'Family values': what are they The meanings are varied


In a caption to a photograph in Wednesday's Today section, the identities of Alan Stephens and Joe Lazzaro were reversed. Mr. Stephens was on the left.

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Family values -- who has them, who doesn't -- have become one of the summer's hottest debates. The phrase has surfaced everywhere from presidential conventions to Volvo advertisements. And still, no one seems able to agree on what family values are.

"Family" has proved to be one of the most elastic words in the English language, says David Jost, senior lexicographer for the new American Heritage Dictionary. Formal definitions of family include a group of persons with common ancestry, the collective members of a household and a fellowship.

"It is hard enough to define 'family,' but if it is being redefined socially, it becomes a very, very tricky term. Tricky to use and tricky to understand," Mr. Jost says.

"A family value is something regarding a family that is considered worthwhile or desirable. But in our society, where there is such divergence about what is viewed as worthwhile about the family, one would think the phrase 'family values' is also a very difficult thing to pin down. It throws [interpretation] both to the speaker and the user."

"Family values" is a successful political term precisely because of its vagueness: Chameleonlike, it assumes the values of the person who is using it.

"Such [political] terms are very ambiguous and they allow people to read into them what they want to see," says political scientist Murray Edelman.

When asked about what the phrase means to them personally, people speak of commitment, of love, of respect, of nurturing children and elderly.

But when asked about its political meaning, many people speak of conservatives and liberals -- and the persistent image of the 1950s family.

This common vision -- breadwinning father, homemaker mother and 2.3 children -- comes from an amalgam of movies, television shows and sentimental, Norman Rockwell-styled paintings, says Mr. Edelman, who has studied political language.

He says effective political slogans build appeal from idealized notions rather than from actual experiences. A report released this week by the Population Reference Bureau, for instance, says that only one in five married couples with children fits the 1950s family stereotype.

"For most Americans, the romanticized family of the slogan 'family values' never existed and does not exist," Mr. Edelman says. "And as the actual conditions and worries of families get farther away from that symbol, the symbol becomes even more attractive. There's an ironic strengthening of it simply from the fact that it doesn't exist for many people."

His book "Political Language: Words That Succeed and Policies that Fail" points out that political phrases often become code words for ideas that are not necessarily related to them.

Conservatives' promotion of the "traditional American family" image makes other family configurations seem less worthy of government support, he says. And because "family values" excludes and devalues other definitions of family, he also believes the slogan carries racist, anti-feminist, homophobic and classist connotations.

But last week, in her speech at the Republican convention, First Lady Barbara Bush spoke to families nationwide referring to "grandparents who thought their child-raising years were over but who are now raising their grandchildren because their children can't," parents in literacy classes who were "learning to read and continuing their education so they could make a better life for their families."

And she said "when we speak of families, we include extended families. We mean the neighbors, even the community itself."

The term "family values" falls into a long political tradition of such easily manipulated words as "trust," "honesty," "freedom" and "democracy," political theorists say. During the 1980s, for instance, partisan politics expanded "patriotism" to mean both the campaign to outlaw flag burning and the drive to protect freedom of expression.

"When the Republicans and Democrats talk about "family values," there is some traditional conservatism and liberalism that they are talking about," says Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson State University.

But with or without a political agenda, nearly everyone has a different definition of family values.

Says Barry Kessler, curator at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, "Everyone belongs to a family and everyone feels that their own values are family values."

For Amy Gutmann, director of Princeton University's Center for Human Values, family values means love, respect and commitment. "Taking responsibility for the support of children, taking responsibility for educating children within the family to have values that are personally and publicly necessary."

Fidelity weighs heavily in Skip Scarborough's definition. "It means being faithful to your mate, being a good provider and having a spiritual background of some kind," says the Grammy )) Award-winning songwriter.

And nurturing is what counts to Spencer Holland, director of the Center For Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University, when talking about values. "You measure families in terms of how they care for their children and their elders," he says.

Marilynn Phillips, folklorist and English professor at Morgan State University, worries that an ill-defined, wide-ranging debate will cause people to embrace stereotypes. "[The discussion] sounds good on the surface, but I believe it is a way to define what only one group of people believes is correct rather than to recognize the diversity of society."

Most Americans are genuinely concerned about strengthening the family, says social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. But she wonders if talking about family values addresses their fears.

"There is a whole realm of indicators -- including poverty, violence, drugs, declining school performance, the people who don't stop for ambulances any more -- that show that the social fabric is fraying, if not unraveling. The family becomes the main focus for the discussion about how and why," says Ms. Whitehead, who is a research associate at New York's Institute for American Values.

"To have a public debate about families is to have a public debate about the future of children . . . One thing that has been notably missing in the family values debate is concern about what's best for children."

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