Can Equity and the Nuclear Family Coexist?

Our Declaration of Independence expresses the belief that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Were they high? This is obviously wrong — people are not created equal – some people can run fast, others are slow, some are smarter than others, men and women are different. What on earth were they talking about?

Jefferson, et al. were talking about the moral equality of all people. This is the basis for the concept of equal protection under the law and the foundational principle of America. The elimination of social strata or classes with privileges, enforced by government, is at the core of the American philosophy.

We also know that this philosophy was imperfect not just in its execution, but in its conception, with acceptance of the institution of slavery – flaws that were later addressed in the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, enacted by Congress after the Civil War.

Today, we see a movement demanding “equity” as a replacement for this principle of equality in American society. The concept of equity asks us to recognize the inherent inequality of the physical characteristics and resources among people. Equity requires that society create equal outcomes. To provide the support necessary for equity, government is expected to intervene in society – taking assets from people with greater productivity and giving support to those with lesser resources. This concept is precisely opposite to the moral equality envisioned by the founders.

What does any of this have to do with the nuclear family? Well, parents love their children, and generally do their best to bring them up to live a good life. Parents talk to their infants, read to toddlers, help them through their disappointments, advise them as teenagers, etc. But not all parents are equally endowed with resources to undertake these activities or equally successful in these efforts. Some families have a stay-at-home parent, others might have two working parents with less time to spend with their children. Single parents face enormous challenges in giving this type of time and attention to their children.

Reading one picture book per day to a child exposes them to 78,000 words per year. Researchers from Stanford have found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can trail other children in language processing by several months at only 18 months. By the age of two, they can be six months behind. A University of Kansas study found similar results:

The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.

Children of professionals also heard twice as many unique words, and twice as many “encouraging” versus “discouraging” conversations (“What did you think of that?” versus “Don’t touch that,” for example.) By the end of the study, more than 85 percent of the vocabulary, conversational patterns, and language complexity of the 3-year-olds had come from their families, and children of professionals had vocabularies more than twice as large as peers in families receiving welfare.

These findings raise the question – if children are being equipped with vastly different levels of education, before they are even 18 months old, how can we achieve a truly equitable society? 

To ensure that all children grow up with equal resources we could take children out of the family home and raise them communally. 

Communal child rearing was tried on the kibbutzim in Israel. The first kibbutz was established in 1909. For about 60-70 years they tried to create equality and independence among their children by instituting a system where children lived in dorms away from their parents. Women worked on a rotating schedule as night guardians to watch over the children. This experiment was ended, in about 1990, after they discovered that a large percentage of children raised in this system had attachment issues, and had difficulty forming relationships as adults.

Universal child care would be a step towards equity, but an insufficient step. Children would be in their homes in the evenings and would receive differing degrees of care, love, and attention from their parents. Also, as we can see from public schools, there is no assurance that publicly funded daycare would provide equal quality of care to all. In addition, some parents may opt out of the system in the belief they can do a better job raising their children at home.

Allowing families to raise their children as they see fit and then creating equity among adults, would achieve equity – but at what cost in loss of incentive. As the old joke went in the Soviet Union, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Various versions of this formulation have been tried via communism – property is held by the state and people receive according to their needs. 

Rather than talk about Russia, East vs. West Germany, Cambodia etc., it is perhaps more instructive to look at the various American experiments in communal living – the Owenites, the Shakers (who foreswore procreation), the Brooke Farm in Massachusetts (whose members included Charles Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson),  and the Oneida Colony to name a few prominent examples from the 19th century. Or, we can turn our attention to the 1960s, by watching the fabulous documentary, 40 Years on the Farm. 

Spoiler alert – despite the best of intentions, and lots of honest hard work, none of these experiments in equitable living were sustainable.

To achieve true equity, we have two choices – force parents to give up their children and raise them communally, or adopt a form of communism. Both have been tried and neither has worked, as unintended consequences have overwhelmed good intentions.

James Miller
Lyme, CT

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