Defining Traditional Family Values

Backstory with The American History Guys is a podcast hosted by United States historians Peter Onuf (the 18th century expert), Ed Ayers (the 19th century expert), and Brian Balogh (the 20th century expert). Each episode features a discussion of a current topic, with a look at the history behind it. On this episode, Ed, Peter and Brian discuss California's Prop 8 ban on gay marriage, and the idea of the "traditional family" throughout history. Are American families more or less stable than they were?

Peter, Ed, and Brian, are committed to telling both sides of the stories they feature on their show, so they start the episode by hearing the perspective of Glenn Stanton, a Research Fellow at Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family. It should come as no surprise that Glenn and Focus on the Family, are very anti gay marriage. Glenn explains the Industrial Revolution caused the biggest change to the traditional family. He says people leaving family farms for big cities meant big upheaval of traditional values. It led to women in the workplace, about which Glenn says, "Clearly, that’s been a good thing in terms of women being empowered that way. But it has also had a very significant impact upon the family."

Basically I dislike Glenn. And the more he talks the more I dislike him. He explains that many women are choosing to, "Stay home and have childbearing and child raising as their primary function. Because many of them were latchkey kids, and they say, 'You know what, I’m not going to sacrifice my own children the way that I felt sacrificed.' And so they are making a difference."

He explains that women are more suited to this type of work because, "They are more attached to caregiving, just because of their psychology and physicality, than men tend to be." Host Brian asks why then he would not advocate for two women raising a child. Glenn explains that, "As loving as two women could be in the life of a child, all the love in the world cannot turn one of those women into a man. And there is an overwhelming body of data that shows that when children grow up deprived of their father, that they face significant detriments."


Thankfully, the hosts follow up Glenn's bullshit (sorry, I'm not capable of being impartial on this topic. Glenn is just plain wrong), with an interview with Colombia University historian Stephen Mintz. Peter explains that when Stephen hears people like Glenn, "Invoke this notion of traditional family values, well, it drives him up the wall. Because he says that in a lot of ways, things are getting better, not worse."

Stephen explains if we actually looked at the past instead of idealizing it, we'd see the truth. "In the 1950s, one-third of American children lived in poverty," he says. "In 1900, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world. In 1900, 10 percent of children lived in single parent households. Less than half of American families had a go-to-work dad and a stay-at-home mom." He explains that the basic function of family is different today than it was in the past. He explains that today, a lot of the responsibilities of family have been, "Shifted to institutions outside the home—to hospitals, to insurance agencies, to schools, and the like. And in exchange, we’ve focused more and more our emotional fulfillment inside the family unit."

So, are American families more or less stable? Ed thinks the real argument is, "Whether or not the nuclear family has a particular cultural, and I think [Glenn] would say, even biological role to play that we distort at our peril." Peter says, "The ultimate question is whether the changes that we observe and we historians can record are for the worse, for the better, or are they indifferent?"

The hosts take some smart and interesting listener calls but I think the best part of the episode comes toward the end. The hosts interview Stephen Talbot, who played Gilbert on the quintessential traditional American family TV show Leave It To Beaver. Peter explains that Stephen's father, "Was also a sitcom fixture playing, among other things, neighbor Joe on Ozzie and Harriet. In fact, if there was anybody who actually lived the kind of storybook life depicted on 1950s TV, it was Steve Talbot."

So, after growing up in the world of TV's traditional family, Brian asks Stephen what family shows he watches with his kids. "The Sopranos," Stephen replies. The American family has changed.