Commentary Magazine


In Defense of the Family, by Rita Kramer

What Children Need

In Defense of the Family.
by Rita Kramer.
Basic Books. 263 pp. $15.50.

Anyone who remembers the White House Conference on Families that took place during the Carter era, or the publication in 1977 of All Our Children by Kenneth Keniston and the Carnegie Council, will recall them as major events in the evolution of a pair of peculiarly contemporary doctrines. According to the first of these doctrines, the term “family” may be properly affixed to practically any aggregation of more than one person gathered, at least for the nonce, under a single roof. It matters not, in this understanding, whether a couple are, were, or perhaps one day will be married to each other, whether they are of the same or different gender (or “sexual orientation”), whether their association is fleeting or durable, affectionate or vengeful. So long as there are two or more persons domiciled together, they are legitimately regarded as a family and entitled to all rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

These rights and privileges are not insignificant, for they include—this is the second doctrine—the right of any children who may be part of any family to be looked after by the society as a whole. The rearing of one’s biological offspring, according to this view, is not exclusively or even primarily the responsibility of oneself, one’s spouse, or the adults resident in one’s “household.” Rather, “all our children” are everyone’s responsibility, to be fed, clothed, taught, loved, disciplined, and given character through the magic of public policy.

I exaggerate, but not very much. Certainly one major drift of “progressive” opinion in recent years has been toward a loose and accepting definition of the family, combined with firm and insistent demands on the larger society to assume responsibility for the well-being of children. This has had a number of damaging consequences, of which much the worst is the increase in social dependency, especially within what sociologists term the “underclass,” where today one commonly finds a majority of youngsters born out of wedlock and raised by a single parent—or in an “extended family”—with the assistance of diverse public-welfare programs. Though this tangle of social pathology has many strands, one cannot reasonably doubt that there would be less aggregate dependency if the society were less tolerant of illegitimacy and less willing to underwrite the associated costs.

In the middle classes, too, we find unfortunate correlates of the slackening of social pressure on adults to marry (and stay married to) other adults of the opposite sex and to shoulder primary responsibility as parents for the nurturing and training of their progeny. We find anxiety bordering on guilt among a number of women who in fact stay home to look after their children rather than “going back to work” at occupations with higher cultural approval ratings. We find a growing child-care industry, ever more professionalized, ever more heavily regulated by the state, running programs and institutions that are ever less like “home.” We find a swelling demand for the schools to assume such responsibilities as the transmission to children of values, morals, and correct behavior.

Enter Rita Kramer. At once stern and affectionate, she harbors what many will deem old-fashioned views, namely, that an authentic family consists of husband, wife, and children, and that raising the children is the foremost responsibility of the parents, not something to be done for them by public or private agencies while the adults engage in other pursuits. Her book, however, is not an exercise in finger-wagging or tradition-mongering. Rather, Mrs. Kramer’s image of the proper ordering of family and society is grounded in her understanding of child development, of human psychology, and of the requisites for the emergence of an autonomous young adult as a responsible and productive member of democratic society who will in time become a competent parent of the next generation.

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To state her thesis simply, the successful development of the child requires the sustained and active involvement of both parents. This does not mean entrusting the child to the care of well-chosen professionals; it means looking after the child oneself. And those doing the looking-after must act like his parents, not his buddies. “Only in a stable family with strong and affectionate parents,” Mrs. Kramer writes,

does a child grow up with the sense of being protected in a world that makes sense. Such a beginning provides the basis for the flexibility of response that will help him learn and overcome difficulties in later life. Such parents are able to let the child go little by little as he indicates a need and an ability to move out on his own. They instill conscience rather than dependency. The paradox is that only by remaining strong authority figures can they help their child become independent. He learns from what they are, what they do, what it is to be an adult.

The centrality of the parents and the stability of the family have several corollaries. Formal institutions, notably the schools, are to play supporting rather than leading roles in the drama of child-rearing. If parents attend to their child’s values and character, if they assume responsibility for sex education and moral development, the schools can concentrate on cognitive skills and subject matter. This is desirable, both because intellectual development is something that schools can do well (and that parents seldom can) and because the controversies surrounding such curricular and pedagogical matters are far less fractious than those involving issues of faith and morals.

Mrs. Kramer is firmly of the view that parents cannot successfully carry out their responsibilities, particularly toward very young children, unless one of them stays home with the youngsters, and she does not hesitate to assert that this should ordinarily be the mother (she stops short of making it a universal rule). Mrs. Kramer seeks to assuage whatever feelings of guilt or incompleteness beset the woman who elects to stay home and be a mother rather than to pop her toddler into a day-care center and go off (or back) to paid employment—and there can be no doubt that this book will have such an assuaging effect on a woman who takes it seriously (perhaps even on her husband as well), just as it will infuriate those who for whatever reasons turn over their youngsters to the care of others and salve their consciences with the notion that they are being modern.

Speaking of Mrs. Kramer’s enemies, they will also include the professional child-care industry, most of the education establishment, radical feminist and homosexual activists, and all those individuals in our society who have organized their private and work lives around values that presuppose the governmentalization of child-rearing and the steady growth of “family policy.” Yet the objective reader will see that Mrs. Kramer has worked her way through these issues and is confident—I think justly so—of her conclusions.

More troublesome is the problem posed by the growing number of families and quasi-families found in the underclass, households so severely disrupted and parents so manifestly incompetent as essentially to rule out the possibility of successful child-rearing along the lines Mrs. Kramer envisions. She acknowledges this problem, and does not pretend to solve it. Indeed, the very image she creates of proper child-rearing accentuates the gravity of the situation of those who cannot realistically attain it. Nor can public policy successfully step into the breach. Government can transfer resources, thereby easing some of the direct economic hardship of the underclass family, and it can supply certain social services—all the while risking increased dependency—but it cannot substitute for parents.

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Apart from its limited applicability to such families, Mrs. Kramer’s splendid volume has (to my mind) only relatively minor shortcomings. First, she barely touches on the subject of birth control and never mentions abortion. Second, a number of couples do appear successful in splitting the duties of parenthood along lines somewhat more varied than the traditional model—mother as omnipresent comforter, father as breadwinner and authority figure—that Rita Kramer sketches. Finally, Mrs. Kramer scants the single-parent, middle-class family in which an increasing number of youngsters live, as well as the more complicated arrangements of step-parents and adoptive parents that envelop the child whose biological parents were once married to each other but are now married to (or cohabiting with) others.

Yet while In Defense of the Family addresses these latter situations only indirectly, its message is clear and fully applicable to them: a child needs two resident parents, a stable home environment, and a great deal of attention. Being parents is a serious responsibility, and it is not one that can be transferred to others, least of all to government. Raising children is the proper business of the family; indeed, it is the defining characteristic of the family. What is remarkable is that we should live in a time when it is necessary for someone to come to the defense of such a family.

About the Author




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