Raising Children of Peace

Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones

Chapter 1 - Vision for the Family

It's Time to Teach the Ideal
Ann Sparraguirre

There are many social forces that impact education. In studying Plato and Aristotle, Teilhard to Dewey, Kohlberg, Etzioni, Bellah, Bill Bennett and Hillary Clinton, one will experience a spiraling in toward the center of a target. What is the bull's-eye of these various fields of philosophy, psychology, religion, government, business and education? The center of the target is the family. In sociological studies, the family is often treated as one of several key institutions in society. In a discussion of forces that impact education, it is the central institution.

In this article I will focus first on how the sociological reality of family breakdown has impacted education. Secondly, I will examine and evaluate the response of education as an institution and will sound an alarm regarding how the institution of education is feeding the problem by redefining the family and teaching that there is no ideal or standard. Thirdly, I will propose confronting the problem in a radical and potentially unpopular way in order to begin to turn the tide of broken families.

As a society, it took us a while to recognize and acknowledge that families in America were facing a severe identity crisis and were truly changing at a faster pace than anyone was prepared for. Once the floodgates were opened, the 1990s would have to be considered the decade of statistics with every major field proffering their own at just how devastating the impact of family breakdown has been. Scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, politicians and educators have each given their own spin on this same dismaying observation.

Urie Bronfenbrenner sounded an alarm in his famous 1970 book, Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R. Bronfenbrenner is professor emeritus of human development and family studies and of psychology at Cornell University. He co-founded Head Start and is considered the father of the modern "ecological" model of family development. 'Although structured as a comparative study, the book is really an eloquent, passionate and prescient warning directed at America. Bronfenbrenner puts the essence of this warning in italics in a 1972 preface to his book: 'We are experiencing a breakdown in the process of making human beings human." He cites not only the schools, with their lack of moral curriculum, but the impact of television and its surreal, disembodied world; the artificial soulless character of the modern suburb; the fracturing of the American family; and parents' abdication of parenting "to other settings in the society, some of which do not recognize or accept the task" All of these conspire to isolate the child, not only from adult society, but even from the company of older or younger children. 1

There are indeed many varied forces that have negatively impacted stable family life in America. Economic inequalities, a business environment that pits money against morals and a mass media that celebrates the most base behavior. Many times the lead story on the six o'clock news has three times been the abuse and murder of children by their own parents.

One need not look far to uncover a study or statistic that describes the impact on a child's home life on his future attitude about life. As the writer, Pat Conroy, put it, "each divorce is the death of a small civilization:" 2 How does divorce affect the heart, mind, and life of a child? It is devastating. The answer is the same whether you choose to study statistics or just talk to people that have survived divorce in their family. The statistics show that children who experience the divorce of their own parents find it more difficult to make a commitment to a spouse when they come to that point in their own lives.

What a child sees at home is imprinted in a deep way in his emotional and experiential view of life. In his recent book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman documents that emotional learning begins in life's earliest moments, and continues throughout childhood. All the small exchanges between parent and child have an emotional subtext, and in the repetition of these messages over the years children form the core of their emotional outlook and capabilities .... The first three or four years of life are a period when the toddler's brain grows to about two thirds its full size, and evolves in complexity at a greater rate than it ever will again. During this period key kinds of learning take place more readily than later in life-emotional learning foremost among them. 3

Children are born, by design, totally dependent on their parents. Their parents are the source of their life. If that source is fractured, a self confidence deep within the child is also fractured. Hillary Rodham Clinton adds her perspective to this discussion in her book, It Takes a Village.

The first years of life are not just important: they are more crucial to shaping children than any other time. Even before they can speak, children are extremely sensitive to the messages adults send them. From the way we touch them and our tone of voice when we bathe or change them, they sense whether we enjoy their company, whether we are paying attention or are just going through the motions, whether we are listening. 4

A good friend of mine was a teenager when her parents divorced. Although not technically dependent on her parents at that point for physical sustenance, she described her experience as "hell:" Much to her credit, she is now married and the mother of three children. However, the experience has left deep emotional scars. Read the statistics, or talk to real people. The message is the same.

How has the breakdown of the family affected education? There again, take your choice. Read the statistics or talk to real teachers. Statistics show that children experiencing difficulties in their family or home situation have more difficulty concentrating on lessons, have less confidence in themselves, and are less successful academically and socially than their peers. Talk to real teachers. Irv Cowle, former math department chairman of a junior high school in White Plains, New York wrote a critique of the recent education summit-a gathering of 41 governors, 49 business leaders, and President Clinton. This conference had a surreal aura to it. Standards are easy to set and or raise, but what was never addressed was the very real problems teachers and students face today. One teacher shared in a conference attended by the author, that she had thirty-eight third grade students on her register when she started school in September. By June, there were still thirty-eight students, but it was thirty-eight different children!

That, friends, is the real world of the inner-city public schools. To this, add leaky roofs, broken windows, no heat, crumbling walls, no textbooks, inadequate staff, and less money available each year. Raise the bar all you want, but see if it inspires the hundreds of thousands of children who tried to sleep, six in a room, got beat up in the morning, and set out for school without breakfasts.

How has the institution of education responded to this crisis of the family that is documented by statistics and by personal stories alike? Educators today define the family backwards. They look at a group of people which may or may not be related to each other and call it a family. Why do we do this? This approach has evolved in order to make children feel okay and feel accepted. I am an elementary school teacher and I can understand wanting to be extremely careful and supportive talking about families in first grade. At this fragile age when losing a tooth is so exciting that we keep track of each one on a chart in the classroom, losing the reference point of a family can be devastating.

But we have gone too far. In an effort to be sensitive to the feeling of children caught in the horror of family breakdown, we have decided simply to re-define the family. In a misguided effort to make children feel "okay" about their situation, we are now admonishing them to adjust to whatever breakdown they have experienced. We teach that it is "normal" because "it happens to a lot of people'." We are in reality cementing the foundations of despair. Any child who has gone through the devastation of divorce, can tell you that it is not "okay." Even the terminology of family breakdown implies that something was whole before it broke down. We must teach instead about an ideal of family to illustrate and offer hope for the future.

If you are physically ill and go to a doctor, you do not expect the doctor to say, "Well, I've seen a lot of people in the same kind of pain you are in, so I guess that is normal." When we are in pain and we go to the doctor, we want to hear the doctor say, "Something is wrong with you. I can tell because you are in pain. I know about a healthy norm and I can help you achieve the healthy norm so that you will really feel better'.' Even if there is pain associated with taking the medicine prescribed, we take it because we want to be healthy. If our own illness is such that the doctor cannot help cure it, at least we want to know that there is an ideal of physical health for which our children can strive. Even though there are survivors of divorce, it is not an experience we would wish for our children. We want to know also that there is an ideal of relationship to teach to our children.

In education, we do not shy away from teaching about the ideal of government. There are many kinds of government. When we teach about government, we first have to explore the purpose of government. We Americans believe the purpose of government is to safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for its citizenry. Are there other systems of government? Yes. But we believe that ours is the best form of government to insure the accomplishment of the purpose. Are there problems in our current form of government? Of course there are, yet still we teach the ideal as a goal for which to aim.

Communism, on the other hand, describes a system where the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not considered sovereign and where human value is measured in economic output. In recent years, the world has shed communism and begun lurching toward freedom at a pace that still leaves traditional historians shaking their heads. When communism was a world force, did we teach that its inherent oppression, disregard for human life, and wanton crushing of creativity was okay-just another form of government? Some did, but those who knew of its reality could never accept it as just another system. Why? Because that premise violates our basic concept of government and our belief in the sanctity of human life.

Would it have been better to teach people that it is "normal" for your loved one to be carried off in the middle of the night screaming, never to be heard from again? Did it happen? Yes. Can we make children feel better if we define government backwards and teach them that it is okay because that is what is happening? Never. If children think that torture and breakdown is the ideal of life, what a deep sense of despair we are actually conveying. In order not to hurt anyone's feelings, we fail to teach the ideal of family. This is considered by some as being "realistic" and current. But the trade-off is tragic. In order not to hurt their feelings, we are teaching children that there is no ideal.

The institution most fundamental to our society is the family. In teaching about any institution, we can only build in reality what we can imagine in our minds and hearts. Without a blueprint or idea, a building cannot be built. Without a goal or ideal, healthy institutions cannot be formed. It's time to get real and to teach the ideal! To strive for better things in life, one has to have a goal for which to reach. In a society where values have become relativized and politicized, speaking of an ideal of family is construed as hopelessly idealistic at best and narrowly dogmatic at worst. Speaking of the ideal of family has recently been considered politically incorrect or impolite since one may not always know of another's personal choices. Amitai Etzioni has experienced the frown of his single parent friends when speaking of the value of the two-parent family.

It is my contention that if we care about attaining a higher level of moral conduct than we now experience, we must be ready to express our moral sense, raise our moral voice a decibel or two. In the silence that prevails, it may seem as if we are shouting; actually we are merely speaking up.6

This issue is not about personal choices. Each person is still free to determine his own life course. This topic is about survival of society. Hillary Clinton writes on the family definition: "...the nuclear family, consisting of an adult mother and father and the children to whom they are biologically related, has proved to be the most durable and effective means of meeting childrens' needs over time:" Like Mrs. Clinton, we know "it is not the only form that has worked in the past or the present" and respect people who have survived and thrived against incredible odds. Mrs. Clinton arms the teaching of an ideal as she continues,

In addition, however, every society requires a critical mass of families that fit the traditional ideal, both to meet the needs of most children and to serve as a model for other adults who are raising children in difficult settings. We are at risk of losing that critical mass in America. 8

Barbara Bush shares the concern for children and families in today's society. In her public speeches and in her example, she encourages parents and grandparents to take care of their own families and then to go out to the community, and to give beyond one's own immediate family. In her book, Grandparents Are Forever, Carolyn Gutowski details what grandparents have to give as nurturers, family historians, mentors, models of aging and as sages. "Grandparents are forever when they communicate a special quality-love. 9 This author too, encourages grandparents in the wealth they have to give to their own children and grandchildren and to others as well. Societies that acknowledge wisdom and value in their aged are strong societies.

Robert Bellah adds his voice to the growing chorus of educated, sensitive people shining a torch on the centrality of the traditional family for society.

We do not argue that the modern nuclear family, which combines the emotional intimacy and sexuality of the parents with the nurture of children, is the only possible form of the family; but because of its importance in bringing children into the world and raising them, it has a kind of centrality and value that we cannot afford to ignore. 10

While the educators, sociologists, psychologists, and politicians noted in this chapter share a respect for individual choice, upon examination of the issue of teaching an ideal of family, there is no escaping our shared conclusion. The future of society rests upon what we teach individuals and families. The institution of education holds no small part in the responsibility to articulate our goal in regard to family. If we have no goal, we will not reach it. Only as families are strengthened can we strengthen the present and the future. Let's get real, it's time to teach the ideal. With sensitivity and commitment, we will hit the bull's-eye of healthy families.


1. Cornell Magazine, November 1995, p. 25-42.

2. Bellah et al., The Good Society, New York: Vintage Books, 1992, p. 46.

3. Daniel Coleman, Emotional Intelligence, United States: Bantam Books, 1995, p. 195.

4. Hillary Rodham Clinton, It Takes a Village, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 97.

5. Irv Cowle, Education Summit: fl Pointless Exercise, Gannet Suburban Newspapers. April 14, 1996, p. 12A.

6. Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community-The Reinvention of American Society, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, p. 36.

7. Clinton, It Takes a Village, p. 50.

8. Clinton, It Takes a Village, p. 50.

9. Carolyn Gutowski, Grandparents Are Forever, New York, Paulist Press, 1994, p. 154,

10. Bellah et. al., The Good Society, New York: Vintage Books, 1992, p. 47.

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