Family Declines Prompt James Dobson to Write Dystopian Novels

Dr. James Dobson, author of over 25 books on marriage and family, recently released his first novel, Fatherless. With his co-author Kurt Bruner, Dobson portrays a dystopian future in which foundational family realities, taken for granted for eons, grow increasingly marginalized. Dobson recently answered questions about this new work in an interview with Religious News Service.  Here are some highlights:

Q: Why did you venture into fiction after writing about real-life parenting for so long?

A: This is my first novel, but not my first foray into fiction. I have always believed in the power of narratives to influence thought and shape the spiritual imagination. While with Focus on the Family I challenged the team to create a radio drama series called “Adventures in Odyssey.’’ My co-author, Kurt Bruner, led that team for several years. We couldn’t be more excited about the potential of this new trilogy to embody themes on which I have been writing, speaking and broadcasting for decades.

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Q: What are some of the real-life issues today that made you write this future fantasy?

A: The single threat to our future is the trend away from forming families to begin with. Marriage is in drastic decline. For the first time in history more women are single than married. Raising children is now considered an inconvenient burden rather than life’s highest calling. For the first time in our history there are fewer households with children than without. The most basic human instinct, forming families, is in dramatic decline. And the implications of that reality, as we’ve depicted in these novels, are breathtaking. That’s why we chose the looming demographic crisis as the backdrop to these stories.

We're hopeful this creative storytelling approach will engage people who otherwise wouldn't have heard about these pressing demographic trends or may have glazed over seeing them presented outside of a narrative context.

Do-It-Yourself Family Making

It seems that couples who want to get married and start a family today are on their own--whether they want to or not, they are left to do it themselves. Consider the observation of sociologist Dr. Leon Kass in his anthology Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar:

...for most of America's middle- and upper-class youth--the privileged college-educated and graduated--there are no known explicit or even tacit social paths directed at marriage. People still get married--though later, less frequently, more hesitantly, and by and large, less successfully. People still get married in churches and synagogues--though often with ceremonies and vows of their own creation. But for the great majority the way to the altar is uncharted territory. It's every couple on its own bottom, without a compass, often without a goal. Those who reach the altar seemed to have stumbled upon it by accident.

wing to wingAfter "stumbling onto the altar by accident," many couples back their way into parenting. A third of all pregnancies in marriage are unplanned--leaving families formed without much vision or preparation. Unfortunately, it seems that it's only when couples show up in churches with kids that pastors begin to engage and start doing family ministry. Few churches invest in family formation--in actually helping couples to marry well and start a family with vision and preparation to begin with.

For that matter, few parents are investing in their son or daughter's path to family. Consistently, parents will define success in their roles as preparing their children for college and the workplace. Recently, more parents have gotten the message from their churches that success also means preparing their children for eternity--introducing them to a vibrant faith during their formative years. But not enough parents feel it's their role to prepare their children for families of their own.

Too many are stuck in the cultural mindset that parents should be hands-off and let their children follow their own hearts in their paths to marriage and children. Others feel they should take the multi-cultural path and let their children choose whatever form of relationship they want to have as adults without elevating marriage and family among other choices. But when three quarters of high school seniors tell the Monitoring the Future survey that getting married and starting a family are extremely important to them, shouldn't parents be more invested in that goal?

We're told that this generation of "helicopter" parents have gone overboard in managing their children's lives. But when it comes to helping their children marry well, it seems they are either checking out or actually discouraging marriage. In the Touchstone magazine article, "Unmarried, Still Children," Joan Frawley Desmond talks about children who've been raised for everything except marriage. She writes:

Today, parents have a tough time understanding their proper role. Not only has the culture embraced the good of individual autonomy—as opposed to parental authority and familial responsibility—but radical social change has bred confusion about what constitutes the proper goal of adulthood. ... Their children are deemed incapable of bearing the weight of marriage. Everything must be in place before they can contemplate such a momentous—potentially “destabilizing”—step.

When we lived in Colorado, I spoke with a mentor who has children my age. He and his wife worked hard to stay invested in their children's lives and paths to family, but he told me about a friend of his who wasn't invested. This friend of his shared his anxiety over the guy his daughter was dating, but then said he didn't think it was his place to inject himself. "Why shouldn't you get involved in your daughter's choice of a spouse?" our mentor asked him, "this guy could potentially be in your life making trouble for a long time and leaving you to pick up the pieces as the dad and grandpa. Now is the time to get involved, even if it's awkward."

Can't we do better?

Can parents recover their roles in helping their children to marry well and start strong families? Can churches do more pre-family ministry? Can some older couples step up and serve as mentors to fill in the gaps?

A Social Network That Takes Marriage Seriously

Dr. Brad Wilcox is one of the top family scholars in America. His research at the University of Virginia focuses on marriage and cohabitation and on the ways that gender, religion, and children influence the quality and stability of American family life. image

A few years ago, Dr. Wilcox took the time to answer a few questions from us about how couples go about forming families today and the role parents, pastors and mentors can play in supporting them. The following is a reprint from that interview:

Based on the research you’ve seen, do you have a sense of how many American couples go into marriage and parenting with a sufficient amount of vision and preparation? Is it the majority or the minority?

Most couples in the United States who marry are exposed to cursory or no marital preparation. They may attend one or two sessions with a layperson, pastor, or priest but generally do not get the thorough preparation they need to increase their odds of marital success.

On the other hand, a large minority of couples who get married in churches are exposed to a premarital preparation that does a good job of inventorying their strengths and weaknesses, preparing them for the key challenges of married life (e.g., money, sex, children, gender differences in relationship styles, and learning to sacrifice for the good of their spouse), and giving them a theological framework for thinking about marriage and family life.

A hundred years ago, parents, pastors and mentors played a very active role in helping couples in the United States to marry well and then to support them in starting a family. Today, couples are much more autonomous in their approach to family making. What difference does that make?

Well, we know that is hard for couples to go it alone, and yet they are now more likely to try to do that, as research by Paul Amato at Penn State and his colleagues indicates. The problem with couples trying to do it all on their own is that no spouse is capable of meeting their spouse’s deepest desires for intimacy and meaning and—of course—no spouse is perfect.

By contrast, couples who have family members, friends, and fellow churchgoers who are committed to their marriage are likely to get advice, as well as moral and practical support, that makes married life easier for them. In fact, we know that one of the best predictors of marital success is being embedded in a social network that takes marriage seriously. So couples should seek out friends who share their commitment to marriage.

What do churches and families stand to gain by coming alongside couples in their paths to marriage and family?

Marriage is one of the most important social supports of faith in America. Adults who are married are much more likely to attend church than are adults who are single or divorced. This is especially true for men. Likewise, children who have been raised in a stable, intact, married home are much more likely to stick with their faith than are children who have been affected by divorce or single parenthood.

What are the simplest things pastors, parents and mentors can do to influence how the next generation of families form?

One of the most important things that pastors and lay leaders in churches can do to strengthen marriage is to provide their adult members, and the youth in their church, with a realistic model of married life.

Marriage is not about finding and sustaining an ideal soulmate relationship. Yes, love is important. But marriage is also about regular sex, having and rearing children, providing practical and emotional support to a spouse, establishing a common economic enterprise, treating one’s kin (including one’s in-laws) with love and respect, and growing in the faith.

Paradoxically, couples who understand that marriage is about many different goods in life (not just an intense emotional relationship) are more likely to enjoy a happy, lifelong marriage than couples who see marriage through a soulmate lens.

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W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University.

Brad Wilcox earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Prior to coming to the University of Virginia, he held research fellowships at Princeton University, Yale University and the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Wilcox’s research focuses on marriage, parenthood, and cohabitation, and on the ways that gender, religion, and children influence the quality and stability of American marriages and family life. He has published articles on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood in The American Sociological Review, Social Forces, The Journal of Marriage and Family and The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. With Nicholas Wolfinger, Wilcox is now writing a book titled, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Children, & Marriage among African Americans and Latinos, for Oxford University Press. With Eric Kaufmann, Wilcox is finishing a book on the causes and consequences of low fertility in the West. He is also the coauthor of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (forthcoming from Columbia University Press).

A Drought of Children in California

California is the most populous state in the United States, but the number of children there is shrinking, leaving the state “ill-equipped for boomer retirement” according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Birth rates are now below replacement level for whites, Asians and African-Americans. Rates among Hispanics had been high but are now dropping steeply and are also expected to drop below replacement in the next decade.

“The shrinking pool of youngsters coincides with a bulging population of older people,” the article explains. In other words, California is growing very European—it has promised generous benefits that depend on a growing population while cultivating a culture that doesn’t welcome enough new life to keep the scheme going. This is not sustainable.

California drought