John Witte | Michael Welker | Stephen Pickard (Eds.): The Impact of the Family (Leseprobe)

The family is humanity’s oldest and most basic social institution, but today it is fragile, fractured, and fraught in many liberal lands. This volume gathers scholars from sociology, psychology, history, religion, ethics, law, and medicine from five continents to analyze the complex nature and place of the family in character formation and human flourishing. The chapters study the impact of catechesis, schooling, work, and discipline on the development of individual moral agency and responsibility. They document the critical roles of family love, trust, fidelity, and story-telling in shaping the moral character of all family members from infancy to old age. They describe effective strategies of resistance and resilience for family members who face abuse, divorce, death, chauvinism, racism, and homophobia. And several chapters challenge modern arguments and policies that aim to flatten if not abolish the marital family, even while they call for family law reforms.

The family is humanity’s oldest and most basic social institution, but today it is fragile, fractured, and fraught in many liberal lands. This volume gathers scholars from sociology, psychology, history, religion, ethics, law, and medicine from five continents to analyze the complex nature and place of the family in character formation and human flourishing. The chapters study the impact of catechesis, schooling, work, and discipline on the development of individual moral agency and responsibility. They document the critical roles of family love, trust, fidelity, and story-telling in shaping the moral character of all family members from infancy to old age. They describe effective strategies of resistance and resilience for family members who face abuse, divorce, death, chauvinism, racism, and homophobia. And several chapters challenge modern arguments and policies that aim to flatten if not abolish the marital family, even while they call for family law reforms.


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John Witte, Jr.

Michael Welker

Stephen Pickard



of the FAMILY

on Character Formation, Ethical Education,

and the Communication of Values

in Late Modern Pluralistic Societies


Acknowledgments ....................................... 9

Preface to the Series ...................................... 11

Part One: The Place of the Family in Modern Society

John Witte Jr.

“It Takes aSociety to Raise aFamily”: The Multidimensional

Family Sphere ............................................ 17

Robert N. Bellah

The Family in the Matrix of Habit and History ................ 43

Part Two: The Role of the Family in Child

Development and Moral Character Formation

Sabina Pauen

The Beginnings of Norm and Value Formation in Human

Ontogeny and the Role of the Family ....................... 59

Robyn Fivush

Family Storytelling and the Communication of Values ......... 75

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

Children, Chores, and Character Formation: AChild-Centered

Perspective .............................................. 89

Marcia J. Bunge

Communicating Values by Honoring Families and the Full

Humanity of Children: Lessons from Robust Theologies and

Detrimental Developments among Protestants ............... 105

Stephen G. Post

Love Begets Love, and It Starts in the Family ................. 127

6 Contents

Margaret F. Brinig

Imitation and Value Formation within the Family ............. 139

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

Empty Vessels or Active Agents? Amplifying Young People’s

Agency in Character Development in their Families ........... 147

Andreas Kruse

Old Age within the Polyphony of Sensations, Experiences, and

Commitments in Favor of the Neighbor ..................... 163

Michael J.Broyde

“Hearts Will Never Be Practical until They Can Be Made

Unbreakable”: What Does Parental Love Really Mean in Hard

Cases in the Jewish Tradition? ............................. 179

Part Three: Family Changes and Challenges and Their

Impact on Character Formation

Jean Bethke Elshtain

The Heart of the Matter: The Family as the Site of Fundamental

Ethical Struggle .......................................... 197

Patrick Parkinson

The Role of Public Policy in Supporting Safe, Stable, and

Nurturing Families inLate Modern Societies ................. 211

Gordon S. Mikoski

The Times They Are A-Changin’”: Shifting Patterns of

Partnering and Parenting in the United States and Implications

for Religious Transmission and Theology .................... 223

Enola G. Aird

Toward aRenaissance for the African American Family:

Confronting the Lie of Black Inferiority ...................... 233

Stephen L. Carter

Religion, Education, and the Primacy ofthe Family ........... 247

Contents 7

Patrick Hornbeck

Religious Liberty and Family Diversity: The Legal and

Theological Disputes ...................................... 255

Helen Alvaré

Equality Alongside Diversity to Build aStronger Union: The

Role of the Family in the Melting Pot ....................... 275

Katja Patzel-Mattern and Sabina Pauen

Family Structures and Values in Postwar German Society ...... 291

Nadia Marais

“A Most Sacred Covenant”? John Calvin’s Rhetoric of Marriage

and Its Implications for Transmitting Values in South Africa .... 313

Thomas Xutong Qu

ARenaissance of the Confucian Family? APreliminary

Observation upon Current Discourses about Family in

Contemporary China ...................................... 333

Contributors ............................................. 345


This volume was made possible by generousgrants from the Karl-Schlecht Foundation

and the University of Heidelberg. We express our deep thanks to Professor

Karl Schlecht and the university administration.

We thank Georgetown University Press and the Emory Center for the Study

of Law and Religion for permission to repurpose portions of the chapters by the

late Professors Robert Bellah and Jean Bethke Elshtain, and to the Emory Law

Journal and the Center for permission to include revised versions of the chapters

by Enola Aird and Stephen Carter.

We are grateful to our colleagues at the Forschungszentrum Internationale

und Interdisziplinäre Theologie (FIIT) in Heidelberg for their leadership of this

volume and the broader project of which is it is part. Our deep thanks as well to

Dr. Gary S. Hauk, senior editor, and Ms. Amy Wheeler, chief of staff, in the Center

for the Study of Law and ReligionatEmory University for their hard work on

this volume. It was aprivilege to learn from each of our chapter authors, and to

work with our editorial friends atEvangelischen Verlagsanstalt in Leipzig to

bring this volume to press.

Preface to the Series

Five hundred years ago, Protestant reformerMartin Luther argued that “threeestates”

(drei Stände) lie at the foundation of ajust and orderly society – marital

families, religious communities, and political authorities. Parents in the home;

pastors in the church;magistrates in the state – these, said Luther, are the three

authorities whom God appointed to represent divine justice and mercy in the

world, to protect peace and liberty in earthly life. Household, church, and state

these are the three institutional pillars on which to build social systems of education

and schooling, charity and social welfare, economy and architecture, art

and publication.Family, faith, and freedom – these are the three things that people

will die for.

In the half millennium sinceLuther, historians have uncovered various classical

and Christian antecedents to these early Protestant views. Numerous later

theorists have propounded all manner of variations and applications of this threeestates

theory, many increasingly abstracted from Luther’s overtly Christian

worldview. Early modern covenant theologians, both Christian and Jewish, described

the marital, confessional, and political covenants that God calls human

beings to form, each directed to interrelated personal and public ends. Social-contract

theorists differentiated the three contracts that humans enter as they move

from the state of nature to an organizedsociety protective of theirnatural rights –

the marital contract of husband and wife; the government contract of rulers and

citizens;and, for some, the religious contractsofpreachers and parishioners. Early

anthropologists positedthree stages of development of civilization – from family-basedtribes

and clans, to priest-run theocracies, to fully organizedstates that

embraced all three institutions. Sociologists distinguished three main forms of

authority in an organized community –“traditional” authority that begins in the

home, “charismatic” authority that is exemplified in the church, and “legal” authority

that is rooted in the state. Legal historians outlined threestages of development

of legal norms – from the habits and rules of the family, to the customs

and canons of religion, to the statutes and codes of the state.

12 Preface to the Series

Already acentury ago, however, scholars in different fieldsbegan to flatten out

this hierarchicaltheory of social institutions andtoemphasize the foundational role

of othersocialinstitutions alongside thefamily, church, andstate in shaping private

andpublic life and character. Sociologists like Max Weber andTalcott Parsons emphasized

theshaping powers of “technical rationality” exemplifiedespeciallyinnew

industry, scientific education, and market economies. Legal scholars like Otto von

Gierke and F. W. Maitland emphasized the critical roles ofnonstate legal associations

(Genossenschaften) inmaintaining ajust social, political, and legal order historicallyand

today.Catholic subsidiarity theoriesofPopesLeo XIIIand Pius XI emphasized

the essential task of mediating social unitsbetween the individual and the

state to cater to the full range ofneeds, interests, rights, and duties of individuals.

Protestant theoriesofsphere sovereignty, inspired by Abraham Kuyper, argued that

not only churches, states, and families but alsothe social spheres of art,labor, education,

economics, agriculture, recreation, and more should enjoy alevel of independence

fromothers, especiallyanoverreaching churchorstate.Varioustheories

of social or structuralpluralism, civilsociety, voluntary associations, the independentsector,

multiculturalism, multinormativity,and other such labels have now come

to the fore in theensuing decades – both liberaland conservative,religious andsecular,

and featuring all manner ofmethods and logics.

Pluralism of all sorts is now acommonplace of late modern societies. At minimum,

this means amultitude of free and equal individuals and amultitude of

groups and institutions, each with very different political, moral, religious, and

professional interests and orientations. It includes the sundry associations, interest

groups, parties, lobbies, and social movements that often rapidly flourishand

fade around acommon cause, especially when aided by modern technology and

various social media. Some see in this texture of plurality an enormous potential

for colorful and creative development and arobust expression of human and cultural

freedom. Others see achaotic individualism and radical relativism that endanger

normativeeducation, moral character formation, and effective cultivation

of enduring values or virtues.

Pluralism viewed as vague plurality, however, focuses on only one aspect of

late modern societies – the equality of individuals, and their almost unlimited

freedom to participate peaceably at any time asarespected voice in the moral

reasoning and civil interactions of asociety. But this view does not adequately

recognize that, beneath the shifting cacophony of social forms and norms that

constitute modernity, pluralistic societies have heavy normative codes that shape

their individual and collective values, morals, preferences, and prejudices.

The sources of much of this normative coding and moral education in late

modern pluralistic societies are the deep and powerful socialsystems that are the

pillars of every advanced culture. The most powerful and pervasive of these are

the social systems of law, religion, politics, science/academy, market, media, family,

education, medicine, and national defense. The actual empirical forms of each

Preface to the Series 13

of these powerful social systems can and do vary greatly, even inthe relatively

homogeneous societies of the late modern West. But these deeper socialsystems

in one form or another are structurally essential and often normatively decisive in

individual and communal lives.

Every advanced society has acomprehensive legal system of justice and order,

religious systems of ritual and doctrine, afamily system of procreation and

love, an economic system of trade and value, amedia system of communication

and dissemination of news and information, and an educational system of preservation,

application, and creationofknowledge and scientific advance. Many advanced

societies also have massive systems of science, technology, health care,

and national defense with vast influence over and through all of these other social

systems. These pervasive social systems lie at the foundation of modern advanced

societies, and they anchor the vast pluralities of associations and social interactions

that might happen to exist at any given time.

Each of these social systems has internal value systems, institutionalized rationalities,

and normative expectations that together help to shape each individual’smorality

and character. Each of these social spheres, moreover, has its own

professionals and experts who shape and implement its internal structures and

processes. The normative network created by these socialspheres is often harder

to grasp today, since late modern pluralistic societies usually do not bring these

different value systems to light under the dominance of just one organization, institution,and

power. This normative network has also become more shifting and

fragile, especially since traditional social systems like religion and the family

have eroded in theirdurabilityand power, and other social systems like science,

the market, health care, defense, and the media have become more powerful.

The aim of this project on “CharacterFormation and Moral EducationinLate

Modern Pluralistic Societies” is to identify the realities and potentials of these

core social systems to provide moral orientation and character formation in our

day. What can and should these social spheres, separately and together, do in

shaping the moral character oflate modern individuals who, by nature, culture,

and constitutional norms, are free and equalindignity and rights?What are and

should be the core educational functions and moral responsibilities of each of

these socialspheres?How can we better understand and better influence the complex

interactions among individualism, the normative binding powers of these

social systems, and the creativity of civil groups and institutions? How can we

map and measure the different hierarchies of values that govern each of these

social systems, and that are also interwoven and interconnected in various ways

in shaping late modern understandings of the common good? How do we negotiate

the boundaries and conflicts between and among these social systems when

one encroaches on the other, or imposesits values and rationalities on individuals

at the cost of the other social spheres or of the common good?What and where are

14 Preface to the Series

the intrinsic strengths of each social sphere that should be made more overt in

character formation, public education, and the shapingofminds and mentalities?

These are some of the guiding questions at work in this project and in this

volume. Our project aims to provide asystematicaccount of the role of these powerful

normativecodesoperating in the socialspheresoflaw, religion, the family,

the market, the media, science and technology, the academy, health care, and defense

in the late modern liberal West. Our focus is on selected examples and case

studies drawnfrom Western Europe, North America, South Africa, and Australia,

which together provide just enough diversity to test out broader theories of character

formation and moral education. Our scholars are drawn from across the

academy, with representative voices from the humanities, social sciences, and

natural sciences as well as the professions of theology, law, business, medicine,

and more. While most of our scholars come from the Protestant and Catholic

worlds, our endeavor is to offer comparative insights that will help scholars from

any profession or confession. While our laboratory is principally Western liberal

societies, the modern forces of globalizationwill soon make these issues of moral

character formation aconcern for every culture and region of the world – given

the power of global socialmedia, entertainment, and sports; the pervasiveness of

global finance, business, trade, and law; and the perennial global worries over

food, health care, environmental degradation, and natural disasters.

This volume focuses on the impact of the family on character formation, ethical

education,and thecommunicationofvalues in late modern pluralisticsocieties.The

familyishumanity’soldestand most basicsocialinstitution, buttoday it is fragile,

fractured, andfraughtinmanyliberallands.Inthis volume scholarsfromsociology,

psychology,history, religion,ethics, law,and medicine analyze the complex nature

andplace of thefamilyincharacter formationand human flourishing. The chapters

study theimpactofcatechesis, schooling,work, and discipline on thedevelopment

of individual moral agency and responsibility. They document the critical roles of

familylove, trust,fidelity, and storytelling in shaping themoral character of allfamily

membersfrom infancytoold age. They describeeffective strategies of resistance,

resilience, andrenewal forfamilymembers whoface abuse,divorce,death, chauvinism,

racism, and homophobia. And several chapters challenge modern arguments

andpoliciesthatflattenorabolish the maritalfamily, even whileseveralauthorscall

for family lawreforms in their homecountriesofthe United States,Germany, South

Africa, Australia, and China. While the marital household may no longer be the

“foundation of the polis,” or the “cornerstone of civilization,” it remains aunique

and essential institution for character formation that church, state, economy, and

society alike should support and strengthen.

John Witte Jr., Emory University

Michael Welker, University of Heidelberg

Stephen Pickard, Charles Sturt University

Part One:

The Place of the Family in

Modern Society

“It Takes aSociety to Raise aFamily”:

The Multidimensional Family Sphere

John Witte Jr. 1

This volume on the family, along with the others in this book series, exploresthe

role of sundry social systems, separately and together, in shaping individual character

and collective values in late modern liberal societies. Historically in the

West, the marital family was regarded as the cornerstone ofcharacter formation

and social organization. Aristotle and the Roman Stoics called the union of husband

and wife, and parentand child, the “foundation of the polis” and “the private

font of public virtue.” The church fathers and medieval Catholics called the monogamous

marital household the “seedbed” of the city, “the sacramentalforce that

welds Christiansocietytogether.” Early modern Protestant theologians,common

law jurists, and utilitarian philosophers alike called the marital household, a “little

church” and a “little commonwealth,” the first school of love and justice, nurture

and education, charity and citizenship, discipline and production. Echoing

these traditional insights, evolutionary scientists now argue that humans have

developed enduring pair-bonding strategies of reproduction as the fittest means

for long-term survivaland success as aspecies. Modern social scientists and public-health

experts have pointed to the stable marital household as acritical source

of happiness and flourishing for men, women, and children. The tradition has

long taught that while the maritalfamily is neither good for everyone nor always

good, it offers essentialprivate goods to most couples and children and vital public

goods to church, state, economy, and society. 2

Today, however, the marital family has become more fragmented and fragile

in liberal societies. Many states now offer several off-the-rack legal models of

straight and same-sex marriage, civil union, and domestic partnership with



This chapter is adapted from my Church, State, and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings

and Modern Liberties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), chap. 7, which

provides more detailed analysis and references, hereafter CSF.

See detailed sources in ibid. and in my From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion,

and Law in the Western Tradition, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press,

2012), hereafter FSC.

18 John Witte Jr.

shrinking formal and functional distinctions between these domestic forms and

simple nonmarital cohabitation. Strong privacy laws protect all manner of voluntary

sexual interactions among consenting adults, and rapidly growing portions

of the population are “drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage.” 3 To be

sure, some 90 percent of American citizens with college educations and sufficient

means now form stable marital families and rear and form their childreninintact

homes – markedly stronger numbers than thirty years ago at the height of the

sexual revolution and with its 50 percent divorce rate. 4 But persons with fewer

means and less education today “have all but given up on marriage,” June Carbone

and Naomi Cahn report in asoberingcomprehensive study. “For the majority

of Americans who haven’tgraduated from college, marriage rates are low, divorce

rates are high, and afirst child is more likely to be born to parents who are

single than to parents who are married.” 5 And the rates of nonmarital cohabitation

and procreation are considerably higher in most parts of Western Europe,

even while many European nations are losingthe cultural cohesion, political will,

and economic capitalneeded to maintain the modern welfare state that absorbed

many of the responsibilities historically discharged by the church and family. As

the late great Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, put it:

Sex has become, for the first time since the conversion to Christianity of the Roman

Emperor Constantine, an almost value-free zone. Whatever happens between two consenting

adults in private is, most people now believe, entirely amatter for them. The

law may not intervene; neither may social sanction. It is simply not other people’s

business. Together with awhole series of other changes, the result has been that what

marriage brought together has now split apart. There has been adivorce between sex

and love, love and marriage, marriage and reproduction, reproduction and education

and nurture. Sex is for pleasure. Love is afeeling, not acommitment. Marriage is now

deeply unfashionable. Nurture has been outsourced to specialized child carers. Education

is the responsibility of the state. And the consequences of failure are delegated

to social workers. 6





Isabel V. Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage

(Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

See detailed annual statistics and analysis by the National Marriage Project at the University

of Virginia http://nationalmarriageproject.org/ and the Institute for American

Values, http://www.americanvalues.org/.

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, Marriage Matters: How Inequality Is Remaking the American

Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 19–20.

Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London: Continuum,

2007), 210.

The Multidimensional Family Sphere 19

It is easy to lament the breakdown of the modern family and the seeming slide

into asexual state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish,and short,” particularly

for women, children, the elderly and the disabled bereft ofreliable kin altruism,

diaconal care, or socialwelfare. But happily, in recent years anumber of leading

scholars, advocates, and religious, cultural, political, and public-health leaders

have responded decisively in leading apowerful new “marriage movement.” This

movement combines traditional teachings and modern social science and publichealth

findings to advocatefor stablemarital families,responsible sex and parentage,

and proper family planning as essentialfor private flourishing and socialstability.

And this movement has pressed for robust new church,state, and economic

policies in support of the stable marital family – including, notably, same-sex families.

Part of this profamily movement, Isubmit, requires us to rethink the place

and role of the maritalfamily in late modern liberal societies and the interaction

of the family withother powerful social systems. Perhaps the maritalfamily is no

longer the “foundation of the polis,” as Aristotle wrote, or “the cornerstone of

Western civilization,” as the United States Supreme Court confidently

pronounced. 7 But the family remains an essential institution in late modern liberal

societies that still does and should shape our public and private lives, characters,

and value formation, even if it is now more interwoven with andnewly dependentonother

social institutions. This is the flip side of the traditional Western

teaching that the stable family is the foundation of awell-ordered society: awellordered

society is just as much the foundation of astable family. Without strong

social and institutional supports, the marital family is “pitifully vulnerable,” the

late great sociologist Robert Bellah reminded us. Just as “it takes avillage to raise

achild, … it takes asociety toraise afamily.” 8

To make this claim,Ipresent themodernmarital family as asphere, or aglobe

– with anatural pole on the bottom, aspiritual pole on top, and various social,

economic, communicative, and contractual dimensions radiating between them.

At the bottom of this sphere is (1) a natural pole that anchors the natural goods of

marriage and the inherent human inclinations, appetites, capacities, and imperatives

for sex, marriage, and family life. Radiating up from this natural pole are:

(2) a social dimension that articulates the public communal functions and goods

of marriage and the family, and that recognizes the complex groups of institutions

and professions that support and interact with the domestic household and its

members; (3) an economic dimension that reflects the union of properties, labor,

and entitlements by marriage, the ongoing material rights and duties of spouses,



Aristotle, Politics, 1.1.1; Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145, 164–66 (1879).

Robert Bellah, “Epilogue: It Takes aSociety to Raise aFamily,” in Steven M. Tipton and

John Witte Jr., eds., Family Transformed: Religion, Values, and Society in American Life

(Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 286–98.

20 John Witte Jr.

parents, and children during and after amarriage, and the channeling, expressive,

and signaling functions of modern family law; (4) a communicative dimension,

expressed in the public liturgies, celebrations, and symbols that mark the

formation of amarriage and the birth or confirmation of achild as well as in the

vital private daily communications among spouses, children, and household dependents

concerning sex, finance, labor, nurture, formation, social responsibilities,

and more; and (5) a contractual dimension, expressed in the complexformal

promises and provisions that form amarriage and household, and the ongoing

obligations that attach to the relationships of husband and wife, parent and child,

family and society. At the top of the sphere is (6) a spiritual polethat helps binds

together the natural, social, economic, communicative, and contractual dimensions

of the marital family around sacramental, covenantal, or other transcendent

ideals, and stipulates the spiritual inspirations and aspirationsthat marriageand

family life provide for husbands and wives, parents and children, and broader


Social theorists talk alot about “social spheres” –spheres of justice, liberty,

love, governance,morality, education, and so on. 9 At minimum, this language is

descriptive of the distinct institutions or sectors of modern differentiated societies

and their respective contributions to private and public life. But talk of spheres is

also prescriptive for many theorists who aim to define and defend more clearly

the naturalorvoluntary associations that buffer the individual from the state and

other dominating institutions. Given the long and cruel experiences with political

tyranny and totalitarianism in the West, many writers press for the separation,

independence, freedom, autonomy, or even sovereignty of the spheresoffamily,

church, academy, media, market, and other institutions, both from each other and

from the state. Various theories of social or structural pluralism, civil society, subsidiarity,

sphere sovereignty, voluntary associations, the independent sector,

multiculturalism, multinormativity, and other such labels are now crowding the

bookshelves – both liberal and conservative, religious and secular, and featuring

all manner of methods and logics.

This chapter draws on some of this literature to describe briefly the six dimensions

of the marital family sphere as historically constructed and potentially reconstructed

for our modern day – the natural, social, economic, communicative,

contractual, and spiritual dimensions. This sphere metaphor is aheuristic device

– apicturetodescribe the various modes of family life, the different disciplinary


See, for example, Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: ADefense of Pluralism and Equality

(New York: Basic Books, 2010); Michael G. Kammen, Spheres of Liberty (1985; repr., Jackson:

University of Mississippi Press, 2011); Stephen B. Post, Spheres of Love: Toward a

New Ethics of the Family (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1994); Harvey

Lazar and Christian Leuprecht, eds., Spheres of Governance (Montreal/Kingston, ON:

McGill-Queens University Press, 2007).

The Multidimensional Family Sphere 21

perspectivesonthe family, and the range of institutions and professions in which

the family is now embedded. But in stressing the multidimensionality of the marital

family sphere, Iamalso pushingagainst theorists and trends that have sought

to flatten the maritalfamily into one or two dimensions, or to abolish it altogether

as adistinct and necessary social institution.

The Nature ofthe Marital Family

The Western tradition has long treated the marital family as a “natural” association.

The ancient Greekstaught that “marriagewas created by Nature immediately

after the dispersal of Chaos,” as one Greek liturgist put it. “The ordering of the

universe took place because of Marriage and perhaps … Love too was created

then.” Marriage helped “to create man, and contrived tomake him virtually immortal,

furnishing successive generations to accompany the passage of time.” 10

Moreover, thought the ancient Greeks, marriage helped to complete aperson’s

life. “Love is born into every human being,” Plato wrote famously; “it calls back

the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal

the wound of human nature.” 11 In his Laws,Plato thus advised young men to marry

“for the city’sgood” and to restrict “procreative intercourse to its natural function,”

for such “moderation” will bring “untold good. It is dictated, to begin with,

by nature’s own voice … and wins men to affection of their wedded wives. There

are also numerous other blessings which will follow.” 12

The Bible taught that God created humans as “male and female,” called them

to join together as “two in one flesh,” and commanded them to “be fruitful and

multiply” and to fill the earth. 13 God created and inclined the first man and woman

to find completion in each other: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my

flesh,” Adam said on first meeting Eve. 14 God endowedhumans with the physical

capacity to join together and beget children. The Judeo-Christian tradition taught

that these natural qualities and duties continued after the fall into sin and the

expulsion of humans from Paradise. But marriage also served as aremedy to allay

sexual sin. Rather than allow sinful people toburn with lust, God provided the

institution of marriage so that couples could direct their natural drives and desires

toward the service of each other, their children, their kin, and their broader






Menander Rhetor, trans. and ed. D. A. Russell and N. G. Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1981), 136–39.

Plato: Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett

Publishing Co., 1989), 25–31.

Plato, Laws, VI.773b; VIII.839a–b.

Genesis 1:26–28.

Genesis 2:23–24.

22 John Witte Jr.

communities. Scores ofvariations on these stories aboutthe mythical or natural

origins of the marital family have echoed in the history of Western thought.

Many Western liberals have been brought up on asocial-contract variation of

this same idea. In moving from a “state of nature” to an organized society, the first

contract humans formed was the marital contract between afree and equal man

and woman. This contract came before social, political, ecclesiastical, and other

private contracts and provided the most basic protection of the natural rights and

liberties of men, women, and children. As the first and most fundamental contract,

the marital family demandedthe support and protection of all other contractual

associations, including the church, state, society, and economy.

The Western tradition has long taught not only that the marital family has its

origins in nature but also that family members get guidance from natural law.

This law is, most basically as the Roman jurists put it, “the law that nature has

taught all animals,” giving them “natural inclinations” to protect, preserve, and

perpetuate themselves through natural procreative means. 15 Natural law also

consists of the “natural instincts” or “intuitions” that are unique to humans and

the “common customs” and “conventions” that have emerged among humans

over time. 16 These distinctly human qualities of natural law are known, refined,

and applied in human societies through the exercise of reason and conscience,

medieval and early modern writers emphasized. Many animals, driven only by

their natural instincts for self-preservation, kill and eat each otherand take each

other’shomes, food, mates, and offspring. Rational humans, by contrast, have declared

these to be crimes of homicide, theft, adultery, and infanticide and have set

up laws to deter and punish such harms. Many male animals engage in violent

sex, keep harems, and often abandon theirmates and offspring. Rational humans,

however, have learned to prohibit and punish these acts as crimes of rape, polygamy,

and desertion,which defythe natural justice owed to the victim and the community.

Furthermore,humans have learned that exclusive and enduringpair-bonding

strategiesofmarital procreation are the best way to ensure paternal certainty and

joint parental investment in their children. This stability is crucial since human

babies, unlike the young of most other animals, are born tiny, vulnerable, and

utterly dependent on their parents’ care for avery long time. Moreover, stable

marriages are the best way to ensure that men and women are treated withequal

dignity and respect, and that husbandsand wives, parents and children, provide

each other with support, protection, and edification throughout their lifetimes.



Justinian’sInstitutes,trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLeod (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University

Press, 1987), I.1.2; The Digest of Justinian,ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krüger, trans.

Alan Watson, 4vols. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), I.1.3.

Decretum Magistri Gratiani, ed. Emil Friedberg; repr. ed. (Graz: Akademische Druck- u.

Verlagsanstalt, 1959), Dist. 1, c. 7.

The Family in the Matrix of Habit

and History

Robert N. Bellah 1

In the debate over the family in recent years, the question has been raised as to

whether the family is asacred institution or an obsolete tyranny.Even those of us

who are not prepared to think of marriage as tyranny are probably not entirely

happy to think of it as an institution either. As my coauthors and Ipointed out

in The Good Society, Americans do not really much like the idea of institutions,

and this for two reasons. First, institutions come down from the past, are based

on largely unexamined traditions and habits, and therefore probably do not really

fit our current needs. Second, institutions are oppressive – at the extreme, one

thinks of prisons and mental asylums – and they limit our free individual choice.

Actually, this way of thinking about institutions is modern, though it has been

around for awhile; it is, if Imay put it this way, part of the tradition of modernity.

One of the earliest thinkers to express the modern criticism of inherited institutions

was René Descartes, in the seventeenth century. At the beginningofthe second

part of one of the founding documents of modernity, The Discourse on

Method, 2 Descartes describes the typical European town ofhis day. Such atown

is simply ahodgepodge, ajumble of buildings from different eras, in different

styles, of different forms and shapes, and the streets on which they are situated

are often crooked, narrow, and inconvenient. How much better, says Descartes, if

we could just tear the whole thing down and start over, putting up orderly buildings

on straight streets withproper rightangles. In other words, Descartes’sidea

of an ideal town is not one inherited from the past, but one designed anew from a

rational blueprint. For Descartes, the town was ametaphor for our inherited institutionsand

ways of thought. (In the twentieth century, though, the Romanian



This chapter was first presented as alecture for the Center of the Study of Law and Religion

in 2003, and then published in Steven M. Tipton and John Witte Jr., eds., Family

Transformed: Religion, Values, and Society in American Life (Washington, DC: Georgetown

University Press, 2005), 21–33, and is reproduced here, with cosmetic editing, with the

permission of the publisher and the Center.

René Descartes, Discours de la Méthode [1637] (Paris: Larousse, 1934), 21–23.

44 Robert N. Bellah

dictator Nicolae Ceau escu actually did pull down much ofold Bucharest and

erect “orderly” buildings in its place, with aresult that was not charming atall.)

Then Descartes makesaneven more remarkable move. He regrets that duringthe

early years of his life, his mind was filled with opinions, stories, and baseless information,

entirely unexamined by reason, and he wishes that he might have been

born at the age of twenty with his mind unclutteredbysomuch useless material. I

do not even want to think of what kind of monster an unsocialized infant of twenty

might be!

So let me sayrightoff that although everyimaginable criticism of institutions,

including the institutions of marriage and the family, has some basis, without institutionswewould

not be free – we would be dead. In every aspect of our lives, we

depend on the relationships that institutions make possible. This is not in the

least to say that they are perfect or that they do not need continuous reform and

improvement; only that doing away with them altogether is amonstrousidea, as

attested by the actions of those in the twentieth centurywho have tried it, such as

Ceau escu and Pol Pot, though Ithink some of our rational-choice theorists are, in

their own way, trying to do something quite similar.

Aristotle can help us understand why Descartes’swish to be born at the age of

twenty is not agood idea either. For Aristotle,habitisanimportant starting point.

In his Ethics,virtue – his fundamental ethical term – is, he says, ahabit (in Greek a

hexis), that is, a “formed state of character” which is in control of our emotions. 3

We are judged, therefore, not by our emotions but by the settled dispositions, the

habits, which control our emotions. Aristotledraws from this definition aconclusion

that may surprise us or even offend us: he says that the young are not fit

students for ethical philosophy, for they are too apttobeled by their feelings, and

they have not yet developed the habits which would allow them to appreciate ethical

reflection. Ethics, as he says, is, after all, not an exact science, and its object is

not knowledge but action. 4 So bright young people might well studymodern moral

philosophy – Kant’s categorical imperative,for example, or Bentham’s greatest

good of the greatest number – for these are purely theoretical ideas, and the

young can be quite good at theory. But little good it would do them ethically, Aristotle

would say, if they do not already havethe habits required for living an ethical


Of course, Aristotleisquick to add, the matter is not one of chronological age,

for there are some who are forever too “young” to understand ethics, and some

relatively young people might already have acquired virtuous habits. Still, it is

worth considering the fact that Aristotle, who wrote voluminous critical treatises

on just abouteverythingand was willing to discourse at great length on all man-



Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Oswald (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill,

1962), 1105b–1106a.

Ibid., 1095a.

The Family in the Matrix of Habit and History 45

ner of ethical problems,beginsnot with talk but with habit, and says in effect that

without habit, talk about ethics is worthless. What is shocking to us about this is

that Aristotle seems to be overriding individual freedom – worse yet, the individual

freedom of the young – and insisting in an utterlyauthoritarian manner that

he will not even teach them about ethics until they have learned proper habits.

Socrates famously questioned whether it is possible to teach virtue, and Aristotle’sargument

here helps us understand why. Philosophical teaching is, after

all, always amatter of discursive, analytical talk. Habit is clearlysomething else.

What is that something else?Tounderstand the difference between these two approaches,

Iwant to turn to Mary Douglas’s remarkable book Natural Symbols,

which Ihavereread carefully several times in my life, each time withincreasing

profit. 5 Douglas takes some interesting observations of Basil Bernstein’s about

London families in the mid-twentieth century and uses them to construct ageneral

theory of the relation between social control and symbolic codes, atheory that

Ithink sheds agreat deal of light on our problem of habit and the relation of habits

to institutions. Bernstein noted that therewere two rather different forms of family

in his sample and that these two forms differed by class. Working-class families

used what he called positional control systems and restricted speech codes,

while middle-class families used personal control systems and elaborated speech

codes. Because the word “restricted” is invidious in away that Ithink neither

Bernstein nor Douglas intends, Iwill henceforth speakof “condensed” rather than

“restricted” speech codes in contrast to elaborated ones, and will make this terminological

change even when quoting them.

Douglas describes the condensed speech code that is generated in the positional


The child in this family is controlled by the continual building up of asense of social

pattern: of ascribed role categories. If he asks “Why must Idothis?” the answer is in

terms of relative position. Because Isaid so (hierarchy). Because you are aboy (sex

role). Because children always do (age status). Because you are the oldest (seniority).

As he grows, his experience flows into agrid of role categories; right and wrong are

learnt in terms of given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure. 6

Douglas notes that this pattern can be found in some aristocratic as well as working-class

families. In any case,what Iwant to emphasize is that condensedcode is

based on the taken-for-grantedness of institutions: that is what it means to call it

positional. There is areal social world there, and we understand each other and

ourselves only in relation to it.



Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London: Barrie and Jenkins,


Ibid., 24.

46 Robert N. Bellah

Douglas then describes the other form:

By contrast, in the family system which Professor Bernstein calls personal afixed pattern

of roles is not celebrated, but rather the autonomy and unique value of the individual.

When the child asks aquestion the mother feels bound to answer it by as full

an explanation as she knows. The curiosity of the child is used to increase his verbal

control, to elucidate causal relations, to teach him to assess the consequences of his

acts. Above all his behaviour is made sensitive to the personal feelings of others, by

inspecting his own feelings. Why can’tIdo it?Because your father’sfeeling worried;

because Ihave got aheadache. How would you like it if you were adog?

Douglas quotes Bernstein to the effect that in the middle-class family, the child is

being regulated by the feelings of the regulator: “‘Daddy will be pleased, hurt, disappointed,

angry, ecstatic if you go on doing this.’ …Control is effected through

either the verbalmanipulation of feelings or through the establishment of reasons

which link the child to his acts.” 7

But let me back up astep with an example. Afriend of mine was waiting for an

elevator in his apartmentbuilding and overheard aconversationbetween amother

and asmall child. The child was whining about something or other most persistently,

and the mother was calmly and extensively explaining why the child

could not have what she wanted. The child persisted with rising whiny tones, and

the mother continuedtoreiterate all the reasons why not. My friend was becoming

increasingly uncomfortable with this apparently interminable palaver when

the mother finally said quite firmly and briefly: “Because I’m the mother and

you’re the child, that’s why.” What this mother had done was to shift rather

abruptly from the elaborated code to the condensed code.This example suggests

that Bernstein’stwo codes are not mutually exclusive,and that all of us use both of

them at least some of the time.

Let me use this example to link back the two codes to the idea of institutions.

Condensed code is always institutionally rooted. When the motherfinally invokes

the mother-child relation, she is invoking awhole institutional context, aset of

habits if you will, that requires parents to care for children and childrentogrow

up and flourish under that care. Elaborated code floats free from institutions and

is rooted more in the ideas and feelings of individuals. It may be used to criticize

institutions, but it can never float entirely free of them, for it takes them for granted

as the very basis from which criticism is possible.

Iwould arguefor the priority of institutions, and the condensed code that expresses

them, in part because no one ever starts with the elaborated code. All children

begin with positional control and the condensedlanguage code because personal

control and the elaborated code require skills that no newborn has. The


Ibid., 26.

The Family in the Matrix of Habit and History 47

relation between mother and child, or perhaps we should better saybetween parent

and child, is necessarily positional – that is, institutional – because highly

asymmetrical: an infant needs to be held, cared for, talked to, or sung to but cannot

be addressed with elaborate appeals to feelings or reasons, at least not for

quite awhile. In fact, interaction with an infant looks suspiciously like habit or

its close relation, ritual. Linguists have discovered that in all cultures, parents

speak to infants in something they call “motherese,” akind of simplified, highly

repetitive, singsong, partly nonsense kind of language, one that communicates

feeling rather than information. Each languagehas its own version of motherese,

to be sure, but the basic characteristics seem to be universal.Nonverbal communication

with an infant is probably even more important. Erik Erikson suggested

that the “greeting ceremonial” between mother and child, marking the beginning

of the infant’s day, is the root of all subsequent ritualization. 8

Infants become human because of habitual, nondiscursive, verbal, and nonverbal

interaction with adults, which is, in Basil Bernstein’s terms, necessarily

positional in control and condensed inspeech code. The function ofthis kind of

interaction is to position children, to give them an identity relative to others, to

provide them asocial, an institutional, location.

So far, Ihave been trying to insist, because of the low esteem we have these

days for thingslike habit and ritual, let alone institutions, that positional control

and condensed code are rather basic to our humanity and cannot really be dispensed

with. So why did we then develop personal control and the elaborated

code?Incontemporary society, Douglaslinks them to the division of labor, which

differentially impacts working-class and middle-class families:

It is essential to realize that the elaborated code is aproduct of the division of labour.

The more highly differentiated the social system, the more specialised the decisionmaking

roles – then the more the pressure for explicit channels of communication

concerning awide range of policies and their consequences. The demands of the industrial

system are pressing hard now upon education to produce more and more verbally

articulate people who will be promoted to entrepreneurial roles. By inference the

condensed code will be found where these pressures are weakest [that is to say among

people whose jobs are both routine and require little verbal facility]. 9

Although Douglas finds the social basis for positional control and condensed code

in some modern professions – the military, for example – most of the professions

that increasingly dominate the higher echelons of our occupationalworld require

people well versed inpersonal control and elaborated speech. The symbolic an-



Erik H. Erikson, “The Development of Ritualization,” in The Religious Situation 1968,ed.

Donald R. Cutler (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 711–33.

Douglas, Natural Symbols, 21.

48 Robert N. Bellah

alysts, as Robert Reich characterizes our top professionals, are critical by their

very job description. Douglas characterizes them asfollows:

Here are the people who live by using elaborated speech to review and revise existing

categories of thought. To challenge received ideas is their very bread and butter. They

(or should Isay we?) practise aprofessional detachment toward any given pattern of

experience. The more boldly and comprehensively they apply their minds to rethinking,

the better their chances of professional success. Thus the value of their radical

habit of thought is socially confirmed, and reinforced. For with the rise to professional

eminence comes the geographical and social mobility that detaches them from their

original community. With such validation, they are likely to raise their children in the

habit of intellectual challenge and not to impose apositional control pattern.

Indeed, she goes on to say, they are likely to prefer personal forms of control and

to focus on feelings rather than rules in child-rearing. As aresult, “ideas about

morality and the self get detached from the social structure.” 10 It is not that children

raised in such amilieulack ethical ideas; sensitivity to the feelings of others

can arouse strong ethical passions when others are observed to be suffering. The

problem is that without some positional sense of institutional membership and

without strong condensed symbols, ethical sensitivities may simply dissipate into

good intentions without leading to sustained moral commitments.

Douglas is very even-handed in her sense that we need both modes of relating.

She affirms “the duty of everyone to preserve theirvision from the constraints of

the condensed code when judging any social situation. … [W]e must recognise

that the value of particular social forms can only be judged objectively by the analytic

power of the elaborated code.” 11 She is well aware that condensed codes in

the context of institutional authority can be bothauthoritarian and unjust. “Do it

because Isaid so” is an example of condensed code that carries the implication of

some, perhaps quite unpleasant, nonverbal sanction that will follow if the recipient

of the command rejects it. Except under conditions of extreme emergency,an

elaborated request for reasons is justified. Similarly, the condensed statement

“Little girls don’t dothat” is open to challenge with respect tothe whole takenfor-granted

definition of gender. These are the kinds ofreflection that lead “us”

to presume that personal control and elaborated code are always preferable to the

alternative. Yet Douglas warns us against precisely that conclusion:

There is no person whose life does not need to unfold in acoherent symbolic system.

The less organized the way of life, the less articulated the symbolic system may be. But

social responsibility is no substitute for symbolic forms and indeed depends upon



Ibid., 31.

Ibid., 166.

The Family in the Matrix of Habit and History 49

them. When ritualism is openly despised the philanthropic impulse is in danger of

defeating itself. For it is an illusion to suppose that there can be organisation without

symbolic expression. … Those who despise ritual, even at its most magical, are cherishing

in the name of reason avery irrational concept of communication. 12

So where does Douglasleave us, including her?She is not asking us, as some converts

to various forms of fundamentalism are, to abandon our personal and elaborated

selves and jump back into the positional box. No, she is asking us with all

our critical rationality to see that we need both forms of control and both codes.

She writes:

In the long run, the argument of this book is that the elaborated code challenges its

users to turn round on themselves and inspect their values, to reject some of them, and

to resolve to cherish positional forms of control and communication wherever these

are available. … No one would deliberately choose the elaborated code and the personal

control system who is aware of the seeds of alienation it contains. 13

But the question remains, in what sense can we, products of personal families and

modern educational and occupational systems, “deliberately choose” aspects of

positional control and condensedcode?Iwill argue that some dialectic, some complementarity,

must be sought, because giving upeither alternative would exact

too high aprice. Ithink we know the price of going back into the box of some kind

of closed traditionalism. Can we explore further the implications of Douglas’s

warning about trying to live in the elaborated code alone?

If we see that trying to live in the elaborated code alone would mean that we

would have to make up our lives as we go along, that we could take nothing for

granted – because we would havenoinstitutional context to tell us where we are –

we can begin to see that it is not only undesirable but impossible. Douglas’s dichotomy

may be too stark, for even the citadel of criticalreason, the modern university,

is an institution, with the habits and rituals that institutions always entail.

What Idid in delivering this paper, giving alecture, is aritual, one we are so habituated

to that we hardly recognize it as aritual, even though it is afairly complex


But, we might ask, are not some institutions in modern society based entirely

on elaborated codes – are they not purely rational?Economic institutions, for example?

Yet, in recent years, economists have been rediscovering what was once

called institutional economics. The economist Geoffrey Hodgson suggests why institutions

are as essential in the economy as anywhere else in our social life:



Ibid., 50.

Ibid., 157.

Part Two:

The Role of the Family in

Child Development and

Moral Character Formation

The Beginnings of Norm and Value

Formation in Human Ontogeny and

the Role of the Family

Sabina Pauen

Most of us share the intuition that family life shapes the basic norms and values

that guide our social behavior as adults. At the same time, we should not forget

that young children face hugevariability in socialstandards.For example, different

rules apply at home, in school, and on the playground. Withinthe family, caregivers

may promote diverging values and standards. They may tolerate certain

behaviors in infants but not in older siblings, and they may be less strict on holidays

than duringthe week. And children may meet different standards when interacting

with their siblings or other peers than when interacting with their parents

or other adults. How do children cope with this complexity? How do they

find out which values or norms apply independent of the social setting and which

are context- or situation-specific?This chapter addresses these questions by taking

acloser look at the mechanisms that guide social learning throughout early

childhood and reflectingupon the role that families play in developing norms and



Establishing Social Relatedness and Forming Basic Trust

Humans are social beings who need the presence of otherpeople in order to survive

– at least during the first yearsoflife. 1 Only if infants experience that other

people take care of their physical and psychological needs will they appreciate

social bonds and become motivated to learn about the norms and values of the

community they are growing upin.


R. Spitz, “Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early

Childhood,” in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child,vol. 1, ed. O. Fenichel, P. Greenacre,

and H. Harmann (New York: International Universities Press, 1945).

60 Sabina Pauen

Infants communicate their needs via facial expressions, vocal sounds, body

movements, and gestures. Evolution prepared human caregivers to decode these

signals properly and to respond to themadequately. 2 Even without any previous

experience, we can distinguish acry of pain from acry of hunger. Whenever we

hear acorresponding sound, stress hormones are released, and we typically feel

the urge to approach the baby and to establish bodily contact. We will rock the

baby gently, speak slowly with many repetitions and in amelodicfriendly voice,

while keeping close face-to-face contact and exploring potential reasons for discomfort.

All these activities belong toour natural and universal behavioral repertoire,

called intuitive parenting. Even our hormone system is designed to experience

positive exchanges with ababy as highly rewarding. 3 Hence, we come

equipped with the ability to take care of human infants and to relate to them socially.

Sensitivity to infants’ signals, as well as reliability, consistency, and appropriateness

of responses, characterize caregiving behavior that supports bonding

the nucleusofsocialrelatedness. 4 Breastfeeding plays akey role in this context,

as it nurtures the baby in multiple ways, providing not only food but also skin

contact and social exchange. Importantly, bonding is not restricted to the mother

or biological family members. The numberofpeopletobond with may be limited

because young children still have difficulties recognizing individuals. Nonetheless,

it should be noted that any person who spends time with ababy can become

abonding partner. Parents, siblings, and neighbors can play this role equally

well. If only one or two people spend time with the baby, he or she will develop

astrong bond with these individuals but remainskeptical when meeting nonfamily

members. If multiple caregivers serve as bonding partners (for example, when

achild is raised in alarge family or spends time in ahigh-quality day care setting

with stability in caregivers), basic trust is likely to generalize more broadly.

It is not only the durationand frequency of contactbut also the quality of the

relational experience that counts when it comes tobonding: neglect or negative

caregiving (involving passive, hostile, or aggressive behaviors as well as inconsistent

and inappropriate handling) can prevent the child from developing basic

trust. We know that the first year is critical for this development. Children who

do not receive appropriate care duringthe first few months of their life are likely

to show impaired brain development and behavioral problems later in life, no




H. Papou⇥ek and M. Papou⇥ek, “Intuitive Parenting,” in Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 2,

Biology and Ecology of Parenting, ed. M. H. Bornstein (Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Associates, 1995), 117–36.

R. Feldman and M. J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, “Oxytocin: AParenting Hormone,” Current

Opinions in Psychology 15 (2017): 13–18, doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.02.011.

J. Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health,World Health Organization Monograph, Serial

No. 2(Geneva: WHO, 1951).

The Beginnings of Norm and Value Formation in Human Ontogeny 61

matter how well they are treated afterwards. 5 Bonding teaches the child its first

main lesson regarding human values: “We are taking care of one another,” and “I

am being loved.” Without this basic insight, the openness to share norms, rituals,

customs, and values with fellow human beings and the development of prosocial

behavior are likely to be limited. Individuals who do not have the chance to develop

basic trust may also show inappropriate behavior when interacting with

their own offspring later in life, simply because their intuitive parenting skills

got overruled by bad experiences during early childhood.

In sum, we can conclude that multiple caregivers who (a) are in contact with

the child on aregular basis for longer periods of time duringthe day, (b) offer the

child predictability in terms of when and how they are emotionally available, and

(c) respond reliably, appropriately, and warmly to the needsofthe infant provide

the best conditions for developing basic trust. In positive interactions, the child

can learn how to communicate and understand his or her own needs, intentions,

and feelings. This understanding isaprerequisite for sharing values and norms

with others. In that respect, well-functioning families combined with high-quality

day care provide an ideal environment to acquire basic trust and to promote social


Understanding Intentions and Distinguishing between Good and

Bad Behavior

Modern infant research suggests that we are all born with an intentional stance. 6

This meansthat we interpret the behavior of humans and animals as beinggoaldirected

and driven by intentions. When observing the behavior of otherpeople,

infants automatically try to understand the motivation of the actions they perceive.

This is important for becoming aware of social rules.

Babies as young as threetosix months of age have been found to distinguish

alreadybetween actions that are friendly and those that are hostile, thussuggesting

that we may be born with some general standards for evaluating human behavior.

To demonstrate this, Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom 7 ran the following experimentwith

five-month-old infants.Three hand puppets were interacting on a

small stage. Puppet Atried to open abox. While puppet Bkeptjumping on the lid,




C. A. Nelson, N. A. Fox, and C. H. Zeanah, Romania′s Abandoned Children: Deprivation,

Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 2014).

G. Gergely et al., “Taking the Intentional Stance at 12 Months of Age,” Cognition 56, no. 2

(1995): 165–93, https://doi.org/10.1016/0010–0277(95)00661-H.

K. Wynn and P. Bloom, “The Moral Baby,” in Handbook of Moral Development,ed. M. Killen

and J. G. Smetana (New York: Psychology Press, 2014), 435–53.

62 Sabina Pauen

thus hindering puppet Afrom opening it, puppet Csupported puppet Ainpushing

the lid upward. Followingthis scene, infants were shown puppets Band C. An

analysis of their viewing time revealed that they preferred to look at puppet C(the

helper); furthermore, they were more willing to share areward with this puppet

than with puppet B(the hinderer). In afurther step, puppets Band Ceach tried to

open the box themselves, and two new charactersserved as helper or hinderer in

each case.Now, infants preferred to see puppet Bbeing punished by ahinderer,

and puppet Cbeing rewarded by ahelper (as evidenced by acorresponding viewing

preference for the puppet playing each role). Infants less than half ayear of

age thus developed ageneral attitude toward puppets based on how each behaved

in asituation. Infants not only liked the helper more than the hinderer but also

preferred to see the helper being rewarded and the hinderer being punished socially.

Today, developmental psychologists discuss whether infants are born with

the ability to distinguish between bad (antisocial) and good (prosocial)behavior,

with some expectation that each type of behavior should lead to different social


This distinction between prosocial and antisocial behavior can be strengthened

or weakened through observational learning. Reward and punishment do

not need to be experienced personally but are equally effective when the child

observes someone else being rewarded or punished, as in the puppet study. In

fact, observational learning may sometimes be even more effective, as the child

is not directly involved in the given situation and has free mental capacity to think

about the event. If young children repeatedly observe that antisocial behavior is

being rewarded, they adapt to these standards and learn that it is socially acceptable

to behave this way. But if young children repeatedly see that other people

disapprove of antisocial behavior, they will infer that acting in similar ways is

likely to have negative consequences. Developmental research thus suggests that

infants expect people to be held responsible for their actions toward others. Observational

learning will lead them either to strengthen their apriori beliefsorto

revise them and adapt to new standards.

As this type of learning takes place very early in life, when children still

spend most of their time at home, we can assume that the way family members

interact has ahugeimpact on the development of abasic understanding of values

and norms. Importantly, it is not only the behavior toward the child that affects

this development but also the exchange between other family members (that is,

between caregivers, between siblings) that shapes children’svalue and norm system.

The Beginnings of Norm and Value Formation in Human Ontogeny 63

Sharing Emotions and Evaluations with Others

Young infants are able to feel with others, aphenomenon called emotional contagion.

Adults show emotional contagion, for instance, when identifying with the

protagonist of amovie. This type of emotional identification with another person

may also help to explain the evaluative response of infants in the puppet study

mentioned above. When the baby watches puppet Atrying to open the box, she

identifies with this puppet and thus “feels” how it would feel to be treated ina

hostile way by puppet Borinafriendly way by puppet C.

Rather than simply crying with someonewho is in tears, we might also try to

understand the potential reasons for that person’s emotion as away of seeing

what the other person actually needs. If sadness is the reason for crying, we might

provide consolation; if pain leads to tears, we might look foradoctor or medicine;

if anger or frustration motivates the emotional expression, we might try to help

reevaluate the situation. Empathy differs from emotional contagion in that it includes

thoughts about the potential reasons forthe emotions observed, and it results

in behavior that aims at supporting others rather than just sharing theirfeelings.

Infants are not yet capable of empathy because they still lack the ability to

represent the mental state of someone else. But even before their first birthday,

they attain an important skill that serves as aprerequisite for developing empathy.

It all starts with following the attentional focus of other people bytrying to

figure out where they look or what they point to. Whereas young infants can focus

only on either the person who is pointing or on the target pointed at, nine-totwelve-month-olds

are able to keep in mind both aspects in parallel. This is called

joint attention. 8 Joint attention marks avery important milestoneinsociocognitive

development, as it reflects the achievement of sharing amind state withsomeone

else. At around the same time that infants acquire joint attention, they also begin

to show social and emotional referencing: when the child is together with his mother,

and astranger enters the room, the child might look at his or her mother to see

how she responds emotionally. If the mother staysrelaxed and in apositive mood,

the child is more likely to show approach behavior, but if the mother feels tense

and reveals anegative expression, the infant is more likely to withdraw. Similarly,

we can often observe that achild who starts to do something that is clearly

forbidden (for example, picking up his father’s mobile phone) first looks to his

caregiver’sface to see whether he can risk going ahead without receiving aclear

stop signal. By one year of age, infants are capable of sharing mental states and

social-emotional evaluations with their bonding partners. This is essential for

transmission of values and norms.


M. Tomasello, Becoming Human (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

64 Sabina Pauen

If atrusted caregiveracts in aprosocial way toward someoneelse, this elicits

positive feelings in the young child observing the scene, because the child identifies

withthe other person. But if the very same caregiver treats someone else in

an antisocial way and the child does not understand why, the child is likely to

experience aconflict between her natural tendencytocondemn antisocial actions

and her basic trust that leads to emotional referencing. This conflict may result

either in weakening the bond between the caregiver and child or in identifying

with the caregiverand responding in ahostile way toward the other person. This

example illustrates that bad role models can easily leadyoung childrentodevelop

negative feelings toward other persons, even though those persons never behave

in an antisocial way. Thus, being able to show emotional or social referencing is

by no means aguarantee ofdeveloping prosocial behavior. Rather, we need to

keep in mind that young children tend to refer to the emotional and social responsesoftheir

caregivers, and that they are likely to develop similar preferences

and attitudes. Again, we can assume that family members are likely to serve as

important reference figures in this regard.


Cooperation and Spontaneous Helping

During their second year of life, childrenare no longer just recipients or observers

of social actions but rather come to take amore active role in exchanges with other

people. Simple give-and-take routines are well established already. By two years

of age, children have also learned which behaviors elicit positive or negative responses

intheir caregiver. Basic trust and social relatedness will increase children’swillingness

to please their caregiver. Being able to move around and to grasp

objects, to show joint attention and to infer intentions from actions, toddlers now

become prosocialintheiractions; they may pick up an object accidently dropped

by their caregiver, they may help to get access to objects out of reach, or they may

open adoor for their parents if they are carrying things and need afree hand. 9

This is true of interactions not only with primary caregivers but also with other


Recent studies demonstrate that spontaneous helping is more likely to occur

when it is obvious to the child that another person actually needs assistance. If the

other person lets an object drop on purpose, the child will not pick it up. If the


F. Warneken and M. Tomasello, “The Developmental and Evolutionary Origins of Human

Helping and Sharing,” in The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior,ed. D. A. Schroeder

and W. G. Graziano (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/


The Beginnings of Norm and Value Formation in Human Ontogeny 65

other person can reach for agiven object without difficulty, the child will also hesitate

to provide support. Hence, the helping behavior of toddlers results from a

careful analysis of the intentions and needs ofthe interactive partner. However,

caregivers often experiencesituations in which an explicit request for help is ignored

by the child (especially when it comes to doing unpleasant things, like tidying

up the room). Young toddlers engage in prosocial actions because they want

to affiliate and share positive feelings with others, not because they feel amoral

call to help.

Caregivers nurture the very beginnings of helping behavior most efficiently if

they (a) communicate their needs but do not expect the child to help, (b) give the

child the chance to infer the caregiver’sintentionsand to plan ahelping action by

leaving some time before solving the problem on their own, (c) remain patient if

the child’sattempt to help does not lead to immediate success, and (d) praisethe

child for his or her engagement independent of the result. If parents observe attempts

by atoddler to help asibling, they should not intervenebut should reward

the child for the effort. Professional caregivers are trained to support the development

of social helping behavior in young children. In preschool or kindergarten,

young children frequently observe peers being praised for helping behavior,

which further increases their own motivation to behave accordingly.

Dealing with Conflicts of Interest and Sharing Goods with Others

The limitations of toddlers’ moral understanding also become evident in situations

involving conflicts of interest. Just imagine sitting in asand pit with several

two-to-three-year-old children. Toddlers easily become upset when someone takes

away atoy, destroys something they built, or hurts them (even by accident). At the

same time, they may not hesitate to show corresponding behavior toward playmates.

It seems to be perfectly all right for two-to-three-year-olds toapply different

standards to themselves than to others, as they still need to develop asense of

justice that applies to everyone. Most toddlers,when asked to share sweets with

playmates or siblings, will not split the treats evenly but will keep the larger proportion

for themselves. Alternatively, they may also give away all of it – depending

on what seems relevant to them in the situation: to get as muchaspossible or

to affiliate and make friends. Some children may offer their toys to others quite

generously, while others do not want to share them at all. Children who do not feel

aneed to make friends, or who fear not gettingenough, tend to be more defensive

and less sharing, whereas children who enjoy being with peers and are very keen

on affiliating with others are typicallymore generous. It is important for caregivers

to understand the motivation driving children’s behavior in such situations

and to realize that it is quite demanding to find the right balance between defending

one’s own interests and accepting the interests ofothers. In any case, we

66 Sabina Pauen

should keep in mind that toddlers do not evaluate theirown behavior according to

the same standards as they view the behavior of others, and they thus still lack a

true sense of fairness.

Within families,siblings often compete for resources like food, toys, or caregiver

attention. This can be quite challenging for parents, but it also provides a

great training environment for moral development. Agood way to deal with conflicts

among siblings is to guard and guide the children. Explaining to young children

why it is important to share, and praising them for acting accordingly, will

increase the likelihood of theirshowingthis type of behavior.And demonstrating

the same behavior will lead to positive interactive exchanges, promoting the insight

that sharing has social benefits. Again, it seems important to note that children

will closely observe how parents and siblings deal with situations that call

for sharing, and that these experiences will also contribute to their own understanding

of values and norms.

What It Takes to Develop aTrue Sense of Morality in Toddlerhood

In order to develop atrue sense of fairness and moral understanding, young children

need to develop self-regulation skills – especially impulse control. Impulse

regulation leaves them time for remembering social rules or becoming aware of

the needs of their interactive partner before responding in agiven situation. Children

also develop a concept of the self,asthis allows them to take an external perspective

on their own behavior and to understand that moral standards apply to

everyone,including themselves. Complex self-related emotions,like shame, pride,

and guilt, which first emerge around three years of age, reveal that the individual

has started to take this external perspective. In addition, words referring to internal

(mental) states need to be acquired to promote mind talk, since the development

of moral standards requires an understanding of the cognitive,motivational,

and emotional states that underlie people’s behavior and feelings. The larger

the mental vocabulary of agiven child to describe these internal states, the more

she or he will be able to perceive and think about differentiated intentions. In the

following paragraphs, the development of each of these aspects is explained in

more detail. Most skills start todevelop intoddlerhood, but progress continues

far beyond early childhood.

In general, self-regulation undergoes major changes between the ages of two

and four years. Younger toddlers still find it hard tofollow instructions or to accept

that they are not allowed to show certain behaviors, especially when external

demands keep them from realizing their ownplans. They also find it hard to deal

with frustration or othernegative feelings. Their lack of impulse control and emotion

regulation has to do with the fact that certain brain areas responsible for selfregulation

(for example, the orbitofrontal cortex) mature between ages threeand

The Beginnings of Norm and Value Formation in Human Ontogeny 67

five. It is thus not by chance, nor by bad intention, that two-to-three-year-olds often

experience tantrums. When toddlers do not get their way, they often protest

loudly, usually causingcaregivers to insist on beingobeyed. Children may experience

this situation as threatening to their emerging sense of autonomy or to

their emotional bond with the caregiver, thus intensifying their attempts to communicate

their need. Caregivers then feel provoked by signs of disobedience and

become angry. Unfortunately, showing negative emotions makes things even

worse, as theyfuel toddlers’ arousal and anxiety. This is likely to end in atantrum

because childrenare unable to self-regulate and calm down; rather, they get overwhelmed

by their own negative feelings. In such situations, it is important to help

the child relax before discussingthe issue and trying to negotiate asolution. Managing

conflicts of interest is highly challenging and stressful for children as well

as caregivers, but correspondingsituations play akey role when it comestopromoting

social behavior in the long run. It pays off for parents to remainpatient but

clear about consequences, and to justifytheir ownposition by explaining the rationale

underlyingtheirdecisions. High arousal blocks reasoningskills and will

not help the child to gain insights into the need to accept agiven social norm.

In situations of conflict, young toddlers realize differences between themselves

and their caregivers in evaluating agiven situation. One good thing about

this is that it contributes to developing autonomy and asense of the self. As suggested

by the so-called Rouge test, aconscious self-concept first emerges during

the second year of life: When an adult casually places avisible mark on the face of

the child, and the child later sees herself in the mirror, she may either touch the

mark on her face because she already knows that the image refers to herself, or

she may touch the mark on the face in the mirror because she still lacks the ability

to recognize herself. Looking at themselves from an external perspective helps

young toddlers to consciously reflect how others perceive and evaluate their behavior.

Feelings of shame and pride also emerge between two and three years of age,

as they are related to this increasing awareness of the self. One experiences

shame when one feels uncomfortable being evaluated by others, and pride when

one feels good because others evaluate aspects of their personality positively.

Both feelings imply ageneral understanding that (a) each person has attributes

characterizing his or her personality, (b) social evaluation matters for one’s own

well-being, and (c) the child can be the object of social evaluation. Among the

three emotions just mentioned, guilt is probably the one most closely linked to

moral development. Originally, the nonacceptance of acertain behavior is communicated

by others, and the child receives direct negative feedback when acting

that way. Repeated experiences of this kind lead the child to expect social punishment

if he or she shows certain behaviors, and this expectation usually leads to

impulse control in the presence of others. The expectation of negative consequences

is later internalized and prevents the child from showing the nonacceptable

68 Sabina Pauen

behavior even without others being present. Feelings of shame or guilt mark an

important milestone inmoral development, but they can also reduce spontaneous,

authentic, and explorative behavior. Caregivers should thus carefully consider

the behaviors for which they induce feelings of pride, shame, or guilt.

Because childrendonot yet fully understand moral standards at ages two to

three, they mainly refrain from showing certain behaviors in order to avoid social

punishment, and they show other behaviors more often if they are socially rewarded.

If social feedback does not have much value for achild, however, or if

the child is used to being treated harshly anyway, showing disapproval may not

have much of an effect. This is often the problem in families that use punishment


If acaregiver wants to supportthe formation of values and norms in achild, it

is insufficient to just provide negative feedback for antisocialbehavior; rather, the

child needs some explanation why abehavior is not acceptable. That way, the

child also increases his or her vocabulary to describe emotions, thoughts, or motivational

states, thus promoting mind talk,which helps the child understand the

meaning of social values and norms. By pointingout how others are affected if a

given social rule is ignored,caregivers teach childrentoimaginethe consequences

of behavior for themselves and to simulate the associated feelings, thus acquiring

adeeper understanding ofwhy they should follow the rule. Verbal communication

thus helps the child to abstract, memorize, and understand social


In sum, toddlers are still in aprocess of learning how to control theirimpulses

and their emotions and how to talk about mental states. Furthermore, their developing

of self-awareness helps them to look at their own actions from adifferent

perspective,toidentifywith specific values, and to experience shame, pride, and

guilt when their behavior does not match social standards, thus showingthe first

signs of internalizing values and norms. Talking about conflicts and the rules for

resolving them supports this process in important ways.

Early Childhood

Apart from learning by reward and verbal explanations, observational learning

has already been identified as acrucial mechanism for transmitting values and

norms that starts already in infancy but becomes more and more important with


Family Storytelling and the

Communication of Values

Robyn Fivush

Human beings are storytellers. Whether telling tales of mythic adventures, folk

heroes, or family members, humans understand and communicate about their

world, the people in it, and what it all means through stories. 1 Moreover, stories

always have apoint, amoral, avalue. Stories are compelling illustrations of what

it meanstobeaperson, of how to live alife, and how to relate to others. Through

stories we construct shared understandings of the world and how to be apart of it.

And we do this all the time. Certainly, we tell the big stories at holidays and ritual

celebrations, at weddings, births, and funerals, in political and religious observances;

we tell the stories of our family, of our community, of our people. But we

also tell small stories; every day we share the minutiae of our lives, what we did at

work or school, with friends and family, over the dinner table, over the phone, or

over the internet. Estimates indicate that these kinds of stories emerge in everyday

conversations about once every five minutes. 2 That we tell stories is unquestionable;

how and why we tell stories is amore interesting story!

In this chapter, Ireview research my colleagues and Ihave conducted over

the past three decades examining the processes and outcomes of family

storytelling. 3 How do families create shared stories that reverberate through the

generations, and how might these stories influence developmental outcome? I

show how family storytelling passes on not just family knowledge and traditions

but also family values, an understanding ofwhat it means to be part of afamily

and to share commitments, values, and ideals. To lay the foundation for this argument,

Ifirst provide amore overarching theoretical frame for examining how stories

both create and are created within broad social and cultural interactions.




J. Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

J. G. Bohanek et al., “Narrative Interaction in Family Dinnertime Conversations,” Merrill-

Palmer Quarterly 55, no. 4(Oct. 2009): 488–515, https://doi.org/10.1353/mpq.0.0031.

See R. Fivush, Family Narratives and the Development of an Autobiographical Self: Social

and Cultural Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory (New York: Routledge, 2019).

76 Robyn Fivush

Family Storytelling in Sociocultural Context

Anarrative, orstory, carves the unending flow of experience into discrete units

with beginnings, middles, and ends. 4 All known human cultures tell stories, 5 and,

although the form of the narrative might vary, all stories integrate what Jerome

Bruner has called the landscape of action – the external world of objects, actions,

and people – with the landscape of consciousness – the internal world of

thoughts, emotions, and reflections. 6 In this way, stories become more than recounting

what happened and include information about why things unfolded as

they did, about intentions and motivations, as well as about consequences,reactions,

and ramifications, telling adrama ripe with human emotion and interpretation.

In this sense, all stories are forms of morality tales; they are told for areason,

to make apoint, to draw alesson about how alife should be lived.

Infants are embedded within stories from the moment of birth. Parents and

grandparents whisper stories into infants’ ears, telling them fairy tales, nursery

rhymes, and, importantly, stories of this family of which they have become apart.

As infants develop into toddlers, they are drawn into storytelling, participating

both in reading storybooks by pointing and gesturing, and in co-narrating stories

of their own experiences. Being able to tell one’s story is acritical cultural skill.

Adept cultural members are expected to be able to present acoherent story of self,

whether on acollege essay, in ajob interview, or while meeting apossible romantic

partner. Each of us must be able to explain who we are, how we became this

way, and what we plan to be in the future as acoherent and compelling narrative

of self. 7 Children begin to learn these skills within the family, as parents, grandparents,

and siblings draw children into participating in co-narrating the stories

of their lives.

These family stories are created within cultural contexts that provide the tools

for story making; cultures provide life scripts that define the typical life course –

childhood, schooling, romance, marriage, parenting, and, finally, retirement –

and the kinds of events expected to occurateach of these time periods. 8 In addition

to the overall structure of alife, cultures provide templates, or master narratives,

that provide acanonical shape to life-defining events, the narrative arc of






P. Ricoeur, “Life in Quest of Narrative,” in On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation,

ed. D. Wood (London: Routledge Press, 1991), 20–33.

N. Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, vol. 51 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978).

Bruner, Acts of Meaning.

D. P. McAdams, “The Psychology of Life Stories,” Review of General Psychology no. 5

(2001): 100–22.

D. Bernsten and A. Bohn, “Cultural Life Scripts and Individual Life Stories,” in Memory in

Mind and Culture, ed. P. Boyer and J. Wertsch, 130–47 (New York: Cambridge University

Press, 2010).

Family Storytelling and the Communication of Values 77

our experience. For example, Dan McAdams defines the redemptive life narrative

as the core U.S. master narrative, the story of rising up from nothing, of overcoming

hardship through perseverance and grit, and of “making good,” both materially

and personally. 9 This redemptive narrative arc is the story of the country’s

founding, of the Pilgrims and the Revolution,the immigrantstory of rags to riches,

of being born into poverty and becoming an American icon, as exemplified

today by Oprah and Dolly Parton. Master narratives carry cultural values, defining

success and “the good life” within specific parameters.

Culturallycanonical master narratives seep into our national and local institutions,

into our schools, and into our homes. The ways in which families as a

whole, and each individual family member, tell their stories are influenced by

these overarching cultural frames that allow for certain ways of understanding

how the world works. Even if stories do not conform to the master narrative, that

narrative provides the backdrop against which individual stories are told,ifnot as

confirmations, then as negations, contestations, or upheavals. Thus, adialectical

relation unfolds. Cultural narratives provide forms forour individual and family

stories, but our individual and family stories also influence the evolution of the

cultural narratives. Perhaps the best example of this is the emerging U.S. cultural

narratives about race and racism, as we see the role that cultural narratives and

counternarratives have played and continue to play in the quest for social

justice. 10

Both cultural and family narratives also change within more local contexts, as

we tell our stories to and with others. As we tell both our small stories of everyday

happenings and big stories of momentous events, we tell them to people who react,

express concern or joy, comfortorcelebrate with us, or provide theirown interpterionofwhat

happened. Listeners influence how we tell our story in the moment

and how we will tell it in the future. 11 When we reminisce about experiences

that we sharedtogether, each participant in the conversation adds their own bits

and pieces, confirming, expanding, negotiating what happened in the construction

of ajointtapestry that becomes the basis of how this story will continue to be

told in the future. Thus, our stories are not static; like our memories themselves,

stories are reconstructed over timeand through multiple sharings and are shaped




D. P. McAdams, “The Redemptive Self: Narrative Identity in America Today,” in The Self

and Memory, ed. D. R. Beike, J. M. Lampinen, and D. A. Behrend, 95–116 (New York: Psychology

Press, 2004).

P. Cumberbath and N. Trujillo-Pagán, “Hashtag Activism and Why #BlackLivesMatter in

(and to) the Classroom,” Radical Teacher 106 (2016), https://radicalteacher.library.pitt.edu/ojs/radicalteacher/article/view/302.

M. Pasupathi and J. Billitteri, “Being and Becoming through Being Heard: Listener Effects

on Stories and Selves,” International Journal of Listening 29 (2015): 67–84, https://


78 Robyn Fivush

by evolving cultural and personal evaluations of what events were aboutand what

they mean. Moreover, stories of self are intricately interwoven with stories of family

members, both in how children come to tell their own personal stories and how

they come to understand themselves as part of afamily.

The Cultural Ecology of Family Storytelling

Adapting Urie Bronfenbrenner’secological model of child development, 12 my colleagues

and Ideveloped amodel of how individual life stories are culturally embedded

within the family, the community, and the broader sociohistorical

context. 13 As depicted in Figure 1, the child at the center of this complex interactive

system is an active participant in their own developmental process, and individual

characteristics, such as gender, age, and temperament, are critical components,

both in how children interact with others and in how they form their

personal stories. The child is immediatelyencircled within the family and participates

in both hearing family stories and beginning to constructtheir ownstories

of self through parentally structured narrative interactions. At this level, the stories

focus on the child’sown lived experiences, events that they recall to and with

others. At the next level out are generational family stories. These are stories that

the child has not personally experienced but only knows through the storytelling.

These include stories of the parents’ lives both outside the current home,such as

at work, and before the child was born, especially stories parents tell of their own

childhood experiences, what are called intergenerational narratives. Finally, at

the outer layer are sociohistorical stories, both the master narratives that provide

the culturally canonical myths and narrative arcs, as well as family history, stories

about generations past (great-grandparents and beyond), and tales of how

this family has evolved and emerged across the generations.

As depicted by the bidirectional arrows, all levels are always in dynamic interaction;all

of these kinds of stories occur everyday;inatypical family dinner

conversation, stories emerge every five minutes. 14 Many of these stories are the

child recountingtheir day at school, often in response to parental questioning, or

stories hearkening back to ashared family event, such as last summer at the

beach or visiting Grandma for the holidays. Family stories centered around the

child’sdirect experiences account for about halfofall stories told around atypical




U. Brofenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

R. Fivush and N. Merrill, “An Ecological Systems Approach to Family Narratives,” Memory

Studies 9, no. 3(2016): 305–14; K. McLean, The Co-Authored Self (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2015).

Bohanek et al., “Narrative Interaction.”

Family Storytelling and the Communication of Values 79

Figure 1. The cultural ecology of family storytelling

dinner table. But the other half do not feature the child as one of the characters.

Generational storytelling, such as parents talking about their day at work, occur

as frequently as children telling about their day at school, and almost all families

will sprinkle in astory or two that tells aboutthe parents’ childhood experiences

or even more remote family history. These stories create shared histories and

shared understandingofeach other’sworld among family members and help the

developing child evaluate and express their own personal experiences as part of

larger family and community frameworks that provide aset of beliefs and values

to live by. In the remainder of this chapter, Idelineate each of these layers of family


80 Robyn Fivush

Shared Family Stories

Early in development, parents and other family members help children express

their personal experiences in coherent evaluative narrative frameworks.Children

begin referencing their personal past almost as soon as they begin talking, at

about sixteen to eighteen months of age, but at this early stage, their references

are fleeting and often confusing. Parents and other family members draw out

these responses, interpreting and elaborating on minimal expressions from the

child, often just yes/no responses, head nods, and assents as parents tell them

what fun they had at the playground, orhow delicious Grandma’s cookies were.

The preschool years are particularly important in this developmental process,

as this is the period of development when memory and language skills are becoming

consolidated, and children begin to be able to participate more fully in these

reminiscing conversations, as illustrated by the following narrative shared between

amother and her four-year-old daughter, Andrea. 15 The mother asks why

Andrea was angry at her friend at school, and Andrea responds:

Andrea: She pinched me.

Mother: What did you do when she did that?

Andrea: Istarted crying.

Mother: And then what did you do? You went and told the teacher?

Andrea: Yeah, Iwent to her.

Mother: And then what happened.

Andrea: And then Ihad to go out the hallway and when the other teacher came I

had to go out to the hallway with her and then Ms. X, Ms. X, she had to

stay in the class with the otherchildren and then Ihad to sit down in her

chair with my back

Mother: But you didn’tget hurt real bad, right?Ithurt when it first happened, but

it didn’t really last long, right?

Andrea: Ididn’t – Iwent to Ms. Xshe told us (not) to fight and then

the boys were supposed to be on this side and the girls were supposedto

be in back the girls were supposedtobeinthe front of the

office and then so …

Mother: But then after you got through, what happened with you and (friend)?

Did you all talk again?

Andrea: No, she said sorry, but she had to get in trouble.

Mother: She apologized, right? Did you accept her apology? Did you say okay?

Andrea: Yeah.

Mother: You all still talk, right? You kind of made up? You’re still friends?


This and all examples are from Fivush, Family Narratives. All conversations were audiotaped

and transcribed verbatim. All names are pseudonyms.

The project and the publication were supported by the

Karl-Schlecht Stiftung and the University of Heidelberg.

Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliographie;

detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at http://dnb.dnb.de.

© 2022 by Evangelische Verlagsanstalt GmbH · Leipzig

Printed in Germany

This work, including all of its parts, is protected by copyright. Any use beyond the strict limits

of copyright law without the permisson of the publishing house is strictly prohibited and

punishable by law. This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming, and

storage or processing of the entire content or parts thereof in electronic systems.

This book is printed on ageing resistant paper.

Cover: Kai-Michael Gustmann, Leipzig

Cover picture: © persephone3d / www.fotosearch.com

Typesetting: 3w+p, Rimpar

Printing and Binding: Hubert & Co., Göttingen

ISBN 978-3-374-07052-7 // eISBN (PDF) 978-3-374-07053-4


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