Marriage, poverty, and self-control.

A couple days ago I had breakfast with a dearly loved liberal friend.  She is a biologist and doing valuable work to protect our earth’s natural resources around the globe.  Despite our differing perspectives, we found common ground regarding our values- specifically in anti-trafficking efforts, feeding the hungry, and fighting poverty.  Because we have both spent a significant amount of time in developing countries we talked about the American

All images: Google

All images: Google

mentality of entitlement and the seeking of instant gratification as demonstrated in wastefulness of resources, the obesity epidemic, the debt crisis, a disregard for the needs of others, etc.  We agreed that many Americans resist the notion that we should show self-restraint of any of our appetites.

When we were talking about poverty in this country and I mentioned that in my neighborhood specifically we have 63% rate of single-mother-headed households and a high rate of government dependence.  I talked about how nationally three out of every five children born to women in their twenties are not born within a married relationship and how one of the greatest factors that contribute to the likelihood of a child living in poverty is if the child is born to unmarried parents.  “Marriage is the best defense against poverty,” I said.

At first she balked,  “What can you do?  Just give people birth control!”  But why shouldn’t we teach self-control in the area of sex just like we ought to teach self-restraint when it comes to food? and consumerism? and the use of natural resources?   Why when the stakes are so high and the long-term consequences so great are we still unwilling to tell kids that sexual restraint is beneficial to them and their future children?  When it comes to poverty, the statistics are telling:

  • The Brookings Institution says that if we had the marriage rate today that we had in 1970, there would be a 25 percent drop in poverty.
  • The Heritage Foundation says that marriage drops the probability of a child living in poverty by 82 percent.

Obviously, there are numerous reasons why children are living in single-parent-headed households.  But much of the reason can be tied to the fact that sexual exploration and “freedom” has been promoted and marketed as progress.  We are entitled to sexual pleasure when and how we want it.  This from Planned Parenthood “…sexual rights for youth must be guaranteed, so that “all young people around the world [will] be able to explore, experience and express their sexualities in healthy, positive, pleasurable and safe ways.”  In many venues, sexual pleasure is trumpeted as god, casual sex the expectation, and sexual allure the greatest attribute of womanhood.

At the same time our culture has slowly and successfully disconnected the act of sex from its procreative properties.  Jennifer Fulwiler puts it this way: “As a society, we’d come to take it for granted that we’re entitled to the pleasurable and bonding aspects of sex — even when we’re in a state of being vehemently opposed to any new life it might produce.”    The “hook-up” culture pervasive on college campuses testifies to this reality.  High abortion rates and children born without the benefits of both parents is the other side of that coin.

Some of you are objecting, “Then why don’t you support gay marriage if it makes such a big difference?”  Let me be clear, gay marriage meets the needs of the adults in the family.  They get the legal recognition and benefits that they are seeking.  If gay marriage was just about the adults involved, I would care much less about that civil distinction.  But the same-gender-headed-household will always begin with loss for a child.  Either willfully or unintentionally the child will be deprived of a relationship with one of the adults who made her.  She will lose the life-long balance and input of one of the two most basic elements in this human life- male and female.  Redefining marriage means redefining parenthood.  (For more on this see: Chapter Next)

Religious or not, why aren’t we encouraging our children to abstain from sex until they have made a life-time commitment to their spouse?  Is it because we think that it is impossible?  Or because if we tell our children to abstain, we might also have to tell ourselves “no” to what we want?  Or because the pressure to indulge is just too strong?

Why not rather embolden our children to develop self-control in all areas that will benefit their future- physical health, fiscal discipline, academic rigor, self-denial of unnecessary material possessions, and sexual restraint to name a few.  The benefits of delayed gratification touch every area of life, but the hedonism of our day makes self-denial the cardinal sin.  We have to teach and model for our children that all things may be “permissible,” but not all things are beneficial.  And when it comes to our appetites, we should not be mastered by any of them.

For practical and research-based tips on self-control see Top 10 Self Control Strategies .

17 thoughts on “Marriage, poverty, and self-control.

  1. Let me first say, that as always, I enjoy reading your posts. While I don’t always agree 100%, it is usually about ideas rather than content.

    In this post, while trying to find the 63% figure, I came across this link:

    This data from the Annie E. Casey foundation indicates that 35% of children live in single-parent households. So, 65% of children do not live in single-parent homes. That is higher than I expected, and I am wondering what the 63% figure actually represents (statistics can be so ambiguous at times.)

    I was also struck by the fact that this data shows that Asians have a much lower rate than all other ethnic groups, including Caucasians. According to some reports, Asians voted for President Obama by a margin of 3:1 in the last election. So, when I hear labels like “liberal” attached to promiscuous behavior and high out-of-wedlock birth rates, I can’t help but believe that it is a very simplistic conclusion to a complicated problem and may well be counter-productive to actually solving the problem.

    Out-of-wedlock births are primarily a poverty (cultural) issue and not a political party or world view problem. Both my liberal and my conservative friends teach their children to NOT have sex before marriage. Every one of my friends and family members who have seen their sons or daughters get pregnant (and that is not a typo because there is a male involved in each pregnancy) are surprised because they taught their children differently and their children had assured them that they were not having “sex.”

    Despite what I teach my daughter, I am going to assume when she starts dating that she will want to have sex and/or a boy (regardless of what his parents taught him) is going to pressure her into having sex. I will, therefore, plot my strategy to keep this from happening with those precepts in mind. Guilt is a powerful tool, and while I don’t mean to sound racist, it is a tool that the Asian community employs beautifully. It is not without noting that the Asian community scores highest on standardized tests as well. Again, it shows me this is cultural. Asians are subject to the same television shows, the same ads, the same games, etc. Why are they achieving the best results in the categories that many conservative individuals admire?

    I would also like to point out that the Hook-up culture starts way before college. “Friends with benefits” is something that any high school student is familiar with and an act in which many of them are engaging – right under their parents’ noses. I worry that this is because society -especially the finger pointing on the right at women as the “problem” -tells boys that they do not bear any of the responsibility of creating a new life. They don’t have to forgo college, they don’t get called bad names by Rush Limbaugh, and they don’t have whole groups of politicians trying to enact legislation that is meant to punish them for their bad choices. They get to slink away and forget it ever happened without having to wear a scarlet A that marks them as a drain on society, a sinner, and a slut.

    In my opinion, if you want to decrease promiscuity and out-of-wedlock births, then make boys shoulder half the responsibility and shame.

    • I agree with what you say here cindy0803 – there is a huge need for good sollid education/mentoring for boys – the school yard culture I think places huge pressures on boys at a time when hormones are raging. Everything says that it is normal/ok for boys to hunt for sex. The challenge is to know how to encourage responsibility without sounding prudish.

    • Cindy, thank you. You have hit the nail on the head with shepherding our boys to become men. I would not even say that they have “shared” responsibility of creating a new life but in many ways “primary” responsibility. I was at a conference last week and during a session on counseling one woman, observing that there were so many women striving to raise children alone asked “Where are all the men?” The speaker responded “That is the great question of our age.” Fathers and other men have to invite our boys into their world. Model self-restraint, protection of others, personal responsibility, and be a listening ear with a shepherding staff to them as they grow. But good men are becoming scarce and that alone makes this a more perilous path for our boys.

      I wrote that in “my neighborhood” 63% of children live in single parent homes but I could see that the qualifier might be lost to the reader. I edited that sentence so hopefully that is stated more clearly now. A study of the demographics within 2 miles of our church reveals that this is what is happening in our area. Thanks for the chance to clarify and for scrutinizing the stats/sources.
      This is the study I drew heavily from that talks about the most recent trends in childbirth- 41% of children born outside of a marriage:

      Click to access Child_Trends-2011_11_01_RB_NonmaritalCB.pdf

      And by no means am I saying that all liberals support promiscuity. I began with that introduction to highlight that my friend and I had found so much in common despite our differing worldviews. She doesn’t have kids so I don’t know if personally she had spent as much time working through the issue from the side of one trying to direct children away from this pervasive cultural reality.

      And your thought about Asian parents/children doing things differently is a great point. Having lived in China one thing I love about their culture is that from a young age, children know that this life is not primarily about them. It is driven by the success of the family, clan or nation. They have a role in bringing honor and accomplishment to the larger unit at all ages of their life. And yes, sometimes guilt and shame are motivators- which can be devastating if there are unrealistic expectations for the child. But much of the time just remembering their identity as part of the whole helps to guide individual choices amidst personal temptation.

  2. “The benefits of delayed gratification touch every area of life, but the hedonism of our day makes self-denial the cardinal sin.” Tragically all-too-true. Tough but good write; thank you.

  3. I think we do our children such a disservice when we teach them to try to mitigate or avoid the natural consequences of their behavior rather than change the behavior itself. Promoting the use of contraception among young people in order to prevent unplanned pregnancy is like encouraging teens to become bulimic in order to avoid obesity. A truly healthy approach to human sexuality is to embrace it in its fullness – including the possibility of procreation – and behave accordingly. What Planned Parenthood et al are encouraging is sexual bulimia – and even if it is a successful approach to reducing teen pregnancy and disease (which is debatable), it does nothing to address the other negative consequences of early sexual involvement. It is not healthy. We can do better than that.

    I read an article last year about the effects of single parenting on children’s economic security. It was in the New York Times – hardly a bastion of “conservative” thought. 😉 While figures vary, most sources put the figure at at least 40% – that is, single parenting is responsible for at least 40% of the poverty experienced by children in this country. That’s a pretty big number. And it’s not just out-of-wedlock births – it’s divorce, too. A family’s financial future is hit hard when there is a divorce, unless the family is fairly wealthy to begin with. Someone dear to me is experiencing this right now. They have gone from the plan of ultimately having two incomes (once the stay-at-home parent went back to work) with which to pay one mortgage, keep the family cars in good working order, pay for extracurriculars and sock away money for college – to now having two modest incomes split between two households. Why? Because the husband “fell in love” with someone else, and feels it is their “right” to be together, his “right” to be “happy”. And I have a hard time believing that there isn’t some connection between that mentality and the mentality that says one ought to be able to have sex with whomever one wishes without experiencing the natural consequences. It’s pleasure, “happiness” and self above all else.

    • “A truly healthy approach to human sexuality is to embrace it in its fullness – including the possibility of procreation – and behave accordingly.” Agree agree agree.

      And thank you for highlighting divorce as a separate manifestation of the “I deserve it” mentatilty. If many divorced families are to survive, they usually have to find stability and support elsewhere- often grandparents or hopefully an entire community of people to buttress their walk on life’s road.

  4. Many of my liberal friends are great parents. But the frustrating thing for me when I talk with them about high school kids having sex is that they think we need to give everyone condoms because it is a foregone conclusion that they will eventually have sex. Rather than assume the best and continue teaching them biblical values, they have LOWERED the bar for their kids and assume the kids can’t handle the higher standard. That is the way of thinking from a lot of my liberal friends…they can’t get a job, so increase the food stamp program, a young pregnant woman should have an abortion because their life will be tough if the baby is born, teach them less of the hard subjects like science because the kids can’t handle tough content. It is a Band-Aid approach instead of a root-cause approach.

    This is a paradigm shift in thinking, and is the one reason our culture’s overall bar has been lowered so low in the past 40 years. Instead of teaching our kids to work hard, shoot for the stars, make the right choices, etc, we coddle them, tell them there are no consequences and then we are surprised at the result. Current progressive thought is about changing definitions and directions of the ‘old school’ culture and thought, no matter if that direction heads us down the toilet…all in the name of progressive politics. Let’s expect and teach our kids to raise the bar, not lower it!

    • Thanks for sharing your comments with us, Tim. I agree. I think that we need to challenge our children to do hard things, big things, and things that improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. They don’t have to wait till they grow up to have an impact on their world. Self-control, self-discipline, and self-denial are components of maturity, especially in this Christian life.

    • Tim,

      I can believe something and teach that to my daughter and my friends can teach that to their children but it doesn’t mean they (the children) will listen 100% of the time or at all.

      On the one hand, you think learning from experience is a good thing (if a girl gets pregnant let her suffer economically), but if a parent (regardless if they are liberal or conservative) observes from experience and concludes that kids will engage in sexual activity regardless of what they have taught them and wants to consider those facts, too that they are somehow giving up, not showing enough faith or conviction, or worse, are encouraging the behavior.

      Since when is using the common sense God gave us and seeing the reality of a situation automatically labeled “liberal?”

  5. Can I just make one more short comment – I mentioned a need for mentoring/educating our boys – similarly our girls need our support. In Genesis it says that after the fall : ” …Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” I think our girls need extra amounts of self worth uplifting. I think the curse of the fall is such that girls look to boys to feel self worth. I think a girl who feels bad about themselves is more likely to follow a guy into the bedroom. A girl who knows she is a Princess will not be “ruled over” by boys seeking sex. Not an expert in this area, just a thought.

    We also need to get all this in perspective – sex is a natural part of life and we have been getting it wrong since the dawn of time – if our teens get it wrong it is not something distinctive to our culture or our failures, it just is. It is also a wonderful blessing from God.

  6. Well-written post.
    This is a cultural issue. In South Africa, in certain cultural groups it is a necessity for a girl to “prove her fertility” by having a baby before she even becomes eligible for marriage. That system isn’t too easy on the child, once he is informed of this. And, having lots of babies is also a cultural issue – some political figures here encourage that in their African followers, ‘ell-for-leather. The drive is to “outnumber China”. Ask me how that logic works, but they have been recorded to make such statements, publicly.

    As for your middle-class, out-of-wedlock children can most certainly break the finances. So can in-wedlock children, and in fact children at all. Our capitalist systems penalize having children, and reward double-income-no-kids situations. The cost of raising kids can be absolutely crippling, married or not. (Here, very often the situation is that the mother is employed but the father is not. You can imagine. That’s worse financially than being a single mother.)

    • Thanks for commenting and giving us a fuller understanding of how culture can influence our perceptions. The ChildTrends study that I cited above talks about some of the disadvantages that these out-of-wedlock children have to face.

      “There are several reasons to be concerned about the high level of nonmarital childbearing. Couples who have children outside of marriage are younger, less healthy, and less educated than are married couples who have children.
      Children born outside of marriage tend to grow up with limited financial resources; to have less stability in their lives because their parents are more likely to split up and form new unions; and to have cognitive and behavioral problems, such as aggression and depression.”

      And of course when healthy marriages aren’t modeled for children, it makes it that much harder for them to form their own healthy relationships in adulthood and the cycle begins to repeat itself.

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