What are we teaching the next generation about marriage? Judging from a review of a representative sample of 20 recently published undergraduate marriage and family textbooks, the answer is: not very much, and what students are learning is probably doing more harm than good.
First, current textbooks repeatedly suggest that marriage is more of a problem than a solution. The potential costs of marriage to adults, particularly women, often receive exaggerated treatment, while the benefits of marriage, both to individuals and society, are frequently downplayed or ignored. Second, almost all of these textbooks shortchange children, devoting far more pages to adult problems and adult relationships than to children’s well-being. Third, these books are typically riddled with glaring errors, distortions, and omissions.
Indeed, if these books reflect the quality of family and marriage courses currently offered in American colleges and universities, then the quality of these courses is no better than fair to poor.
Given the nature and extent of these textbooks’ deficiencies, many students are likely to emerge from college courses less prepared to make wise personal decisions and to participate intelligently in public debates on family issues. In fact, students whose future decisions—as social workers, counselors, teachers, nurses, family lawyers, and other professional custodians of the family—are based on the information they glean from these books will have been consistently misled on important topics, from the risks of divorce and the benefits of marriage to the costs of voluntary single motherhood and the risk factors for child abuse.
This might not have mattered in another age. Generations ago, Americans turned most often to family, friends, or clergy for advice about marriage. But today, we increasingly depend on an array of experts, including marriage counselors, lawyers, psychologists, teachers, therapists, advice columnists, and the authors of self-help books. Even priests and ministers are now apt to rely on the secular insights of professionals like these in their pastoral work. Textbooks matter, then, because they are used to teach the professionals who are the advisers and custodians of the family as an institution.
The impact of textbooks is especially significant because the college instructors who are training the next generation of family professionals often rely on these books for their understanding of the scientific consensus on family matters, and extensively use these books to design the content of their college courses. Each semester, approximately 8,000 college courses and hundreds of thousands of students use these books as their authoritative sources on family issues. As we seek to repair our most vital and fragile of social institutions, that should worry us.
The Dangerous Institution
What kind of story do today’s family textbooks tell about marriage? First, they convey the message that in America, marriage is just one of many equally acceptable and productive adult relationships. These relationships include cohabiting couples, divorced noncouples, stepfamilies, and gay and lesbian families. If anything, they tell us, marriage as a lifelong childrearing bond holds special dangers, particularly for women who, if they don’t find marriage physically threatening, will likely find it psychologically stifling.
Changing Families, by Judy Root Aulette, contains the most overtly anti-marriage rhetoric. Among her 14 chapters, Aulette devotes most of three to marriage: "Battering and Marital Rape," "Divorce and Remarriage," and, simply, "Marriage." None of them contains any mention of marriage’s benefits to individuals or society.
The only debate over marriage she discusses is that between feminists and Marxists over the precise source and nature of the oppression that marriage creates. An extended discussion follows over whether, given "the problematic character of marriage," allowing gays to marry would constitute "the problem or the solution."
Contrary to the author’s spectacular assertion that marriage exists only in some societies, marriage is a virtually universal institution. Because marriage appears regularly in every known human society, it must be beneficial to the individual or society or both. Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have written extensively about the functions of marriage. But in Aulette’s textbook, the reader is given no hint that this vibrant and important conversation about the purpose of marriage as an institution even exists.
This is no isolated flaw. Aulette’s anti-marriage animus may be more explicit than most; nevertheless, most of the other textbooks downplay the value of marriage, especially by what they fail to say. Not a single one of these textbooks, for instance, includes a systematic treatment of what scholars call the "social functions" of marriage; that is, the role of marriage historically and currently in the biological and cultural reproduction of populations and societies.
Most current marriage and family textbooks, although at times professing respect for marriage as a relationship, offer a bleak view of marriage as an institution, and especially of marriage as a morally or legally binding commitment.
Is Marriage Good for Anyone?
While playing up dubious theories about the excessive costs of marriage to women, the current generation of family textbooks shows remarkably little interest in the well-established evidence of marriage’s benefits to both sexes. No book gives more than glancing attention to the substantial research literature showing that marriage confers major psychological and emotional benefits on adults.
These findings, published in major scholarly journals, including the Journal of Marriage and the Family, the American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces, are amazingly consistent: Married persons, both men and women, are on average considerably better off than all categories of unmarried persons (never married, divorced, separated, and widowed) in terms of happiness, satisfaction, physical health, longevity, and most aspects of emotional health.
It is hard to think of research that is more directly relevant to students’ lives or to ongoing public policy debates. Yet how much space do current textbooks devote to this evidence? Five of them do not even examine marital effects on well-being. Five others devote less than one page to the topic. No book gives more than three-and-a-half pages to it; the average amount of space per book is one-and-a-quarter pages.
Almost half of the meager space devoted to marital effects is dominated by discussions of how marriage hurts women, including almost all of the space reserved for the topic in Diversity in Families, by Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, which treats it most extensively. It is as if these textbook writers have all tacitly agreed to wear the same blinders, causing them all to live in a strange world in which all bad things about marriage (domestic violence, marital fragility, and career costs to women) are clearly visible, but all good things about marriage are either only dimly visible or not visible at all.
For example, faced with the evidence that married people are less stressed and lonely, Kenneth J. Davidson and Newlyn B. Moore, in Marriage and Family: Change and Continuity, boldly conclude, "It would be ludicrous to suggest that young adults who experience loneliness and stress should marry to alleviate their problems. Obviously, the same personal characteristics that resulted in their distressful state in singleness would also be reflected in marriage."
These authors thus deny the possibility of any positive effects of marriage on loneliness or stress, attributing the apparent advantage of married people to the principle of self-selection. However, among social scientists who have studied the data, most believe that marriage itself accounts for a large part of the difference in average well-being between married and unmarried persons. Indeed, loneliness is probably the negative feeling most likely to be alleviated by marriage alone.
Bryan Strong and Christine DeVault, in The Marriage and Family Experience, do cite the health benefits of marriage. At the same time, without evidence and contrary to much of the research literature, they assert, "Many of these same benefits [are] likely to accrue to cohabiting partners as well." Well, actually not. According to L.A. Lillard and Linda J. Waite, much of the health benefit of marriage to men, for example, appears to stem from a sudden drop in risky behavior—such as excessive drug or alcohol use—that follows marriage, but not necessarily cohabitation.
Hiding the Bad News
When dealing with nontraditional families—households with divorced, remarried, or unwed parents—textbook writers completely reverse their filtering process. Information about possible harm to children and society from growing up outside of intact marriages enters these books rarely, if at all, and in greatly weakened form.
Consider, for example, the relationship between family structure and juvenile misbehavior, ranging from disciplinary problems at school to the commission of felonies. Only four books discuss it at all, and each of these does so in less than half a page, on average. Family textbooks display remarkably little interest in the effects of marital disruption or single parenting on children, devoting an average of only three-and-a-half pages directly to this topic. Two books—Aulette’s and David H. Olson and John DeFrain’s Marriage and Family: Diversity and Strengths—do not discuss the topic at all. In Contemporary Families and Relationships: Reinventing Responsibility, John Scanzoni mentions the idea (in a chapter titled "Divorce and Its Responsibilities"), only to dismiss it.
In The Intimate Environment: Exploring Marriage and the Family, Arlene S. Skolnick’s discussion of family structure’s effects on children is typical:
"The majority of well-designed studies . . . find that family structure—the number of parents in the home or the fact of divorce—is not in itself the critical factor in children’s well-being. In both intact and other families, what children need most is a warm, concerned relationship with at least one parent."
This is a remarkably misleading statement, especially when presented, as it is by Skolnick, as an argument against popular and scholarly concern over recent trends in family structure. Current research suggests that an intact marriage generally makes a positive difference to a child’s well-being. Intact marriages also have important indirect effects on children’s well-being by strongly affecting the probability that a child will have a warm, concerned relationship with a parent. Well-designed studies show that single parents, because of the pressure and stress they undergo, often find it more difficult to moderately and consistently discipline their children. It borders on educational malpractice to tell students that process matters but structure has little effect.
Most of these textbooks dedicate themselves, rather dogmatically, to the idea that intact marriages are not especially important for raising children well. The great majority of Americans who persist in thinking otherwise are, these authors frequently suggest, merely ignorant. For example, listen to Baca Zinn and Eitzen:
"Those who persist in seeing the transformation of family patterns as the source of disarray have it backwards . . . Divorce and single parenthood are the consequences of social problems rather than the cause as some would have us believe."
Any future therapist, marriage counselor, minister, teacher, or family lawyer would come away from these textbooks with the impression that marital disruption and unwed childbearing have few, if any, harmful effects on children and society.
It is not surprising, given the ongoing academic debates on the subject, that some textbooks would take this view on some particular questions. But it is a bit surprising and highly revealing that most of the textbooks would take this view on virtually every question. The result is a textbook story that seriously downplays marriage’s important role in benefiting adults and in protecting children emotionally, financially, and academically. It suggests an "expert consensus" that is sharply at odds with much of the weight of social science evidence.
One might expect that a major focus, if not the major focus, of family textbooks would be the ways in which family life shapes children. Yet these 20 textbooks are overwhelmingly preoccupied with adult relationships. Just 24 of 338 total chapters in these textbooks deal primarily with the family’s effects on children. In some of those chapters, up to half the space is actually devoted to other matters. Far more space—at least three times as much—is devoted to adult relations, without regard to how they affect children.
The same strange reluctance to draw any conclusions that might be construed as "pro-marriage" is also evident in the authors’ discussions of violence. Child abuse is more common in certain family forms. Sexual abuse is more common in stepfamilies, for example, and child abuse and serious injury are more common in single-parent families. Surely this relationship between family structure and the risks of violence is important enough to merit mention in any balanced discussion of family violence. Yet only eight of these books do so.
Even those textbooks that note the connection between family structure and child abuse fail to draw the obvious conclusion that the rapid increase in single-parent families and stepfamilies has very likely increased the amount of child abuse in the United States. Similarly, not one of these books suggests that reversing recent trends could reduce violence against children, yet many vigorously recommend other hard-to-accomplish remedies, such as reducing sexism, racism, poverty, and violence-provoking stress.
Why Textbooks Are So Bad
Today’s textbooks are creatures of the marketplace. No outside associations exercise any quality control over this key intellectual product. Demand for textbooks comes largely from undergraduate and community college instructors and professors, whose knowledge of the field, ironically, is highly dependent on the textbooks themselves. Academic journals rarely review textbooks; professional associations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the National Council on Family Relations also exercise little or no oversight over these books.
While most publications by college and university faculty are evaluated by colleagues, department heads, deans, and promotion committees, the writing and publishing of textbooks exists largely outside the academic oversight and rewards system. Even at teaching institutions, a scholar who writes an excellent textbook may not be furthering his academic reputation or career. On the other hand, producing an error-filled or bias-ridden textbook will not necessarily jeopardize an academic career, since these books are usually not systematically scrutinized by those who evaluate faculty performance.
Publishers’ incentives are similarly skewed. Although publishers review textbook manuscripts, their outside readers are usually undergraduate teachers rather than family scholars. They may be well qualified to judge the appeal of books to students, or to other instructors, but they are seldom in a position to detect factual errors, misrepresentations of the literature, misinterpretations of data, or other similar flaws. What these reviewers know of family research is largely drawn from other textbooks, thus creating a closed loop.
It may be impossible to produce a textbook that is free of ideological bias. But when all textbooks are ideologically biased in the same direction, the danger is that teachers and students will be locked into a narrow world view, lacking even the information necessary to make their own judgments. Then the question becomes, What are our kids learning about raising kids? The answer is more than a little unsettling.