When Family Values Meet Reality

Des Moines Sunday Regiser, May 18, 1997
Reviewed by Paul Rosenburg

In three successive books, family historian Stephanie Coontz has gone from prize-winning academic history in The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600 - 1900, to debunking common myths in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, to providing guidance for families and public policy in her latest book, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families.

Coontz's evolving shift in focus has largely been led by public response to her work. Site continues debunking common myths -- for example, mothers working outside the home don't spend less time with their children, though they spend time in a different mix of activities.

But debunking myths is now secondary to providing understanding mid guidance. Coontz recalls the first people who forced her to apply her social historical analysis to a specific conflict -- involving housework. Their quesStephanie Coontz tion following a talk, backed tip by an insistent audience, led her to put forward the academic concept of "situated social power," which Coontz herself says "sounded very academic, even pompous."

But the more they talked, the more sense it made.

"In plain English," she explains, "it means that various groups in society have unequal access to economic resources, political power and social status, and these social differences limit how fair or equal a personal relationship between two individuals from different groups can really be."

Such social imbalances affect personal behavior regardless of sincere intentions of both parties to "not let it make any difference. "The best, self-help books may be effective in teaching ,,about, translating intentions into reality -- improving communicaition ion, for instance. But so long as fundamental inequalities remain, new conflicts will always arise.

This concept of "siuated social power" reveals a general strength of social historical analysis: It allows us to refocus on the background of feelings we generally take for granted, Ithings I that influence uswithout our notice. Bringing them into awareness makes it possible to do something about them. Some adjustments are possible in out own expectations, attitudes and behavior, others call for broader changes in society, public policy and law.

TheWay We Really Are is far too rich and subtle to be summarized, even in a much longer review. Coontz is constantly correcting simplistic notions, pointing out multiple causes and multiple options that speak to our sense of life's variety rather than our sense of desperation.

But she provides some help in broadly making sense of what we're going through. Consider three examples.

* Family change is driven by broader economically-driven social changes. It's happened before. As the wage-based cash economy displaced the colonial model of home-centered produciton, men withdrew from their traditional roles of nurturance while women's economic contributions first shrank, then were relabled to not appear as work. This process, establishing the new "traditional family" in place of the old, was just, as painful and disruptive as the current process replacing it with the emerging dual-coprovider family.

* Coontz explains that fundamental social change typically goes through a three-stage process:

First, individual and family stress escalates as old patterns stop working.

Second, "public debate and cultural struggle, as competing definitions of the. problems are raised by different groups." It's often "a period when the previous denial of new realities turns into a search for scapegoats."

Third, restabilization, when people "begin to adapt their institutions, values and cultural norms to the new realities."

The longer the second period of denial and scapegoating lasts, the higher the social and personal cost of suffering. On the other hand a social-historical perspective can move through the most destructive stage more quickly.

* One of the most long-standing American traditions, older than the ideal of the male breadwinner, is the socioeconomic mobility. That's why many families America in the first place," Coontz points out.

As traditional strategies for upward mobility and a better life. for the next generation ran out of steam, women's employment became central to attaining that goal, or simply staying even. However painful the adjustments we're going through are, they're driven by traditional values much older and deeper than the forms they're displacing. Public policy should try to make these adjustments less painful, not punish people for living in a difficult time of transition.

Altogether, these three points support adopting more European-style social policies. Reflecting on the historical analogies, Coontz reasons:

"During the transition to the male breadwinner family during the early 19th century, government funded the transportation systems that were essential for the development of a national market. In today's transition to a coprovider family system, child care, paid parental leaves and family-friendly work policies are equally vital social and economic investments as were canals mid railroads then."

Almost nobody in Washington today supports such an agenda -- in sharp contrast to numerous public opinion polls. But then, we're still entangled in the stage of denial and scapegoating. The sooner we pass through this stage, Coontz argues in a hundred different ways, the sooner things will get much better for us and our children.

Not only should every politician in America be required to read this book before running for office, they should be required to pass a test on its lessons.

Not that they have to agree with everything Coontz has to say, but I hey should at. least think about it. We'd all be much better off if they did.

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