Extended Family Values

I thought some about Ross's post and I think what I find most interesting in his,and other responses, is the need to argue that the model of seven kids by four women shouldn't be held up as the ideal.

Most American families in which a single man fathers seven kids by four mothers don't produce engineers, Pixar programmers, and writers for the Atlantic. And that's why norms matter, why institutions matter - and sometimes why stigmas matter as well. Not for the sake of Ta-Nehisi's partner and child - I think things are going to turn out pretty well for the family Coates no matter what - but for the sake of all those people who won't be as lucky in their mate and in their parents.


...there's no way that a family like Ta-Nehisi's ("My Dad has seven kids by four women...") can or should be held up as normative, no matter how well the kids turned out. If they turned out fine -- as they seem to have done -- then they beat the odds. Most kids emerging from that kind of broken family system will not be so lucky.

I appreciate Ross's compliment. But what your seeing here is a slick, if unconscious, changing of the subject. I don't think you'll find me arguing, in any post, that seven kids by four women should be held up as the norm, or as any sort of model. That's the key difference between Ross, other social conservatives and me. I don't believe that my family structure is a solution. Ross Does. I can tell you why I am what I am, to the best of my abilities. But for the actual work of a long-term relationship, for those deep truths that are exchanged between you and yours in the dead of night, I offer no answers. How could I possibly know?

Which isn't to say that I reject norms and standards--it's just that I'm not particularly interested in Ross and Rod's norms and standards. We've all seen the data on marriage, and outcomes. We all know that in the aggregate marriage comes out on top. But this really doesn't help us in this debate, because we don't why. Do married people have better outcomes because of the marriage itself? Or is it that people who are more likely to marry, produce better outcomes? Put differently, I need to see evidence that marriage causes people to raise better kids, as opposed to people who are likely to raise better kids tending to get married. What if we found that atheist, in the aggregate, earned more money, were less likely to commit crimes and more likely to send their kids to college. Should we then stigmatize all believers?

Social conservatives are interested in encouraging one model, and stigmatizing all others. I'm interested in encouraging practices and stigmatizing others. I'm interested in encouraging active involvement in your child's school, and stigmatizing ignoring the teacher's phone calls. I'm interested in encouraging fathers to put in as much manpower as they can summon, and stigmatizing those who walk out.

My point wasn't that my family structure, then or now, should be held up as model. But that in families which social conservatives dismiss on paper, you can find the same values and behaviors that you'd hope to find in a nuclear/traditional family. Ross is effectively arguing that these families should be dismissed anyway--regardless of whether they hold the same practical values that social conservatives hold. Social conservatives are arguing for a world where people are stigmatized for being unmarried. I'm arguing for a world--and have argued for a world--where people are stigmatized for not performing the most elemental of duties.

Which brings me back to Rod's point that I come from a "broken family system" that "beat the odds." I find that so interesting, mostly because I suspect that if you examined the practices and norms taught in my house, in any detail, you'd never say such a thing. Put differently, I never felt the odds were against me. I felt the odds were against all of my friends whose fathers were out.The kids in my family had the exact thing that social conservatives claim will save us--two loving, and involved parents. We were not beating the odds in any real way that the odds mattered. And we certainly never saw ourselves as "broken." We were trying to do, what right people try to do.

Also an addendum: My brother Malik doesn't work at Pixar. He works at Dreamworks. I saw his/my grandmother the other night before a reading, and she kindly corrected me.