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The Way We Never Were

The "family values" myth

Proof that the good old days weren't.

The Way We Really Are

by Stephanie Coontz

BasicBooks, 227 pp. $23

Kafka once said we should read only those books that work like an ax to break up the ice within us. I think it was Kafka. (Someone find me this quotation, please. I've torn my house up.) For a long time I followed that advice, and read only those books I knew I'd disagree with. You'd better believe this practice kept me quiet at parties. No topic arose in discussion about which I was not passionately uncertain.  

These were books from my Books to Challenge Prejudice phase.

Well, I'm reading a new sort of book now: Books to Hit Other People Over the Head With. These are books I can use to bash my ideas into the minds of those unsympathetic to my own sagacious reasoning. Books that make my points far better than I could, in other words. Let me tell you, it's good to see one's opinions championed by smart people. (Of course, now I'm never invited to parties.)

 So don't get me started on the topic of family values. I've just read The Way We Really Are, by Stephanie Coontz, and my opinions now have statistics behind them. And historical perspective. I could probably construct charts if necessary.

You know what's coming. Coontz thinks that "family values"--especially those values preached by Republicans, the religious right, the Promise Keepers and groups like the Family Research Council--are a lot of hooey.

Coontz teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, so she doesn't use the term "hooey." She says today's big "family values" push--get ready for a recurring phrase--lacks historical perspective.

It also lacks any feeling for the macro-economic pressures at work on the personal lives of Americans.

(One small reason I love this book: At times Coontz seems to promote "historical perspective" as a kind of coping strategy for dealing with your stressed marriage and hateful kids. Think of that: You can better handle your personal problems by knowing history! I propose a new branch of psychology: history therapy.)

Coontz begins by confessing her misgivings about the plain-language analysis she is about to make. Her role is academic, she says. She is not in the business of social criticism. Then she demolishes the "family values" argument in half a chapter.

(Another small reason I love this book: Coontz is at all times dignified, restrained, gentle and armed to the teeth with numbers. She calls pop therapist John (Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus) Gray a well-meaning man--though lacking in historical perspective. He thinks you can solve gender communication problems without addressing their macro-political and -economic causes. Whomp! Gray takes a hit on the head.)

 You get some idea of Coontz's force when she takes on that model of domestic felicity, that family values ideal, the 1950s family.

Here was a happy thing: Dad won the bread, mom washed the clothes, the kids grew up happy, with good prospects of doing better than their parents. If women only stayed home and kids toed the line, runs this logic, we could return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet.

Except, unfortunately, we'd also have to extend substantial social benefits like the GI bill to 40 percent of American men, for that's what `50s fathers enjoyed. We'd have to pay 100 percent of their college tuition.
We'd have to build them houses whose closing costs could be paid with one day of their labor (currently it's about 18 months.) And we'd have to encourage a far, far greater corporate investment in communities, far higher pay raises (real wages have declined since the 1970s), stable communities, a shorter work-week and lifelong employment.

And we'd have to repeal a great many child labor laws, for children in the 150s often had meaningful work outside the house that would be illegal today. (Coontz thinks this lack all but causes the modern child's travails.)

Needless to say, we'd also have to prepare for the huge increase in domestic strife like wife-beating, infidelity, child abuse, incest and teenage pregnancy. Of course it occurred in the `50s. It just wasn't reported.

Did you know, for example, that the teen pregnancy rate in the 1950s was twice that of today? Twice. Few people saw teen pregnancy as a social problem in 1950s, because most pregnant teens got married before giving birth. And, unlike today, teen motherhood posed few social and economic obstacles in the 1950s.

We'd have to deal with the gross economic inequity between husbands and wives, which guaranteed the social dependence of women upon men, and life-sentenced countless thousands of couples to marriages from hell.

And while we're on the subject, if you really wanted to foster harmonious marriages, you could look back to the village and agrarian economies before the industrial revolution. Here, both spouses worked, but seldom far from home. The kids worked also, often caring for younger siblings while mom went to market or worked in the shop or fields. Let us include in this family scene the numerous aunts and uncles, aged grandparents, mothers- and fathers-in-law, nephews, cousins and "taken-in" children who made important but forever-overlooked contributions to the household right up to the 1940s.

"Historically, productive work by mothers as well as fathers (and by young people) has not only been compatible with family life but has also strengthened family relationships," Coontz writes. "What is really out of balance is the relationship between market activities and non-market ones (including community as well as family ties.) Our jobs don't make room for family obligations. The purchase of goods and services often substitutes for family activities."

Those with historical perspective know that the `50s family was an aberration, glimpsed briefly during the `20s and throughout the `50s but not before or since. The economic conditions that made such a family possible no longer exist. Coontz is here to tell you: The politicians who push family values--lacking historical perspective as they do--tacitly hope families will solve the problems it took family, government and business working together to solve in the `50s.

But I haven't given you Coontz's good news: Generally, things are much better than they were; good families are still eminently possible (though probably not in their old form); and more Americans enjoy more opportunity now than they ever did.

Read Coontz for yourself, and I will stop hitting people. For that alone we should thank her.

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