The Conservative Definition of 'Family Values' Is B.S.

The term “family values,” particularly when used in election years, is rarely about what really matters to children and families. Instead the phrase serves to indict those who don’t live in traditional nuclear American homes—despite the fact that the “Leave it to Beaver” family model, with a stay-at-home mom and working dad, is no longer an accurate representation of how families across the country look.


In a recent piece for Salon, family advocates Mia Birdsong and Nicole Rodgers note that at “its peak in the late 1950s, 65 percent of children were living in this type of...family unit. Today, it’s just 22 percent.” Fed up with all the negative representations of non-nuclear families they encountered, the two decided to launch a new initiative called Family Story to change the way we talk about what family means. “[I]t’s past time that we take back the conservative claim to family” the Family Story website states. The organization is focused on countering the idea that there is a single “right” kind of family. 

Conservatives constantly bemoan changes in the American family structure as proof of moral failing, and they have long vilified families with working mothers, single parents, LGBT parents, and non-parental caregivers. But these types of families defy conservative stereotypes and outdated stigmas. Family Story, which allows real families to tell their own stories via powerful videos and other media, will push back against these pathologizing narratives.

“I hate that ‘family values’ has become a meaningless term often tossed around by social conservatives, while all around us there are families living truly important values of love, support and connectedness who are left out,” Rodgers says. “I decided it was time to burn the old paradigm down and build something authentic and meaningful in its ashes.”

Family Story’s mission is ambitious yet necessary. The project “will develop new research, share aspirational narratives and highlight the innovative and compelling ideas, practices, and solutions that families and communities have developed. We will offer inspiring models for new American dreams. We will push back against harmful stereotypes and cultural stigma. We will separate social problems like poverty, violence, and poor school performance from family structure, and contest the myth that the nuclear family is the solution to these challenges.”

Rodgers is the founder of Role Reboot, a popular website that takes an incisive look at issues around family, gender, culture and “life off script.” Before founding and becoming co-director of Family Story, she spent years researching data proving that traditional families are not the panacea conservatives claim. Rodgers included some of this data in an article titled “Marriage Is No Safeguard Against Poverty” which was featured in the Washington Post this March.

Earlier this year, Mia Birdsong delivered an astonishing TED Talk that countered damaging, long-held ideas about poor people; it has since been viewed more than 700,000 times. Prio to becoming Family Story co-director, she served as vice president of the Family Independence Initiative, an anti-poverty nonprofit.

“Family Story is not, and will never be, about bashing nuclear families,” Nicole Rodgers says. “Two married parents raising children can be a wonderful thing; it’s just not the best or only thing. This is about building a bigger tent and respecting the dignity and value of a wider range of family arrangements.”

“It’s no surprise that conservatives have such limited, regressive views on what makes a ‘good’ family,” adds Birdsong. “But too few progressive advocates, policymakers and pundits are offering a counter-narrative. There are incredible, beautiful families who have figured out how to make it work outside the nuclear family model. It’s past time we lift up their stories.”

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