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December 21, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Lincoln freed us for this?

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No slavery is quite as pernicious as that which we impose on ourselves.

That lofty point is brought to mind by two recent events that might seem to have no relationship to each other. I wish.

One occurred on New Year’s Day. Although you might have missed it amid news about the “fiscal cliff,” it was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

That proclamation, which freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union, gave a human rights mission to the Civil War. It also led to the 13th Amendment, a courageous political battle that Steven Spielberg reproduces in his Oscar-worthy “Lincoln.”

Lincoln’s moves also freed several of my own ancestors, for which I thank him.

But, sad to say, today we have newer forms of slavery that we impose on ourselves. That brings me to the second recent event that I have in mind:

The Oxygen network has announced production of a one-hour reality-based special that makes TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” sound like PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater.”

The program, as the press release puts, reveals “the complicated lives” of Atlanta-based rap star and music entrepreneur Carlos “Shawty Lo” Walker and his household family of 10 — yes, 10 — women and the 11 children to whom they have given birth and are raising without the benefit of marriage.

And the program’s title? Brace yourself. It is “All My Babies’ Mamas.”

My reaction after watching a 13-minute preview on YouTube? “What were they thinking?”

And, “Lincoln freed us for this?”

Leave it to Oxygen to bring out the culture warrior in me. Oxygen’s news release says the program will “give fans an intimate look at unconventional families with larger than life personalities.” But, judging by its title and preview, the program shamelessly promotes a harem-like lifestyle as if it were a practical child-rearing option.

My concern is for the kids, of whom I saw suspiciously little in the preview reel. Childbearing outside of marriage has soared in recent decades. It doesn’t need to be promoted, especially with mounting evidence that it is not good for children.

“A lifestyle once associated with poverty has become mainstream,” Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow and family research specialist at Brookings Institution, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in June. “The only group of parents for whom marriage continues to be the norm is the college-educated.”

The proportion of children born outside marriage has risen from roughly 30 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2009, Sawhill found. For women under age 30, more than half of their babies are born out of wedlock. Among blacks, the rate soars to more than 65 percent.

Yet, marriage still has its advantages for the children. As Sawhill points out, it is a commitment made before family and other witnesses that cohabitation is not. Married parents split up before their fifth anniversary at only half the rate of unmarried parents.

Children who live with their biological parents perform better in school, have lower rates of suicide, earn more as adults and are less likely to get pregnant or arrested, various studies have found. Marriage also brings economic benefits, such as two breadwinners or a full-time stay-at-home parent, that offer more time and resources to support good parenting.

Of course, as a married parent who was raised by married parents, I know that traditional parenting does not guarantee success at raising genius kids. But it helps — and parents need all the help they can get.

Nor does Shawty Lo’s nontraditional household mean his kids will all turn out to be failures. Fortunately for him, he also has the money, as long as he and his record company keep making hits, to provide more for his children than most families have.

But my concern is the grand advertisement the show provides, intentionally or not, for the idea that traditional parenting is no big deal. In reality, mimicking his lifestyle — especially without his financial resources — is a good way to chain yourself and your children to a life of dependency, which is slavery by another name.

Most troubling was Shawty’s seemingly clueless attitude as to how he got into this multi-kid, multi-mama situation. Earth to Shawty: Let me tell you about condoms.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.

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