Parenting and Politics: Giving New Shape to 'Family Values.'(new Book 'The War against Parents' discussed)(Cover Story)

By Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart | The Christian Century, July 29, 1998 | Go to article overview

Parenting and Politics: Giving New Shape to 'Family Values.'(new Book 'The War against Parents' discussed)(Cover Story)


Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart, The Christian Century


The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads.

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West. Houghton Mifflin, 302 pp., $24.00.

It was a nice irony that Sylvia Hewlett and Cornel West came to Philadelphia to promote their book the night the last episode of Seinfeld aired. As 79 million viewers watched the last of a nine-year series about four notoriously self-centered young adults, some 150 people of various colors, social classes and political stripes spent three hours listening and talking to West and Hewlett about the crisis in American family life. West, who is professor of philosophy and Afro-American studies at Harvard, noted that the Seinfeld craze reflected "the de facto segregation of our society," since it was the most popular sitcom of the '90s among whites, but ranked 26th among African-Americans.

But West and Hewlett are less interested in rehearsing the specific concerns of African-Americans and women than in uniting beleaguered parents across race, class, gender and political affiliation. Their goal is to found a populist movement, spearheaded by the newly formed National Parenting Association, of which Hewlett is founder and president. The organization and its followers will press for moral and political reform to reestablish what West called the "nonmarket values" of loving and sacrificially nurturing the next generation--values that are "the glue that holds society together." Parenting, he added, is the ultimate form of that caring activity. But contemporary American parents are so overworked, overtaxed, underpaid and undervalued that with the best will in the world they cannot easily provide the regular, hands-on nurturing their children need. This is what West and Hewlett are determined to change.

In terms of content, one could argue that there is not much new in The War Against Parents. The authors draw on the work of social analysts like David Popenoe and David Blankenhorn, Judith Wallerstein and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur to show that in general children thrive best in intact, two-parent families. The cumulative evidence from such sources is increasingly clear: children who grow up apart from a parent are one and a half to two and a half times more likely to drop out of high school, to become teenage mothers, and to be neither in school nor the workforce as young adults. Moreover, at best only half the variance associated with these effects can be attributed to the economic stresses that usually accompany single parenthood.

At the same time, the authors overlap with sociologists like Stephanie Coontz in demonstrating that intact families succeeded in the past not just by dint of better morals and rugged American individualism. As recently as the 1950s the parents of today's middle-class baby boomers had the benefit of welfare supports like the GI Bill, government-protected union activity, and various checks on corporate greed as they provided a stable economic foundation for the family. Moreover, all of this was sustained not by bleeding-heart liberals but by the Republican ad ministration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This evenhanded treatment of sources is the refreshing feature of West and Hewlett's volume. Against liberal claims that it is only economic factors and not fluid family forms that predict child outcomes, they come down firmly against the culture of narcissism and sexual freedom. Children, they demonstrate repeatedly, are not left unscathed by their parents' pursuit of individual fulfillment, whether motivated by feminist dreams of complete autonomy or masculinist fantasies of serial monogamy. While praising the "rich tradition" of American liberalism and its practice of challenging "any authoritarian imposition of religious or ethical values," the authors assert that "we can't have our cake and eat it: unlimited choice and uncluttered freedom get in the way of family strength and community well-being. …

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