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The Big Answer


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The War Over The Family

a book by Peter L. Berger and Brigitte Berger

(our site's book review)

Although the authors claim not to be right or left, this book is a right-wing treatise on the family mostly lacking in serious insight. For instance they misinterpret Maslow as saying that socialization distorts an originally positive human nature and that the family is a villain in this scenario. In actuality, Maslow bemoaned—as we all should—the fact that so many families are deficient need fillers and do not produce secure, well-loved children who grow up to be autonomous and self-actualizing—the goal for dozens of the more enlightened social and psychological thinkers of the modern world, including Riesman and Fromm.

He bewailed—as we all should—the fact that society produces so many needful people that have their potentials crippled at such an early age by inadequate nurturing, even though the prerequisites of adequate nurturing have been known for decades. Maslow isn’t any more anti-family or anti-society than the moon is made of green cheese. He’s anti-dysfunctionality and anti-deprivation. He’s against some orthodox religions’ ideas of humans “being born evil,” since it’s obvious that the evils in people germinate in negative environments.

Evil baby—who knew 'kids are born evil'?
Evil baby—who knew 'kids are born evil'?


The author’s true right-wing colors come blazing at us like a fireworks display when they refer to required parent education in schools as something to recoil with terror about
The author’s true right-wing colors come blazing at us like a fireworks display when they refer to required parent education in schools as something to recoil with terror about

The author’s true right-wing colors come blazing at us like a fireworks display when they refer to “required parental education in public high schools” as an “Orwellian vista” from which we should “recoil with terror.” How much worse would the already-staggering social symptomatology have to get—due to misparenting—before these authors would think it was time to enter the Third Wave and apply some knowledge to our most serious problems instead of simply feeling helpless, depressed, and victims of bad luck in an irrational universe in which kids keep turning out bad but it—of course—has nothing to do with the way they were raised?

For people with the Berger’s credentials to harbor such a Second Wave, old-paradigm, anti-intellectual, extremist perspective on teaching social skills to our young is more than a little alarming. Do they think the Information Age will be characterized by people getting their insights from astrologers, exorcists, Ouija boards and voodoo priests? Or that everyone will pray for guidance and disdain science?

Do the Bergers think that instead of letting objective science guide us, everyone will pray for guidance instead?
Do the Bergers think that instead of letting objective science guide us, everyone will pray for guidance instead?

On the other hand, we of course concur with the Bergers that we don’t want or need social engineering done on our families, and “experts” intervening in our private lives. Society is going in the wrong direction if it starts using the act of: “. . . the disenfranchisement of families by professionals in alliance with government bureaucrats . . .,” as the authors term it, to engineer family outcomes.

We concur with the Bergers that we don’t need social engineering done on our families or 'experts' intervening in our private lives
We concur with the Bergers that we don’t need social engineering done on our families or 'experts' intervening in our private lives

And they couldn’t be more correct when they put down “liberal-left” ideas about “universal entitlements” and income redistribution. We need socialistic welfare-state programs from politicians out to save us with their heroic policies like we need a return to bell-bottom pants. But for them to assume that parent education is part of a “disenfranchisement” is naïve beyond belief. How can one say that the right to raise kids is being violated when would-be parents are simply given better information about how to do it best? We insist on driver education for people who will drive, M.D. degrees for our doctors and teaching certificates for our teachers. But are we to avoid knowledge altogether in the parenting area, using prayer instead? Some of the worst parenting ever did and does come from authoritarians who prayed for guidance about parenting. Apparently their prayers got lost on the way to heaven and ended up contacting the devil instead, judging by their actions.

Are we to avoid knowledge altogether in the parenting area, using prayer instead?
Are we to avoid knowledge altogether in the parenting area, using prayer instead?

Why would we purposely deny people the opportunity to take steps to avoid the abuse, violence, disappointments, suffering and misery that starting a family from a position of ignorance often means? Why would anyone not want people who undertake one of the world’s most challenging and important activities—raising kids—to be embarking upon an informed activity with at least a reasonable hope for success? How have the world’s right-wingers talked themselves into believing in this poppycock idea that information = infringement? And what will happen to these right-wingers’ beliefs when the rapists, murderers, and thieves victimize those near and dear to the hearts of these right-wingers and it suddenly dawns on them that these sociopaths were the end result of totally ignorant parenting, done improvisationally by the people that these right-wingers helped to prevent from obtaining needed parenting information?

It’s revealing to note that, even though their book was published in 1983, the authors see parenting as either permissive (which they disdain, of course) or authoritarian. The latter they like to call “more structured” to take the sting out of the concept, which gives one a clear indication about which method they prefer—as if that hadn’t already become clear by all of the above. Even though in 1983 the authoritative and harmonious/humanitarian methods of democratic parenting had already been established for over a decade (mostly via P.E.T.), the authors felt comfortable in using the rigid black or white dichotomy of authoritarian or permissive to summarize the options. Anyone with even a speck of scientific knowledge about parenting would have known that authoritarian and permissive methods were both proven wrong and only authoritative methods were deemed effective! What kind of sociologist makes such a huge error? Curiouser and curiouser . . .

The authors even ridicule applying science to child-raising, even though the studies and research that clearly showed how to do it right were already fully available (but obviously missed by the Bergers). Obviously what happened here is that the authors got caught in the crossfire of the Culture Wars between the conservative authoritarians and the liberal permissives, both of whom made so much noise in support of their errant positions that the clear, quiet science of the third alternative was missed by them and many others. (See Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America.) The subtext of frustration and cynicism in this book can easily be comprehended in this context. But the fact that none of their colleagues came to their aid and clued them in forces one to suspect that what we have here is too much ivory tower sociology and too little investigation into the new and better developments in the field of human relationships—an area of a thing called SOCIOLOGY.

The Bergers have done too much ivory tower sociology and too little investigation into the new and better developments in the field of human relationships
The Bergers have done too much ivory tower sociology and too little investigation into the new and better developments in the field of human relationships

The Bergers imply over and over that humans know instinctively how to raise their young. THIS IS CALLED A THEORY. The statistics of social dysfunctionality were already in full swing in 1983, and these had many causes, but none of these were as significant as the fact that the parents manifested an inability or unwillingness to parent well. THIS IS CALLED A FACT. (Unless we are to assume that the Devil is responsible for everything bad and that there are no cause-and-effect relationships in the universe other than those related to evil spirits, in which case why do/read/study sociology or even bother to have sciences?) CONCLUSION: EITHER THE MILLIONS OF PARENTS WHO ENDED UP PARENTING SOCIETY’S SYMPTOMIZERS INSTINCTIVELY KNEW HOW TO PARENT BUT PURPOSELY DID IT WRONG JUST TO ENTERTAIN THEMSELVES, OR THE BERGERS ARE WRONG AND SAID PARENTS’ INSTINCTS GAVE THEM VERY LITTLE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT HOW TO RAISE KIDS.

If the Devil is responsible for everything bad and there are no cause-and-effect relationships in the universe, why have science?
If the Devil is responsible for everything bad and there are no cause-and-effect relationships in the universe, why have science?

Of course, the knowledge that has come to light during the balance of the 20th century has completely invalidated the idea that parents are born with the instincts to parent well. The actual scientific fact here is that even primates have to learn to parent by having a good upbringing themselves, and those that don’t have this make terrible parents. So there is one special case where the Berger theory pans out: When one gets raised well, one can usually raise others well because of what one has learned (due to the learning, not instincts). But the converse, perversely enough, is also true: When one gets raised badly, one is very likely to raise one’s own kids badly. This latter is not theoretical—it was verified many decades ago.

It has come to our attention that those who try to raise kids well but muck it up are often people who don’t wish to assume any responsibility for the failure or indulge in guilty self-deprecation. So it becomes extremely relieving and unburdening for them to “suddenly discover that kids are born evil or that there is no real cause-and-effect relationship between parenting practices and parenting results.” The religious right has needed this exit strategy for many years to explain away the abnormal number of their offspring that tend to symptomize big-time. It would be interesting to know if the Bergers have some reason to need such an “out.”

Over and over the Bergers point out that lack of “authority” (like in the good old days) is what’s killing the modern middle-class family. Since the facts are already in regarding the ineffectiveness of Second Wave, negative-power-based, old-paradigm, authoritarian parenting practices as well as the hopelessness of permissive practices, it comes off more like wishful thinking than science when these authors “discover” that more authoritarianism would be a great help here.

The Bergers have suddenly 'discovered' that authoritarianism is the cure-all for all parenting problems—it's a miracle!
The Bergers have suddenly 'discovered' that authoritarianism is the cure-all for all parenting problems—it's a miracle!

Science says that authoritarianism is the problem. The Bergers say it’s the solution. Pardon us if we doubt their credibility in these areas. We do, however, concur with the Bergers’ view that daycare centers are certainly not going to be a cure for society’s childcare problems—for all the reasons the Bergers give and more besides. We also dovetail with their call for strengthening families and relationships and social connectivity and teaching good values in families, and therefore strengthening society.

An interesting thing happened when the Bergers read Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. They saw what they wanted and needed to see—not what was there. (For more details on what Riesman really said, consult our comments on Bellah’s Habits of the Heart.)

Like 90% of their peers, the Bergers misinterpret what David Riesman had to say. They prefer the inner-directed, authoritarian-raised, superego-guided type run by guilt but they also like autonomy—which is Riesman’s goal for us all and the only type he admires (as Bellah himself has pointed out). So they decide that Riesman’s inner-directeds are autonomous, self-directed individuals. They are nothing of the sort. They are at effect of a superego which is laden with the values of their parents. They are not self-guided—they are conformists. As are other-directeds and tradition-directeds. Only autonomous people are self-guided—by definition. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t inner-directed autonomous people—Riesman allows for this. But he also allows for other-directed autonomous people, so it balances out.

The Bergers assumed that inner-directeds are more autonomous than other-directeds. They are wrong. The locus of control in inner-directeds is parents’ values the person has adopted as a compass. The locus of control in other-directeds is peers’ values the person has adopted as a compass. When the Bergers say that authoritarian-raised inner-directeds are “autonomous, independent-minded individuals” while the permissive-raised other-directeds are dependent, welfare-bureaucrat types (who wouldn’t mind being socially engineered, is the implication), they are flying in the face of Riesman’s entire brilliant sociological creation.

All people prefer to think of themselves as individualists, but in Riesman’s formulations, only the autonomous are truly individualists, while the inner-directeds and the other-directeds are merely two types of conformists. The Bergers frame all this as a choice between “the values of other-direction as against the old ideal of the autonomous individual.” This is wrong. In Riesmanese, it’s a choice between either inner-directed conformists or other-directed conformists on the one hand and self-directed, autonomous individualists on the other. We, Riesman, Fromm, Slater, Maslow and dozens of other 20th and 21st century thinkers choose the latter.

The Bergers try hard to convince themselves that inner-directed conformists are really self-directed and autonomous, and individualists rather than conformists. They are trying not to see the type of character that their pet ideal—authoritarianism—tends to produce when it’s applied to parenting. (The Bergers will never read books like Discipline That Works which throws a monkey wrench into their right-wing ideas, nor look at the results of all the studies supporting authoritative rather than authoritarian parenting—they'd find them very upsetting.) They want us to believe that authoritarianism produces John Wayne heroic individualists. (They have forgotten that for every hero that stood up to the bad guys, the towns of the West contained 100 quivering, cowering, insecure, fear-filled townspeople, i.e., the true legacy of the authoritarianism in vogue then and now, since inner-directeds are run by fear and guilt, not courage and self-confidence.)

The Bergers want us to believe that authoritarianism produces John Wayne heroic individualists but it creates cowering, insecure, fear-filled people or bullies and bigots
The Bergers want us to believe that authoritarianism produces John Wayne heroic individualists but it creates cowering, insecure, fear-filled people or bullies and bigots


For every hero that stood up to the bad guys, the towns of the West contained 100 quivering, cowering, insecure, fear-filled townspeople, i.e., the true legacy of the authoritarianism then in vogue
For every hero that stood up to the bad guys, the towns of the West contained 100 quivering, cowering, insecure, fear-filled townspeople, i.e., the true legacy of the authoritarianism then in vogue

They want so badly for authoritarianism to produce autonomous people. But it doesn’t. Nor does permissiveness. Nothing does for certain, but the parenting most likely to produce that type of person and that has been the goal of the wisest among us for many decades is called authoritative or harmonious or democratic, and it’s not at all like authoritarian methods. Each person has to take responsibility for himself and mature into being autonomous, but the best type of parenting can give this process a great start. It’s probably true that inner-directeds have a greater need to think of themselves as self-directed and independent than other-directeds these days, but thinking it does not make it so, and following extrinsic parental or peer values out of choiceless conformity is certainly not independent. Let’s see if—in the future—since David Riesman left this world in 2002, we can do something (like staying true to his message) to keep poor Riesman from turning over in his grave.

The authors endorse bringing back authority in families as a panacea. (Sigh . . . ) But sometimes they get it right, as when they’re doubting Freudian concepts, wanting to strengthen families and society, noting that couples without kids are no less happy than couples with kids (actually, studies have showed the childless are happier), and noting further that “married women who work outside the home appear to be happier than those who do not.” Finally, they say that “autonomous individuals . . . are the empirical foundation of political democracy.” [his emphasis] Amen. (For much more on this specific point, consult our comments on Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, The Responsive Communitarian Platform, The Revolution Of Hope and A Dream Deferred.)