The War Against Parents – A Book Review

Caring, nurturing, cherishing–the essential components of good parenting–have less and less support in our society… In the late 1990s, America’s children are spinning out of control. Hundreds of thousands are hurting and killing; millions more are failing to thrive. Child poverty rates are up and SAT scores are down, teen suicide rates have doubled since the 1970s, and child homicide rates have quadrupled since the mid-1980s. In the words of one blue-ribbon commission, “Never before has one generation of American children been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.”

A deeply disturbing fact is that most of these terrible trends are unique to the US.

Hewlett and West propose that what lies at the very center of our children’s agony is an enormous erosion of the role parents play in the lives of their children.Too many children are left at home, alone, to raise themselves on a diet of junk food, gangster rap, and trash talk shows. Too many babies are being born “without a skin”–the protective armor that in the past was provided by loving parents and supportive communities.

War On Parents CoverThe authors believe that heaping blame on overburdened moms and dads will not solve the problem. Indeed, the pressures, impediments, and obstacles which stand in the way of parents caring for their children is the substance of much of this book, which reveals the multitude of ways in which big business, government, and the wider culture have waged an undeclared and silent war against parents. They claim that over the past 30 years, public policy and private decision-making have tilted heavily against the altruistic non-market activities that comprise the essence of parenting.Raising children has become a lonely, thankless undertaking that cuts against the grain of all that is valued in our society. Market work, centered on competition, profits, and greed, increasingly crowds out non-market work, centered on sacrifice, commitment, and care. What really counts today is how much you get paid and what you can buy. “Small wonder then that parenting is a dying art…”

From an economic standpoint, children today are hugely expensive. While through history and across cultures parents have often reaped at least some material reward from raising children–help with harvesting, support in old age, etc.–none of this holds true today. Parents are trapped between the escalating requirements of children who need more resources (time and money) for longer periods of time than ever before, and the signals of a culture that is increasingly scornful of effort expended on others.

This, the authors determine, brings us to the heart of the matter: if the center of this nation is to hold, we have to learn to give new and self-conscious value to the art and practice of parenting. “Make no mistake about it, the world of moms and dads is of utmost importance to our nation.” Not one of us would argue with their reasoning; at a fundamental level of analysis, the parent-child bond is the strongest and most primal of all human attachments. Because this elemental bond is the ultimate source of connectedness in society, when it weakens and frays, devastating consequences ripple through our nation. Children thrive on attachment, the magical force that provides the basis for self-love and self-esteem, and hence the ability to care deeply about others. Caring about the well-being of others is the foundation of compassion, conscience, and citizenship. Deprived of love, violence against self and others, and ultimately, civic collapse, is virtually inevitable.

When parenting breaks down, the mechanism that transmits self-love is shattered… the erosion of the parental function… jeopardizes our society as well as our souls.

The authors present data substantiating their claim that in America, across race, gender, and class, millions of children are in terrible trouble. Children are now responsible for 20 million crimes a year. A hefty price tag is attached to juvenile crime, as society ends up paying for a lifetime spent in and out of jail. Demographic trends indicate the worst may be yet to come. The adolescent population is expected to swell by over a quarter over the next decade. The authors see the enormous surge in youth violence, which continues to escalate, as a cruel and costly manifestation of our inability to nurture our young.

If thousands of American youngsters are killed or injured at the hands of peers, thousands more are “lost in their own nightmares”–the growing numbers who self-destruct, seeing suicide as the only way out.The US has the highest percentage of children living in poverty of any developed nation: 20.5%, a figure which represents a 36% increase since 1970 and compares with 9% in Canada, 4% in Germany, and 2% in Japan. Substance abuse is also on the increase among teenagers. American children are at, or near, the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement. Not only is a large proportion of American youth growing up badly educated and ill-prepared for the world of work, but significant numbers are further handicapped by increasingly serious emotional problems. Children in America are at much greater risk than children elsewhere in the advanced industrial world. Although the US ranks second worldwide in per capita income, it does not make it into the top ten in any significant indicator of child welfare.

It appears that contemporary America is populated by overworked, stressed-out parents who are increasingly unable to “be there” for their children. Contributing factors include the rapid shift of mothers into the paid labor force, escalating divorce rates, and subsequent abandonment of children by fathers, falling wages,and lengthening work weeks. Meanwhile the evidence clearly demonstrates ominous links between absentee parents and an entire range of behaviorial and emotional problems in children. Certainly, turning this around is no simple matter. On the left, we face our fierce attachment to “untrammeled lives.” Over the past 30 years we adults have gotten used to being extraordinarily free, many of us reveling in an unprecedented range of choice. On the right, we rub against blind faith in markets and deep distrust of state intervention.

It appears that plummeting wages and lengthening work weeks, joblessness, and mounting insecurity are the hallmarks of our age. Surging corporate profits and huge increases in managerial compensation add to the frustration as workers see an elite class of managers riding high on salary raises, bonuses, and other perks. Though profits are at a 25-year high, the majority of Americans are taking home smaller paychecks than several years earlier. The authors claim that this extraordinary gulf between the haves and have-nots is the result of a huge and growing discrepancy between how we treat senior managers and how we treat everyone else. Politicians mostly try to pretend none of this happening. Take, for example, Clinton’s claim in the 1998 State of the Union address that incomes are rising across the board. According to the authors, this simply is not true. Childless families have experienced real income gains in recent years, but families with children have seen income fall.

Most Americans who were children in the fifties and sixties grew up with an optimistic take on the future. Prosperity bred the notion that each generation would be more sucessful than the previous. However the early seventies brought difficult economic times, and since then, a huge redistribution of income from workers to managers. While wages and job security are on the wane, hours spent at work is on rise. Children are increasingly left at home to fend for themselves. The nationwide estimate of children in self-care ranges up to seven million, and at least 500,000 of these are preschoolers.

The wage squeeze and lengthening work week seem to be largely an American phenonomen. While several European countries have experienced much higher unemployment rates than the US in recent years, from the vantage point of child well-being, the authors find the European system to be far superior. European parents are either well-paid or unemployed with an impressive package of benefits. Either way, they’ve more time for their kids than their American counterparts. If things are tough for mainstream workers, poorly educated workers, especially black men, are failing to find any kind of foothold in the labor market. Out-of-work, poverty-stricken men tend not to marry or support their children. The current wave of welfare reform, concentrating on the needs and obligations of single mothers, largely ignores the economic plight of disadvantaged men and its implications for women and children. With so many minority men either outside the labor market or earning poverty level wages, the issue is not enforcing child support but creating opportunities to enable them to earn a decent living and reconnect to family life. On the rare occasions when politicians mention these economic woes, they focus on causative factors “beyond their control”–for example global competition forcing wages down. The authors show these popular explanations are highly misleading.

As a nation we despair about big government, but the cost of most government programs pales in comparison to the sums involved in “managerial bloat.” According to Hewlett and West’s analysis, it all boils down to pure greed. Over the past 20 years the immense accumulation of wealth by corporate elites has combined with the wage crunch to make the US the most unequal country in the advanced democratic/industrial world, the only rich nation in which a majority of the working people actually have lower incomes than they did 25 years ago. The top 1% of the population now controls 39% of national wealth. While driven by private-sector greed, this could not, and has not happened without the collusion of government.

So much for the bad news. The good news that the authors creatively pull out of all of this is that because sagging wages and high levels of economic insecurity are homegrown problems–artifacts of out-of-control managerial greed–we can do something about them. Finding parents almost entirely unaware of the realities of the situation, Hewlett and West believe that if they were informed, they may join forces in concerted political action. (More about this later.) Detailing the ways in which, since the late Sixties, successive administrations have progressively dismantled programs and policies that underpin family life, they show the extent to which our political culture fails to give support or value to the work that parents do. Did you know that our tax code ranks the breeding of horses above the raising of children?

… our laws and policies concerning family tell a story that is extraordinarily destructive of the art and practice of parenting. They tell a tale of unfettered markets in a money-driven nation that is increasingly oblivious to the non-market work that parents do, and of untrammeled individualism amongst a self-obsessed, narcissistic people increasingly unable to understand the unique and precious properties of the parent-child bond. The spirit of this story is uncaring, even contemptuous, and its threat is to debilitate moms and dads, and undermine their ability to weave the web of care that is so vitally important to our nation.

Here the authors turn to the negative stereotyping of parents that has come to dominate mass media and entertainment industry. They note that Hollywood’s presentation of parents as incompetent or abusive is so pervasive we’ve been lulled into taking parent-bashing for granted as a harmless quirk of entertainment. We assume children can absorb countless images of inept or evil parents in movies, television, and popular songs while retaining the conviction that their own parents are different. Where parents four decades ago were portrayed as loving and wise, they are now portrayed as neglectful and abusive. The authors trace the roots of this change to the rebellions of the Sixties and emergence of pop psychology as enormously powerful forces in our culture. With the focus of the Sixties on narcissistic individualism and millions of adults pouring their energies into personal goals that ranged from career success to sexual freedom, parenting, which requires time, attention, and priority to others, fell from favor. Hewlett and West believe that pop psychology emerged at this point to rationalize these self-indulgent behaviors and legitimize a move away from family arrangements that submerged the self. (On the positive side, it helped to free many who were raised in dysfunctional co-dependent families to find themselves for the first time–but I agree that in many cases it may have been taken too far.) External obligations, whether to parents, children, or community, became hindrances to self-realization. The authors argue that while pop psychology may liberate individuals it does not bode well for family.

Perhaps in some utopian child-free world, relationships should rest on the free exchange of feelings between self-actualized selves, not on enduring responsibilities or binding obligations. But in the real world… no marriage can last and no child flourish unless adults live up to a plethora of other people’s demands.

The discovery of toxic parenting in the late 1980s gave birth to a movement that focused on healing the wounded inner child–wounded, naturally enough, by neglectful and abusive parents. The authors identify the “psychobabble” of our age as a language replete with hostility towards parents, tremendously demoralizing for individual moms and dads, and largely ignorant of the role of political and economic structures in molding personality.

Books painting a broad definition of parental incompetence–from Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much–But Not What They Need to How to Avoid Your Parents’ Mistakes When You Raise Your Children gave birth to an industry of workshops in which regular Americans are encouraged to blame all their problems on abusive parenting. While acknowledging the tremendous role parents play in the lives of their children, Hewlett and West remind us that the economic and cultural dynamics of the larger society profoundly affect what parents are able to do. By explaining adult pathology purely in terms of family dysfunction, we are kept from questioning the broader society and thus abdicate the larger project of making our government and culture more accountable. If mom or dad is homeless, or working two jobs, or has children in substandard day care, superhuman attributes are needed to be a stellar parent. When parents fail, as they almost inevitably do, to identify external pressures–such as a tax code that discriminates against families with children or a labor market that puts immense downward pressure on wages–the tendency is to blame each other, a tendency which often weakens the family from the inside. Faced with unidentified outside pressure and very little in the way of external support or affirmation, parents have become increasingly discouraged and unsure of themselves. Truly, it is difficult to allocate serious amounts of energy and effort to an activity that is demeaned and disparaged. Along with the media’s frontal assault, parents deal with an entertainment industry that floods their homes and communities with a family-destroying mix of explicit sex, random violence, and crass materialism. The authors find that few parents understand how brutal and multifaceted the onslaught has become.

An examination of the history of attempts to regulate TV underscores the difficulties of regulatory control in our market-driven age. Despite evidence of tremendous damage to children exposed to the full blast of unregulated media, the government, yielding to pressure from the entertainment industry, continues to retreat from concrete action and in the absence of effective regulations, the media dishes out whatever sells. Latest on the scene is the Internet–an ever-expanding reservoir of knowledge” and “a garbage heap of pornography, lewd exchanges, and crazy rantings” which, unless properly regulated, will become another destructive force in the lives of our children.

Over the past 30 years, divorce reform and the enormous expansion of our welfare system have conspired to make it extremely difficult for a large proportion of men either to live with, or stay in effective touch with their children. For example, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which for three decades provided the lion’s share of income support for poor families, was set up so as to deliberately exclude fathers. Then, too, a large slice of media offerings portray men as totally expendable, such that in the late 90s millions of American children deal with father absence–and father hunger–as an achingly painful condition of their childhood.

In modern America divorce has become easier and socially acceptable. There is virtually no stigma to bearing a child outside of marriage. Hence an enormous increase in absent fathers. The US has the highest divorce rate in world, and leads in the percentage of children born out of wedlock.Today almost 40% of American children–15 million –live apart from their biological fathers. Meanwhile research–much of it recent–clearly shows that a father’s absence has a devastating impact on children. The authors emphasize that they are not only talking about tangible, measurable repercussions of fatherlessness–school drop out, teen pregnancies, etc.–but also about the emotional consequences–long lasting feelings of betrayal, rejection, rage, guilt, and pain. While there are exceptions to the rule that fathers are valuable and two parents better than one, a point the research repeatedly makes is that the missing ingredient in single-parents families is not simply a second adult who can provide supervision and involvement, but the biological father. Occasionally he can be replaced by another male, but in general, males biologically unrelated to children do not have the same dedication to raising those children as males raising their own biological offspring.

The violence and abuse produced by father absence spreads beyond the home. Juvenile crime, for example, is committed disproportionately by youths in households where the biological father is not present. Seventy-two percent of adolescent murders and 70% of long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes. In the black community more than 70% of all children now live apart from their fathers. The authors find that, contrary to popular images, millions of American males want children not simply to perpetuate their names, but for the intangibles of parenting–the sense of affirmation and potentially transformative experience that comes from attachment to a child. While today, close to half of all fathers lose contact with their children, little attention has been given to how a child’s absence affects these men. Many divorced fathers, overwhelmed by feelings of failure and self-hatred, withdraw and eventually sever all ties with their kids. Feelings of worthlessness can trigger antisocial behavior. Furthermore, if virtues are not taught within the family through imitation and modeling, they are likely not taught at all. The disappearance of fathers makes it harder to develop civic virtues, such as the trust and care for others which are prerequisite to strong families and communities. Losing dad, most children become bitter or skeptical about such values as responsibility and commitment.

On the economic front those trends noted earlier have been particularly negative for men–compared to females’ wages, males’ wages have plunged more sharply and for a longer time. While falling wages undermine their ability to shoulder family responsibilities, male self-confidence and notions of personal worth remain heavily vested in earning power. The authors draw attention to the multitude of ways in which men have been discounted and pushed aside by government. Take the case of disadvantaged men–the social welfare system focuses on women. Men are largely ignored. Welfare, by encouraging out-of-wedlock births and discouraging marriage, encourages fatherlessness among poor families. Today this anti-father bias in public policy finds its clearest expression in the “demonization” of fathers who fail to pay child support. The authors show this to be a punitive policy based on misleading, biased, and inadequate data. Adding salt to the wound, the media’s portrayal of men as redundant and expendable makes it increasingly difficult for men to derive self-esteem or security from the roles of husband and father.

The bottom line… fatherhood and fathering are enormously important, and when fathers are crippled and cast aside, serious repercussions are felt throughout the nation… For make no mistake about it; fatherlessness is much more than a private agony.

Hewlett and West see the explosive growth in movements of male spiritualityand solidarity–most notably the Promise Keepers and the Nation of Islam–as the outcome of demoralized, displaced dads newly convinced that no one is listening except God. They believe that these movements, being isolated from the mainstream culture, are susceptible to extreme political elements and endangering our democracy.

Believing that the deep and desperate concerns of parents across the usual divides of gender, race, and class can feed a common vision and seed a common ground in ways rare and precious in our centrifugal society, Hewlett and West envision crafting a parents’ movement that will send America’s 62 million parents to the polls, tilting our entire political culture in a direction that supports and values adults raising children.

In 1996, they undertook the first-ever nationwide poll of parents’ priorities, and conducted a series of focus groups to enrich their understanding of the attitudes underlying the survey data. They found a remarkable degree of consensus among parents, and a concern with practical rather than ideological issues, which manifested in a vision that is “extremely responsible.” “Parents do not need a policy wonk or a social worker to explain to them that three-week-olds should not be in kennels and that seven-year-olds should not be in self-care.” Without necessarily knowing the theory, they understand the parent-child bond is precious and that it is imperiled in new and serious ways. They realize they need help if they are to come through with additional effort and energy; and they are ready to reach out for new kinds of external support. Their central and increasingly desperate concern revolves around a time crunch–often provoked by intense economic pressure–which seriously limits their ability to come through for their children.

At the top of parents’ wish list is a set of policies–policies that deal directly with the parental time famine, and together produce the external supports that would improve their ability to produce more and better time for their children. Crime, drugs, and quality of education top the list of specific anxieties parents share. When asked about their political priorities, a focus on practical issues such as income support, tax breaks, and workplace policies that would enable them to give more and better time to their children would be most helpful. Policies that parents would vote for include legislation requiring gunmakers and gunsellers to put trigger locks or safety catches on guns to prevent children from using them; federal income tax credits or deductions to help pay for college for families earning $100,000 or less; legislation to ensure three-days paid leave a year for child-related responsibilities; and tax incentives to ensure all fulltime workers earn wages above the poverty line. Finally, parents want a collective voice, an organization that reflects their urgent concerns and can impact places of power.

It is here that the authors propose a national organization for parents that would give them real leverage with policymakers. They see the organizational and strategic front of the AARP as constituting a powerful model for mobilizing the necessary numbers. Then, there are the challenges of forging a new public moralitythat will put parents front and center in the national conscience; and ensuring that citizens understand the scope of the social benefits contributed by parents. Here they look to the GI Bill of Rights, which they see as the most successful policy initiative of recent times and one whose underlying values fits the spirit and purpose of a parents’ movement.

1998 saw the crafting of a Parent’s Bill of Rights, which they see as resting on the same ethical foundation, service to our country, as did the GI Bill of Rights. In less obvious, though equally important ways, parents are as essential in maintaining our national security as are the GIs who fought in WW II. By giving over chunks of their lives to cherishing children, parents contribute to the happiness of the next generation, and generate the social and human capital which is essential for the healthy functioning of our democracy.

Finally, they present the Parents Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the headings are all I can include here.

Mothers and Fathers are entitled to:

  • 1) Time for Their Children: Paid Parenting Leave; Family-Friendly Workplaces; A Safety Net.
  • 2) Economic Security: A Living Wage; Job Opportunities; Tax Relief Help with Housing.
  • 3) A Pro-Family Electoral System: Incentives to Vote; Votes for Children.
  • 4) A Pro-Family Legal Structure: Stronger marriages; Support for Fathers; Adoption Assistance.
  • 5) A Supportive External Environment and Violence-Free Neighborhoods: Quality Schooling; Extended School Day and Year Child Care; Family Health Coverage; Drug Free Communities; Responsible Media; An Organizational Voice.
  • 6) Honor and Dignity:An Index of Parent Well-Being; National Parents’ Day; Parent Privileges.

This Bill is presented not as a finished product, but as something for parents to try on for size, and mold as they see fit. At this point I was ready to write to whatever powers-that-be, send feedback to the authors–something, anything. But I was left, strangely and abruptly, with no “next step.” I was disappointed. This aside, the authors have done a tremendous service in bringing this critical problem to focus, in offering creative and practical ideas for implementing change, and, in manifesting their intention “that this book, in providing the spark to ignite a tinderbox of passion in the hearts and minds of parents–will give moms and dads the urgent energy to pull together, to cross those rifts of color and class and find the collective strength to ask and take what is their due.”

May it be so!

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