The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads. – book reviews
By Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West Houghton Mifflin, $24
Last week I received a telephone call from a journalist who was writing a story on how parents who work nontraditional hours could help their children “adjust” to their abnormal employment schedules. Her intentions were good — she wanted to provide a “how to parent” article that would help mothers and fathers who worked evenings and nights – but she had missed the critical point that many parents work such hours precisely so that they can parent in a manner they believe is best for their children. Mothers work nights so that they can be home during the day when children return from school, so that they can have a family dinner ready when fathers return from work in the evening, so that they can be available at a moment’s notice if the school calls about a problem or a sick child. Fathers and mothers stagger their hours of employment so that one parent is always home and available for their children, a family strategy that maximizes parental time with children while minimizing couple time. In my research on women hospital workers’ strategies of combining work and family, I found that mothers and fathers often twist themselves into pretzels to provide the kind of parenting they feel children need. “Beleaguered” certainly describes them and others I interviewed, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West’s book promised to be a welcome response to the parent-blaming that is often the first response of politicians and social commentators to the problems of our society.
For the most part, the book delivers on this promise. Hewlett and West write passionately and clearly about the difficult social and political climate parents face. They talk in terms of the “war against parents,” “the parent-hurting society,” and “the agony of the impossible pressures and choices our society thrusts upon moms and dads.” They argue that children are not doing well (as measured by child poverty rates, SAT scores, juvenile crime rates, school drop-out rates, and so on), and that they are not doing well because of a “truly frightening erosion of the parental role — of the ability of moms and dads to come through for their children” While they causally link children’s outcomes with parental performance, the authors shift the issue of “blame” to contemporary economic, political, and social forces. The erosion of the parental role is “not because parents are less devoted than they used to be. They do not love their children less. The truth is, the whole world is pitted against them.”
This is a bold argument, and one that Hewlett and West make well. In separate chapters on the economy, government policies, and popular culture, the authors detail the impact on parents of the social changes of the last 35 years. Hewlett and West take the post-World War II period of the 1950s as a point of comparison, but rather than comparing the present to a romanticized and mythical 1950s, they focus instead on the economy and on government policies. Unlike the 30 years after World War II, when all sectors of society experienced an increase in real income, today’s families have experienced falling real incomes. The authors argue convincingly that the situation facing parents, as workers, is not a result of global competitive pressures (often used as an excuse for the wage squeeze), but of government-supported corporate and managerial greed. Statistics on wage levels, wage distribution, buying power, and corporate profits support their case. The anti-union tactics of the 1970s, the decline in employer-provided health benefits, the inadequacy of the minimum wage, the increasing insecurity of jobs, and the highly inequitable distribution of wages between workers and management have led to a situation in which “America is now the most unequal country in the advanced democratic world, the only rich nation in which a majority of working people actually have lower incomes than they did 25 years ago.” This has serious consequences for our abilities to parent.
Turning to the direct effects of government, Hewlett and West compare the tax codes, housing policies, and government subsidies of the post World War II era with changes in government policies in the last 30 years. What is so important about this comparison is that Hewlett and West remind us that, through the GI Bill and tax codes which were preferential to families, the U.S. did at one time help to support its children by subsidizing many parents in the fundamentals of family life: income, education, housing. Current tax codes and housing policies are shown to be abdications of the government’s responsibility to families, while other family-related government initiatives, such as certain child welfare policies, are presented as actively antagonistic to families. The chapter on “A Poisonous Popular Culture” documents the ways in which the media, with parent-bashing movies, sitcoms, and song lyrics, reflect and reinforce the war against parents.
The War Against Parents is not, however, aimed simply at making the case that our society is hurtful to parents, and therefore to children. As Hewlett and West state in their prologue, “the main thrust of this book [is]: What can this society do to revalue and revitalize the art and practice of parenting and thus replenish our children and renew our nation?” To that end, they conclude the book with a Parents’ Bill of Rights, which they present as their “blueprint for supporting families” Modeled on the GI Bill, the Parents Bill of Rights includes concrete suggestions for ways to address the major problems faced by parents: economic pressures, time pressures, and the undermining of parental status.
There is much food for thought in this section. Included in the bill are economic proposals such as: paid, job-protected parenting leave for 24 weeks to be taken by one parent or split between two parents, and to be available until a child’s sixth birthday; a mandatory 10-day parenting leave for new fathers; tax incentives for companies that offer family-friendly scheduling; subsidies in bring wages to the level where a full-time worker with two dependents would stay above the poverty line; school to work programs; suggestions for tax policies that would support families; housing and mortgage subsidies for families with children.
In addition, the Parents’ Bill of Rights includes proposals for increasing parents’ political clout by fostering voter turnout in general, as well as offering incentives aimed specifically at parents, such as allowing them to vote on behalf of their children who are under voting age. And there are proposals aimed at social regulation, such as covenant marriages, stricter divorce laws, generous visitation for noncustodial parents, and adoption assistance. Education and child care proposals include extending the school day and the school year, integrating child care into the schools, and increasing government investment in education and child care.
While reading The War Against Parents, I was struck by what a strategically smart book it is in many ways. For one thing, it tries to place the blame for the dearth of family-friendly policies on both conservative and liberal political schools of thought. Conservatives, they argue, want an unregulated market but strict controls in such family-related areas as abortion, divorce, marriage, and births to unmarried women. But, they caution, what conservatives fail to recognize is that private enterprise affects private life: “Television was deregulated, gambling was legalized, trade unions were beaten back, and the minimum wage was frozen, all in the name of freeing up markets. In different ways, each of these conservative policies — many of which continue to the present day — has diminished parents’ ability to do a good job by their children” Liberals, on the other hand, want government control in economic life, but value freedom of choice in the social and personal sphere. Liberals, we are told, are too individualistic. The only government policy that the authors actually link to the undermining of parents by liberals is no-fault divorce, an example they give in several places to make the same point. Otherwise, they restrict their criticism of liberal thought to ideas about self-actualization and to Hollywood stars who choose to have children without the benefit of marriage. Hewlett and West, however, try to distance themselves from both conservatives and liberals by arguing that “both schools of thought clobber kids.”
The book is also strategically smart in its call for a parents’ movement, an AARP-style organization that would unite people across lines of race, class, and gender and around a common identity as parents. It is daring, in an age of identity politics, to suggest uniting around an identity so commonly shared. There are, however, problems with Hewlett and West’s attempts to present the interests of all parents as similar. For example, in their discussion of the unintended negative consequences of social welfare programs, they note that families of color-were unfairly targeted, and social workers and other professionals often confused material want with parental neglect. This isn’t simply an example of a war on parents, but rather a war on particular kinds of parents — on poor parents and parents of color — by social welfare professionals, many of whom are also parents.
The War Against Parents is an important book for raising critical issues and daring to suggest concrete proposals. I am distressed, however, by the use of evidence — or the lack of it — in parts of this book. While the chapters on the economic and political undermining of parents are the strongest and most well-supported chapters, other sections rely on unsupported rhetoric. The chapter on “The Disabling of Dads” is particularly sloppy. The issue of men’s connections to families is a very real problem, and it does a disservice to continue to treat the issue as one of men who are disenfranchised and wounded by individualistic women who sacrifice their children’s need for their father to a belief “that fathers don’t matter — a point of view encouraged by modern feminism” Since, over the last 25 years, the main thrust of modern feminist scholarship on families has been to criticize the sexual division of labor and to argue for men’s full participation in child care, this seems an unfair charge.
In spite of its problems, and there are many, The War Against Parents makes a good case for the needs of parents and the well-being of children — and parents need all the help they can get.
ANITA GAREY is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and author of the forthcoming book Weaving Work and Family.
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