The Way We Really Are
a book by Stephanie Coontz
(our site's book review)
Coontz’s book is about coming to terms with America’s changing families. Sometimes she gets it absolutely right:
Authoritative parents “are accepting, democratic, but also firm. Antisocial behavior and poor school performance in young people is associated with both extremes [authoritarian and permissive parenting]. . . . Authoritative parenting, on the other hand, in every family structure and at all income levels, tends to produce close parent-child relations and self-confident, competent children. . . . I don’t know many parents, in any kind of family, who are confident that they’ve got it right.”
Fathers that don’t live with their families can nevertheless have a very positive influence on their families. Coontz gets it right again:
“When nonresidential fathers behave as parents, . . . they can have a significant impact on children’s development. Fathers do not need to live with their child to engage in monitoring, support, and other authoritative parenting practices, say researchers who have conducted an intensive study of rural Iowa families. It is also possible to involve never-married fathers with their children on a regular basis, and several innovative programs have had encouraging success in doing so.”
Coontz says that when nonresidential fathers behave as parents, they can have a significant impact on children’s development
More wisdom: “ . . . when combined with an extended network of concerned kin, the one-parent family often can tender more emotional support and offer more options to family members than an isolated nuclear family [with a mother and father, obviously].” She also looks at the major impact that adult mentors can have on the lives and decisions of children. It’s a new type of GIGO: good in, good out.
Coontz examines the major impact that adult mentors can have on the lives and decisions of children
Coontz says “. . . young people do better on almost every level when they have meaningful involvement in useful and necessary tasks,” according to the author. This is not just an advertisement for teenage jobs and helping to earn college money. (It’s also an indication of what it would be like to have wonderfully-brought-up kids who were raised in MCs and spent a lot of their free time on the most important and useful work in the world: close encounters of the first, second and third kinds.)
She looks at the demographics which show that the 1950s family was “not an expression of some long-standing tradition,” but “experimentation with the possibilities of a new kind of family.” (The new kind of family was the isolated nuclear family. The society had experienced both isolation and nuclear families before, but never before had adults purposely tried to create an isolated refuge in which they could escape from interference from parents, kin, neighbors, in-laws, maiden aunts, needy siblings, the nuclear age and even the Cold War.)
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
Putting all of one's eggs in one single basket is the main cause of relationship dysfunction
Coontz tells us that if the organization and uniformity of family life in the 1950s were new, so were the values, especially the emphasis in putting all one’s emotional and financial eggs in the small basket of the immediate nuclear family. Right up through the 1940s, ties of work, friendship, neighborhood, ethnicity, extended kin, and voluntary organizations were as important a source of identity for most Americans, and sometimes a more important source of obligation, than marriage and the nuclear family. All this changed in the postwar era. The spread of suburbs and automobiles, combined with the destruction of older ethnic neighborhoods in many cities, led to the decline of the neighborhood social club.
The suburbs—a mixed blessing
Young couples moved away from parents and kin, cutting ties with traditional extrafamilial networks that might compete for their attention. A critical factor in this trend was the emergence of a group of family sociologists and marriage counselors who followed Talcott Parsons in claiming that the nuclear family, built on a sharp division of labor between husband and wife, was the cornerstone of modern society. Modern mothers placed their parents in nursing homes and poured all their energies into their nuclear family. They were discouraged from diluting their wifely and maternal commitments by maintaining competing interests in friends, jobs, or extended family networks.
1950s women were discouraged from diluting their wifely and maternal commitments by maintaining competing interests in friends, jobs, or extended family networks
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet—was this portrayal ever real?
The message of I Love Lucy was that women should know better than to want a career. And the messages from Ozzie and Harriet and other such shows was how things “should” be. Anyone who recalls what it was like back then—including for the Nelsons in real life, where the father was a terrible tyrant—knows that it wasn’t like that (life as depicted by these sitcoms) for anyone. Abuse and incest were going strong, and so was violent corporal punishment, as the shrinks of those times knew all too well—and kept very quite about. There was also tremendous hostility to anyone who was different in any way (remember the late-90s movie Pleasantville?), especially blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans, the poor, gays, lesbians and communists. Often, even creativity and special talents were frowned upon. The reason so many people are confused about 50s realities is because there was so much covering up of the truth, according to Coontz.
The message of the patronizing, sexist TV show I Love Lucy was that women should know better than to want a career
Throughout most of human history, women and men shared the role of family breadwinner. The recent right-wing assertion that we should return to the tradition of male breadwinner and female homemaker is sheer ignorance, for tens of thousands of years women have been just as much the breadwinners as men. The only true, long-lasting tradition there is is that of coprovider spouses. The man-provider and woman-homemaker model was simply a short little experiment of the Industrial Age. And since that era is about over for America, that experiment, too, is dying out.
The recent right-wing assertion that we should return to the tradition of male breadwinner and female homemaker is sheer ignorance; for tens of thousands of years women have been just as much the breadwinners as men
The vast majority of women here work, want to work, and feel good about it. And the contentment they get from working makes them better mothers. Women who work, including mothers, are consistently found to be healthier, less depressed, and less frustrated than women who do not. A woman’s satisfaction with her role as worker, homemaker, or spouse, whatever that role may be, is one of the best predictors both of a good relationship with her child and of the child’s own well-being. A large body of research finds that children whose mothers are employed do better in school, on average, than children with at-home mothers. As with maternal employment, sometimes daycare is actually beneficial to the children involved. Researcher Alison-Clarke-Stewart has found that the social and intellectual development of children in day care is six to nine months ahead of children who remain at home.
Research has also shown that when couples have kids, their marriages and relationships got worse if the woman retreated to the homemaker role and the man became the sole breadwinner. This goes against the conservative propaganda coming from sources as diverse as family values spokesman David Blankenhorn and the Promise Keepers, but since this is the conclusion of scientific sociology, and these conservatives are simply pushing a right-wing agenda to back their right-wing causes, it’s easy to see where the credibility lies.
Research has also shown that when couples have kids, their marriages and relationships got worse if the woman retreated to the homemaker role and the man became the sole breadwinner
Women in the past successfully combined child rearing with uninterrupted, lifelong participation in the wider economy. Conflict between work and motherhood was a consequence of the nineteenth century reorganization of work, gender roles, and cultural values; it is not a natural fact of life. Historically, in most cultures, it has been extremely exceptional for women to withdraw from subsistence work after childbirth in order to take exclusive responsibility for child rearing. In the past, mothers engaged in production and exchange of goods throughout their lives, sharing child care with both kin and nonkin, without producing generations of dysfunctional kids.
Coontz hits another bulls-eye: These flat-gradient patterns of nurturance have been shown to be very healthy and fulfilling for parents and children alike. Dysfunctionality wasn’t a big issue until mothers got stuck in isolated nuclear families, without friends, respite, social networking or connectedness, and without other mothers that mothers could share childcare with.
Simply put, as long as women were free to have a full, dynamic life with friends, shared childcare, and participation in the other productive aspects of life, they were happy, didn’t need shrinks or Valiums or constant reassurance because the “poor little things” were so insecure. But once society jailed women alone with a couple of kids, with no other role except sweeper and cleaner and cook, with few if any friends, with no childcare sharing, with no job, with no productive work to do, and with little to look forward to in life except more of the same and eventually an empty nest and an old folks home, then women suddenly went from strong, wise, productive, resourceful, secure beings to silly little females guided by the advertisements as to what beauty products to use and what cleaners worked best.
Women didn't need shrinks or Valiums before society, in the 50s, jailed them alone with a couple of kids, with no other role except mommy, sweeper, cleaner and cook
For anyone, male or female, to say they want to return to such a situation is to hate women, hate progress, fail to face reality and generally display gross ignorance.
She says that “Many children raised in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries recalled that their fathers were their primary nurturers, even when their mothers were around. . . . History also demonstrates that men do not need their wives to teach them how to relate to their children. Men have both the ability and the motivation to care for children at their own initiative.” Thomas Jefferson was nurtured by his father, for instance, and we all know how he turned out. Coontz goes on to point out that David Blankenhorn, the family values spokeman, advocates the sexist idea of protecting men from the stress of being torn between work and childcare; he wants this confined to women, rather than having men share childcare duties equitably with women. She says this is wrong; we need to “. . . reorganize both marriage and work to accommodate the needs of both working parents and their children.”
Unfortunately, she advocates that the government gets involved and makes sure there are childcare or home care centers available in all communities. She says that is what Europe has done, and it’s working great there. Of course, if you consult the predictions of futurists and economists (especially Naisbitt), you’ll soon see that it is precisely these welfare state mentalities that are burdening Europe so much and that will make it more and more irrelevant in the 21st century, and relegate this area of the world—eventually—to the position of being an historical theme park, and if you consult a history book, you’ll find that it is social engineering, in general, that caused most of the misery in the 20th century.
Coontz needs to quit looking to social engineering superheroes and have us rely on local community efforts
Perhaps she should rethink this liberal, big government solution to our childcare problems. While making the good point that the availability of childcare is often the critical factor in moving families off welfare and out of poverty, she makes the assumption that we are all like children dependent upon the good graces of the parent-like government.
But let’s look at the facts: Is it really true that there is no other way for our citizens in our democracy to have childcare available?
(The MC movement will help everyone to admit what they often suppress because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge: We all—Americans especially—hate to rely upon our government to do things for us that we know are our responsibilities; we know that such reliance represents a failure of community, cooperation, creativity, communication and good old American ingenuity. This movement will empower people, in the best way possible, to have not just available and convenient childcare, but excellent, healthier, better childcare that simply requires neighborhood social networking and communication: This childcare will not require money, government, social engineering, taxes, programs agendas, interference with family values, bureaucracies, etc., and will not be staffed by high-turnover questionable people, government regulated bureaucrats, “experts” with different ideas about childcare than you, nor will it require that you waste time and money and cause air pollution ferrying kids to and fro.
MCs will preclude wasting time and money and the causing of air pollution as parents ferry kids to and fro to childcare and play dates
Since the political will is certainly not there to mandate government intervention into childcare, and since the businesses that do most of the hiring in the U.S. are small businesses that cannot afford to subsidize childcare, and since Americans have permanently left behind the liberal mindset that compels government to disenfranchise families even further from their social responsibilities, it follows that people are not looking, as Coontz suggests, for the government to bail us out on our childcare responsibilities.
Rather, they are looking for new Third Wave, knowledge-based ideas that empower us to take care of childcare issues at less cost, with more effectiveness, and with less hassle. They want to actually feel good about the people and care that their kids are getting; they want to be able to deeply trust the caregivers; they want it to feel like family and community, not like buying a childcare “service” where the workers pretend to care about kids but don’t really. The MCs fill all these desires and more; Coontz’s solutions fill none of these desires. See Why Register for an MC?.)
Registering for MC search and match
The bureaucrats have been foot-dragging because to admit that we now know what to do is to talk themselves out of a job, so they say we need to 'study' it more (so the 'experts' will stay employed!) The bottom line is that kids are getting a raw deal because the social support networks kids and families need are weak or absent. We get it! They know it and we know it and we DO know what to do about it. Check this website! There is no money for socialistic programs run by Big Government heroes, nor would they work. So the people will have to quit looking for political heroes to save them and START BEING TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN LIVES, CHILDREN, AND FAMILIES. IF THEY DO SO ACCORDING TO THE WISDOM IN OUR NOVEL The Forest Through The Trees, THEY'LL NO LONGER NEED 'EXPERTS' BECAUSE THEY, THEMSELVES, WILL BECOME THEIR OWN EXPERTS!
Keeping basket case families together 'for the good of the children' is as ludicrous as saying that popcorn is so boring without butter that even rancid butter is better than no butter
She rightly condemns the movement to make it harder for couples with kids to divorce—a movement that is trying to rebuild the intact two-parent family, promote enduring marriage, and end family diversity. The problem, of course, is that when marital relationships turn ugly, they can be even worse on families than divorce, because they often add violence and emotional trauma to the mix. To assume that we should utilize guilt and legislation to keep basket case families together “for the good of the children” is as ludicrous as saying that popcorn is so boring without butter that even rancid butter is better than no butter. It is both superficial and reductionistic to assume that making couples stay together is anything like a panacea, when it’s obviously merely a way to add insult to injury. What needs to be addressed here is not divorce prevention tactics but the root causes of why relationships and marriages and communication so often end up in the dumper. (Making relationships work well (parenting, spousal, neighborhood, friendship, community) is the epitome of what MCs are about.)
A couple that relates excellently and has kids whom they raise excellently
But once she leaves behind her delusion of salvation via politics, she sparkles with insight again: One of her solutions for coping with divorce better relies on flat-gradient nurturance. She cites various Native American (especially Pueblo and Navajo), African, Caribbean, societies and ones in the West Indies, Ghana and Polynesia with longstanding traditions in this childcare practice. She points out that psychology researcher Margaret Crosbie-Burnett and social work professor Edith Lewis and others support this flat-gradient nurturance because: “. . . such child-focused family norms would help contemporary American families deal more successfully with divorce or remarriage.” She seems not to notice that this would also prevent many divorces, by reducing some of the family stress, but she does imply that this would bolster caregiving. (Even alone, this would have great social consequences, as Louv has implied often. But combined with all the rest of the Third Wave practices in the MC movement, it would be a godsend.)
One of her solutions for reducing divorce relies on flat-gradient nurturance—she cites various Native American (especially Pueblo and Navajo) societies that parented that way