Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 68-69.
The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family. By Dana Mack. Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Nancy R. Pearcey
The principal of a Reform Jewish Sunday school in Connecticut realized she had made a mistake. After researching diligently to pick a textbook for her high-school class, she had selected one that coached students in "decision-making strategies" regarding sexual involvement and drug use. But strangely enough, she discovered, "When these kids came to class they didn’t want to talk about sex or drugs." What did they want? "They wanted to talk about God." And so, the principal said ruefully, her Sunday school class ended up discussing "religious philosophy."
Imagine that. Of course, any parent could have prevented the principal’s false start—if she had thought to ask. Parents are generally impatient with churches that push a therapeutic curriculum instead of addressing young people’s genuine spiritual hunger. The story illustrates the tug-of-war going on between parents and professionals over the best way to raise children, the subject of this first book by Dana Mack. And she’s worried that the professionals are winning.
Mack is a parent and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. Her colleague, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, has observed that the family is the subject of two very different conversations—one around the conference table, among policy wonks and economists (whose views are extensively published and cited), the other around the kitchen table, among parents (whose views are rarely publicized). Mack interviewed some 250 parents across the country in order to give a public voice to the kitchen-table conversation.
Mack started out with the idea of uncovering the causes of the declining well-being of American children—rising rates of crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and so on. She concluded that the main cause is the declining power and status of parents. Over the past century (most rapidly in recent decades), there has been a transfer of power from parents to other institutions, such as schools, government, and the market. Many of these institutions once supported parents in the task of child-rearing; today they often compete with parents. Mack traces the effects of a parent-hostile climate in chapters on law, work, education, and the media. (Interestingly, in interviews many parents identified churches as the only remnant left of a supportive communal life.)
Professionals have responded to the crisis of child–rearing by pressing for increased institutionalization of children—more parenting seminars, preschools, day–care centers, after-school activities, and counseling and therapy services. But parents refuse to be mollified by these offerings, seeing them as little more than professionally constructed substitutes for organic family and neighborhood life. What parents themselves want is more time with their families and more control over their children’s social environment, e.g., school and neighborhood.
As Mack puts it, the proliferation of social services may stem from a good-intentioned attempt to help children, but it also reinforces a predilection toward child-rearing by professionals—which parents viscerally resent. Even some of the most compassionate works on the crisis of childhood today (including Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village) "betray the fallacious assumption that in the modern world it is up to institutions, and not up to parents, to rear children," Mack writes. Typically "these books enjoin government to relieve parents of their child-rearing obligations, rather than to support them in these obligations."
Sadly, even parents sometimes absorb the attitude that professionals do a better job than they can, a crisis of confidence that Mack fails to address, though it comes out in some of her anecdotes—e.g., sex education battles where parents were persuaded to support educators’ condom distribution schemes.
If Mack’s arguments sound familiar, they should. She draws heavily on the work of well-known scholars and writers such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, David Blankenhorn, David Popenoe, William Mattox, Michael Medved, and Mary Ann Glendon. Mack’s policy recommendations likewise form a familiar list: tax breaks for families with young children, home-based work, tougher decency standards for the media, parent-driven education reform, tighter legal definitions of child abuse, and an end to no-fault divorce.
Where we might have expected new material is from Mack’s interviews with parents: Her research might have uncovered fresh data to back up what the theorists are saying. But, surprisingly, Mack offers no quantitative analysis of her interview results, nor does she reveal how she selected the 250 parents, so that we have no idea how representative their responses are.
At the least, we might have expected the interview material to yield vivid, first-hand stories to bring these familiar issues to life. But alas, though Mack provides several colorful anecdotes, the vast majority of her findings are stated in flat generalizations: e.g., "Many parents I’ve talked to contend that the secret to better outcomes is a more authentic and traditional interaction between parents and children."
Even direct quotations from parents are discouragingly banal: "Nobody’s home anymore!" says Ed, a father of three. "There are so many outside influences that never existed before," laments Steve, a New Jersey father. The reader begins to wonder why Mack found so few parents capable of sustaining an intelligent argument.
Still, the book earns high marks for its vigorous support for parents. Mack writes in a clear, forceful style, sometimes tilting toward stridency and one-sidedness. This is definitely advocacy journalism. The book is a useful introduction for a general audience, something you might give to a nonpolitical friend who can’t understand why you are so exercised over the contraction of parental rights, the abysmal state of education, the perils of day care, the materialism of advertising, and all the other family issues. I think I’ll give it to my Sunday school principal.
Nancy R. Pearcey is Fellow and Policy Director of the Wilberforce Forum.