“I never thought it would be this hard,” Polly said one night, standing by the kitchen counter on the verge of tears. “I thought when I had children, I would have this great thing in common with everyone else. When my first child was born, I went out and bought a Disney video, because I thought that’s what you do. Now I feel like I spend my whole life protecting my children from the culture. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
Probably no one in history has ever been fully prepared for how hard it is to raise children. But a consensus is growing among parents and students of family life that, in the past two decades, child rearing in the United States has become a more difficult and undervalued vocation.
“It shouldn’t be this hard.” That cry can be heard from parents outraged by an invasive, hyper-sexualized popular culture and from those struggling to find time for their children when both parents work full-time jobs. It can be heard from parents who have seen their children carried away to the Neverland of a youth culture created by and for advertisers.
In The War Against Parents, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West observe a general trend in which “nonmarket work” is being marginalized by the profit-driven work of the market. “Parenting,” they point out, “is the ultimate nonmarket activity.”
Every parent knows that child rearing requires time, personal sacrifice, and economic expense. But changes in American society over the past 30 years have rendered many parents less able, and sometimes less willing, to offer those resources to their children.
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni points out that, since the early 1970s, the “parenting industry” has lost most of its workforce. Once, most mothers of small children worked at home, caring for their children and the overall well-being of the family. Today, 61 percent of the mothers of children under age 3 are in the paid workforce. And at-home mothers have mostly been replaced not by a new, sensitive army of at-home fathers but by daycare workers—who are underpaid and often minimally trained.
In the early 1970s, American feminism put forth the good idea that women should have a right to participate in public life in any way they choose. Many women came to see work outside the home, for wages, as necessary for their empowerment and autonomy.
During these same years, the “do-your-own-thing” individualism of the 1960s gave birth to “no-fault” divorce laws. These made it legally easier for parents to shed family commitments; the laws weakened the bonds of family life at a time when they were about to face severe testing.
While cultural backwash from the 1960s was reshaping family life in the upper-middle class, corporate capitalism was doing the same thing for the rest of the country. From 1973 to 1993, real wages for nonmanagement workers declined by 10 percent. Meanwhile, the United States ceased to be a manufacturing economy. We now import most of our goods from low-wage countries, and our economic growth depends upon consumer spending.
These two facts created a double economic bind. Wages were lower, but the economy needed American families to buy more stuff. A co-opted feminism provided one big part of the solution: Hard-pressed American families could stay in the middle class by sending Mom out into the labor market. And, if they wished, they could even call it liberation.
Too little thought was given to the fate of children in all those two-income families. But 20 years later the results began to appear. The traditional nuclear family of the 1950s was oppressive of women, but there were no school shootings, no epidemics of Attention Deficit Disorder and Type 2 diabetes. Teen suicide rates were half what they are today, and educational achievement was higher. These indicators of the declining well-being of children can be traced in part to the disappearance of traditional family life. Etzioni notes that American employers increasingly complain that young workers suffer from “a deficiency of character and an inability to control impulses, defer gratification, and commit to the task at hand.”
These character traits are best learned from parents. Good families are sources of structure, discipline, and emotional support. They teach religious faith. It seems clear that a family can do this critical job best when at least one parent is able to devote significant time to it. But, in an era of stagnant or shrinking wages, keeping a parent at home has become extremely difficult for many families.
The Plague of Consumption
While declining wages forced many American households into a two-job lifestyle, the economic imperative to consume also took its toll on children and family life. For one thing, a consumer-driven economy requires the constant invention of new "needs" to be met.
A substantial middle-class, single-family home used to have about 1,500 square feet of floor space. Today, friends and relatives tell us that our 1,800-square-foot home is small. Not long ago it was normal for siblings to share bedrooms; now middle-class children need their own rooms, and frequently their own cable-connected TVs and Internet-wired computers. Children used to “just play,” outdoors when weather permitted. But now they need to have every non-school hour filled with (sometimes costly) organized activities or lessons.
In these and hundreds of other ways, American parents buy into a false definition of need that leaves them addicted to a two-income lifestyle and robs children of family life. These parents are not bad, selfish, or greedy. They are simply doing what most people have always done, going along with the prevailing tide of cultural expectations.
And today cultural pressure isn’t just about keeping up with the Joneses. Our expectations are driven by the relentless, inescapable, womb-to-tomb presence of advertising. In the 1980s, Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission repealed limits on TV advertising time. Soon thereafter, the proliferation of cable channels—along with the brave, new marketplace of the Internet—gave advertisers unlimited opportunities to colonize American consciousness. And, because their consumption habits are still unformed, children and youth are the marketers’ targets of choice.
Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the rise of Britney Spears was fueled partly by adult marketers who, pretending to be 12-year-old girls, would chat online about how cool Britney was. Sociologist Juliet Schor found one marketing research firm “that gets girls to organize slumber parties for research purposes. Girls may be given a new TV show to watch, or a food to try, and their responses are collected. It’s basically a focus group.” Schor discovered rampant advertising and product placement in schools, even in textbooks. Her studies also named children’s materialism as a factor in depression, low self-esteem, and poor relationships with parents.
Unless parents find ways to get off the consumerist merry-go-round, they will never reclaim control of their family life and re-establish healthy connections with their children. To do so will require getting control of our own “needs” and limiting our children’s exposure to commercial culture.
What Is to Be Done?
But is this really possible? The cultural and economic forces we have described so far are huge, impersonal, and overwhelming. How can one little family stand up to them?
Ultimately, we can’t. It took systemic change to get us into this mess, and it will take that to get us out. But, in the short term, it is possible for individual families to do better if they are willing to make hard choices. This has been our obsession for the past 13 years, and our successes have been limited, at best. But, in the process of trying to do better, we have learned a few things.
When our first child was born, we made two decisions that would turn out to be among the most important of our lives. We decided to drastically limit exposure to TV and computer screens, and we decided to do anything possible to keep one of us home with our children, especially in their early years.
We didn’t start with a bias against screens. In fact, when our first child was born, Danny was working as a TV critic. But early on, we read and were convinced by Jane Healy’s books on the effects of TV viewing (Endangered Minds) and computer use (Failure to Connect) on brain development in young children. We’ve limited regular TV to 30 minutes per day. Once they are reading, our children rarely even watch that. Computer time (for older children only) is limited to an hour a week, and we’ve managed to ban video games entirely.
Marybeth Kearns-Barrett and Chris Barrett took an even more radical stance toward television. After at first allowing their four children to watch PBS, Chris, who was the primary at-home parent for 12 years, was inspired by an article he read to eliminate TV viewing entirely. He found that the decision not only protected their kids from offensive content and materialistic tendencies but also “paid huge dividends in our children’s love of reading, their imaginary play, and the friendships they have developed among themselves.”
Life without screens is the good news. Keeping one parent at home is not so easy. Despite our modest material needs, it always seems that one full-time income is not quite enough. Two would be more than we need, and earning them would ruin our life. But part-time jobs that pay more than poverty wages are extremely rare, and they do nothing to alleviate the burden of health insurance. We understand how parents are forced into the two-job trap.
We have managed to keep one or the other of us mostly at home for the past 13 years. But we’ve benefited from family financial help that many people don’t have, and we’ve been able to live in rural areas where housing costs are relatively low. Also, both of us have been able to earn income from freelance writing and speaking.
And the most important factor in our decision to maintain an at-home parent was not a personal one. It was the federal/state Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides free insurance to children in families earning up to 200 percent (in Mississippi) of the poverty level. For five years, our kids were on CHIP, free coverage that would have otherwise cost us $6,000. In some states the eligibility ceiling is lower, and many families find themselves forced to send a second parent into the work force simply to get access to health insurance.
As alternating at-home parents, we have each had low moments of doubt and “identity insecurity.” We have felt subtle pressure from family members to put our kids in daycare so that we could earn more money. During one pregnancy, Polly had no health insurance and qualified for Medicaid. She remembers staring at her Medicaid card the day it came, wondering wryly how many other Ivy League graduates with master’s degrees were on Medicaid. Was this morally right?
Other parents have shared with us their struggles to make time for children. Amy and John Giorgio have four kids under age 10. After the birth of their first child, John worked days as a mental health counselor, and Amy loaded her church work into nights and weekends.
After the second child was born, they decided to return to Amy’s native Midwest, where John eventually landed a job as a software developer in a small town just six miles from Amy’s parents. “It’s good that our children have other people to love them as family,” notes John. But there are sacrifices involved in putting family and place before career. The Giorgios live modestly, and John misses human contact in his work.
Anne Martin recalls that, when she and Duane Bontrager had their second child, “someone gave me a poem called ‘Teach Me Slow,’” a title she suggests changing to “Teach Me Inefficient.” Anne observes that “children call us to stop and listen, to be present to them. One of the main ways I practice inefficiency is to work part time [as a counselor in private practice]. I essentially pay the same ‘overhead’ as if I worked full time, but I make less money to offset it. It’s very inefficient, but in exchange I get that time at home with my kids.”
In the 21st century, the struggle to keep a parent at home has nothing to do with conforming to a Father Knows Best image of family life. The point is for children to be formed by positive experiences of family and not by the individualistic and acquisitive values of market culture. There are clear dividends here for society as well as for families. Good families teach the core social values of solidarity, interdependence, and responsibility as the formational stuff of everyday life. These values can get lost when parents spend almost all their time chasing income and children spend theirs hurrying from one activity to another.
Todd Graff reflects that his and Laurie Ziliak’s kids “are learning how to live and grow in a setting where individual needs often have to give way to more pressing family needs.” Todd and Laurie’s six children share bedrooms as well as belongings, and Todd believes that such large-family necessities expose children to the notion of “the ‘common good’ in a very direct and concrete way. They are learning the Christian belief that we become who we are not in isolation, but in relationship with one another.”
Changing the Odds for Parents
We’ve seen a few ways that parents can try to beat the odds. But a healthy family policy cannot depend entirely upon individual virtue. Ultimately, we need a society in which material and moral incentives reward good parenting instead of punishing it. What can be done to change the odds against good parenting?
Many American parents know in their guts that the way we are raising children does not make sense. Of the mothers currently in the work force, only 16 percent say they would choose to work full time if they felt they had the choice. If we were truly interested in the empowerment of women and the welfare of children, we would give the other 84 percent that choice.
The social and economic policies needed to support parents and children are already in place and working well in most of the wealthy countries of the world. According to Marcia Meyers and Janet Gornick, writing in TheAmerican Prospect, every country in Western Europe offers paid parenting leave for infant care and has policies that increase options for high-quality, part-time employment.
In France, mothers get 16 weeks paid leave at the birth of a first or second child and 26 weeks for subsequent children. Parents also have a right to take three years off for child rearing without losing their jobs. In Sweden, parents get 15 months of paid parental leave that can be shared between mothers and fathers. They also have a legal right to work six hours per day -- at pro-rated pay, with no reduction in benefits -- until their children are 8 years old.
Meyers and Gornick report that it would cost 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product to implement similar policies for American parents. The annual expense -- between $115 billion and $175 billion -- would be roughly half what we’ve spent so far on the Iraq war.
In most of Europe the normal work week is less than 40 hours. In Sweden and the Netherlands, dual-earner couples with children average two fewer workdays per week than do U.S. couples. “Even more remarkable, nearly two-thirds of U.S. couples work more than 80 hours each week jointly—a distribution that no European country even approaches,” says Gornick, writing in Dissent.
American families cannot be economically stable until we break the connection between employment and health-care access. Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) “Medicare for All” proposal would preserve private health care delivery but make government the single payer. The program would be financed by a 7.7 percent payroll tax, lower than most premiums today. And, by eliminating insurance companies’ profits and waste, it would save the United States at least $286 billion annually, according to a study by Harvard Medical School researchers and Public Citizen.
These are very conventional, common-sense, social-democratic policies. But a political agenda to encourage good parenting in America would not be entirely to the liking of many American liberals. For one thing, it should involve extensive re-regulation of the media industry to protect children from advertisers and from inappropriate content.
We are fond of Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) proposal to require a la carte cable service. This would allow families to take, say, ESPN or the Discovery Channel without having to let USA and MTV into their homes. Parents should also rally around an outright ban on all advertising during any program aimed at children, as well as content restrictions on advertising that runs between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. We should also require that a greater percentage of child-targeted programming have a constructive educational purpose. As this is written, Disney and Viacom (the owner of Nickelodeon) are suing the federal government to eliminate the current educational requirement, which is only three hours per week.
We should support measures to make divorce more difficult for parents with children.As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West point out, “no-fault” divorce laws changed the public nature of marriage for the worse. “Instead of serving as a mechanism through which adults express their commitment to others—especially children,” they write, “marriage has become a vehicle for the emotional fulfillment of adult partners.” That was a tragic mistake, and it needs to be reversed as part of an overall strategy to change cultural expectations about parenting.
To paraphrase Peter Maurin, it’s fun to imagine a country in which it is easier for parents to be good. It’s harder to imagine how we might get there. An agenda that flies in the face of both free-market economics and liberal cultural individualism has no political home in America today.
In Europe, social and economic family rights were won by the labor unions and the socialist political parties they support. Today America’s labor unions are weak, and no major political party speaks for the economic interests of low- and middle-income families. Meanwhile, one of the major parties exploits parents’ cultural anxieties while promoting tax cuts for the rich and opposing increases in the minimum wage.
But if a consistent, pro-family economic and cultural message were ever to cut through the clutter of American politics, we know that it would find a willing -- though weary and beleaguered -- army of support among American parents.
Danny and Polly Duncan Collum lived in rural Kentucky with their three children when this article appeared.
Books on Parenting and Family Life
This list includes all the books or authors referred to in our article, "Taking Back Our Kids," and many more that have influenced our thinking on questions of family life and family policy. It is not an exhaustive or systematic bibliography. These are simply the books that we stumbled across, or had thrust upon us, that turned out to be helpful. - Polly and Danny Duncan Collum
Back to the Family: Proven Advice on Building a Stronger, Healthier, Happier Family, by Ray Guarendi. Simon & Schuster.
Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children’s Literature, by Elizabeth Wilson. Crossway Books.
A Call to Peace: 52 Meditations on the Family Pledge of Nonviolence, by James McGinnis. Liguori Publications.
Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime: The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids, by Ray Guarendi. Servant Books.
Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think, by Jane M. Healey. Simon & Schuster.
Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healey. Touchstone.
Families That Work: Policies For Reconciling Parenthood And Employment, by Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers. Russell Sage Foundation Publications.
Families Valued: Parenting and Politics for the Good of All Children, by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Friendship Press.
Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, by David Guterson. Harcourt Brace.
Finding God at Home: Family Life As Spiritual Discipline , by Ernest Boyer. Harpercollins.
For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. Crossway Books.
Gently Lead: Or How to Teach Your Children About God While Finding Out for Yourself, by Polly Berrien Berends. Harpercollins.
The Hidden Art of Homemaking: Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life, by Edith Schaeffer. Tyndale House.
Home by Choice: Understanding the Effects of a Mother’s Love, by Brenda Hunter. Multnomah Books. [change to “Raising Emotionally Secure Children in an Insecure World”]
Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life, by Gladys Hunt. Zondervan.
The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, by David Elkind. Addison-Wesley.
The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need, by Juliet B. Schor. Harper Paperbacks.
The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Basic Books.
Parenting for Peace and Justice: Ten Years Later, by Kathleen and James McGinnis. Orbis Books.
Parenting With Love and Logic : Teaching Children Responsibility, by Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay. Pinon Press.
The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, by Ann Crittenden. Owl Books.
The Spirit of Community, by Amitai Etzioni. Touchstone.
The Spiritual Life of Children, by Robert Coles. Mariner Books.
Starting Out Right: Nurturing Young Children as Peacemakers, by Kathleen McGinnis and Barbara Oehlberg. Crossroad.
Taking Parenting Public: The Case for a New Social Movement, edited by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Nancy Rankin, and Cornel West. Rowman and Littlefield.
The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Owl Books.
To Learn with Love: A Companion for Suzuki Parents, by William and Constance Starr. Summy-Birchard, Inc.
The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West. Houghton Mifflin.
What Is a Family?, by Edith Schaeffer. Baker Book House.
Whole Child Whole Parent, by Polly Berrien Berends. Harpercollins.