Domestic Solutions

The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1997

The publication of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz's previous book, came in time for that book to serve as fodder in the "family values" debate that dominated the 1992 election. What might have been merely a well-received, clearly written book by an academic, became fuel in the sound-bite fires and set the author, a historian at Evergreen State College in [Washington], on the road. The reception of that book perhaps contributed to the accessible tone of Coontz's follow-up, a look at the contemporary American family called The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families.

Coontz's travels took her to Oprah and Crossfire, on many long plane flights where she often fell into conversation with fellow passengers, to lecture podiums across the country, to P.T.A. forums and drug and alcohol rehabilitation workshops. She listened well and learned a lot about fragmented debate and garbled information, about abrupt intimacy in public places, about fact and fiction in American family life. She has now attempted to "get beyond the rhetoric" and show that "history and social science do have concrete applications and positive lessons" for ordinary citizens.

Drawing on journalism as well as scholarship, she includes almost 50 pages of notes in addition to the modest 177 pages of text. Her book should offer reassurance to people in every kind of family muddling through every stressful stage. Her most important lesson, which she repeats one way and another, again and again, is that "the only way to get past the polarized testimonies for and against 1950's families is to put their strengths and weaknesses into historical perspective." She appreciates the fact of change in American history and constantly emphasizes it, so that, for example in the chapter explaining "Why Working Mothers Are Here to Stay" she summarizes an important aspect of the industrial revolution as "The Late Birth and Short Life of the Male Breadwinner Family."

Addressing adult uneasiness about and around teenagers, she shifts the terms of the debate from angry reproach to provocative compassion: "The best way I've found to personally confirm the sociological studies of rolelessness is to ask older men to talk about their life histories." Invariably, she says, they answer their own frustrated questions.

The experience of work has become very different for young people: "The typical job a teenager can get today provides neither the self-pride of economic independence nor the socializing benefits of working alongside adult mentors. . . Work relations seem to have been critical experiences for the socialization of many young men in the past. Such jobs integrated youths into adult society. . .instead of segregating them in a separate peer culture." One telling statistic she cites: As recently as 1940, 60 percent of employed adolescents worked in traditional workplaces, acquiring skills they might use for the rest of their lives. By1980, that figure had dropped to just 14 percent.

A chapter called "Working With What We've Got" contains a gem of insight about adapting to diversity in family structure. Some elementary school teachers who noticed homework stress in children from singleparent and dual-working-parent families gave students the assignment to read aloud to their parents several nights a week. How much nicer for a child to read to a parent who is fixing dinner than to sit alone with the television set while the parent feels stressed and alone in the kitchen. Another assignment was for a child to do comparison math while shopping with a parent.

That little example is typical of the pragmatic optimism that runs through Stephanie Coontz's book. "Just think," she says, "How much we could accomplish if we stopped expecting nontraditional families to fail and started thinking creatively about how to help every family build on its resources and minimize its vulnerabilities." Agreed.

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