Renewing Our Social Fabric

Article excerpt

Head Start co-founder Urie Bronfenbrenner says our social fabric is unraveling, and families, particularly children, are paying the price. Society has to reestablish its values and customs to give priority to family life and caring for others.

The damage to the physical environment by technology and industrialization has long been a national concern. Far less appreciated is that these same processes are deteriorating the social environment.

"We have yet to acknowledge fully the analogue in the social realm," says Urie Bronfenbrenner, the Jacob Gould Schurman professor emeritus of human development and of psychology. Bronfenbrenner, an expert on the ecology of human development, is a founder of the national Head Start program.

"The unthinking exercise of massive technological power and an unquestioning acquiescence to the demands of industrialization and administrative organization can unleash forces that, if left unbridled, can destroy the human ecology - the social fabric that sustains our capacity to live and work together effectively and to raise our children to become competent, compassionate members of society."

Enabling families to function in an increasingly chaotic environment requires that the principles of human ecology be understood and incorporated into public policy.

Human development takes place through progressively complex interactions between parent and child, Bronfenbrenner notes, and obstacles to those interactions impair normal development.

"Child rearing requires public policies and practices that provide opportunity, status, resources, encouragement, example, stability, and above all, time for parenthood, primarily by parents but also by other adults in the child's life, both within and outside the home," Bronfenbrenner says.

Such support for children, however, is in steep decline. The United States leads the world in divorce rates and in the percentage of children growing up in poverty. The proportion of children living in single-parent families grew by 2.5 times between 1970 and 1993. Today, one fourth of all American children live with only one parent - the highest rate in the developed world. The United States also is in first place in births to teenaged mothers. Since 1985, 50 percent of those births have been to unmarried mothers, and this percentage is on the rise. Fifty-six percent of mothers with children under the age of six are in the labor force.

"As more mothers go to work and fathers are increasingly absent from the home, there are fewer extended-family members who might look after the child," Bronfenbrenner notes.

"Most other developed societies today provide a variety of external supports to parents in the form of substitute care, flexible work schedules, guaranteed maternity and paternity leave, sick leave when children are ill, and cash benefits per child. By comparison, in the United States such resources are in short supply."

Because workplace policies in the United States still are based on realities of the past, they are on a collision course with the realities of family life today.

"From an evolutionary perspective," he says, "there are two kinds of activities that appear particularly salient for our species. …