woman and child

Here is my last report on the World Family Map — on family culture, which covers attitudes to voluntary singe motherhood, working mothers, children’s need for both a mother and a father, and family trust. The findings are based on the World Values Survey1981-2008.

Voluntary single motherhood. The WVS asked adults whether they approved of a woman seeking to have a child as a single parent, without a stable relationship with a man. This idea went down like a lead balloon in Egypt and Jordan (2 percent approved) and approval was also low in Asia (a high of 20 percent in Taiwan) and Africa. The surprise here was South Africa, where only 29 percent expressed approval despite the fact that less than half of children there live with two parents.

In the Americas, Europe and Australia there was a lot more support: 52 percent in the US, 46 percent in Canada, 40 percent in Australia and a (disappointing!) 74 percent in Chile approved of a woman deliberating having a child on her own. There were big differences within Europe, though: 32 percent approval in Poland compared with 80 percent in Spain. Both countries are (or were) culturally Catholic, so maybe the difference is in the degree of secularisation, with Poland less influenced by western European trends until a couple of decades ago.

Do children need a mother and a father? Here the plot thickens. On the whole most adults agree that children are more likely to thrive with a father and a mother. But far more adults think a child needs both than you would expect, given support levels for single motherhood.

Two examples: In Chile 76 percent think both parents are best, even though 71 percent support a woman going it alone; and in Spain 78 percent, as against 80 percent support for single motherhood. (Is this one reason Spain is broke?)

In Europe, the Swedes are the odd ones out. While the rest of European countries surveyed had relatively high levels of agreement with “mother and father”, in Sweden — the home of “family friendly welfare policies” — only 47 percent of adults agreed that a child needs both to be happy.

Support for working mothers. In line with actual numbers of women in the workforce, a clear majority of adults in the (small number) of countries with data on this question believe that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work”. The report summarises:

68 In general, then, this somewhat limited global survey of public attitudes towards working mothers suggests that public support for working mothers is high. The one exception to this trend appears to be in the Middle East, where women’s labor force participation is comparatively low and where traditional social mores are strongly held.

Family trust. Since family solidarity is the wellspring of human flourishing, trust within the family is a critical indicator of family health. The World Family Map based its findings on the percentage of adults in the WVS who said they “completely” trust their family, but that survey found that people in some countries were reluctant to choose the highest category of trust.

In the Netherlands only 63 percent of respondents said they completely trusted their family, in Brazil 67 percent and in Peru 76 percent (compared with 91 percent in Argentina and 83 per cent in Chile).Partner institutions in those countries, evidently alarmed at their profile in the WVS report, explained the lower figures by saying that such unequivocal expressions of trust were “not culturally acceptable” in these countries.

On the whole, though, family trust is high — particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia (varying from 96 percent to 83 percent). In Europe, with levels around 80 percent over all, the Swedes stood out again, with 94 percent claiming “complete” trust in their family — bettered globally only by Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.

Differences in national wealth, public policy, religion and “familism” (the elevation of the family over individual issues) would be factors helping to explain high levels of trust in countries as different as Egypt and Sweden, Jordan and Spain, say the authors.

My overall impression from this year’s (inaugural) World Family Map report is that the most developed countries, including some in Asia, are losing ground more quickly when it comes to family integrity and wellbeing.

In countries with a Latin culture, whether in Europe or South America, they may be sapending their capital when it comes to family values — how else to explain the high level of support in Spain and Chile for a woman deliberately starting out on the path of single motherhood, when most people in those countries think “mum and dad” is best?

The Middle East and Africa look strong, but can their family culture withstand the temptations of economic growth?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet