Commentary Magazine


Putting Children Last

Over the last several years, something like a national consensus has come to form around the proposition that large numbers of children—particularly young children—live in circumstances tantamount to crisis. “Legions of American children,” as a New York Times editorialist put it last fall, “are growing up without fathers, with children for parents, in neighborhoods so dangerous that they can hope only to make it through the week, rather than plan for the rest of their lives.”

Similar concern was expressed last year by the child-care expert Penelope Leach in her latest book, Children First: What Our Society Must Do—and Is Not Doing—For Our Children Today. Last year also saw a spate of other alarums over the state of American childhood. The facts, according to the Carnegie Corporation in its widely-disseminated report, Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children, “add up to a crisis that jeopardizes our children’s healthy development, undermines school readiness, and ultimately threatens our nation’s economic strength.”

Yet, for all the ubiquitous talk of “our children” and “our families,” there is really no mistaking whose children are being scrutinized here. When Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund writes of a “crusade to save all our children,” for example, she is probably not referring to her neighbors in northwest Washington, D.C. Similarly, when the president of the D.C. Junior League writes that “a disproportionate number of our children will grow up poor, undereducated, untrained, and at-risk,” we know without having to be told which children she has in mind. They are not, in all likelihood, her own children—or yours, or mine; they are, rather, the children of the underclass.

And just as the rest of us now concur on the perils of an underclass childhood, so are we also agreed about what it is those children need most: in a word, parents. This consensus, too, seems genuinely bipartisan. “Children who do not live with a mother and a father,” as former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan put it recently, “are more likely to be high-school dropouts, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and more likely to be dependent on welfare than children who live with both biological parents.”

Conversely, most of us also believe that good parents, however disadvantaged, can make all the difference. The solution to the problems of the worst-off public schools, say Jesse Jackson and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, is parental involvement. The solution to crime, says Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, is “parenting, parenting, parenting.” Parents, say President Clinton, Dan Quayle, and many, many other public figures from Left to Right, are the make-or-break custodians of children’s well-being. Divided though the educated public may be about the meaning, if any, of “family values,” in the matter of the underclass and its values, at least, the rest of us seem more or less agreed.

The yin and yang of “us” and “them” is further reinforced by social science. With enough income and enough education—so the numbers seem to tell us—the “risk factors” of an underclass childhood drop away. And thus begins the search for solutions: if we could only make their mothers marry their fathers; if we could only make their parents a little older; if we could only do something about welfare and give them jobs instead—in short, if “we” could only make “them” more like the rest of us, then the problems of their children would disappear.

Is this, however, true? For some time, I have followed with more than ordinary interest what the rest of us seem to do and read and write on the subject of child-rearing. To review these sources in even a cursory way is to be struck by the very different standards to which underclass parents and the rest of us have come to be held. For quite a while now, as it turns out, a sea change has been under way in the child-rearing philosophy and practices popular among enlightened American parents. Perhaps the least-known facet of today’s “children’s crisis” is that child-rearing among the better-off, devoid though it may be of the familiar “risk factors” of the poor, has nonetheless come to exhibit what can fairly be called pathologies of its own.

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To judge by the volume of reading matter they consume, one might think that today’s parents are more child-focused, perhaps even child-obsessed, than any generation before them. Yet such a conclusion would be seriously mistaken. For the curious fact is that during the same years in which underclass parents have increasingly been urged to take responsibility, make sacrifices, and place their children first, middle- and upper-middle-class parents have been enthusiastically consuming the opposite message. From child-care experts to general-interest books and magazines, the sorts of cultural authorities to whom better-off parents turn for advice have become increasingly less solicitous of children as such, and increasingly more solicitous of parents instead.

Modern parents, as is well-known, read compulsively about their condition. This reflexive turn to expert advice, toward raising children by the book, did not start yesterday, of course. But whereas the mothers and fathers of 30-some years ago could rely on a single volume—usually Benjamin Spock’s classic Baby and Child Care—their counterparts today require many more to feel similarly well-equipped for life with baby.

There are, to begin with, the scores of volumes available on the subject of pregnancy alone—books like Tracy Hotchner’s Pregnancy and Childbirth, Sheila Kitzinger’s Pregnancy Day by Day, and the immensely popular set by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Eisenberg Murkoff, and Sandee Eisenberg Hathaway on What to Expect When You’re Expecting (“America’s pregnancy bible”) and What to Eat When You’re Expecting. Then there are the works on babyhood and the early years, including popular volumes by experts who include—among many others—T. Berry Brazelton (On Becoming a Family, Working and Caring), Penelope Leach (Your Baby and Child, Your Growing Child, Babyhood, The First Six Months), Teresa and Frank Caplan (The First Twelve Months of Life, The Second Twelve Months of Life, The Early Childhood Years), and, of course, Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, is now in its sixth edition with over 40 million copies sold.

In addition to all of these, there are also the more specialized volumes addressing almost every imaginable permutation of family life—books on raising an only child, an adopted child, a stepchild, twins, daughters, and sons; books on the development and psychology of the one-year-old, the two-year-old, the three-year-old, and so on; books on how to get your child to eat properly, toilet-train properly, behave properly, and (most of all) sleep properly. Then there are the shelves that tackle the larger questions of family life today: infertility, divorce, adoption, gay parenting, single parenting, blended-family parenting, and more.

For more sophisticated tastes, there are still other books addressing what might be called the metaphysics of family life, from historical arguments like Ferdinand Mount’s The Subversive Family to works of contemporary sociology and pop-sociology like Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and Arlene Skolnick’s Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. All this, of course, is to say nothing of the publishing torrent occasioned by the national debate over “family values”; or of the many journals, magazines, newsletters, and “lifestyle” pages devoted to current issues of family life.

One example of the changes under way in this burgeoning literature is the decline of ideas associated with what experts call “attachment.”

Attachment theory, which was until recently a cornerstone of modern writings on child care and child development, was rooted in the observations made of orphaned and refugee babies in England after the end of World War II. Some of these babies, to the surprise of researchers, fell victim to a syndrome known as “failure to thrive” despite having all their physical needs met by excellent institutional care. Indeed, some infants even died—again, with no overriding physical cause apparent.

Babies, many experts subsequently concluded, seem to need more than physical care in order to develop properly. In particular, they require an overriding attachment to a specific person. Reduced to its practical implications, the meaning of attachment theory is obvious: since each baby needs a “special person” to attach to, that person—who is typically the mother—should be available to the baby much of the time for the sake of the baby’s sound development.

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For decades, the ideas associated with attachment theory reigned supreme in the child-care literature.1 Today, however, they are the object of a vigorous revisionism. Some of this revision is occurring at the clinical level as researchers question how “attachment” is to be measured. Some of it is of a more general nature; even those who seem to accept the fundamentals of the theory, for example, now debate its implications for actual parents. So far-reaching has this new reluctance become that it has demonstrably affected the work of even the most stalwart and authoritative defenders of attachment and the mother-infant bond.

One such expert is T. Berry Brazelton. Often called America’s leading pediatrician, he is the author or co-author of numerous classics on infant and child development. In earlier versions of those works, Brazelton more than once voiced his qualms over early and extended separation of infants and toddlers from their mothers. The 1969 edition of his well-known Infants and Mothers, for example, stated that “two mothers are not as good as one,” and suggested that early separation was to be avoided whenever possible. In Toddlers and Parents (1974), he similarly suggested that such separation could affect the child adversely, and by way of example devoted a chapter to the plight of a seriously withdrawn little girl.

In recent years, however—years in which Brazelton became a target of criticism—he has largely dropped his admonitions. He has also come to apologize for offending readers with having uttered them in the first place. As he writes in the latest edition of Infants and Mothers:

Inadvertently, I may have added to mothers’ feelings of guilt when they were not able to stay at home throughout the first year. This has not been my intent, for I have seen how critical it was to many young women to include a job in their daily lives.

Note another element here, too: a shift in focus from what was once judged critical to the child (attachment) to what is now judged critical to the mother (in this case, a job).

Another leading authority whose views have undergone an evolution similar to Brazelton’s is Benjamin Spock. Throughout most of his career, Spock too urged that mothers with children under the age of three stay home with them as much as possible. As late as 1977, he could still observe that “If a mother realizes clearly how vital this kind of care is to a small child it may make it easier to decide that the extra money she may earn . . . is not so important after all.”

Today, following years of criticism, Spock, like Brazelton, has amended his presentation considerably. In the 1992 edition of Baby and Child Care, he scrubs his prose clean of any suggestions unpalatable to today’s reader and explicitly overrules his earlier advice to mothers:

Parents who know that they need a career or a certain kind of work for fulfillment should not give it up for the sake of their children. Instead, I think such parents should work out some kind of compromise between their two jobs and the needs of their children, usually with the help of other caregivers, especially during the crucial first three years of a child’s development [emphasis in the original].

In his latest book, A Better World for Our Children: Rebuilding American Values, Spock does venture to say that “it is particularly desirable [emphasis added] for one [parent] or the other to have plenty of time with infants and small children in the first two or three years. . . .” Yet “desirable” is not as strong as “important,” and not even in the ballpark of “necessary,” the word Spock himself preferred some years ago. Moreover, even this mild suggestion does not arise until most of the way through the book, where it is immediately undercut by the observation that “the solution is not to try to turn back the clock.” Thereupon the matter is simply dropped.

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A third source whose work has changed markedly in recent times is Penelope Leach. In her case, the change is most surprising. Leach, today perhaps the Western world’s most popular authority on child development, is famous—some would say infamous—for grounding her ideas in attachment theory. Indeed, so far as her detractors are concerned, she is the most retrograde figure in the advice market today. She continues, for example, to insist on the importance of one-on-one care for infants. To this day, Leach remains opposed to institutional care for children under eighteen months of age—a position that has earned her criticism, particularly from feminists, for many years.

Nevertheless, with the publication last year of her latest book, Children First, even Penelope Leach turns out to have moved in unexpected directions. For one thing, she seems to have decided that at-home mothering is not so natural after all. “The necessity for ‘full-time exclusive mothering,’” she writes now, “has been exposed as a myth of the postwar West.” Even more dramatic, however, is the change in Leach’s authorial perspective. Whereas her earlier works focus on what children need from their parents—indeed, they are written largely from the child’s point of view—Children First is focused instead on what parents need.

“Our society,” Leach has come to believe, has “devalued parents to such an extent that individual good parenting is not only exceedingly difficult but, ultimately, insufficient.” “Everything parents can do,” she adds, “is clearly not enough.” And so, instead of looking to parents, we should look to what Leach calls the “top” of society—the public and private elite—to procure what both children and their parents need.

Whatever else may be said of Leach’s argument, it certainly no longer vindicates the charge that she expects too much of mothers and fathers. To judge by Children First, the modern parent would seem largely off the hook so far as Leach is now concerned.

Interestingly, one phenomenon that has survived in the current advice books is something called “bonding.” As a theory for today’s parent, most particularly the parent on the go, “bonding” seems to have distinct advantages over “attachment.” For one thing, it does not take nearly so long. What to Expect the First Year, a handbook in the What to Expect series, says that “bonding can take three months,” or in particularly difficult circumstances such as colic, “five or six.” Other sources reduce bonding to an even shorter period, such as the first weeks, or days, or even hours of an infant’s life. The record may be held by Tracy Hotchner’s Pregnancy and Childbirth: the “30 to 45 minutes” following birth.

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Now, some would argue that there is an obvious explanation for such shrinking estimations of what infants need. By 1991, according to the Census Bureau, some 58 percent of American mothers with children under the age of six were working outside the home. College-educated women—that is, those most prone to read the advice books—are even more likely to return to full-time work in the first year of an infant’s life than are others. College-educated or no, however, all these mothers—and especially those who cannot choose otherwise—share similar needs and anxieties. It is understandable that child-care advice would adjust itself to their particular needs. Indeed, it would seem peculiar if the literature did otherwise.

But if the reality of working motherhood were the only force driving changes in child philosophy, one would expect the literature to reflect that fact. One would expect, say, to find writers trying to assuage parental fears—particularly the fears of a working mother with a baby or small children at home. One would also expect to hear that work itself is a neutral factor in the well-being of children, in itself neither bad nor good. And one does read thoughts like these; but they are not at the cutting edge. Rather, to a surprising number of experts as well as respected lay writers, working motherhood is no longer to be considered an option; it is instead to be considered the better option.

Of course, influential feminists have long maintained that women are better off with an active life or career outside the home. Some have gone so far as to argue that homemaking alone makes women sick. As Susan Faludi puts the point in her bestselling book, Backlash (1991):

Whether they are professional or blue-collar workers, working women experience less depression than housewives; and the more challenging the career, the better their mental and physical health. Woman who have never worked have the highest level of depression. Working women are less susceptible than housewives to mental disorders big and small—from suicides and nervous breakdowns to insomnia and nightmares. . . .

The child-care and parenting literature of today, however, often goes beyond claiming benefits even as impressive as these. Now, working motherhood not only makes the woman a better or happier person, but also—it is said—a better mother.

Here, for example, is T. Berry Brazelton in the introduction to his Working and Caring (1985):

. . . [T]here are benefits for every member of the family when a woman feels fulfilled. Research clearly demonstrates that, if a woman is successful and happy at work, she is more likely to be successful at home, and as a mother [emphasis added].

Some writers cite their personal experience as additional proof. A classic example appeared last year in the “Editorial Notebook” section of the New York Times, where one mother wrote:

Indeed, the most damage I did to any of my kids was during a period, shortly after graduating from college, when I was briefly swayed by the Leach Theory and stayed at home for some months with my first daughter. She was (of course) a bright child; she became my Project. I bombarded her with flash cards, organized activities for her, and was generally so obnoxious that, after learning to read at three, she subsequently refused to read for nearly five years. . . . Why are there no studies of the damage done to children by high-energy women who have no business staying at home?. . . I think [my mother] was a better mom because she worked. I think I am too [emphasis in original].

Nor is Mother said to be the only one who benefits by going out to work. According to the eminently authoritative American Academy of Pediatrics in Caring for Your Young Baby and Child (1991), when the mother works,

the father participates in household chores and child-rearing as well as bread-winning. This brings him much closer to the children and often makes him more emotionally supportive of his wife than he otherwise might be [emphasis added].

In addition to producing better mothers and better fathers, working motherhood is also said to benefit the children themselves. Again, the American Academy of Pediatrics:

As a mother who successfully manages both an outside job and parenthood, you provide an excellent role model for your child. He will be proud of your achievements and feel motivated to become more independent, responsible, and achievement-oriented himself [emphasis added].

Anita Shreve, author of several books on modern family life, believes that children may even become smarter once their mothers are out of the house. In fact, Shreve writes in Remaking Motherhood (1987), “a higher I.Q.” is only one of the benefits the children of working mothers may come to enjoy. Others include

better social adjustment, . . . more expansive sex-role ideology, greater self-esteem, greater confidence in one’s abilities, a more positive view of women, better educational progress, more vocational options, and a potential for greater economic independence.

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The idea that children are better off when left to the care of others is also a recurring theme in both expert and popular writings. For years, anxious parents who have placed their children in day care have sought assurances that the experience would not turn out to be harmful. For years, those assurances have been given, subject to certain caveats: the quality of care must be good; the staff-to-child ratio must be low; the child should not be an infant (though experts disagree about whether this matters); and so on. Today, however, several authoritative sources make a rather different point. Day care is not only equal to home care; it is better.

“Day care,” as the American Academy of Pediatrics handbook puts it, “seems to have some important benefits for young children.” “The consequences,” summarizes a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, “are mostly positive or benign.” Current studies, a psychologist tells the Washington Post, “have assured most educators and researchers that children suffer no psychological harm, and may reap some emotional benefits, from day care and other nonfamily care.” “If day care has any long-term effect on children,” echoes Susan Faludi, “it seems to make children slightly more gregarious and independent.”

As before, some advocates strike a personal note. “My kids got dropped off at day care,” Barbara Ehrenreich reported last Mother’s Day in the New York Times, “and one is now finishing up at Brown, and the other went through Harvard and Oxford.” “Our son,” echoed Caryl Rivers in the Washington Post, also last Mother’s Day, “got a 3.6 grade-point average in grad school and was the valedictorian of his class in police academy . . . our daughter [is a] Shakespearean actress. . . .”

So insistent has the emphasis on benefits become that any bearer of bad news about day care tends to be harshly criticized. This is what happened to Jay Belsky, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, who in a scholarly article in 1988 observed that day care could have ill effects on infants, including “insecure attachment, . . . heightened aggressiveness, noncompliance, and withdrawal. . . .” The result, as James Q. Wilson later summarized it, was that Belsky “was excoriated, . . . many attacked him politically, and even the scholarly critiques had a sharp edge to them.”2 In 1993, the Carnegie Corporation’s Starting Points pointed out that day-care centers varied widely in quality. The report was subsequently criticized in several prominent places, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, for its alleged insensitivity to working mothers.

In the meantime, we have had other positive estimations of leaving children to their own devices. Consider latchkey children—or, as a new euphemism has it, children engaged in “self-care.” These children, too, are said to be better off alone, according to Stephanie Coontz in her highly acclaimed The Way We Never Were (1992):

. . . [A] North Carolina study found that teachers rated latchkey children as better adjusted socially than were children in either home care or child-care centers, while studies in Philadelphia and the South showed latchkey children performing equally well with others in school. Researchers also have noted positive effects of self-care on children’s sense of self-discipline and responsibility.

Coontz also manages a good word for experimentation with drugs, another behavior more common among children left alone than among those with a parent or sitter at home. Citing a “fifteen-year study of San Francisco children reported in the May 1990 issue of American Psychologist,” she reports that

even adolescents who experiment casually with drugs are not necessarily on the road to ruin. In fact [the report states], “those who tried illegal drugs in small amounts during adolescence tended to be healthier and better-adjusted” than were either complete abstainers or frequent users.

In short, from the diminishing emphasis on attachment theory to the defense of latchkey children, what today’s parents are hearing is the message that they are not so important after all. If Benjamin Spock’s famous dictum to parents—“You know more than you think you do”—were adapted to the mood of today, it would probably read: You are freer than you think you are.

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How much parental freedom is too much? To answer this unwelcome question requires a look not just at theory but at practice.

In The Overworked American (1991), Juliet B. Schor observes that “half the population now says they have too little time for their own families.” “No time,” “too much stress,” “too busy,” “not enough hours in the day”: these and other negative echoes of family life abound in today’s analyses and depictions. The harried and embattled suburban family that was powerfully portrayed in the 1950’s novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, has long since lost any power to shock; for many people, especially many parents, its themes of domestic anxiety and stress are now the American norm.

Moreover, it is precisely professional, educated, better-off parents, those whose earnings are highest and who enjoy the most expansive possibilities for outside entertainment, who seem to feel the pressures of time and stress most acutely. As Penelope Leach writes perceptively in Children First:

The material standards of living many of us enjoy and most of us aspire to are higher than they have ever been, but so is their cost. People who can earn enough can achieve a good life but only those who can keep earning more and more can hold on to it, because however fast money or credit accumulates, luxuries are transformed into necessities even faster.

It was the battle against those stresses that gave rise to the now-common notion of “quality time.” Though the phrase itself has lately come into bad odor and been more or less banished from the scene, the idea behind it continues to be touted to parents and practiced by them. In the words of Benjamin Spock, “The number of hours of companionship is generally less important than the quality or spirit of the time spent together, and this is what’s behind the expression ‘quality time.’”

The search for those special moments together crops up frequently in contemporary children’s books and videos, where fictional portrayals of harried and absent parents often make occasions for imaginative flights of fancy. Typical of the genre is an award-winning book called Gorilla, in which a seemingly motherless girl whose father is always busy with his home computer is rescued from her loneliness by a magic toy.

Such preoccupations also surface frequently in popular fare for grown-ups. Whole episodes of the bygone television show thirty some thing, for example, were devoted to the quest among anxious parents for meaningful time together with their children. Such too is the nervous leitmotif of thirty some thing‘s heir apparent, Murphy Brown. In fact, in an interesting footnote to the entire debate over Murphy Brown that was sparked by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, Murphy’s notorious baby has lately all but disappeared from the screen. He is now, one might say, more talked-about than talking—a condition, to judge by much of the periodical literature in today’s cult of parenting, fast becoming endemic to his budding generation.

One such publication, exceedingly representative, is Washington Parent, a bimonthly news-magazine and how-to bible for parents in the D.C. area. Like many such publications—and like the advice market generally—Washington Parent is replete with useful and interesting tips for parents of all sorts: how to cope with allergies, give a good birthday party, plant a child’s garden. At the same time, it is a resource of particular interest to the affluent, self-conscious, high-achieving mothers and fathers who read it the most and who diligently canvas its advertising section where the whole smorgasbord of private accelerated education is on offer, in music, dance, art, math, horseback riding, computers, soccer, and on and on.

Many insights into the daily lives of such families emerge in Washington Parent’s essays and columns. Thus: “If you are running to the bus stop, or driving a child to day care, these can be important moments to solidify relationships before a long separation.” “At least once a week there needs to be an unstructured play time with each child.” “Whenever possible, each parent needs to spend at least fifteen minutes of quiet time with each child each night.”

“Moments,” “once-a-week play,” “fifteen minutes”: the language of the appointment book, drawn in this case from an essay on “A Healthy Family: Minimum Daily Requirements,” speaks loudly about the pace of domesticity on the fast track.

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Just how absent is the 90’s parent? Absent enough, to judge by Washington Parent and other sources, to need tips like: “read favorite stories into a tape recorder”; “leav[e] a ‘prized’ possession of yours with your child”; “try to avoid arriving home at ten at night and going to the office at eight the next morning.”

Last July, Harper’s magazine reprinted excerpts from a pamphlet called “Guilt Trips” distributed by MCI Telecommunications. The MCI pamphlet proposes “positive parenting steps” to make separations easier on the conscience, and, as in Washington Parent, the solutions are essentially technological—sending messages by fax, tape-recording bedtime stories, arranging for the videotaping of children’s events (“the soccer championship”) that take place while parents are away. Even the parent too busy to record his own bedtime stories can rely on the information age to see him through—especially if he lives in New York, where a prerecorded storytelling-by-phone service called Let’s Imagine!!! is available for 85 cents a minute.

As for how much absenteeism might be too much, no one will say. Instead, parents are regularly told to spend more time on those individuals near and dear to them: to wit, themselves. Two writers described as mental-health professionals put the point recently in Washington Parent:

In terms of dealing with the disappointments, fatigue, and worries of daily life, parents must turn their attention to taking care of themselves. This is perhaps not what we are accustomed to hearing about parenting. We think of sacrifice and devotion, not of our own needs. But this is wrong.

Actually, it is these authors who are somewhat wrong. If there is a single message on which most writers in the advice market agree, it is precisely that “parents must turn their attention to taking care of themselves.” From the pages of the Washington Parent: “We have to be healthy and content with ourselves before we have the ability to truly give to our children.” “We cannot be truly available to our children if we are depressed or depleted. We must care about ourselves.” “We are the best role models for our children. If they see us happy and content then they know that it is possible for them to achieve that too.”

Such messages make a claim now ubiquitous in the wider literature: the happy parent is by definition the better parent. The corollary axiom is that parents need feel no guilt—in fact, they should feel good—about putting their own wants and needs ahead of their children’s. This “not guilty” verdict echoes from the breeziest pieces of the “life-style” genre to the weightiest of child-care authorities.

“Modern life,” as Washington Parent counsels, “really isn’t your fault. Your hands are clean. You’re not guilty.” Even more satisfying is the line of reasoning proposed in a recent book called Child Care/Parent Care. According to its authors, Marilyn Heins and Anne M. Seiden: “When parents are too stressed, or too unfulfilled, or too guilty to take their own needs into account, the children suffer.” So we come full circle. Not only do children not suffer when parents put their own interests first. To the contrary: they turn out to suffer when parents fail to put their own interests first.

Few contemporary writers have risen in dissent against today’s tendency to put parents and their “needs” at center stage. Perhaps the most important is David Elkind, author most recently of Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance and of the landmark book, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (1981). In that earlier work, Elkind suggested what is now a decidedly unorthodox view of the sources of unhappiness among affluent children. To him, that unhappiness sprang from “the feeling of being used, of being exploited by parents, of losing the identity and uniqueness of childhood without just cause.” A primary cause of these unhealthy developments, Elkind charged, is parents—parents who “relieve some of the stresses on themselves by stressing their children.”

Elkind’s book, ironically enough, became an instant classic. Well-read parents certainly have heard of it, and a fair number will have read it. Meanwhile, though, far from dissipating, the trends Elkind described almost fifteen years ago have grown stronger still, and a swelling chorus insists that they are all to the good. It is an irony which would not surprise the author of The Hurried Child himself, who observed in that book that “we have accumulated a large library of data and knowledge about the period of life we call childhood,” and that if, in spite of everything we know, we nevertheless persist in hurrying children to grow up too fast, “then it is surely not done out of ignorance.”

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A child born today to the proverbial teenage mother will go home to a neighborhood the rest of us can barely imagine. He will probably, indeed almost certainly, grow up poor. He will more likely than not be affected by “risk factors” deleterious to his health and sound development—drug use, violent crime, substandard medical care, perhaps even neglect or abuse. Perhaps above all, he may not know or ever see his father.

No one is likely to say, or ever to believe, that the mode of family life into which that child has been born is somehow better than if he had both his parents present and attending to him. No one would say, or ever accept, that his parents have a virtually unlimited right to put their own needs and fulfillment ahead of his own. And almost certainly no one would accept that exercising that right to the fullest is in his best interests.

To understand one small but significant part of what ails the rest of us, it is worth at least pausing to ask why, when it comes to our own children, we are willing to say and to believe precisely these unnatural things.


Footnotes

1 For a succinct and eloquent statement, see “The Origins of Human Bonds,” by Selma Fraiberg in the December 1967 COMMENTARY.

2 “The Family-Values Debate,” COMMENTARY, April 1993.

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