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Family Feuds

June 30, 2014

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If you had to pick a social issue that is the greatest threat to the family, what would you choose?

a) premarital sex
b) abuse
c) divorce
d) poverty
e) declining marriage rates
f) same-sex couples
g) working moms
h) abortion
i) single parents

It’s like a super serious Family Feud question. Ha! Get it? Family Feud?

Anyway, sociologist Tim Heaton was our guest in class today, and we talked about how ideals of a religion come into contact and sometimes into conflict with sociological studies and findings. One of our readings, “Social Forces that Imperil the Family,” (in Dialogue, 32 (4), pp. 19-42) was a comparative study by Tim that considered the various social issues listed above, all of which are addressed either directly or by implication in The Family, a Proclamation to the World. He wondered which of these forces, as he calls them, posed the greatest threat to the family. Of course he could have selected other social issues as well or in place of these, but he chose and evaluated these based on the following criteria:

1) the trend affects a large number of people,
2) the trend has large and inter-generational impacts on the ability to be good parents and good partners, and
3) the trend indicates deterioration in the quality of family life.

Using pre-existing data and these criteria, which was the top issue? Now I feel like playing Jeopardy! music for you all. You should phrase your response in the form of a question.


Aaaaand the correct response/s are, “What is poverty and abuse?” According to the sociological data and Tim’s criteria, the ranked order of those issues from most challenging to families down to the least challenging is

1) poverty
2) abuse
3) declining marriage rates
4) single parents
5) divorce
6) abortion
7) pre-marital sex
8) working moms
9) same-sex couples

You may or may not agree with this results, and frankly I don’t know this field well enough to put up a strong argument either for or against them, but it is interesting, no? The article is from 2000, so the data isn’t the most current, and different rubrics will turn up different results, of course. Still, I’m not at all surprised that the first two are poverty and abuse.

Tim writes, “Poverty increases infant mortality and the chance that babies will fall below the desirable birth-weight. Growing up in poverty increases the likelihood that children will not complete high school and that females will have a non-marital birth, thus, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Poverty has also been found to be correlated with anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and antisocial behavior of children.” Some of the people most affected by poverty are children, and 40% of those in poverty are children. Moreover, poverty rates are of course much higher in less-developed countries where 80% of the world’s population live and where LDS populations are growing the most rapidly (30).

In the final chart at the end of the article, the figures for the rate of abuse in the U.S. were 30-40%. I’m not sure if that means 30-40% of families or individuals experience abuse, but either way the numbers are high, and what’s more, the rates for LDS populations seem to be about equal to the national average. I don’t need to go into too much detail about the many Hydra-heads of the effects of abuse: lower self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, learning problems, earlier sexual activity (for victims of sexual abuse), etc. (28-29). Both poverty and abuse link generations in vicious circles that tend to repeat themselves, and, as Tim recommended in the article, knowing this can help guide church priorities in its social interventions.

The next one surprised me, however. According to the data, people not getting married had the next biggest negative impact on the family. In the article Tim says,

In a recent presidential address to the Population Association of America, the major organization for demographers in the Americas, Linda Waite outlined several benefits that are derived from marriage. These benefits include fewer alcohol related problems, less risk taking, better health, more frequent and satisfying sex, more wealth, lower school dropout rates and poverty among children, and higher wages. This list indicates that marriage has a broad range of benefits for partners and their children. Having a partner to give support and encouragement, to share household and parental responsibilities, and to spend leisure time with can enhance many aspects of our lives. Waite recommends that family scholars have a responsibility to inform
the public about the benefits of marriage and to promote policies that increase
the likelihood of marriage.

Given this litany of benefits, declining rates of marriage should be high on our list of threats to the family (23).

Okay, here’s the part where I have to give full disclosure: for my research paper I’m preparing for the seminar I’m focusing on Mormon singles. I read this and suddenly felt like my work was very relevant, and not just for me and the LDS singles community. It’s a societal problem, people! One thought I’ve had is that as fewer people marry, fewer children grow up seeing the benefits listed above and other benefits of the family, and so they have fewer models and still less motivation to marry and provide that model for the next generation. It has an exponential effect. The good news for the LDS community is that marriage rates are higher than the national average, but they are still in decline.

As for Mormon singles, I’m not sure what should be done about it, but I kinda don’t think the answer is more and more fancy outings or punch and cookies.

We read another article as well on the “Religious Experience of Homosexual Mormon Males” which was really interesting and which I really don’t mean to give the short shrift, but I am running out of time. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: One measure of sexuality is the Kinsey scale which charts sexual preference on an spectrum from a high preference for either same or opposite sex persons. The authors of this paper (Tim and John Dehlin among them) found that the higher LDS males scored for homosexual preference on the Kinsey scale, the more difficulty they had assimilating to the LDS community, especially when they reached the age when people consider marriage. Tim said that if individuals scored more in the middle of the Kinsey scale, and especially if they had served missions and been very involved in the LDS church throughout their lives, they were more likely to be able to have a heterosexual relationship and assimilate to the LDS community. For those who exhibited a strong preference for homosexuality, however, expectations and pressures to try harder, pray more, etc. were more damaging and detrimental to them instead of helpful.

In the next couple of days I’ll try to share some of the research I’ve found on LDS singles. It’s a hoot.


Today’s reading

Timothy B. Heaton, “Social Forces that Imperil the Family” Dialogue, 32 (4) pp. 19-42.

William S. Bradshaw, Tim B. Heaton, Ellen Decoo, John P. Dehlin, Renee V. Galliher, and Katherine A. Crowell, “Religious Experience of Homosexual Mormon Males”

Timothy B. Heaton, “The Social Life of Mormons” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, forthcoming 2014.



“The responses to these issues aren’t going to be uniform.” -Tim

Regarding the interest from some BYU departments to find research that supports the Family Proclamation, “I see a parallel going back 30-40 years with the Word of Wisdom and science research.” -Richard

“Our intense emphasis on families is both an ideal that we live for but also destructive…It’s an idea of power that cuts both ways. Claudia and I debate this all the time. Is there still value in holding up this ideal when it’s impossible for half the population to achieve?” -Richard

Regarding the academics who may be stereotyped as more likely to doubt in religious ways, “There was a time when the scientists were the ones who doubted. Then it was the philosophers. Now it seems like it’s the people in literature.” -Richard

I had to grin at that.



Within the LDS population, only 1 in 5 have the “ideal” traditional family structure. (This was thrown out by the Bushmans. I haven’t verified it.)

Richard told us that when he was younger he was more intensely worried about being straight arrow, and because of the idea in the church that we should avoid caffeine, he wouldn’t even eat chocolate. Claudia chimed in and said that even now he can’t have a spoonful of mocha ice cream without being up for 24 hours because he gets so buzzed.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. rockin7h permalink
    July 4, 2014 8:15 pm

    This is a great post. I am sorry I am just getting to it many days later. I am fascinated by the information. Generations ago I would not have said that poverty was that much of a hindrance to the family. Maybe because the majority of people were poor and great family values were still taught in those families. However, in recent years I have often thought (with a bit of guilt for being presumptive or judgmental) that parents in poverty do a poor job of producing posterity that is productive. The habits, mindsets, and paradigms passed on to the next generation are so crucial to their success.
    However, that being said. I would have ranked “Abuse” as number one. The vertically inter-generational effect of abuse is profound and so damaging as well as contagious that it ranks #1 in my book.
    Thanks for the really great post and information.

    • July 7, 2014 5:05 pm

      Thanks for the thoughts. If I’m understanding you right, maybe you’d put abuse ahead of poverty because it seems possible to have strong family values and relationships within families that deal with poverty but that the negative effects of abuse are almost never entirely avoided? Not to put words in your mouth :), but if that’s what you mean, I can certainly see a case for that. I would venture to guess, however, that the poverty we see in the United States is rarely as severe as in some other areas of the world. I presume Heaton ranked poverty first and abuse second out of the sheer percentages of families affected. I believe the percentages for poverty were slightly higher.

      I think it would be interesting to see correlative (would it be possible to have causative?) studies between poverty and declining marriage rates or abuse and declining marriage rates.

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