Over the weekend, my Church hosted a Women's Conference that I attended with two of my daughters. The Conference began with a video that showed families sitting together in various settings, singing the words of a fairly new children's song about families. This was followed by many talks about how the family is under attack and called on us, as women, to defend the family.
I have since read many posts online and have talked to women at church about the Conference. Probably more than any Conference session I can remember, most reactions I have heard are reactions of alienation and confusion. One woman at church told me that watching the videos of the perfect families singing in the sunlight made her feel inadequate. I have read blog posts about women wondering exactly what is meant by this call to "defend the family?" From one blogger: “Hey, does this mean I should be speaking out against divorce and/or same-sex marriage and/or unwed parenthood?”
I think for most of us, imagining ourselves getting on a soapbox and having confrontational exchanges with our friends and families about polarizing issues doesn't sound fun or effective. And frankly, it doesn't sound Christlike. So, I have decided that for me, this is not going to be my take away from Women's Conference. Even though such a conversation is where my mind first went when I heard the words "defend the family," I don't think this is what our leaders meant (at least I hope not), but they weren't very specific about the specifics.
And so I guess it leaves it to each of us to figure out the specifics for ourselves.
So I have been asking myself all day, first: What are the threats to the family? And by threats, I mean real threats, substantiated by data, not simply by perceptions and fears. Secondly, what are my responsibilities in relation to those things?
Research has shown the the biggest threat to stable families is poverty. In January of this year, The Washington Post published this article that cites research that shows that for the first time in 50 years, the majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty. These children will have a much harder time getting a good education than their more affluent peers, and because poverty is cyclical, the instability that they are experiencing in their lives will likely be passed on to their children and their children's children.
I run a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching social and emotional learning skills to children and teens through the medium of ballroom dance. In my work, I visit a lot of schools--from very affluent schools to very high-poverty schools.
In the affluent schools, the children are supported on all sides. Parents regularly visit the classrooms. The PTA raises money for extras from playground equipment to field trips to computers. The parents show up for our culminating dance performances in droves. Parking is always a problem because there are so many supporters. The boys and girls are all impeccably dressed and someone has helped them fix their hair. Parents bring flowers to celebrate achievements.
In the high-poverty schools, the kids come to school hungry. The principals and teachers spend their days exhausted from dealing with behavior problems, and it is so hard for them to teach the material to children whose basic needs have not been met. For principals and teachers, communications with parents are often heated and unproductive, leaving educators emotionally depleted. At one school, the principal packs 30 backpacks full of food to send home with children over the weekend, every weekend, so they have something to eat. These are homeless children. In suburban America. At another school, members of my staff and I cried when we learned of an instance of human trafficking that involved one of the 5th graders.
Children in high-poverty schools often come to school dirty, maybe without basics of clothing. At these schools, there is usually no PTA support. There are no extras--unless the teachers and principal can scrape it together. When we have our culminating dance performances, very few parents attend. Very rarely do children have a nice dress or a shirt and tie to wear. Often, it is the teachers who help them comb their hair.
At one of our last inter-school competitions, the principal from a high-poverty school drove all over Tacoma and personally picked up the kids from her school to make sure that they could attend the event, because their parents couldn't drive them (probably single-moms, probably without cars or money for gas). Contrast this with the affluent school--who brought parents, grandparents, and half the town and overwhelmed the auditorium with their cheers of support.
This is my personal glimpse into poverty and the inequalities it creates for children. I absolutely believe that poverty is a threat to stable families now and that this threat is increasing as we look into the future. As hard as they try, those teachers and principals can never fill in the gaps and meet the needs of all of those children. And without their needs being met, those children, and eventually their children, will be vulnerable to a whole host of problems, some of which I can imagine and some of which I can't.
In Relief Society today our lesson was on living an abundant life (a spiritually abundant life, not a materialistically abundant life). Towards the end we were reading in Mosiah 18 from the Book of Mormon. This is a chapter that discusses our baptismal covenants.
Alma says to the people in verse 8:
Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;