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The Difference a Family Makes

Much has been written recently about the nuclear family. There are many who are questioning whether it is necessary to have a two-parent family. Does it really make a difference?

In the Forbes Book of Business Quotations, Perry F. Webb says this about the family:

“The home . . . is the lens through which we get our first look at marriage and all civic duties; it is the clinic where, by conversation and Attitude, impressions are created with respect to sobriety and reverence; it is the school where lessons of truth or falsehood, honesty or deceit are learned; it is the mold which ultimately determines the structure of society.”

I recently read a research study done by Richard L. Dugdale back in 1874.

As a member of the executive committee of the Prison Association of New York, he was chosen to inspect thirteen county jails in the state. When he got to one particular county, he was surprised to discover that six people related by blood were in the same jail. They were being held on a variety of offenses including burglary, attempted rape, and assault with intent to kill. When Dugdale talked to the county sheriff and an eighty-four-year-old physician, he discovered that the family had been in the area since the settling of New York State and they were notorious for their criminal behavior.

Dugdale was intrigued, and he decided to study the family and publish what he found, using the fictitious name “Jukes” to describe them. He traced their line back to a man he called Max, born sometime between 1720 and 1740. He had six daughters and two sons. Some of his children were born out of wedlock. He was a heavy drinker and wasn’t known to be particularly fond of work.

Dugdale estimated the family probably comprised about 1,200 people, but he was able to study only 709 members of the family. In 1877, he published his findings in The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. What he found was that they exhibited a pattern of criminality, harlotry, and pauperism that defied statistical averages:

  • 180 were paupers (25 percent)
  • 140 were criminals (20 percent)
  • 60 were habitual thieves (8.5 percent)
  • 50 were common prostitutes (7 percent)

The family’s reputation was so bad, according to Dugdale, “Their family name had come to be used generically as a term of reproach.” And the owner of a factory in the area used to keep a list of Jukes family members’ names in his office to make sure none of them got hired.

Dugdale and many subsequent researchers desired to establish the role heredity played in the behavior of the Jukes family. Today, scientists agree that there is no “criminal” gene to explain behavior. Clearly there were members of the Juke’s family who escaped the cycle of crime and self-destruction. But one thing is certain: Being in the Jukes family had a negative, destabilizing effect on the lives of many people.

What is ironic, at about the same time and in the same general region there was another family that had a significantly different kind of pattern.

The family is that of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, pastor, and president of Princeton, who was born in 1703 and lived in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Edwards was a devoted family man. He and his wife, Sarah, had eleven children—three sons and eight daughters. They remained married for 31 years until he died of fever following a smallpox inoculation.

In 1900, A.E. Winship studied 1,400 descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards. Among them Winship found:

  • 13 college presidents
  • 65 professors
  • 100 lawyers, including a law school dean
  • 30 judges
  • 66 physicians, including a medical school dean
  • 80 holders of public office, including 3 U.S. senators, 3 mayors of large cities, 3 governors, a controller of the U.S. Treasury, and a U.S. vice president

I feel certain that all of Edward’s descendants were not high achievers. However I do believe that having a stable, loving family can give an individual a real advantage in life.

If you are in the midst of raising your own family, I would remind you of the words of John Maxwell: “While you can’t do much about your ancestors, you can influence your descendants greatly.”


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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