Family Policy in Modern Western Society – Where do we stand?

Josef Gundacker, Family Forum Austria Geneva, July 5, 2012

First I want to thank the UPF, the GIIA, the Fribourg Peace Forum and the WFFP for organizing this conference on The Contribution of Families to Peace, Human Development and Prosperity here in Geneva. I am honored to talk about this most important issue, the value and role of the family for the development and prosperity of our society.

Since many years I have been observing the family policies in Austria and other European countries. Family policy is concerned with the creation of a legal, social and economic framework, as well as instruments and measures that further family development and the well-being of family life. The reconciliation of work and family life for women and men is of central concern. Financial support or other forms of support as well as to create an infrastructure for child care are of paramount importance.1

Connected to those measures by the governments, is the expectation of encouraging the people to have more children. However, if we look back over the last centuries, these expectations have never been fulfilled.

1. With an average of 1.4 children per woman we have significantly less offspring than needed for a stable population.2

2. While marriage rates have decreased in Europe, divorce rates have been constantly on the rise.

3. Cohabiting and single life styles are constantly increasing. This life style of falling in love, splitting up and falling in love again is creating enormous disappointment and emotional wounds for the people. What are the reasons that despite of so many supportive measures for families, the family relationships and the relationship between man and woman and between parents and children are so strained? Is the family outdated or only changing?

I will talk about, what I find are the three fundamental reasons for this development:

First, doubt and distrust toward the family as a whole Family is portrayed by artists, social scientists and the media only in negative terms.

We are reminded every day that family is indeed a fearful place: when we hear reports about a father killing his wife and children we are shocked, when we read, that marriage is a risky adventure - half the marriages fail – who wants to be a failure? We read that children are a burden and hindrance to our career. Don´t we have enough troubles ourselves? Why should we take on an additional burden?

In the 1960s was a saying coined: “Never trust anyone over 30!” This was so to speak a successful vote of no confidence against the parents and every type of authority figure. Family was associated with dominion, enforced morality and suppression. Scepticism and distrust was encouraged by the arts and social scientists have elevated this negative and pessimistic view of the family to doctrine. This atmosphere of distrust and insecurity has led to a sharp rise in separation and divorce.

Second, the definition of the family has been turned upside down

A common definition is like: “Family is where children are”. The parents as the architects of the family are excluded. The parent-child relationship is classified as less important for the development of the child. Even though, extensive scientific studies in the fields of early child development and brain development show the importance of parents for the development of the child, those studies are widely ignored.

When family experts talk about childcare, they mean daycare centers and kindergarten, never the parents. Family as foundation for the development of our children isn´t accepted anymore. I feel the loss of the importance and value of the family is directly linked to the rise of juvenile delinquency and the growing psychological problems of our youth.

In recent years we all have been shocked by reports about students walking into their classroom and killing their teacher and other students. The immediate reaction of politicians is to improve the safety system, to prevent such behavior in the future. What we don`t want to see is, that these young people have never experienced a genuine care by parents.

Third, Family is defined only in economic terms

Family Policy is based on sociological studies of the family. It provides an overview of studies on changing family structures, the developmental processes and current social and economic conditions of the European families3. It does not provide an answer to the problems of broken family relationships. So, it only deals with the symptoms, not with the root of the problems.

Family is not primarily formed through social and economic conditions. It is the parent-child relationship that forms the family. Furthermore, family relationships cannot be simply organized by management methods. They follow the principle of sowing and reaping.

Generally it is assumed that for men and women freedom of choice is the most important matter. The relationship will develop automatically. But this is wrong thinking. In fact, the biggest challenge for the majority of the population is to build lasting relationships of trust. Therefore, trying to find solutions for the wellbeing of family life based only on economic and social conditions, lead to false assumptions.

We see the rising of poverty in the modern western society. At risk are single-parents and families with more than 3 children. From an economic point of view, the conclusion is that single parents often have poor qualifications, so they have fewer chances to find a job and therefore have no money! – The government has to provide money and better qualifications.

The deeper reasons for the growing poverty are destroyed family relationships and the lack of support by the family. I know of many aid organizations that do a great job to fight poverty, but these efforts are only painkillers and no solution for the broken family relationships. If we don´t consider the root of the problems, our children, our families and our society will continue to suffer from poverty, rising violence, divorce and so forth.


If the diagnosis of today's families starts with a healthy family, we come to very different conclusions. It is said, that the family is the cornerstone or cell of society. What does a healthy cell and healthy family look like?

A healthy family will develop best under the guidance of mature and authentic parents, who raise their children to also become mature and authentic parents. What we need therefore are the examples of mature parents and stable families in order to solve the problems and heal the family relationships.

We have to acknowledge, that all life develops by unchanging principles and laws. If we ignore those principles, problems arise. From these principles, the most important and frequently abused principle is the principle of freedom through responsibility.

Without freedom there is no responsibility and no human development. And without fulfilling our human responsibility freedom has no meaning. I would like to mention, what almost nobody is aware of. The democratic system and policies are based on the international declaration of human rights. In the declaration of human rights the terms “right” and “freedom” are found very often, but the term “responsibility” isn´t mentioned at all. If we don´t demand the implementation of responsibility, the expected goals of family policies can never be achieved.

The family policy in Europe must recognize the central role of parents in the family, invest in parent’s education and emphasize the principle of freedom through responsibility.

Thank you for your attention!


2 (Eurostat, 2010a) (they more than doubled from 0.8 (divorces per 1,000 persons) in 1965 to 2.0 in 2005). While the marriage rate was at 7.64 marriages per 1,000 persons in 1965, it has fallen to as low as 4.874 in 2007 and only recently have stabilized.

3 Research on Families and Family policies in Europe State of the Art Final Report (16.07.2010, published 01.09.2010)

Questions & Answers

What is meant by the well-being of family life? - We understand only the material wellbeing.

Reconciliation of work and family life for women and men is of central concern? Work is considered more important for the realization of the self and individual happiness. The investment in the family relationships has less meaning.

Create an infrastructure for child care?   It is believed that anybody who is “qualified” can take care of children. The love and relationship of the parents to the child is less important. Social scientists don´t use the term “mother and father” anymore, only caretaker.

Freedom of choice is the most important matter : the idea, when a couple choose freely to marry, then the love between them will develop naturally is wrong. It´s also wrong that parents will love their children spontaneous and naturally. Many people are not capable to love.

Parent’s education: The goal of parent´s education is to strengthen und empower parents, so that they can fulfill their role and responsibility

The parent-child relationship is classified as less important: It is understood, that the role of parents is only to invest in the education of the child in order to secure the workforce und the material well being.


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