funny thing happened on the way to developing a radical critique of the American family: it has turned out that the old model was not so bad after all. One of our best-known radical critics and historians, for example, has come out with a book not only attacking just about every reform ever proposed or instituted for the family, but also defending the patriarchal and authoritarian family in terms that might embarrass a conference of Catholic bishops.1 A second scholar recently set out to examine possible alternatives to the family arrangement—on the clear assumption that they had something good to offer—only to end up deciding that the traditional family, with certain modifications, is here to stay, and a good thing too.2 Add to these straws in the wind the fact that the Democratic presidential candidate ran on a strong pro-family position, that his administration is spending a great deal of time trying to design policies for strengthening the family, and that the most Democratic and presumably liberal Congress in many years has just passed a very restrictive bill limiting the use of federal funds for abortion, and one must conclude that something odd is happening. Why are we suddenly so worried about the family?
One factor might be the rising divorce rate. Mary Jo Bane, in her sound and level-headed book (from which I have taken most of the statistics in this article), estimates that between 30 and 40 per cent of the marriages of American women born between the years 1940 and 1944 will end in divorce, as compared to a figure of 12 per cent for women born between 1900 and 1940. Yet this statistic is not necessarily as alarming as it may seem—except of course if one takes a moral position against divorce, which fewer and fewer people seem to be doing these days. If one does not take such a position and if one is concerned about divorce on other grounds—that it means children will be raised in institutions, for instance, or by relatives, or that women will be left without support for themselves and their children, then there is less ground for worry. As Professor Bane shows, the percentage of women remarrying after divorce is also rising, along with the divorce rate, so that the percentage of children living with a single parent has not increased as rapidly as rising divorce rates suggest.
Moreover, if the divorce rate has been going up, the death rate among young parents has been going down, so that a kind of statistical exchange has taken place between these two factors which break up families. The availability of welfare does have something to do with rising rates of divorce and separation, but would we want to deny the divorce option to women in impossible marriages on these grounds—especially when evidence of the impact of divorce as such upon children does not necesarily show that it is for the worse? Finally, the economic effects of divorce are mitigated in many cases by the enormous increase in the percentage of women who work—even women with small children.
Are we then worried about the family because of the rising rate of illegitimacy? This strikes me as a serious matter, but none of the books I discuss in this article pays much attention to it, and indeed one could argue that changing public and private attitudes toward illegitimacy make illegitimacy as such somewhat less of a social problem these days.
Could it then be the drop in the birth rate that is worrying us? Hardly likely, when just a few years ago we worried about the opposite problem, and when we are still concerned about our persistent youth unemployment. No, the precipitous drop in births does not in itself worry most people, though it is worrisome to a group like the Jews who have a very low birth rate to begin with, and it may well prove worrisome to the general population in the future, as we continue to deal with the complications caused by having a very fertile and a very poor people on our southern border. But although we may one day hear voices raised suggesting that if there were more Americans there might be fewer Mexicans and others flowing into the country, legally and illegally, that day is still far off.
Are we then fearful that the sharp increase in working mothers (from 12 per cent of married mothers of children under six in 1950, to nearly 40 per cent in 1974) may affect the family by causing more children to be, or to feel themselves to be, neglected, and hence to become runaways or delinquents? Once again, it is not clear that the fact that mothers work is bad for children. And though the present number of delinquent and runaway children is hardly an occasion for rejoicing, we have probably reached a plateau in this area.
Finally, are we concerned about the recent, rather startling increase in the number of young people living together without being married? Here again, we may have more reason to be confused than to be worried, for it is by no means certain that this kind of living arrangement is necessarily more unstable than marriage, or for that matter that it is replacing marriage; one rather suspects that it is simply postponing marriage until such time as children are conceived. And even if not, is this necessarily bad? In Denmark, for example, legal marriage seems to be on the way out for young people, which is not surprising, when wives are expected to work as well as husbands, when children are provided with substantial state benefits and services regardless of whether their parents are married or not, and when there seems to be no particular legal advantage to marriage for either parent, or for their children. We are still rather far from the Danish situation, but we are certainly closer to it than we used to be.
hy then the present concern with the family? I see five significant sources of concern, each quite different and all leading in different directions. The first is the situation of the black family in America. The proportion of poor black children born illegitimate, raised by a single parent, and living on welfare has reached very high levels in recent years, presumably with some effect on health, scholastic achievement, delinquency, employment, and so forth: yet even now, a decade after the Moynihan Report first raised this issue, it is still not quite proper to talk about it directly and honestly. The recent spate of books and articles on the subject of the family have had little if anything to say about the black family in particular and the matter seems to have been permanently shelved. Yet it continues to smolder in the public consciousness, the more so for its very undiscussability. I myself am as convinced today as I was when I wrote about the black family in Beyond the Melting Pot fifteen years ago that nothing much can be done about this grave issue of social welfare until blacks themselves do it.
The second factor prompting our current concern for the family is the women’s movement. If we are today discussing such questions as abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the public support of day care, it is primarily because of the women’s movement which, in its more radical phases and segments, has also mounted an attack on the traditional family for its “exploitation” of women as wives, mothers, and daughters. The radical tradition of attacking the “bourgeois” family draws today primarily on the women’s movement for its continuation.
Not surprisingly, a backlash has developed, so that by now there also exists a second women’s movement—focusing mainly on opposition to abortion and to the ERA. This second movement, as Peter Skerry points out, draws its support chiefly from women of lower economic and educational status, whose self-esteem and self-image are bound up with being mothers and housewives, and who feel threatened by demands for equal career opportunities and by the implication that women who do not choose careers are somehow inadequate. Between the charges of the women’s movement and the countercharges of the anti-women’s movement, virtually every question about family life that could conceivably have been raised has found its way into public debate.
A fourth source of concern is middle-class uneasiness—about changes in the behavior of children, adolescents, and young adults, about the responsibility of parents to deal with these changes, about their capacity to do so, their right to do so, and about the values on the basis of which they should act.
Finally, there is the enormous expansion of the role of the state in our private lives, and the growing public consciousness of it. There is hardly an issue now on which we do not expect the state to act, and hardly a problem for which we do not assign responsibility to the state, either for having created it, or for exacerbating it, or for having failed to pay proper attention to it. If our children are turning out differently from the way we would like, we suspect it is first of all because of state-funded public education and state-regulated television; we blame the state for not suppressing drugs, or for suppressing them too harshly, for permitting our children to drink, or for penalizing them when they do, for expanding their rights, or for not expanding them fast enough, for not providing enough cash support, health care, psychiatric care, day care—or for providing too much. This growing concern about state action does not of course relieve us of our own guilt about our children, but since child care is no longer handled entirely by parents, relatives, and the larger intimate community, since, indeed, the public realm—through schooling, television, services, family courts, probation officers—is inevitably involved, it is quite proper to challenge what the state does: inevitably, the family, like everything else, reaches the public agenda.
hristopher Lasch’s book deals primarily with this last source of concern—the book is chiefly an attack on the state for the myriad ways in which it impinges upon the family, the sort of attack one might have expected from a conservative or traditionalist, but hardly from a representative of the radical Left. Professor Lasch does not, let it be said, take the easy route of condeming only the bourgeois state while exculpating the socialist or Communist state. If nothing else, he is consistent in apparently demanding no public intervention whatsoever into the private realm of the family, no matter what political arrangement prevails. How he maintains his position as a radical while upholding this view is an interesting question, and one which tells us much about the style of radical scholarship today.
Professor Lasch looks with skepticism on just about every liberal reform that has ever been made in the area of child welfare and family life. He manages to sound sarcastic even when writing about the abolition of child labor, or the advent of compulsory education, and he is scarcely more forgiving of those reformers who sought to remove children from the jurisdiction of criminal courts:
The juvenile court movement rested on the belief that juvenile delinquency originated in deformed homes. Accordingly, the juvenile delinquent was to be treated not as a criminal, but as a victim of circumstances. In order to give him the “protection” of the law, humanitarian reformers created a new type of criminal equity, probation, and endowed probation officers with many of the rights of parenthood.
In all these cases, Professor Lasch is presumably defending the rights of parenthood against the incursions of arrogant outsiders, and perhaps with some justice. But he seems almost willfully indifferent to the fact that children have benefited enormously from these reforms. So far as juvenile and family courts are concerned, many children come under their jurisdiction specifically at the request of their parents, and there is simply no question but that the advantages of separate juridical arrangements for children far outweigh the many problems that have admittedly developed in their wake.
But it is not the reformers alone who incur Professor Lasch’s scorn. He is no less critical of the liberal sociologists of “marriage and the family” who in his view looked on with equanimity while the role of the family continued to dwindle, and as its authority was stolen away. What is more, he seems to be half-blaming them for this development, thought it is hard to understand how these hapless representatives of one of the least influential branches of an uninfluential discipline could have had much effect on anything. Indeed, Professor Lasch has a consistent problem in this book of confusing what has actually happened to the family with what people said was happening, or what they might have wanted to happen. Thus, he exaggerates, to my mind, the role of the “helping professions”—psychologists, psychiatrists, family sociologists, etc.—in shaping family life in the 20’s and 30’s, a period during which they allegedly appropriated the parental function. The family sociologists he views kindly are, interestingly enough, the conservative ones: Carle Zimmerman, he writes, at least “has no illusions about the decay of traditional forms and the difficulty of finding substitutes.” The Moynihan Report on the black family too comes off much better here than it has in the analyses of other radicals. What is wrong with it, according to Professor Lasch, is not that it misstates the facts about the black family, or that it underestimates the strength of the matriarchal and other substitutes for the patriarchal family, but only that “it exaggerates the distance between the ghetto and the rest of American culture. . . . [T]he increasingly dangerous and unpredictable conditions of middle-class life give rise to similar strategies for survival.”
Christopher Lasch is a Freudian, and as such is strongly committed both to the truth and to the desirability of Freud’s model of psychological development within the family. He rejects out-of-hand the criticism that the family as described by Freud, with its basis in the Oedipus complex, was historically and socially conditioned, rooted in the particular circumstances of turn-of-the century Vienna, and hence irrelevant to our own concerns. Professor Lasch maintains to the contrary that the Freudian family dynamic is applicable to all societies at all times, that it is grounded not in any given social structure, but rather in biology itself. It is not the Viennese family, or the 19th-century family, or the middle-class family, or the bourgeois family that Freud was describing, but rather the family, a fundamental biological reality, and to tamper with it is accordingly to court disaster. Thus, he calls the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski to task for suggesting that family dynamics might differ in different societies, and criticizes Margaret Mead for her studies of Samoan society which, by denying the necessity of a period of turbulence during adolescence, in effect dissented from the Freudian model.
Even the theoreticians of the Frankfurt school, with its mixture of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, were not quite on the right track in Professor Lasch’s view, because of their attack on the authoritarian-patriarchal family, in which they saw both the consequences of capitalism and the roots of fascism. To Professor Lasch, the opposite is true—“the rise of a new type of despotism does not depend on the authoritarian family, but precisely on its dissolution”—though he concedes that in its better moments the Frankfurt school understood that the authoritarian family often did act as a safeguard against despotism. It was, after all, the leader of the Frankfurt school, Max Horkheimer himself, who pointed out that the bourgeois family “not only educates for authority in bourgeois society; it also cultivates the dream of a better society.”
t this point in Professor Lasch’s analysis we begin to Understand how the pessimistic and apparently conservative views of Freud on human destiny can be enlisted in the cause of radical hope: he sees in the family a kind of cradle of the revolution, a source of energy for later resistance against despotism, but only when the family’s natural dynamic has not been undercut and subverted by the Meads, the Fromms, and the Horneys, with their optimism about the human condition, or by the ministrations of mental-health enthusiasts and liberal family sociologists, with their claim that scientific progress can modify the harshness of repression and mitigate the pains of achieving adult sexuality. It was presumably such traditional authoritarian families that produced Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, Gramsci and Mao—or indeed, the revolutionary hero of one’s choice. What Professor Lasch seems to be saying here, in effect, is a more sophisticated version of the old radical notion that for things to get better, they must first get worse, and a little mitigating reform is a dangerous thing.
In fact, his skepticism about the benefits of gradual change reaches back to a point well before the bourgeois family came into being. Just about every change that has ever been made in family arrangements seems to have been for the worse in his opinion, possibly including even the creation of the bourgeois family itself. The attractiveness to Professor Lasch of the pre-industrial past that was undermined by capitalism, industry, science, and the rise of the professionals keeps breaking through. He sounds on occasion as though he were defending even its darkest aspects. Thus, he writes at one point that “the attack on disease was part of a general attack on pre-industrial customs. It went hand in hand with the suppression of public executions, the movement to institutionalize the insane, and the campaign to replace domestic riot and licentiousness with domestic bliss. . . .” If this does not precisely constitute advocacy of disease, public executions, or public baiting of the insane, it certainly suggests that the author is not happy with what replaced them. The promised “domestic bliss” turns out to have been a fraud, first of all because the therapeutic professionals in Professor Lasch’s view simply did not know as much as they claimed to.
Here he adds his voice to the growing radical critique of the professions—both that of medicine and the lesser examples—attributing their rise during the modern period not to any increase in knowledge but only to a desire for power and monopoly modeled on analogous developments in the world of capitalist industry. Just as capitalist methods of production undermined the competence of the workers, so did the professionals’ invasion of the family undermine the sense of competence of parents—and with deplorable results for the family: the father, weakened, yielded to the mother who, in turn, unable to cope, called upon the fraudulent assistance of so-called professionals in family management. The parents, increasingly helpless, could do nothing but stand by and watch as their children, far from prospering under their new freedom, incurred a variety of psychic ills from homosexuality to impotence—paying the price for disruption of the natural, biologically-based family configuration.
aving followed him this far, I will not even try to explain how Professor Lasch manages to tie all this in with capitalism, for his explanation, if we can call it that, has more in common with incantation than with analysis. Mainly, it seems to consist of invoking, at points both appropriate and inappropriate, such phrases as “the machinery of organized domination,” “the manipulative spirit . . . ascendant in business life,” etc., etc. Unfortunately, Professor Lasch shares with many other contemporary radical theorists the tendency to use extravagant and irrelevant terminology to suggest connections which simply make no sense at all between capitalism and all sorts of other unrelated social developments. One of the sociologists of whom he approves, for example, the rather engaging family sociologist, Willard Waller, wrote an interesting study of “courtship” patterns on American campuses during the 20’s. He showed, Professor Lasch writes, “that activities ostensibly undertaken for pure pleasure had been invaded by the . . . machinery of organized domination. . . .” I suppose this means that it was the dark forces of industrial capitalism, operating presumably through advertising, which governed the “dating and rating complex” of college youth, thereby causing great unhappiness on the campus. But does it really take this to explain why young people in the throes of late adolescence often feel miserable, insecure, and inadequate in each other’s company?
So taken up is Professor Lasch with theorizing that he manages to ignore the concrete actualities of state intervention into the affairs of the family. He has almost nothing to say, for example, about the massive intervention that is inevitably involved in providing welfare, food subsidies, Medicaid and Medicare, child-care programs like Head Start, as well as the large variety of other state services which expanded so enormously during the 60’s and whose impact on children and the family we are perpetually trying to gauge. It would seem that anyone concerned with how the state, wittingly or unwittingly, has affected the family, would have to enter into the history, intentions, and unanticipated consequences of these programs, but Professor Lasch is virtually silent on the subject. Instead, we are numbed with grand but obscure phrases such as “the socialization of reproduction” and the “proletarianization of parenthood.” They suggest that the writer, struggling with his conservative instincts, is trying to save his radical credentials by invoking the proper spells.
or more specific prescriptions for our current dilemmas, we may turn to Selma Fraiberg’s engaging, delightful, and yet very serious book, Every Child’s Birthright: In Defense of Mothering.3 As a Freudian analyst, Dr. Fraiberg, too, is worried about what is happening to our children—more precisely, to young children, for the early months of life are the most important ones to her in forming those human bonds that are the basis for later psychological growth and for the capacity to enter into satisfying and moral human relationships. Yet for all her emphasis, as a Freudian, on the earliest months of life, one of the most impressive things about the book is Dr. Fraiberg’s willingness to engage in a thoroughgoing scrutiny of current social policies in an effort to explain why things are going wrong and what we might do about it.
Dr. Fraiberg bases her arguments on the simple proposition that babies, in order to develop properly, need mothering—they need physical contact with someone who cares for them, who responds to their cries and attempts at communication, who fulfills their need for food, for bodily care, for emotional and physical security. This simple proposition leads her to a rather unorthodox stance in current debates on social policy: she does not see how we are going to provide mothering—without which psychological damage is assured—unless mothers do it. In making this point, Dr. Fraiberg persuasively combines psychoanalytic theory with down-to-earth descriptions of just what is entailed in trying to provide for adequate child care while mothers go to work. She also throws a considerable monkey wrench into the current debates about day care, which so many family and child-care experts have been advocating as the next great necessity to be provided by the state, and which indeed is essential if welfare reform is to include, as both Presidents Nixon and Carter seem to have agreed it must, the requirement that mothers be available for work outside the home.
Dr. Fraiberg coolly points out just how many mother substitutes will be needed if women on welfare are encouraged, or required, to work, and how hard it will be to come up with such substitutes in this country at the present time. Those large families which in earlier times could supply older siblings to take care of the young hardly exist any more, and even where they do, the older siblings are likely to be at school. We no longer trust grandparents, once a major source of mother substitutes, and even if we did, they are no longer willing to do the job. We have no orders of religious celibates like the ones in Europe, for example, which have traditionally provided excellent care for children in institutions,4 nor do we have any of those “simple village girls” who were once the mainstay of large families with many children. And even if we did, the chances are they would flee the task like the plague, preferring factory work, clerical work, or any other work to the job of taking care of children.
he simple fact that we can no longer find people that any sensible mother would trust to take care of her children would seem to be a decisive element in the current discussion about institutionalized child care. We could of course create professionals to do the job—as we have already done, to some extent—but then we would have to pay them too much to make it economically feasible; and in any case, child-care professionals tend to remove themselves as fast as they can from the grubby job of actually taking care of babies and small children, so that in the end we are dependent on babysitters and mother’s helpers, often drawn from the bottom of the labor pool. As often as not, they are themselves mothers, who, in order to mind other people’s children, are forced to leave their own children inadequately cared for somewhere else.
In making her case, Selma Fraiberg is quite aware that she is not bringing very good news to the many mothers who for one reason or another do go out to work. But it is at least honest news. On the other hand, she is very sympathetic to the plight of mothers who work, whether because they need to or want to, and she also has some useful suggestions as to how best to go about it. Beyond this, she has one urgent and practical piece of advice: instead of appropriating billions of dollars of federal money to create a system of child care that is guaranteed to do much worse for children than care by their own mothers, we should assist those mothers on welfare who want to take care of their own children in doing so, if only because it is likely to cost more to provide care for a working mother’s children than it is to provide support for a non-working mother and her children. But a mother on welfare, Selma Fraiberg insists, needs more money to take proper care of her children than we are now providing. A rather sobering analysis, all in all, and one which should make us wonder whether we really should be putting so much weight in our current welfare-reform proposals on getting mothers into the labor force.
In the end, Selma Fraiberg, like Christopher Lasch, is uneasy about tampering with the traditional family. Despite her commitment to science and research, she ends up invoking what she calls “The Tribal Guardians,” those beneficent aunts and grandparents and neighbors who form a kind of protective circle around mothers and help them to care for their children far better than unionized and professionalized child-rearers and child-minders could possibly do. Unlike Professor Lasch, Dr. Fraiberg makes no attempt to establish portentous connections between the state of industrial capitalism and the state of the family—she is simply worried about the children. Still, it is interesting that a liberal like Selma Fraiberg and a radical like Christopher Lasch should join in celebrating so conservative and old-fashioned a structure as the traditional family.
ary Jo Bane is too sober and commonsensical to commend to us the authoritarian and/or patriarchal family, and too down-to-earth to appeal to “tribal guardians,” but she too seems to have undergone a curious reversal. She tells us quite candidly that when she began her research on the contemporary family she had expected quite a different outcome. Since the family was undergoing such rapid changes, she had expected to discover that we should be “developing public institutions to replace [it] with other forms of living arrangements and other methods of child care.” Instead, the more she delved into the data, the more she became convinced “that the time has not yet come to write obituaries for the American family or divide up its estate.”
Like Christopher Lasch, though in a more critical spirit, Mary Jo Bane too examines the evidence on change in the American family only to conclude that while many changes have indeed taken place, they are not really all that decisive. Thus, she argues, as I pointed out earlier, that divorce now merely replaces death as a cause of family disruption, while higher remarriage rates moderate the effects of divorce. She also points out that much of what has been taken as evidence of crisis can be explained by simple demography. For example, the fact that so many old people live alone today is frequently offered as evidence of cruelty and indifference on the part of children toward parents. Professor Bane, however, offers the useful observation that many of these elderly people live alone because they have no children. People who were sixty-five in 1970, she writes, “were members of a generation born around the turn of the century that had low marriage rates and high rates of childlessness . . . almost a quarter have no children . . . to take them in.” Similarly, the fact that we no longer depend on the extended family for help as we used to is often cited as evidence of anomie and social breakdown. But Professor Bane reminds us that we depend on the extended family less these days than we used to because there are fewer members to depend on, owing to the decline in family size. Indeed, the figures she provides on how frequently Americans do visit their relatives are surprisingly high, considering that there are so many fewer relatives around to visit, and that they are frequently separated from one another by great distances.
Mary Jo Bane is perhaps a bit too sanguine about the state of the family today, particularly when judged in the light of Selma Fraiberg’s data on troubled children. Still, it is interesting to observe that she, too, from a completely different perspective, is rather lukewarm to the idea of extensive subsidized day care outside the family. The grounds for her opposition are not psychological—she is prepared to accept the argument that day-care centers and the like do no worse by children than mothers do. Rather, they are purely economic: day care would amount to a “massive transfer of public funds to families of small children in which both parents want to work. . . . I can see no particular reason to prefer women who want to work to women who want to care for their own children.” Mary Jo Bane takes this view, moreover, notwithstanding her commitment to full equality for women.
nterestingly enough, this also seems to be the view of Kenneth Keniston and other members of the Carnegie Council on Children in All Our Children: The American Family Under Pressure.5 In their report, they assert that “Children need adults who are deeply attached to them, who know them so intimately that they can distinguish a cry of hunger from a cry of fatigue . . . we believe that parents are still the world’s greatest experts about the needs of their own children.” But if Keniston and the Council do not propose a massive, federally funded system of day care, that is about the only federal program for the family they do not embrace.
In the view of the Council, the family has been unable to fulfill its role primarily because of poverty. They report that 15 per cent of the nation’s children live in families under the poverty line as defined by the government, and 25 per cent live in families receiving less than 50 per cent of the national median income. Given these statistics, which, the Council maintains, make good parental care of children hard or impossible, parents should not feel responsible for their family problems:
When they blame themselves, American parents define their family problems as somehow rooted in themselves. They thereby neglect basic questions: how to give parents more power outside the family, how to make distribution of rewards in our society more just, how to limit the risk of technology. Time and again, parents have asked what they themselves are doing wrong, not how the society is pressuring them. They have asked how to change the victims of our social order rather than how to change the forces that victimize. . . . Besides worrying about report cards and pediatricians and growing pains, they should worry about jobs, the structure of the labor market, and the degree of social justice in the nation.
Having absolved parents of responsibility for parental failure, All Our Children goes on to propose a reduction in the rate of unemployment, a federal guarantee of work, a replacement of food stamps and other redistributive programs with one very large tax-credit entitlement (which would incidentally require a radical recasting of the federal tax system), national health insurance, additional child-care supplements for single parents who choose not to work, more affirmative action, more extensive social services with universal access, more parent participation in planning, monitoring, and running these services, and many other things.
Any one of these proposals would require extended space to be discussed seriously. I doubt the strategic wisdom of pegging this vast agenda to the question of family policy, and I rather doubt also that many parents are likely to stop worrying about their children’s problems in order to worry more about income maintenance, tax reform, and so forth. Nor is it likely that if the weight of parental interests and efforts could be radically redirected from the little commonwealth to the larger one, the condition of children—even the one-eighth or one-quarter who should by the Council’s definition be considered poor—would be much improved. This is not to deny that the Keniston report contains some good ideas here and there; but, like most committee reports, this one embraces more proposals than even the most enlightened citizenry on earth could be expected to accept, or pay for, as well as some which turn out to be mutually contradictory.
Some of the most specific proposals deal with the legal protection of children—not surprisingly, since two public-interest lawyers served on the Council—but some are so outlandish that one wishes there had been an anti-lawyer or two on hand to restrain the proceedings. For example, since children have been winning the right in court to get medical services without their parents’ permission or knowledge (drug treatment and abortion are the big issues here), the report proposes that children be entitled to file claims and receive benefits under their family’s health-insurance policies without parental permission. This is admittedly an extreme example, but even mong the more moderate proposals in the section on children’s rights, there is a worrisome tendency to advocate the rights of children against their parents, as though these were on a par with their rights against industry, the state, the school system, and so on. But one wonders whether this sort of thing is quite the way to go about strengthening parents for the difficult task of rearing children—another objective of the Council—just as one wonders whether the Council’s choice of methods does not wind up in the end by strengthening government instead, through whose hands all these new benefits and services and rights would presumably flow.
But though one may be legitimately skeptical about the likelihood of these grand social reforms coming about in the near future—or ever—such skepticism is not warranted in the area of children’s rights. We have, after all, already seen a great deal of movement in this area, and while such things as federal job guarantees, income maintenance, tax reform, and so forth all require legislation and appropriations, the extension of children’s rights requires only able lawyers and judges open to persuasion, and we have plenty of both. Whether or not this will ultimately benefit children—or their families—depends on whether one sees children as a helpless minority abused by parents, schools, state officials, and industry—or whether one sees them, on the whole, as still in need of authority to be properly raised, educated, and kept healthy, and whether one sees the extension of rights as supporting or undermining that authority.
hat government must impinge on the family is clear: how could it not, with its tax policies, its housing policies, its credit and monetary policies, its health, education, and welfare policies, and indeed its policies on almost everything else we can think of? As the web of government activities becomes more extensive and their interrelationships more complex, simple solutions seem less and less likely. Selma Fraiberg, for example, thinks welfare mothers would do better if they got more money and could manage better housing, and if the neighborhoods in which they live could be improved (and she is writing, one should remember, in the state of Michigan, which does very well by its welfare mothers, compared to the national average). Who could possibly contradict her in this assertion? Yet Dr. Fraiberg cannot advise us how to go about convincing taxpayers to come up with more money, or how to go about improving neighborhoods (improving housing is hard enough). The Carnegie Council demands a great deal more income as of right for mothers, yet Mary Jo Bane points out that research from the income-maintenance experiments shows—as we might expect—that more families break up when mothers get more income as of right, and also that the remarriage rate for welfare mothers drops as their benefits go up. How do we balance more money for mothers against the likelihood of a higher separation rate and a lower remarriage rate? When government tries to achieve every good, some goods inevitably conflict with others. The construction of a family policy that satisfies a broad range of interests will not be easy.
On balance, it would seem that certain traditional arrangements, whether they are biologically determined or have been learned at some primordial stage of social development, work pretty well, and that despite the age-old hopes of radicals of both Left and Right, there is no better way to raise children than the family (as Churchill said of democracy, it is the worst way—except for all the others). But as our dependence on state action expands, the family is inevitably affected, not so drastically as Christopher Lasch insists, but seriously enough to warrant concern. As traditional arrangements begin to seem more attractive to more and more of us, whether we call ourselves radicals or liberals or conservatives, and whether we argue from history, psychoanalysis, or demographic and economic analysis, our problem is how to go about protecting these arrangements, at once so strong and so profoundly fragile, from the effects of growing state intervention.
On one question, at least, these four studies—otherwise so very different—are remarkably in agreement: they all reject the major policy proposal around which the cause of family reform coalesced only a few years ago. The new consensus (though it is not so new—these matters are cyclical) seems to hold that if money is to be given away for the care of children, it should be given not to agencies but to mothers to enable them to take better care of their own children within the family setting. This seems reasonable to me, provided we remember that no step in social policy can be simple at this point, when so much of the ground has been occupied (and more than once) by earlier, and often radically different, programs. More money for mothers is a good slogan, but putting it into practice, we are discovering today (as we discovered in 1969 with the Family Assistance Plan), is no easy matter. Still, we do at least seem to have arrived at a consensus that public policy should sustain the traditional family, the unimproved (or only slightly improved) model—and this is a welcome surprise.
1 Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, by Christopher Lasch, Basic Books, 230 pp., $12.95.
2 Here to Stay: American Families in the Twentieth Century, by Mary Jo Bane, Basic Books, 195 pp., $11.95.
3 Basic Books, 162 pp., $8.95.
4 See, for example, a fascinating book by Jean Charnley, An American Social Worker in Italy (University of Minnesota Press, 1961). Mrs. Charnley went to Italy to help persuade Italians that children should be raised in foster homes, not in institutions, which crippled children emotionally. She was surprised to discover that Italian child-care institutions, run by nuns and monks, did not seem to have the same effect on children in their care as American ones, perhaps because the children were in the care of men and women who had chosen what they were doing as a sacred vocation.
5 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 255 pp., $10.95.