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The American Family: Part 1

Taking a New Look at Myths and Realities
By Harriet Alger

Keynote address given at the NCCCC annual conference, Phoenix, Arizona, April 1995


Most of us who work with families are well aware that only 10% of families in the United States fit the so-called typical or traditional family image of mother at home, father at work, first marriage, children of that marriage. Recently, however, serious questions have been raised about whether that family ever existed in any significant numbers and whether, when it did exist, it was the ideal that people think it was.

Two recent books, The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz and The Politics of Parenthood by Mary Frances Berry provide 235 pages of references from historical records, census data, and research studies to document their conclusion that it never was the norm, that neither the Victorian family in "Life With Father," that extended family we like to think about so nostalgically, nor the 1950's "Leave It To Beaver" family ever existed in large numbers and that they were certainly not without problems when they did exist. These authors document fairly convincingly that our visions of the past, both of family and of American society in general, are largely fiction, that many of the problems that we think are new or unique or worse than they have ever been are actually the same or even less serious than in the past.

Today I'm going to explore with you common beliefs about the American family and American society and whether they are consistent with reality. Has there ever been a time in history when there was a better family structure and, if so, when? Are we worse off or better off than when our parents and grandparents and great grandparents were children? I think you will be surprised at how often factual information does not support some of our most commonly held, and often cherished, beliefs.

I should start by saying that I'm more than a little uncomfortable with referring to "American" families when it is families in the United States that we mean, not Canadian or Mexican or Central or Latin American families. Since "American" is the term that is generally used in the literature, however, I'm going to be consistent with my references, keeping in mind that such use is certainly questionable.

I have furnished you with a bibliography of references and will focus on five of them: the two I have mentioned, Coontz and Berry; The New Extended Family: Day Care That Works by Ellen Galinsky and William Hooks; The American Family: Myth and Reality by A. Eugene Howard, one of the early books on this subject which was published by NAEYC in 1980; and a new book by Mary Jensen and Stacie Goffin, Visions of Entitlement: The Care and Education of America's Children.

The most common reference to the family nostalgically remembered as ideal is that of the 50's sitcoms. Erma Bombeck in a 1993 column tells of a Mother's Day when she worked for "Good Morning America" and invited four of the prime time TV mothers to the program: Marion Ross of "Happy Days, Shirley Jones of "The Partridge Family", June Lockhart of "Lost in Space" and Barbara Billingsley of "Leave It to Beaver." None of them could imagine that anyone would consider their shows real life! "They personally went home to a real life of surly stepchildren, baby- sitters who quit, frozen food and sick pets. They carried guilt like a hand bag and never left home without it".

Of course, not everyone considers the Donna Reed nuclear family as the ideal. Some prefer another family form that they remember from past experience, or movies, or reading, or hearing about from others or from another time in history, which they call the "good old days." If we are trying to decide what the family and society should be, is there a period of history that provides the best models and the most promise of solutions to today's problems?

Certainly not colonial days. The strict authoritarian rigid puritanism included severe physical punishment for children and adults. The high mortality rates often left children without one or both parents. The frank and graphic talk about sexuality in front of even the youngest children in school, church and family would certainly not pass muster with today's parents or school boards or politicians. "Fornication" was a word in early readers, according to Stephanie Coontz.

How about Victorian days? There was the authoritarian but presumably well meaning father. Women didn't have the vote. Women and children were considered property by a patriarchal society. Middle class and wealthy families were dependent upon the work of low income servants, including mothers who took care of other people's children while their own children often had to be neglected.

Certainly we don't want to return to the time of the Industrial Revolution with 12-16 hour days for many working mothers and fathers, sweat shop conditions in factories, child labor, children left alone at home or on the streets.

The suburban nuclear family after WW II, living in ranch style houses, had a public image that was often very different from what was really happening behind closed doors. Those households had lonely and depressed moms, stressed commuter dads, drugs, alcohol, and adultery, all of which resulted in the highest divorce rate we've ever known. The women who worked to help their veteran husbands go to college and then stayed home to raise the children, often found themselves divorced and replaced by younger women who were the colleagues of their husbands out in the working world. Economically, there was a better life for some families but not for all. There was discrimination against racial and ethnic groups--violence, intimidation, unequal opportunity, and unemployment. The TV image and the fond recollections are at variance with life as lived by many.

But aren't some of today's problems unique to our times or worse than in the past?

What about addiction and crime related to drugs and alcohol? Well, in the 1820's there was a major epidemic of opium and cocaine addiction, and 3 times today's alcohol consumption. Patent medicines often contained alcohol and potent drugs that are illegal today. Vials of morphine were sold in drug stores without prescription. In the 1900's, the problems of alcohol consumption led to prohibition and prohibition was eventually repealed because of the difficulty in enforcing it and the rise in crime associated with it. Remember Al Capone and the Mob and all those gangster movies?

What about other violent crime? Unsafe city streets, rapes, murders have characterized all times in our history, especially when economic conditions were difficult, when many could not feed themselves and their families through legitimate employment, during times of political oppression and discrimination. From robbing the Pony Express and trains to organized crime and lynchings, the United States has been always been considered a very violent society.

Poverty of large numbers of families with children is also not unique to our time and the poverty of women and children has always been extensive and disproportionate.

But there are more families at risk today, aren't there? Aren't more families less self-sufficient, more dependent on welfare or other forms of assistance? Coontz reports that families have always been in flux and often in crisis. Families have seldom been economically or emotionally self-reliant. They have always been affected by economic, social and political conditions that made life difficult. They have been helped by relatives, friends, communities, and government throughout our history. The government has given grants for homesteads, small business loans, farm subsidies, insurance for bank deposits, tax breaks for businesses and industry. People have not suddenly become more dependent. They are struggling with their day to day problems, just as they always have, and many need help, just as they always have.

What about children being raised by single parents or someone other than their parents? Actually, the statistics show that more children today are raised by one or both of their own parents than in the past. 20% of children were in orphanages at the turn of the century because of the death or poverty of their parents. Children were often given to relatives to raise when parents died or could not support their children.

What about fathers deserting their families, not providing child support, not taking responsibility for their children? From traveling salesmen to adulterous husbands, some men have fathered children and refused to take responsibility or simply disappeared, and women have been left to cope. Prior to the 1920's, divorced fathers did not have any legal obligation whatsoever to provide child support.

It may surprise you to know that today's families are not more mobile now than in the past. People came to this country for economic, political and religious reasons from all over the world. In each century, they have moved back and forth across the country as they tried to establish homes and provide a better standard of living for themselves and their children. The sweat shop conditions of the factories in the east, the dust bowl farms of the great plains, the hope of wealth in the gold and silver mines of the west, the unemployment of the Great Depression, and the possibility of better jobs and opportunities for those who were employed--Americans in all periods of our history have been mobile. They have moved from east to west, from south to north and now north to south, from farms to the city to the suburbs.


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