives staying in the family is lack of economic independence rather than collusiveness (Kalmuss & Straus, 1982). Many women are bound to marriage and the family by a sense of duty and obligation and given the degree of economic and emotional dependency experienced and leaving alone or with the children becomes a monumental affair.

Mothers' role in the family is seen by many helpers as the cornerstone of pathology and the central role of most family problems. It is suggested that mothers orchestrate incest and other pathologies (Trepper & Barrett,1986) or set the scene for their own abuse. This is obvious in writings on schizophrenia, autism, and, most recently, family violence. Most of these theories are both invalid and pejorative towards women and mothers while little or no emphasis is placed on the role of the father in the family. Fathers, by virtue of their socially ascribed role become victimized by maternal incompetence and collusiveness and thus are not responsible for family dynamics except by default. Mothers are seen as having the responsibility for family well-being. Furthermore, women are most likely to be engaged in therapy and the responsibility for the problems and for change become the woman's domain. Therapies have been reluctant to put responsibility for change on fathers because they are frequently reluctant to engage in counseling or remain in therapy.

Conjugal and Parental Rights
Conjugal and parental rights is the third and last component of the Family Ideal. Whereas family therapy has deflected power as being a form of linear thinking, feminists see it as a central issue in family relations. The romance with family systems therapy in the helping professions has created a disregard for the issue of power and has blurred individual responsibility. For example, “... from a feminist perspective, the systemic sine qua non of circularity looks suspiciously like a hypersophisticated version of blaming the victim and rationalizing the status quo" (Goldner, 1985, p. 33). Ironically for family therapists, linear thinking seems to have become a greater transgression than the abuse itself.

Power has been regarded by systemic therapists as belonging in the family and owned by the system rather than individuals. Power, however, is a politically gendered concept. Yet by framing power as a circular concept gender and generation have become peripheral issues. By refusing to ad-dress the issue of inequality in family work, therapists operate from the premise that family members participate equally in family dysfunction. Theories of abuse provide a vivid depiction of this myth. Incest victims are labeled seductive and mothers are seen as collusive. In the case of physical abuse, children are belligerent. In viewing the situation as such, time sequences become distorted. We attribute behaviours of family members as the precipitant to the problem, rather than the outcome. Doing so subtly implicates other family members and makes them willing victims.

An assumption has been promulgated that the marital dyad possesses the same hierarchal status in the family and that this power is shared with the children who are equally influential in family interactions. This is neither true in society at large, nor in the family. By depicting family problems in this context, it is easy to dismiss who does what to whom (particularly the direction in which the behaviour is flowing) and what behaviours of which family members need to be altered. “It avoids coming to grips with the reality that, in relations with adults, there is no way that a child can be in control or exercise free choice" (Herman, 1981, p. 27). Krane (1990) contends that the obfuscation of the abuse of power is actually a concealment of the male prerogative within the family. Hence, it serves to protect the powerful from self responsibility. When defense mechanisms of denial, minimization and rationalization exist, the denial of power serves the powerful well and reinforces the existing status quo.

Traditionally, conjugal and parental rights have meant the promulgation of a definite power hierarchy in the chain of family command with the father at the helm and the mother running in a distant second place. Reluctance to subsume to greater social authority poses no threat to the gender and genera-tion power hierarchy in the family. Goldner (1988) submits that these hierar-chies are a central organizing force in the family unit, not the marginal status that they have assumed in family therapy literature. “Gender and generatiorare best understood as the two fundamental, organizing principles of famil)life" (p.l8). Both parents have ultimate control over the offspring for whorrthey exercise complete control. “... [T]he ideal of restoring parental authorityoften got translated in clinical practice into an attempt to restore patriarcha, authority by implicitly blaming mothers for fathers' weaknesses" (Goldner 1988, p. 27). For traditional family therapists the power in the generationa structure is unquestioned and the category of gender is neglected. “The illusion of marital equality in a male-dominated society requires the illusory division othe world into public and private domains" (Goldner/1988, p. 24). Challenging conjugal and parental rights requires that women and children develop right; as autonomous individuals. Such rights do not take second place to the rights oparents or the rights of the male head.

For example, Pankhurst and Houseknecht (1983) note that the existence of individualism in society is actually a form of androcentric individualism – with the male/patriarch at its centre. In social science literature androcentric privilege is the core of conjugal and parental rights and is reinforced by family therapy and other theories that have glorified fatherhood and denigrated women and mothers.

Children are often seen as having no rights and Goldner (1988) suggest that therapies of “putting the parents in charge" are actually waging political battle on behalf of parents against the State. It thus minimizes the socially sanctioned benefit of authority that agencies have to ensure the well-being of family members.

The Rogers report captured the theme of family power articulately in Reaching/or Solutions:

... it appears that many adults prefer to teach children to be passive, to be obedient, and to be controlled ... Obedience and passivity contribute to the victimization of children by adults. Children who are abused sexually are children who do not understand that they have rights to say “No." They are children who can be controlled by adults who choose to use their power to exploit those who are most vulnerable. (Rogers, 1990, p. 43).

The report challenged social myths about the family. However, the government has been slow to respond to it. This is indicative of how powerful and political myths about the family can be.

Implications for practice
Within the past decade Child and Youth Care has increasingly focused its attention on the family. Theories such as family systems theory have adopted posture of prestige and even dominance in clinical practice. In spite of a professed apolitical stance, these theories are not neutral. To paraphrase Jackson adage: “You cannot not be political." By making age and gender peripheral to the analysis, and by neutralizing the concept of power in the family the status quo has been supported. In the movement towards safeguarding the family from outside influence (i.e., outside intervention) existing social realities have been supported by default or design. In practice, the social sciences this movement has emerged as a sophisticated way of maintaining the status quo and is an expression of real politics that all great States have neither permanent principles nor permanent friends, just permanent interests. In this instance, permanent interests are bounded by the Family Ideal rather than the eradication of the social conditions that have contributed to the existence of problems within the family. This impacts most upon women and children.

Following Fleck's original tenet, true family reform demands examination of the three ingredients of the Family Ideal. The starting point of this change is the explicit acknowledgement that our professional activities are loaded with political consequences for our clients and their families and outcomes are better accomplished by design than default. Although targets of specific social change are beyond the scope of this paper, several points need to be highlighted.

Social problems of this magnitude cannot explained by single factors alone, nor can they be rectified by solitary approaches. Family and individual problems must be viewed from their ecological embeddedness. Otherwise it"... is like watching a parade through a key hole" (Goldner/ 1985, p. 34). Framing problems within a narrowly constructed view of reality deflects from their social, economic and political underpinnings and does not aid innovative practice. As such, there should be no artificial distinction between the private and the public spheres. Authoritative intervention is a necessary prerequisite for change in incestuous families (Sgroi, 1983) where the families may be highly resistive to change and unwilling to remain in treatment without the “encouragement" of outside forces. The dynamics of public and private behaviours are not mutually exclusive as distinctions between the “garden variety" paedophile and the incestuous paedophile suggests. This has fundamental implications for how problems within the family are dealt with, particularly when gender socialization and patriarchal values are critical elements. Rather than viewing child welfare, criminal justice and mental health as threats to the family, they need to be viewed as collaborators in a team working towards amelioration of complex and frequently difficult social problems.

Family stability need not be the end goal, particularly when the well-being of individual family members are sacrificed in the process. This re-quires a commitment to respecting diversity in family form. Indeed 15 years ago, Kamerman and Kahn (1976) suggested “it is probably essential in the analysis of family policy to differentiate the interest of the family as a unit from those particular roles and statuses within the family" (p. 183). Sometimes one family form is detrimental to family members. It involves a concomitant recognition of how female autonomy in the family is often exchanged for the well-being of the unit as a whole as “incestuous families" so painfully demonstrate. The ideological transformation from victim toperpetrator of family members, in a urbane form of victim-blaming, will not change this. Nor will obscuring individual rights and responsibilities. Family preservation then must be accomplished within the context of equality and rights for all family members.

The social context of conjugal and parental rights also needs to be acknowledged. It may be redundant to connect the “private" powerlessness of women to the “public" powerlessness, but the fact remains that until there is equality in both spheres, the issue needs to be confronted. Addition-ally, the social emphasis on rights has created lopsided interpersonal relationships, for only when responsibilities are co-emphasized will family members be giving as much as we are extracting.

"... it turned out that sometimes ... good children do have farts after all." (Munsch, 1991). Unfortunately, farting is the least of our family problems.


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This feature: Coleman, Heather (1992) Good families don–t” Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol7 no.2 pp.59-68

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