Commentary Magazine


The Way We Really Are by Stephanie Coontz; The Assault on Parenthood by Dana Mack

The Way We Really are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families
by Stephanie Coontz
Basic. 238 pp. $23.00

The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family
by Dana Mack
Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. $25.00

Five years ago, academics and analysts specializing in family policy found their careers jump-started by a most unlikely event: a comment by the Vice President of the United States about a television sitcom. When Dan Quayle attacked TV for glamorizing Murphy Brown’s decision to have a baby out of wedlock, a dam broke, unleashing a passionate debate. Suddenly “family experts” were being called on to give their views to newspapers, speak on radio talk shows, even appear on Oprah.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, and Dana Mack, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, are two of the experts who have been weighing in. That they approach the issue from opposite sides of the political spectrum is obvious from a glance at the subtitles of their new books: Coontz urges us to come “to terms with America’s changing families,” while Mack laments “how the culture undermines the family.” Even Coontz’s use of the inclusive families stands in contrast to Mack’s resolute reference to the family.

In an earlier book, The Way We Never Were (1992), Coontz sought to debunk the notion that there was ever a “golden age of family life.” Now, in The Way We Really Are, she examines what brought the nuclear family, so predominant in the 1950’s, to its current pass.

Coontz’s argument rests on the premise that the nuclear family was, in essence, nothing but the chance product of postwar social and economic conditions, including generous federal programs that made it possible for young couples to purchase homes and for women to stay home with their children. Moreover, just as material factors underpinned “the 1950’s family experiment,” changing material conditions “brought [that experiment] to an end.” It is economic reality, and not “willful abandonment of responsibility and commitment,” that accounts for the new face of American families.

Coontz applies her avowedly value-neutral and economistic approach to a whole range of human behaviors. Thus, she interprets the rise in unwed births as the result not of the sexual revolution, but of changing “economic relations” between men and women:

Men with low or irregular wages are far less likely to marry a woman they impregnate than men who have a steady job and earn a family wage. Women are less likely to see such men as desirable marriage partners.

In a similar vein, Coontz rejects the popular belief that children today are more violent than they used to be. She assures us that older generations of men recall “almost daily fights behind the high school or the local movie theater.” The only difference, she says, is the availability of high-caliber automatic and semiautomatic weapons, which “means the fights that do occur are more likely to turn lethal.”

In short, Coontz tries hard to convince us that we are not living through a moral revolution but only undergoing an inevitable process of social change. Once we grasp this fact, she believes, we will also understand that such developments as widespread cohabitation, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and institutionalized day care are here to stay. For Coontz, the realistic response is to accept these developments and to adapt to them.

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Yet Coontz’s economic determinism is unconvincing. Without the sexual revolution, for example, would so many “men with low or irregular wages” have been “impregnating” women who regarded them as less than “desirable marriage partners”? And are we really to believe that it does not require an entirely different moral complexion to fire an automatic weapon at a classmate than to punch him in the nose?

A larger objection might be raised as well. Even if we were to accept Coontz’s argument that the nuclear family was a historical anomaly, that would hardly disqualify it as an ideal. Her insistence that we adapt to social change simply begs the question: how do we know when adaptation is for the better or for the worse?

In fact, Coontz’s eagerness to accommodate to life in the 1990’s suggests that she herself is in the end less an economic determinist than a particular kind of moralist. She approves of many of our current sexual and family arrangements, and it is unsurprising therefore that she is content to pose all our problems as surmountable. Were she living in an era she detested—say, the 1950’s—it is unthinkable that she would be complacently urging us, as she does here, “to stop arguing about the relative merits of ideal family types and have a serious discussion about how to build the support systems that modern families need.”

As for the particular family support systems Coontz has in mind, they include the usual roster: government job-creation, job-training, and income-support programs to help single parents make a decent living; government-mandated flex-time, day care, and paid parental leave. Coontz acknowledges that these and other reforms will be costly, but the issue, she asserts revealingly, is not “whether we have the money to help America’s families, but whether we have the values to do so.”

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So the question is one of values after all. On that, Dana Mack would surely agree. Her own values, however, are rather different from Stephanie Coontz’s, and so is her moral vision. Where Coontz maintains that our current social ills are primarily the result of changing economic forces, Mack insists that they stem directly from the demise of the two-parent family and public scorn for family values. Where Coontz rejects the language of crisis, Mack sees crisis all around her: in the streets, in the schools, in the courts, even in the home. And where Coontz thinks that children can thrive in a wide variety of family (and not-so-family) settings, Mack insists that the nuclear family is uniquely able to meet their needs.

Today’s families, Mack asserts, “are under insurmountable pressures from a culture that undermines child-rearing efforts.” Even the most responsible, caring parents feel powerless to protect their children from a host of outside influences that mock their beliefs. The very institutions parents used to rely on to support their efforts now seem bent on thwarting them. And economic pressures just make matters worse: when parents must put in longer and longer hours trying to make ends meet, they have even less time to spend with their children.

What about all the various programs purportedly designed to assist parents? Mack says they are the family’s worst enemies. She describes how, over the past century, child-rearing experts have increasingly questioned the instincts and authority of parents, a trend that has culminated in notions of “toxic” parenting and portrayals of the traditional family as a pathological institution.

According to Mack, the anti-parent bias of child-welfare agencies has resulted in an explosion of false or exaggerated claims of child abuse. The same fervor distorts guardianship issues, foster-care placements, and adoption policies. But nowhere, says Mack, are parents treated with more flagrant contempt than in the schools. Passing academic fads—whole-language reading, new math, outcome-based education—are insinuated into the curriculum without parental approval, and often in spite of it. Likewise, sex-education and “life-skills” programs actively encourage children to question their parents’ values and beliefs.

What is a parent to do? Mack describes the many ways, both large and small, in which some parents have begun to rebel against what they perceive to be a hostile culture. This grass-roots movement, known as the “new familism,” includes women who are leaving the workforce or switching to part-time jobs in order to spend more time with their children, and men who deliberately stagger their work schedules to provide “tag-team” care at home. It is marked by such simple gestures as putting away the television set or sitting down each night for a family meal. And its most obvious manifestation is the abandonment of the public schools in favor of traditional parochial schools, new denominational (primarily Christian) schools, alternative charter schools, and, most dramatically, home-schooling.

Mack clearly sympathizes with the new familists, but she is also surprisingly critical of them. In particular, she is dismayed by their isolationism and their political apathy. “The grass-roots pro-family movement,” she writes,

has been dedicated more to countercultural retreat than to political activism. . . . It is a strategy of sandbagging, of disappearing—behind suburban hedges, or urban apartment doors—to draw up game plans for survival.

By contrast, Mack herself remains optimistic about the role of government in reforming society and building strong families. She admits that her optimism may strike some readers as peculiar, but she attributes it in part to a professional prejudice of her own. As she says,

you don’t work in the field of family policy long before you start thinking that indeed government can do something for families—if government would only listen to you.

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And so Mack closes her book just as Coontz does: with a wish-list of government programs. She proposes tax reforms that would make it easier for parents to stay home with young children. She would require employers to institute family-leave policies. She would regulate the content of television shows and restrict the sale of offensive recordings, video games, and magazines. She would impose a “penalty tax” on companies that violate decency standards, and would rechannel the proceeds into art, music, and sports programs in inner-city schools. She would tighten legal definitions of child abuse and neglect, and she would end unilateral divorce.

Coming from different directions, then, both Coontz and Mack share a predilection for wide-reaching government intervention, and both put a hopeful face on the possibilities for social reform. But their optimism goes deeper than that. Both authors seem to assume that families would thrive if only society would let them. In Coontz’s view, families suffer when parents find themselves pitted against a culture that forces them to conform to outdated, conventional values. For Mack, families suffer when parents find themselves pitted against a culture that scorns conventional values.

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But the actual situation may be bleaker than either of these authors supposes. What if the problem is not so much the culture outside the family as the culture of parenting itself? In her book, Mack hints at the toll the “experts” have taken on parental self-assurance, and suggests that, as parents spend more time with their children, they will regain some of their natural authority. She might have pushed further on this point. For the real crisis today may lie in the number of upright, doting parents who have absorbed and internalized attitudes that doom their child-rearing efforts from the start.

In the most impeccable nuclear families, parents have allowed themselves to be convinced that, just as the sun will rise in the east, their children will engage in risky or immoral behavior and that their job as parents is merely to minimize the inevitable consequences. We can ask government not to ride roughshod over the authority of parents, and we can even work to end programs that encourage people of all ages to misbehave. But for parents who are cowed by their own children, new government programs are not the answer to what is, at heart, a crisis of self-confidence.

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