Lest We Forget!

Norma J. Bond Burgess, Ph.D., NCFR President
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2022

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Challenges in Today’s Society

Lately, it seems that each new day brings news of significant policy decisions that impact society in the U.S. and larger world, with ramifications for family researchers and practitioners to address. From the rethinking of established laws down to which books are suitable for today’s children, these decisions have significant impact on the future of our communities as we know them. I would venture that none of these decisions has been perfect, and we can continue to do better.

Certainly, if we do not know our history, we are destined to repeat it. Voting rights in the 1960s brought to bear a multitude of stressors upon families. For example, White landowners retaliated against over 250 Black sharecroppers who had registered to vote by evicting them from their homes. Tent City, an encampment outside Memphis, was created as a refuge for these African Americans families. It lasted for about two years. During that time, the evicted sharecroppers struggled to purchase even basic amenities for their families. In addition to all the onerous requirements to even successfully register to vote—the grandfather clause, poll tax, literacy tests, and more—African American families also had to contend with segregated water fountains and pools, debt bondage, questioning of their citizenship and legal rights, and being denied access to a jury of their peers.

The consequences of important decisions always have a significant impact on families. Of course, it is not always possible for policymakers to know everything about an issue at a particular time in history or to foresee every potential consequence. They can, though, be mindful and respectful to others as we all live this life. Policymakers can show that they respect others by examining the best research available and doing their best to predict the consequences that are likely to follow from the decisions they make.

Decisions and conversations around policy matters may make us uncomfortable. But this discomfort can be temporary if we take a moment to understand why that emotion exists as we make decisions. I believe in our ability to be the best people we can be if we respect one another.

Families Are Changing

Strong communities begin with strong families. Family is the essential glue that holds all things wonderful together in any society. However we define it, whatever the makeup, family is the key to stable, solid communities. Generations, values, customs, cultural practices—all these come from family systems throughout the world’s history.

Across history, the definition of family has changed and been redefined, and the world changed to accommodate them; they became what society dictated they should be. Upon reflection, it is challenging to define families in any one way at any given time, and the question of who gets to define family will always be an issue, particularly in a free and democratic society.

Today, a broader definition of families may include sole-parent families, coparents, unmarried partners raising children, or grandparents raising grandchildren. Families may be interracial, cross-cultural, or LGBTQ. These “nontraditional” families face discrimination, hostility, and unequal treatment by U.S. laws and policies that tend to favor “traditional” nuclear families.

In years past, I learned in class that families exist in the first place so that societies can continue to reproduce themselves. This explanation seems to have worked very well for a time. But we characterize research as the ability to ask questions until all the answers are known.

As the definition of families has evolved, so have the means to create offspring. Today, many alternative methods of reproduction exist, including surrogate parents, in vitro fertilization, egg freezing, insemination, embryo transfer, and more. Adoption agencies and related institutions provide a means for children to find a home and become part of new families. Today’s adoptive parents have become increasingly more in tune with their children’s homeland, culture, history, and other characteristics that provide children with context and understanding about why they may look so different from their adoptive parents.

When children who are adopted or conceived through an alternative method see others who physically resemble them—but who are not immediate family members—they may be curious. What explanations do their parents or guardians give them, particularly if the subject of biological parents has not been discussed already, or isn’t well understood by the child?

Another question that parents of African-descent children grapple with is hair care—yes, hair—especially if the parents are not of African descent themselves. One of the most frequent questions that I get—as an African American woman—is “What do you do with your child’s hair”?

For a quick look at the myriad possibilities, watch the short 6-minute film Hair Love, at ncfr.org/hair-love. Directed by Matthew A. Cherry, Hair Love won Best Animated Short Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. It tells the heartfelt story of an African American father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. I have used the film in my class to generate discussion, including a father’s role in child rearing, handling a family member’s illness, and family functioning in these and related matters.

It remains to be known how the changing definition of family will impact society. Marriage and divorce rates have declined in the U.S. as couples wait longer to marry or never marry at all. Children today may be reared by grandparents, a sole parent, same-sex parents, or a combination of remarried parents or other relatives. Family scholars will continue to research aspects of these changes on the health and well-being of parents and their children.

Meanwhile, arguments continue on the structure of what we should consider “a family.” Will nontraditional families be able to receive the same benefits and protections afforded to nuclear families? We have a long way to go toward settling this issue.

Respect Wins the Day

In today’s world, respect for others continues to carry the highest banner. I suspect that we will not, or will we ever, agree on everything; setting data and beliefs aside, I am quite convinced that we never will. Such positions taken on either side of the equation represent the opportunity for living in peace and developing a deeper compassion and empathy for others when they disagree with you. Such is the spice of life and the richness that comes with it.

The world does not stop simply because we do not agree or may not hold the same positions on everything. What carries the day is that we are more similar than we are different to each other. My wish is that this realization become a “hoorah”—or battle cry—for respect. Respect for ourselves, one another, our children, and our families will prevail whether we agree on one definition of family or whether your family is the “right” one or most “appropriate” one.

The template for this grouping of individuals we call the family commenced long ago, and citizens have continuously challenged and evolved the definition ever since. Perhaps if we focus more on what families need to thrive—and less on what makes families different—we will see our society thrive as well.