Vol. 16 No.2 (February 2006), pp.113-115
THE PUBLIC FAMILY: EXPLORING ITS ROLE IN DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY, by David J. Herring. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. 272pp. Cloth $49.95. ISBN: 0-8229-4223-2. Paper $19.95. ISBN: 0-8229-5827-9.
Reviewed by Rosalie R. Young, Public Justice Department, State University of New York at Oswego. Email: ryoung [at] oswego.edu.
The definition of family and the division of rights and responsibilities between parents and the state have been matters of considerable controversy during the latter half of the twentieth century. Media attention has prompted public, political and legal debate on such issues as gay marriage, open adoption, and contested child custody. David J. Herring has written a thought-provoking volume suggesting that this dialogue on the role of the family in democratic society has been incomplete. He advocates a richer discourse around six family functions: three functions supporting the power of the state and three functions which may serve to undermine the power of the state, while supporting the development and functioning of a pluralistic democratic society. Drawing on sources such as James Madison’s Federalist Papers 10, Robert Dahl’s work on democratic pluralism, Lee Bollinger’s tolerance theory, and Barbara Bennett Woodhouse’s writings on parental and children’s rights, Herring describes three positive functions of the family: producing democratic citizens, relieving the state of the burden of caring for dependent citizens, and diminishing the power of other intermediate associations that could challenge the state. He makes a strong case for the three subversive functions that check state power and promote a “rhetoric of associational respect,” including the family’s role in the creation and maintenance of a broad array of intermediate associations, the production of adults capable of forming strong intermediate associations, and the development of citizens with associational tolerance.
Herring demonstrates the adaptive ability of the family by drawing on American slave narratives, studies of the Israeli kibbutz, and a review of the frontier families in the American west. Despite the family disruption these experiences caused, family ties remained resilient, demonstrating the strong human preference for family associations.
While the family may be viewed as a private sanctuary with a strong public support of parental rights, Herring points out that public policy has invaded this sanctuary by promoting mandatory education and protection from abuse. Single parent families and others viewed by society as “deviant” are subject to greater scrutiny. He elaborates on the feminist arguments against the current political construction of the family and uses court cases and specific family scenarios to clarify his points and make American public policy come alive for the reader.
Herring recognizes that the three facilitative functions that promote the state are not as positive or as firmly [*114] based as they seem. He notes that other intermediate associations beyond the immediate family can serve to socialize children. He describes the “autonomous individual” free from state support as a myth and demonstrates the variety of state supports given to the traditional family, such as tax relief and homesteading laws. He points out that the impact of expert advice and public pressure has limited the diversity of family associations, diminishing the family’s ability to support a pluralistic democracy.
Drawing on Madison’s fear of a tyranny of the majority, Herring suggests that the intermediate associations promoted by the family, such as religious affiliations, will limit the power of both the state and factions. Further, the diversity of families and the family’s influence on child development will result in differing political, economic, and social interests, leading to the heterogeneity of citizens. Finally, despite what Herring calls society’s “general impulse to intolerance,” the family will promote associational tolerance, due to the variety of families and family associations and government restraint in invading family life.
Herring devotes two critical chapters to a discussion of the battle between “adult constituencies,” parents and the state, over the future of children where custody is in dispute. He describes the benefits and damage caused by state support of the conflicting philosophies of parental rights and best interests of the child standards. Either standard gives the state the ability to enforce or disrupt family associations. The more recent best interests of the child standard, Herring suggests, may lead to less family diversity, as legal decisions are reinforced by the media’s focus on the advice of child-rearing experts and the display of positive, if unrealistic, parenting on popular television shows.
In conclusion, Herring suggests that a focus on a “rhetoric of associational respect” would avoid the damaging extremes of either parental ownership of their children, or state determination of which home would lead to a more optimal childhood. When state power dominates, both children and parents learn of the strength of the state and the minimal power of parents. Associational respect, he suggests, would lead to a focus on parental responsibility, positive child development, and the production of good citizens, rather than on the rights and power of either parents or the state. The diversity of families and associations would be protected.
Throughout this very readable volume, Herring draws on past, current and future social, legal and political debates. His goal is to promote the discussion of family issues and turn the focus away from individual rights. He describes both the legal issues and the participants in precedent setting cases, such as MEYER v. NEBRASKA (1923), SANTOSKY v. KRAMER (1982), WISCONSIN v. YODER (1972), and DESHANEY v. WINNEBAGO COUNTY DSS (1989). He demonstrates the conflicts in famous disputes like those surrounding Baby Jessica, and uses public policy issues such as gay and lesbian marriage and adoption to make his discussion relevant, [*115] clear, and interesting for a broad readership. While all readers may not share his theoretical conclusions, he has met his goal of promoting the thoughtful discussion of family functioning and public policy.
In addition to prompting dialogue among politicians, sociologists, political scientists, legal scholars, and political philosophers, Herring has clearly summarized both sides of many of the controversies that are facing our courts and legislatures. The material in Herring’s volume would be more readily accessible, however, if the author had included a traditional bibliography. Finding previously cited cases or documents often requires a scavenger hunt through both the index and the footnotes.
DESHANEY v. WINNEBAGO COUNTY DSS, 489 US 189 (1989).
MEYER v. NEBRASKA, 262 US 390 (1923).
SANTOSKY v. KRAMER, 455 US 745 (1982).
WISCONSIN v. YODER, 406 US 205 (1972).
© Copyright 2006 by the author, Rosalie R. Young.