"Let's move" and "Let's marry": Both matter for kids' health

January 17, 2013

A couple of days ago, in a Wall Street Journal article to propose a second-term agenda for Mrs. Obama, Abby Schachter shared an insight that once would have been considered banal, but now can be fairly called provocative:

[Michelle Obama's] "Let's Move" campaign to encourage exercise has probably done some good for young people, but there is an even better message the first lady could promote—one likely to have an even longer-lasting and more significant effect on the lives of young people and on society in general: "Let's Marry."

From Nancy Reagan to Laura Bush, the First Lady, whoever she happens to be, has made a special point to officially champion worthy causes. Mrs. Reagan encouraged children and young adults to "Just Say No" to drugs, while the Mmes. Bush both promoted family literacy. Mrs. Clinton pushed policy recommendations -- but she also volunteered in her spare time to read to children.

Ironically enough, had every First Lady from Nancy Reagan onward espoused a "Let's Marry" campaign, they might have obviated the need for all the other campaigns. The children of married parents are, after all, less likely to do drugs, more likely to excel in school (i.e. be literate) and less likely to be obese.

No First Lady has made a special point to officially champion marriage, though. Presumably, marriage never needed a high-profile spokeswoman; its manifold benefits spoke for themselves -- and were more than enough to outweigh the burdens of marriage in the minds of young people and to induce them to marry.

Not so today. Even as childhood obesity is at a record high, so, too, is the proportion of unmarried Americans and the rate of out-of-wedlock births.

Maybe marriage needs a spokeswoman, after all. Maybe it's time, as Schachter suggests, for those who have benefited from marriage to extol its blessings. Policy experts on both sides of the political aisle acknowledge the many statistical benefits of marriage, from the decreased likelihood of living in poverty to improved behavioral outcomes among children. Yet, few celebrities with successful marriages talk publicly about the importance of marriage. I personally can't think of a single one.

Given the relative silence on the subject from high-profile women -- and the relative outspokenness of successful career women who decided to forgo marriage and children to ascend to the high places -- it's perfectly probable that bright young women today would conclude that, while a career is imperative to personal fulfillment, marriage is not particularly worth pursuing. That conclusion is surely only reinforced by sitcoms that portray wives and mothers as peevish and burdened even as they portray single women as eminently relatable and entertaining.

Even Sesame Street has sent the message that career aspirations should override little girl's fairytale dreams. In a recent episode, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor patiently explained the meaning of the word "career" to the character Abby Cadabby -- and encouraged Abby to exchange her desire to be a "princess" for a real career ambition. If feminists are to be taken at their word, the goal of feminism is not to specify what a girl ought to dream, but to validate whatever dreams she has. What if a girl dreams of becoming a wife and mother? These days, it takes a self-professed “bad woman” like Mona Charen to make a statement like this one: “Don’t feel that being a modern woman necessarily means choosing career over family.”

It's not that single women should not be extolling their accomplishments; they absolutely should. Nor is it that marriage and family are necessarily at odds with professional achievements; they’re not. It’s that young girls today rarely hear the message that marriage is worth the sacrifice it entails – and so logically forgo it. Married women -- particularly those women whose marriages have accrued the credibility of years and who have had children to boot -- should be as willing as their single counterparts to extol their accomplishments – the accomplishments of committing to another person for life and of raising children in the optimal context for their health and future prosperity.

I agree with Schacter: Michelle Obama is the perfect person to start the trend.