Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa. He co-hosts the attached podcast. (Jacob Priest)
At the end of each semester, I receive feedback from my students on what they thought of my course. As someone who teaches relationships and families, I’m always a little surprised that someone thinks my class was “political.” Students will write things like this that seem to imply that families and relationships are apolitical – that when we talk about family, we should avoid political discussions. They seem to think of family as nonpartisan, neutral, and something only affected by what happens inside the walls of a home.
Some of your readers might think, “Here is more evidence that liberal professors are trying to indoctrinate students. Even in a course on families, he tries to push an agenda forward. But before you come to that conclusion, I hope you will consider my argument.
You would find it hard to listen to a political speech or debate without hearing the word family. Whether it’s “middle-class families,” “immigrant families,” or “family breakdown,” politicians frequently invoke the term. Whenever someone wants to discuss the merits of a particular policy, it is often about how it will affect families.
Also, throughout the history of this country, we’ve had major policies about who can be a family and who can’t. Restrictions on who can marry and who cannot, who can adopt and who cannot, and what constitutes a family and what cannot, 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 poor families. We argue about paid family leave, or access to contraception. Families are at the heart of our policy.
Even with all this talk, we still often fall into the trap that “healthy” or “good” families are unaffected by politics. We assume that if families can communicate well, be emotionally close, provide good discipline to their children no matter what the world throws at them, all will be well. “Healthy” and “good” families transcend their political environment – they can survive despite the difficulties that come their way. To promote this idea, politicians often share stories of families who have overcome despite many obstacles.
Family resilience is important, and some families do it better than others. Part of this reason can be attributed to the family’s emotional ability to communicate. But I think a bigger part is the political environment in which they reside.
Thriving families today often have decades of policies that have served to increase their access to education, wealth, and power mechanisms. Their communication may seem better, but that’s because having access to resources puts less strain on their relationships. Families in difficulty are often those who have been excluded from these policies. Instead of changing policies, we often try to blame the family for not thriving in an incredibly toxic environment.
If we really want to promote successful families, we must consider both the emotional and the political. If in my teaching I focus only on better ways to express emotions and ignore how politics can increase family stress, I will cause incredible frustration in some of my students. I have to teach them that family communication has an important context. Regardless of how well you communicate, sometimes the root of the problem lies outside the walls of your home.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa. He co-hosts the attached podcast. Comments: [email protected]