New kid on the block will be famous one day

There’s a new kid on the block. He might look kind of dorky, but I think one day he’ll be famous. I refer to the new Institute of Marriage and the Family. I gave a speech to their grand opening last Thursday, in case anyone thinks it creates a conflict of interest. In it I said this organization ( is not just desirable but long overdue. We live in an era of social science, and give at least as much deference on ethical as well as technical questions to “experts” as our ancestors did to priests. So isn’t it high time experts scrutinized the family in Canada? As Derek Rogusky and Mark Penninga note in the inaugural IMFC Review: “In the early 1960s over 90 per cent of children [in Canada] were born to parents who were married for the first time and who had not cohabited -- with anyone -- prior to marriage.” Now it’s under 40 per cent. “What has happened in the span of one generation?” they ask.

One odd thing is that inhabitants of Western countries, except the U.S., are suddenly having well under the 2.1 children per woman necessary to prevent depopulation. And having your populace vanish might matter. Germany’s new chancellor just urged her compatriots to have more kids, even though she has none because “it just did not fit in with my career path.” And Japan’s prime minister urged his people to “do as dogs do” because “Dogs produce lots of puppies and when they do, the pains of labour are easy.” There are worse things than carefully packaged political speeches. But at least problems related to changing family structure, to use the antiseptic social- science term, are on people’s minds in other countries.

A British study just found over half of five-year-olds haven’t met government targets for “early learning goals,” many of which are behavioural, not scholastic. And while I’m inclined to applaud anyone not co-operating with Tony Blair’s social engineering, if the disintegration of old-tyme marriage has loosed even an undersized horde of drooling barbarians upon us, we might consider studying it before they sack Rome.

Mark Steyn recently lampooned The Scotsman newspaper for agonizing about how to preserve unionized teachers’ jobs once pensioners outnumber schoolchildren in Scotland. At least they found something to worry about. Maybe we could get our policy-makers worried about sustaining socialized medicine once this “demographic winter” hits patients and providers here. Trust me, the first snowflakes are falling.

To say family is important is trite. And important is not a synonym for good. But just as good families are very good, bad families are very bad. So surely we ought to proceed carefully if there’s any real danger we’re making them all worse with ill-advised policies. Instead, politicians ritually praise the family but won’t discuss it. Mention 100,000 abortions a year and they all move away from you there on the bench. And speaking of the bench, how about that swingers’ club ruling?

It’s not all government, of course. Policy matters, and lately it rarely seems to help. But I think the most important observation on this subject was Malcolm Muggeridge’s: “Sex is the mysticism of materialism. We are to die in the spirit to be reborn in the flesh, rather than the other way around.” It can hardly be accomplished while changing diapers. It is not clear how much government policy influences life choices; state subsidies to certain lifestyles may be the result, not the cause, of voters adopting them. Nor is it clear whether having both parents work is good, bad or neutral. But wouldn’t it be nice to know?

This new institute is a project of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization. With our newfound hypersensitivity to religious sensibilities, I know no one will say anything nasty about faith orientation and research credibility. Well, someone might. Opening night saw a dreary little protest by people favouring “equal marriage.” It was so cold they left quickly. But apparently they already know solid research will undermine their position, which might make lesser minds uneasy about the position, not the research. And while you ain’t no one in this town until you’ve been protested, one point is worth making.

When same-sex marriage went from unthinkable to unstoppable in four years, advocates defended it on constitutional and abstract ethical grounds. Any sociological inquiry was dismissed as offensive and irrelevant. Yet when polygamy raised its ugly heads last year, a Status of Women Canada call for research said: “It is vital that researchers explore the impacts of polygamy on women and children and gender equality as well as the challenges that polygamy presents to society.” Indeed. But why stop there? Much of the press and the handful of experts cited ad nauseam take for granted that all types of family are equally valid. What if they’re not?

Especially with the clock running so fast here, we need research, including on whether experts really proved what they say they did. Are kids flourishing in Quebec day care? Is divorce a problem? Whatever policy and lifestyle decisions we end up making, the first step is to understand their implications.

Hey, kid. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson