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The Big Answer


To link to this article from your blog or webpage, copy and paste the url below into your blog or homepage.

The Way We Never Were

a book by Stephanie Coontz

(our site's book review)

Coontz’s 1993 book sheds new light on the mostly incorrect beliefs underlying many a political argument and sound bite, and like none before her, she challenges most of our assumptions about the history of the family. She starts out by ticking off the tragic statistics of the social dysfunction and family dysfunction now rampant in American society. She acknowledges the way social dysfunction is precipitated by family dysfunction.

Her main point is that “there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world.” But she adds: “To say that no easy answers are to be found in the past is not to close off further discussion of family problems, but to open it up. To find effective answers to the dilemmas facing modern families, we must reject attempts to ‘recapture’ family traditions that either never existed or existed in a totally different context.” Some of her important discoveries are original; others confirm what others have concluded before her:

  1. The “Leave It to Beaver” ideal was a new invention of the 50s, NOT an example of tradition; families of that period were more diverse and less idyllic than most people think.

  2. Not until the late 19th century did people elevate the nuclear family to their central source of loyalty, obligation and personal satisfaction. And far from forming the traditional basis of civic responsibility, this ideal represented a rejection of older, civic obligations beyond the family.

  3. Three-fourths of the public in 1987 said that a family is “any group whose members love and care for each other.” But in the same year, 87% of people said that they had “old-fashioned ideas about family and marriage.”

    41% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, but MCs preclude most such possibilities due to the need-filling situation of lots of nurturing friends
    41% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, but MCs preclude most such possibilities due to the need-filling situation of lots of nurturing friends


  4. Solutions lie not in berating people for abandoning past family values, but finding ways “to build the institutions and social support networks that allow people to act on their best values rather than on their worst ones.”

  5. “Many modern Americans are ready to discard the myth that nuclear families ever have been or should be emotionally self-sufficient . . . no sooner did this idea begin to dominate family relations than its inherent instability reveal itself. Acceptance that the couple relationship should be the sole source of emotional . . . intimacy made an unsatisfactory relationship seem increasingly unbearable.” This happened in the late 1800s, and “. . . by 1889 the United States had the highest divorce rates in the world.”

    What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped
    What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped


    More recently: Divorce rate in US 1935-2010
    More recently: Divorce rate in US 1935-2010


  6. “The self-reliant family is an historical myth.” It’s never happened, and it never will. Government subsidies to citizens—in one form or another—has been the rule since the birth of the nation, and the Haves have always gotten more than the Have-nots.

  7. Like Toffler, she sees that the conservative commentators who denigrate all family forms that are not nuclear and traditional as very counterproductive, as they make the child-raising job even harder than it has to be.

  8. THROUGHOUT MOST OF HUMAN HISTORY, MOTHERS HAVE DEVOTED MORE TIME TO OTHER DUTIES THAN TO CHILD CARE AND HAVE DELIGATED SUBSTANTIAL PORTIONS OF CHILDREARING TO OTHERS. (Flat-gradient nurturing is the historical norm, and will be the future norm, and the steep-gradient nurturing of a few dozen countries now is merely an anomaly.)

  9. How happy moms are with their status of working mom or housewife mom (not how happy they say they are or wish they were, but really are) is what determines the positive or negative outcomes of their relationships with their offspring.

  10. “. . . studies show that, in many contexts, bonding with other [non-mother] caregivers is a better predictor of healthy development than attachment to mother.” Read Earthwalk to see why—you'll see how steep-gradient nurturing distorts nurturing itself.

  11. Parenting education is especially effective in improving how kids turn out, as is the Head Start program.

    Parenting education is especially effective in improving how kids turn out
    Parenting education is especially effective in improving how kids turn out


  12. “. . . people are desperate to get past the nightly barrage of random violence and disconnected tragedies on the news to find something, however small, that they can do; when her television station suggests a number to call or a concrete act to take, the response is overwhelming. The major barrier to social involvement is not people’s commitment to a purely individualistic way of life but their feeling of helplessness, the fear that they are the only people who feel this way, and their pessimism about the cravings of human nature. Such pessimism, either about human nature or about the possibility of constructing social institutions that bring out the best rather than our worst qualities, is understandable but tragically unnecessary. Human beings are social animals.” (Added to Popcorn’s trend analysis facts, this underlines the readiness of the general populace to MC social marketing. See Why Register for an MC?.)

    Registering for MC search and match
    Registering for MC search and match


    Nurturance from even just one person from outside the family can be the critical factor that sets a kid on a good path
    Nurturance from even just one person from outside the family can be the critical factor that sets a kid on a good path


  13. Studies prove that nurturance from even just one person from outside the family can turn around a situation where a child is going downhill and change the direction to uphill. It takes more than two parents to raise a child well.

    “If there is any pattern to be found in the variety of families that have succeeded and failed over the course of history, it is that children do best in societies where child-rearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents. . . . As long as we conceive of parenting only in terms of responsibility to our ‘own’ kids, we put both them and ourselves at risk. The notion that parental love and dedication should be the exclusive sources of children’s material well-being and emotional health creates a very fragile security, even with the most well-intentioned parents in the world. It means that any child is only one death, one divorce, one blood test away from having nothing. . . . Unless we learn to care for ‘all the children of the tribe,’ then no family, whatever its form, can be secure.”

    The crucial difference between functionality and dysfunctionality is the support networks the family is associated with. (MCs, of course, are structured so that all kids will have enough choices so that the chances for anything like abuse and neglect are nil and a good, happy upbringing is assured.)

  14. In addition to the “one caring adult” factor, above, which often involved “. . . a mentor or surrogate parent from outside the family,” another key factor correlated with positive change in high-risk children is a second chance: “some opportunity . . . that allowed individuals to achieve gains they had been unable to make in their early years [due to lack of opportunity].” (The MC opportunity can be predicted to have an enormous positive impact on positive gains not just in deprived young but in people in all situations and of all ages.)

    Perhaps tax-and-spend liberalism has had its day and we need a better idea (MCs)
    Perhaps tax-and-spend liberalism has had its day and we need a better idea (MCs)

    In spite of the above significant pieces of knowledge, her book takes some wrong, liberal turns in several areas, including some of her overall generalizations about child development, self-actualization, autonomy, growth, and what it takes to give kids the best chance at life. Over and over she assumes everyone’s goal ought to be good coping, “good enough parenting,” and adjustment. (David Riesman, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and many other of our best sages would cringe at this.) When she tells us that other countries’ resources are devoted to keeping people from getting too close to the cliff while ours are devoted to the task of picking people up after they’ve fallen off the cliff, she assumes that more taxes and spending and programs are the only way to go—it’s the old liberal panacea again. Of course, she never claimed to be expert at such subjects, but she came off as an apologist for the status quo, especially in areas of people’s “adjustment.”

    Other countries’ resources are devoted to keeping people from getting too close to the cliff, but ours are devoted to picking people up after they’ve fallen off the cliff
    Other countries’ resources are devoted to keeping people from getting too close to the cliff, but ours are devoted to picking people up after they’ve fallen off the cliff


    We are at a fork in the road, one fork toward the path of humanism and hope and wisdom, and the other toward neocon-led war, empire building, death, destruction, and environmental disaster. Choose.
    We are at a fork in the road, one fork toward the path of humanism and hope and wisdom, and the other toward neocon-led war, empire building, death, destruction, and environmental disaster. Choose.

    She should have left such areas alone entirely rather than spreading disinformation and pseudoknowledge. One of the most critical issues in modern times is knowing the difference between adjustment to bad environments and becoming “normal,” and enhancing one’s environment in every way one can and striving to be everything one’s potential allows one to be. It apparently never dawned on her that those people who are willing to settle and fit in soon become part of the problem (the sheep that follow the corrupt sheepherder and end up sheared), and it is only those who “seize the day,” and pursue a fully functional life that keep humanity from failing, lead us onto better paths, and innovate meaningful social progress (like Erich Fromm's The Revolution Of Hope). In trying to define the normal neurotic (with all his alienation, inoperable and superficial relationships, negative self-image and low self-esteem, and meaningless existence full of hollow strivings for more money and possessions) as “not dysfunctional,” she mocks the very meaning of the opportunity inherent in being born a human on planet Earth.

    Adjusted Americans are the sheep that follow the corrupt sheepherder and end up sheared
    Adjusted Americans are the sheep that follow the corrupt sheepherder and end up sheared

    She is of course entirely correct that the “return-to-the-past to the good old days” trend coming from some conservatives is a useless dead end. But she missed the fact that many things about the realities of community, connectedness, solidarity, and responsibility from times past have much to teach us now. The simple fact that flat-gradient nurturance has always worked so much better—for millions of years—than the historical deviation currently wrecking lives all over the globe in advanced countries, the deviation of steep-gradient nurturance—this fact alone is of massive importance in the overall scheme of things and as a critical issue to consider to get the future to work better than the symptom-loaded present. Her acknowledgement of this fact leads her to liberal babbling, however, not insight.

    It was entirely inappropriate for her, in her book, to point out flawed "studies" that seem to say that parenting experts and child development experts don’t really understand what good parenting or child-raising is all about, and don’t really know what traits ought to be found in a good environment. This is simply ignorant. The truth is the opposite, since P.E.T. came out in 1970 (updated in 2000) and Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children came out in 1991—a couple of years before The Way We Never Were. Rather than spread ignorance, she needed to have skipped the parenting area, since she obviously knows nothing about it, although science knows a LOT about it, and did at the time her book came out, which means she bungled this part of her research probably due to meeting a publishing deadline.

    Such ignorance should be kept to oneself and transcended with lots of study, not pushed on an already-sufficiently-misinformed public. For it is simply not the case that we don’t know what to do. We understand the cause and effect in parenting areas very well, and know exactly how to inspire and empower good child development via good environments and good parenting. It’s easy enough for someone like her to consult a couple of dozen popular but conflicting sources and then conclude that we don’t understand very much. But it’s simply not so—the science is clear. This website has made it a point to include all the general child-raising knowledge and environmental enhancement knowledge and parenting knowledge needed (if supplemented with Winning Family Lifeskills and P.E.T.) to create a great lifestyle and have very effective relationships. The knowledge is out there (and in here). The research is in. The jury is in. The knowledge is ready, willing and able. All that is required is to learn, digest, apply and thrive. Wonderland awaits—if one follows through.

    Wonderland awaits—if one follows through
    Wonderland awaits—if one follows through

    She needn’t have reassured parents that they’re doing just fine and aren’t to blame for society's ills. Of course they’re not to “blame,” but that’s not the point. The point is that even though they’re doing the best they can with what they know, the knowledge exists that would allow them and their children to have much happier lives, and there’s no payoff at all for not acting on that, but a wonderful life enhancement if they do. It’s counterintuitive of her to try to say that the myriad societal symptoms are not really related to parenting. Of course they’re related to parenting and everyone who can and will think knows it. It’s good that parents are worried that they might have a part in the societal dysfunction. (This will motivate them to act when easy-to-understand-and-follow MC information comes their way and they suddenly have the opportunity to, as a group, help reverse the cultural ills.)

    Interestingly enough, her book contains enough child development facts to be able to make much more insightful conclusions than she in fact made—see MC. But apparently her focus on showing what a dead end the Nostalgia Trap is—which she handled eloquently—distracted her otherwise competent inferential and induction abilities. The book is nevertheless still a great addition to the anti-nostalgia genre and brilliantly challenges most of our assumptions about the history of the family.