Stop Ranking People, Relationships, and Families

Never before have people in the U.S. and other nations around the world organized their personal lives and their family lives in so many different ways. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults are not married as married. The most sentimentalized family type – mom and dad, married with children – now accounts for fewer than 20 percent of all households. There are more households comprised of one person living alone.

Children are living in many different kinds of families and households. A full 40 percent of them are not being raised by two married parents . Many are living with one parent, or with cohabiting parents, or with stepparents or grandparents, to name just a few of the most popular permutations.

Family” is a many-splendored thing and it can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. Twitter embraced that notion when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:

Stop saying "start a family" when you mean "have kids". A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don't need kids to be a family.

Within a week, the tweet had been liked more than 185,000 times and shared more than 47,000 times.

Scholars have been writing about diversity in relationships and families and some of the most unlikely terms have been catching on. Take amatonormativity , for example. That one was coined by Elizabeth Brake. It refers to:

"You know your children are growing up when they stop asking you where they came from and refuse to tell you where they’re going." - P. J. O’Rourke

“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

Professor Brake argues against that assumption. She thinks that other kinds of relationships and social circles, such as friendships and care networks, should not be valued less than romantic relationships .

Though growing in popularity, the valuing of many different kinds of relationships and families and life paths is still an idea that meets with considerable resistance. A new and important report recently released by the think tank, Family Story, documents the ways in which marriage has come to be privileged and promoted as the ideal family form, even as fewer and fewer people get married or have children.

Elsewhere, I described some of the key take-aways from the report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All.” Here, I want to describe the values espoused in the Family Story report, and the principles of family justice that follow from those values.

Values at the Core of Justice for All

“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” argues that respect for all of our relationships, families, and life paths is built on four core values.

1. Equality “requires the reduction of social and economic inequality within relationships and between family types, as well as legal equality among different types of families and relationships.”

2. Autonomy “requires making it possible for people to freely choose their relationships and family types – including, but not limited to, marriage – by reducing structural and other barriers that stand in the way.”

It's OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are part of typical adolescent development. Social media can support teens as they explore and discover more about themselves and their place in the grown-up world. Just be sure your teen is behaving appropriately in both the real and online worlds. Many teens need to be reminded that a platform's privacy settings do not make things actually "private" and that images, thoughts, and behaviors teens share online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint indefinitely. Keep lines of communication open and let them know you're there if they have questions or concerns.

3. Interdependence “means acknowledging we are all interconnected and dependent on countless other people (not just ones to whom we are biologically related or with whom we have a legally recognized relationship).”

4. Care “requires acknowledging all the ways that these different forms of relationships are supportive and meaningful, and the positive impact they can have on our lives and well-being.”

Principles of Family, Relationship, and Lifestyle Justice

The conclusion of the report spells out the principles of family justice. They include:

There is no hierarchy; stop saying that certain people, relationships, or families are better than others

  • “A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value.”
  • “Unmarried people should not be treated as less mature, less valuable, or less accomplished than married people.”
  • “Families and relationships should not be ranked from best to worst based on their structure.”
  • “Marriage is neither more nor less important than other close adult relationships involving care and commitment.”

There are lots of ways to create a family

  • “Neither children nor marriage are necessary to create family.”
  • “Co-residence is not necessary to create relationships of commitment and care.”

People who live in ways that are not normative (or not perceived as normative) deserve respect

  • “There will always be people who prefer to live alone, to not have children, or otherwise opt to live their lives in ways that are not consistent with whatever the norm is at the time.”
  • “None of this is a reflection of their self-worth , and they all have a right to equal respect and concern.”
  • “An adult’s ability to freely choose a particular relationship status or living arrangement should not be restricted or blocked.”

For children, relationship quality matters more than the other factors that get so much attention

Let your kids fail. To learn self-sufficiency, kids need to occasionally dust themselves off (literally and figuratively) without your help. "Most parents know what their children are capable of but step in to make things easier for them," says Sheri Noga, the author of Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence. Remember: Long-term benefits—a teenager who knows how to do her own laundry, for example—trump momentary discomfort. Before you rush in to help with any physical task, ask yourself: "Is my child in real danger?" Then—and this applies to other challenges, like the social studies poster due tomorrow—think about whether your child has the necessary skills (dexterity and balance) or simply adequate sleep and a snack. Yes? Time to back off and see what happens.

  • “Children do not need to live under the same roof as a same-gender parent (or same-gender role model) for proper development.”
  • “Children flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”
  • “Relationship quality is more important than household structure.” (Examples of different household structures include single-parent families and nuclear families. This principle means that having a loving and secure relationship with a parent is more important to children’s well-being than whether they have one parent or two, whether their parents are married, or whether their parents live under the same roof.)

Family Story maintains that the marriage fundamentalists, who believe that “a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family, especially for children,” have promoted their ideas by distorting and weaponizing social science research. I have spent much of the past two decades critiquing that research and explaining what it really does show. It is good to have other prominent voices joining in.