Marriage Rules Beyond the Ken of Kids
This essay originally appeared in the Providence Journal on June 8, 2009. Given that periodical’s revamped Web site, the essay is no longer available online, so I’m reproducing it here.
The preschooler’s question at the dinner table probably wasn’t as new to recent generations as a parent’s first reaction might suggest: Can a girl marry a girl? It’s the sort of question that children ask — have always asked — as they assess the world and its rules. It’s a request for clarification of an inchoate understanding of what marriage is.
What was new to the American family, in that conversation, was the first grader’s response to her sister’s inquiry: Her friend’s aunts are married to each other. The government of the next state over was the first to answer “yes,” so there you go. A millennia-old process by which marriage defines appropriate, healthy relationships between the men and women whom boys and girls become is now obscured.
As with many challenges of the modern day, we who maintain a sense of marriage’s value as an opposite-sex, fundamentally procreative institution must be willing and able to correct society’s misdirection of our children. We must be able to explain to them our beliefs and long thought on the relevant issues, and we must be comfortable with the reality that our children will one day form and act upon their own conclusions. It serves no intellectual, spiritual, or rhetorical purpose to complain of the compounding nature of this burden. Still, observing such very direct examples of the effect that same-sex marriage will have on our culture and society is disconcerting.
That redefining marriage will indeed have an effect is a reality that a number of our compatriots wish not to face. With the escalating cost imposed by unfair accusations of bigotry, it is certainly easier to grab hold of emotional absolution. We all wish happiness for our homosexual friends and family members, but many of us allow the tint of that desire to cast an absurd light on wholly reasonable arguments, transforming them into something that they’re not. Scoffing at the notion that a particular heterosexual marriage will change midstream should homosexual relationships be called by the same name is a convenient way to avoid addressing the fact that traditionalists aren’t expressing that notion in the first place.
Supporters of same-sex marriage should consider the sisters introduced above, who even at their young age feel differently about boys than about their female friends. The “yes” or “no” offered at the dinner table sets the course for learning as they piece together a basic understanding of marriage that will underpin their related behavior throughout their lives. As pre-sexual youths, they learn mainly that their strange feelings toward boys are somehow — in the mysterious world of adults — associated with the concept of marriage.
Strange feelings become attraction, which progresses through sexual desire to the drive to procreate. In the traditional framework, the mystique of marriage encapsulates the entire cycle. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage. Thus has society woven ties of mutual care and responsibility between men, women, and the children whom only such pairs can bring into the world.
The consequence of providing a different answer to the initial question will be knowable only through the experiment that radicals are intent on conducting in the laboratory of humankind. (They’ll leave no control group, if they can help it.) Ironically, adults who dismiss the possibility that the strength of marital ties will suffer from the dramatic change do so on the basis of precisely the underlying sense that they wish to modify: They grew up with the traditional presentation of marriage, so their fully developed intellects can extend a mature conceptualization thereof to encompass homosexual relationships that mirror the image.
A child does not have the luxury of that perspective. Children have no underlying sense through which to comprehend that their “icky” feelings toward the opposite sex will ultimately form the foundation for lifelong relationships, consummated in the persons of their own children, linking humanity across generations. If, in that first encounter with the concept of marriage, they learn that a girl can indeed marry a girl if they want to, if they love each other, that fact isn’t an exception that builds on the institution. It’s a constituent part of the rule. Whatever marriage therefore is, for them, it is not intrinsically a relationship for those whose expressions of intimacy tend to turn them into parents.
Moreover, children have no context to differentiate their presexual feelings for the opposite sex from their deeper interpersonal comfort with and affinity for their same-sex friends. Saying that marriage is a relationship of love, in other words, doesn’t describe the form of love.
These abstractions are well beyond the ken of preschoolers, of course, which points to society’s reason for developing a straightforward cultural institution like marriage, about which rules and mythologies could develop. At the nexus of feelings and law and culture and biology, men and women come together in an irreducibly unique way, and erasing the language by which we teach proper responsibility will ensure that questions at the dinner tables of the future are of a more ominous tone.