Gordon S. Little (

If by "having a family" we just mean adults living together, adults are free to do whatever suits them. They can be single, married, take a string of paramours, form a ménage à trois, live in a commune, or whatever works for them. But if by "having a family" we mean having and raising children, that imposes definite requirements on us.

Humans have practiced marriage almost universally for thousands of years. That's not accidental. It's largely because marriage serves the needs of children best. I regret to say that in my experience of word usage, a lot of vague and airy handwaving about undefined "options" and "possible social constructions" turns out to be code words for a bunch of people screwing around and spawning fatherless children. Then it's the children who get screwed. But since there's obvious sincerity here about the possible pros and cons of alternatives to marriage, I'd ask anyone considering such an alternative to see how well it meets children's needs, compared with marriage.

Most people choose to have children, and that's because they want them. Men too, but especially women. People want children for a variety of reasons, but the point is that on the parents' side of the transaction children are a benefit, a desired reward. Even when children arrive unintended, parents still get the reward of sex.

The child has no say in drawing up the contract by which he or she comes into the world. Since the parents have all the power in this transaction, they also have the moral duty of making sure the contract is fair to the child. It should meet the requirements a child would set down for a decent start in life, in exchange for the parents' reward.

As a child, I need certain basic things like being fed regularly, taught how to function in the world, and generally treated as a human being. But one of my greatest needs is for security, both physical and emotional. It's bad enough being a helpless and immature little person, incapable of surviving by myself and having to depend on other people for my vital needs. I need to know who's going to provide for me and who's going to guide me on my way in life. I need to know where I belong, whom I belong to, and who belongs to me. I can't belong to anything as nebulous as a "possible social construction," and I sure can't trust a mere "option." That doesn't mean a thing to me. I need my Mom and Dad.

I need structure I can rely on, and I need stability. I need to form close bonds of trust with people, and I need to know there are certain primary people who are permanent in my life, who are always going to be there for me, and we all stick together no matter what.

If that doesn't happen, I never get a sense of security. I know people can die, and that's frightening enough. But at least dying wasn't their fault. If the structure I depend on breaks up, if people walk out on me by their own choice, I'll lose my ability to trust. That's hard to overcome. Even when I'm grown up, I may find it difficult to believe in trust, and to make and keep commitments of my own to other people.

I need my Mom and I need my Dad too. I need them to stay with me for several reasons. For a start, two people are better insurance than one. If I'm a boy, I need my Dad to show me how to be a man. However hard she tries, Mom can't do that by herself. If I'm a girl, I need the inspiration of Dad's encouragement and approval. And vice versa.

I need Mom and Dad there together to show me how people can get on together in a permanent, committed relationship, especially with people of the opposite sex. I'll need to know this when I'm grown up. If they don't do that, they haven't taught me how to succeed. They've taught me how to fail. And if they weren't together to begin with, all they've taught me is how to give up without even trying.

I need my Mom and my Dad because blood is thicker than water. Even if I'm an adopted child, I still need to know who my biological parents were. We have an instinctive need to "belong" in another sense: to know where and whom we came from genetically. In a very profound way, this defines "who we are." Knowing it is part of our birthright, and not knowing it troubles many adopted children. The laws that continue to hide the identity of biological parents from adopted children, even after they've grown up, are made to protect parents' embarrassment at the expense of children's rights.

Children of unknown fathers have the same need to know. One boy said he lost all respect for his mother when she told him she didn't know which of three men had fathered him. I don't blame him. Preserving that knowledge was the very least of her responsibility to him. How could he respect a woman who threw away part of his birthright by carelessly screwing around?

Blood ties are crucial because, other things being equal, biological parents are more motivated than anyone else to give love and support to the children of their own bodies. This is pure, natural instinct. Families are based on blood. "Social constructions" are based on bullshit. There's no glue to hold them together.

This doesn't mean to say adoptive parents don't do a great job, or that children can't be raised successfully by some other person. Sometimes death or other circumstances make it necessary. But adoptive parents are usually married too. And for the child, these alternatives are only a second line of defense, a fallback position in case of need.

As a child, I want to know why my real mother or father, or both, isn't there looking after me. I should have been more important to these two people than to any other humans on earth. If they're absent by choice, they've rejected me. What does that say about me, and how am I supposed to feel about being rejected from the first moment of my life?

If they don't both stay with me, it seems that I wasn't important enough for them to make the effort. That doesn't do much for me either. Or else they failed by picking the wrong partner in the first place. That says my parents are incompetent. If my father walks out on me, he's a jackoff. And if my mother got pregnant without a commitment from my father, she's a jackoff too. It was all very well for her to want a child, but she shirked her other responsibilities to me -- establishing and maintaining a stable family that includes my father.

Outside the nuclear family, of course other people are important and necessary in a child's life. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandpa, Grandma, neighbors, babysitters, family friends, teachers, all kinds of people. The more the merrier. They're all "insurance" too, in a way. But the value of these people mustn't be allowed to obscure the need for stable and permanent core figures in a child's life. If Granny and Uncle Bob are fixtures too, that's great. Extended family is ideal; these people can all be part of a child's "structure." But the chances are that most of these other people are transient, or at risk of being transient.

Children need stability. Studies show, not only that children of divorce and single mothers are more likely to be screwups, but even that people who were moved around too often in childhood with their families are rather more likely to have problems in later life. Constant changing of ties does no good. A succession of childminders, a man coopted into her life because it sinks belatedly into some single mother's head that her son "needs a male role model," still less a string of "funny uncles" -- none of these are substitutes for a permanent mother and father.

Some people like to point out that the "nuclear family" has only been the predominant Western form for the last century or two, as if it were unnatural in itself. These people are thinking upside-down. Humans' natural mode of living is in small clans, tribes, and villages where most of the people know each other all their lives and many of them are related by blood. It's only over the past two hundred years that we've allowed industrialization, the formation of vast impersonal cities, and geographic mobility to erode the natural structures of stable community and extended family. If anything's unnatural, it's not the rise of the nuclear family, but the reduction of the clan to the nuclear family.

The nuclear family is all that some of us have left. No wonder we cling to it so doggedly. There is no replacement for it that satisfies human needs. My personal hope is that with many businesses becoming less dependent on geographic location, and with the increasing importance of electronic communication, at some time in the future humans will not need to move around so much in search of work. Then we can return to smaller, more stable communities. Those are our real "social constructions." I don't promise it will happen. But marriage is the building block of society. If marriage falls apart, society falls apart.