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