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A Family Affair: Yes, families are political
Oct. 21, 2021 7:00 am
At the end of each semester, I receive feedback from my students about what they thought about my course. As someone who teaches about relationships and families, I’m always a bit surprised that someone thinks my course was “political.” Students will write things like that seem to insinuate that families and relationships are apolitical — that when we talk about the family, we should avoid political discussions. They seem to think that the family is non-partisan, neutral, and something that is only affected by what happens inside the walls of a home.
Some of your reading this may be thinking, “Here is more evidence of liberal professors trying to indoctrinate college students. Even in a class about families, he’s trying to push an agenda.” But before you reach that conclusion, I hope you’ll consider my argument.
You’d be hard pressed to listen to any political speech or debate and not hear the word family. Whether it’s “middle-class families,” or “immigrant families,” or “the breakdown of families,” politicians frequently invoke the term. Whenever someone wants to argue the merits of a particular policy, often it is couched in how it will affect families.
What’s more, throughout the history of this country, we’ve had major policies about who can be a family and who can’t be. Restrictions on who can marry and who can’t, who can adopt and who can’t, and what constitutes a family and what doesn’t, are still widely debated today. We have tax incentives for families with children and for those who are married; we have social safety nets for families in poverty. We argue about paid family leave, or about access to contraception. Families are the heart of our politics.
Even with all this talk, we often still fall into the trap that “healthy” or “good” families aren’t affected by politics. We assume if families can communicate well, be emotionally close, provide good discipline for their kids, regardless of what the world throws at them, they’ll be just fine. “Healthy” and “good” families transcend their political environment — they can make it despite and hardships that come their way. To promote this idea, politician often share stories of families that overcome despite many obstacles.
Resilience in families is important, and some families do it better than others. Part of that reason can be attributed to whether the family is emotionally skilled at communicating. But I think a bigger part is the political environment in which they reside.
Families that are currently thriving often have decades of policies that have served to increase their access education, wealth and mechanisms of power. Their communication may look better, but that’s because having access to resources puts less stress on their relationships. Families that are struggling are often the ones that have been excluded from these policies. Instead of changing the policies, we often try and blame the family for failing to thrive in an incredibly toxic environment.
If we are serious about promoting families that thrive, we need to consider both the emotional and the political. If in my teaching I only focus on better ways to express emotions and ignore how polices might increase family stress, I’ll be setting up some of my students for incredible frustration. I must teach them that family communication has an important context. Regardless of how well you communicate, sometimes the root of the problem resides outside the walls of your home.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org