June Carbone on the many faces of American family life

Is there such a thing as an

GEORGIA, November 13, 2012 — Just how important is egalitarian parenting for a successful family structure?

Today, prospective parents increasingly choose to delay having children. What have the socioeconomic ramifications of this been? Despite many predictions that the culture wars would eventually become a thing of the past, this has not taken place. Can we expect to see this social divide be bridged in the foreseeable future?

Speaking of culture clashes, what is the most pivotal difference between right-leaning and left-leaning family norms?

In this second part of a candid discussion, June Carbone, co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, explains about all of the above, as well as her life and career.

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Joseph F. Cotto: How important is egalitarian parenting for a successful family structure?

Dr. June Carbone: This is a very complex question. I certainly think that there is lots of evidence that a two parent family is better for children, if only because two parents bring more resources to childbearing. In addition, children do better with greater parental stability. Mutual respect, in turn, tends to provide a better foundation for family stability. A number of studies show, for example, that the ability to manage two wage-earner arrangements is important to the health of a relationship, and that abusive and domineering styles are bad for children and bad for the partners.

So I would view egalitarian attitudes, that is, attitudes based on mutual respect, as important for family stability. Having said that, I suspect that relatively few relationships (including same-sex ones) have partners playing identical roles and that there are many forms of relationships, including traditionally gendered ones, that work. Indeed, there are some studies that show that traditional gender roles produce stable marriages, at least where both couples want such a relationship, and the husband is able to earn enough to make the model possible.

A big source of instability in today’s families is that many women who would prefer to spend more time with their children have to work, and often do so in workplaces that with rigid requirements that fail to accommodate family responsibilities. If women holding full time jobs see their husbands as shirkers, either because they fail to provide reliable earnings or because they fail to help out at home while the mother is working, the risk of divorce increases.

Cotto: Today, prospective parents increasingly choose to delay having children. In your view, have the socioeconomic ramifications of this been positive?

Dr. Carbone: Delayed childbearing is a reaction to a more economically perilous world. Today, there is a big payoff for more education and for finding a reliable partner who can contribute on something close to an equal basis. Yet, it takes more time for young people to finish school and acquire good jobs. Employers no longer pay for experience or training. So the most valuable employees get that experience on their own, through internships, job changes, and willingness to relocate. This makes it difficult either to marry or to have children at young ages. Moreover, the more established an employee is, the more likely she is to be able to secure a job in a family friendly workplace with flexible working conditions.

The same factors that provide incentives to delay childbearing, however, also increase the class gaps in childrearing. In 1970, college educated and high school graduate parents spent about the same amount of time with their children. Today, college-educated parents spend an hour a day more with young children than less educated parents. The class-based differences in children’s futures are increasing.

Cotto: Despite many predictions that the culture wars would eventually become a thing of the past, this has not taken place. In your opinion, can we expect to see the culture wars come to an end in the foreseeable future?

Dr. Carbone: The fight over slavery involved a culture clash that went beyond slavery itself. The United States left family law to the states because there has never been a time when we agreed about the propriety of divorce. So I don’t think it will ever end. I do think there are several things in the future that may alter the current ideological stalemate, however.

First, we may reach a point, perhaps because of war, environmental crisis, or another depression, where a threat brings us together. Second, I see the coming election as involving more non-ideological forms of identity. The big divides in this election include those between whites and non-whites,with Latinos leaning much more Democratic this year, and those between men and women. We may also see an increasing economic divide that brings back a progressive movement that unites liberal elites and more of the working class, particularly outside of the South.

Inside the South, in the meantime, is a growing rift between social conservatives and pro-business libertarians. Some of these shifts reflect the ideological issues that distinguish traditionalists and modernists, but many of them turn on other forms of identity such as gender or race. If these other forms of identity become increasingly important, and I certainly think the race and gender gaps will persist, they may move us away from ideological divisions where religious beliefs (fundamentalists versus secularists), personal values (hierarchical versus egalitarian), and partisan identity (Republicans versus Democrats) overlap and reinforce each other. Whether that makes them less divisive, however, remains to be seen.

Cotto: What would you say the most pivotal difference is between right-leaning and left-leaning family norms?

Dr. Carbone: As a cultural and ideological matter, I would say the difference between hierarchs – those who are attracted to order and certainty, prefer absolutes, value in-group loyalty and distrust outsiders — and egalitarians – those who distrust authority, value diversity and inclusion, are skeptical of punishment, and prefer context dependent judgments. Hierarchs tend to see traditional values as eternal and unchanging. Egalitarians tend to be modernists, who welcome change.

Same-sex marriage illustrates the differences between the two – hierarchs often see marriage as an institution defined by the Bible and unchanged over centuries while egalitarians see it as a personal relationship that derives its meaning from the commitment of the couple. Yet, despite these differences, generational change is very quickly increasing support for marriage equality. Both groups value fairness.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a prominent scholar of American family values. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Carbone: I feel extraordinarily lucky. My parents would have loved to attend college but couldn’t afford to do so. They worked very hard to create opportunities for myself and my brother and we have been able to enjoy opportunities they could only dream about. We recognize that we were able to benefit from a brief period of relative equality in the country in which the doors opened and we were prepared to walk through them.

I also came of age during a period when opportunities opened up for women. I was in the third class of women admitted to Princeton and in law school, I spoke to women only a few years ahead of me who told how the only jobs they could get were writing wills.

I also feel very fortunate to have met my husband, Bill Black, while I was still in law school. We’ve been married for over thirty years and have three wonderful children. My relatives were stunned when I announced that I was engaged at 25. They thought that by going to law school I would never find a husband.

I have had a great career. I practiced law with the Justice Department for five years and traveled all over the United States. Then, I landed a job teaching at George Mason Law School because a friend turned them down and gave them my name. Today, getting that kind of entry level job would be much more difficult. Over my career as a law professor, I have been able to explore the things that interest me: Property Law, Financial Institutions, Feminist Jurisprudence, Assisted Reproduction and Family Law. I have had great students in D.C., California, and now in Kansas City, who have changed my views on all kinds of issues.

I originally became interested in family law because at the time I started teaching there was very little theory explaining the legal changes. More recently, I have stayed with it because I think most of the explanations that other scholars have offered do not ring true to me. It has been a very different life from the one I thought possible as a child growing up in a working class family in Rochester, N.Y.

Naomi Cahn of George Washington and I have been very pleased at the response to our book, Red Families v. Blue Families. We are working on a new one, tentatively entitled, “What Really Happened to the American Family,” that will examine the class divide in family formation.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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