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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

On Our Changing Family Values: A Conversation with David Elkind

    What has happened to the family in the last few decades? And what are these changes doing to our children? David Elkind delves into the causes of the enormous stress families feel today.

      Most of us are familiar with the term "nuclear family." And we are also aware that the demographics have changed, that there are many more nontraditional families today. You take the idea further and introduce the idea of the postmodern family. Would you explain that concept?
      The modern nuclear family—two parents, two and one-half children, with one parent at home with the children—is fast disappearing. We now have the postmodern family, what I call the permeable family—two parents working; single-parent families; adoptive families; remarried families; and so on. The permeable family is more fluid, more flexible, and more obviously vulnerable to pressures from outside itself. It mirrors the openness, complexity, and diversity of our contemporary lifestyles.
      In Ties That Stress you explain some of the historical forces that have shaped families of the past and families today. Would you give us a capsule history?
      Around the 50s, most of us lived in nuclear families. We operated under the assumptions that women should stay home, men should be the providers, and the children were to be protected. Then many events changed us, like World War II, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, then later the Women's Rights movement, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate. These events and their consequences challenged our basic ideas about how the world works. For example, we began to doubt the notion that after World War II, there would never be another major war; that everyday and in every way, we're getting better and better.
      And how has this new, more pessimistic thinking about the world changed family values?
      As a consequence of these events, we began to see the sentiments of the modern nuclear family as overly idealized and blind to the dark side of human behavior. For example, couples used to have believe in romantic love—that there was just one person in the whole world for you and once you found that person you would live happily ever after, without having to work at the relationship. Our divorce rate contradicts the notion.
      Second, there was the notion of maternal love, the belief that women possessed a maternal instinct to be with their children all the time, and make a nest, and that if they didn't, something was wrong with them. When the maternal love notion became very prominent, husbands began to think that they should be included within that maternal love and should be looked after in the manner of children. It put a heavy burden on women. Today we talk more about shared parenting than maternal instinct.
      A third sentiment of the nuclear family was domesticity and the idea that the home was the center of one's life. That really grew out of the movement into cities and industrialization. The factory was a cold hard place, and the factory worker was a cog in a machine. In contrast, the home was a warm, welcoming place in a heartless world. And in that home, the mother was the center. She had had—up until the turn of the century—creative outlets such as quilting, canning, cooking, and baking. The industrialization of home products robbed women of creative outlets. Women were told not to grind their own coffee because they could buy it vacuum-packed, not to bake their own bread because they could buy Wonder Bread, not to make their own clothes because factory-made clothes were much cheaper. Women were turned into consumers, which eventually contributed in a very important way to the women's movement.
      Those were the three major sentiments of the nuclear family, and they've been supplanted with new sentiments, those of consensual love, shared parenting, and urbanity.
      We talk a lot about family values. The real family value that grew out of the nuclear family sentiments was that of togetherness. It's the notion that the family is the most important relationship in one's life. Parents don't divorce because family is more important than personal needs or happiness. In the same way, business comes after, not before the family. Obviously all families didn't live by these rules, but togetherness was the ideal.
      And these notions are gradually being eroded and replaced with new sentiments that are not idealistic?
      I want to make it very clear. I'm not arguing that the nuclear family was good and the postmodern, permeable family, bad, or vice versa. There is a lot of misunderstanding about post-modernism. Some identify it with trendy fads in literature and the arts. But it is a more general movement that argues that the modern beliefs—for example, the belief in progress—have to be modified in light of world events. Postmodernism really challenges some of the ideas of modernity, but it also tries to incorporate what is good from the past, just as postmodern architecture takes what it sees as good from the past but also discards what doesn't work.
      What happened to the family was thanks to the sexual revolution and new contraceptive methods, premarital sex became socially acceptable. And that had the effect of making virginity lose its value. That's a significant point because it means that relationships are very different today. The implicit contract based on an exchange of virginity for commitment no longer exists. The basis of the contract has become consensual. Marriage is an agreement between two equals, with the idea that we'll stay in the relationship as long as it serves our purposes and needs. It's more egalitarian, and it gives adults many more options.
      Talk more about the family values of today that supplant the old values, like autonomy replacing togetherness.
      Instead of togetherness, we have a new focus on autonomy. The individual becomes more important than the family, not because of egocentrism or narcissism, but rather because of a rapidly changing society and economy. We hear about layoffs everyday. Occupations that never even existed before are invented, and whole other occupations disappear. It's a difficult time for people occupationally.
      When I lived in Rochester, generations had worked for Eastman Kodak. Your parents worked there, you were working there, your kids were going to work there. The company—they called it Mother Kodak—had recreation centers, health centers. And you bought stock and you had security. All of that has changed.
      Parents today have to protect themselves first, much as in an airplane they must put the breathing mask on themselves before they put it on their child. To make sure that their children are provided for, they devote tremendous time to working and refurbishing their skills. So, too often, parents are focused on their own activities, forcing kids to be autonomous as well—to be much more independent, to be home alone, to get their own meals, to organize their own time.
      The notion of autonomy is that each person should be free to follow his or her own trajectory. The family meal has gone by the board. It used to be a gathering place for the nuclear family. Today soccer practice or a business meeting takes precedence over dinner because personal needs are more important than the family.
      You don't urge people to have the family meal anymore, or do you?
      If possible, it's wonderful but increasingly difficult in today's world. Rituals are, nonetheless, very important for children, and even if you don't have a family meal, at least you should have certain rituals on birthdays or holidays. They may not be every day or every week, but it's important to have a time when the family can come together.
      We talk a lot about quality time, but it's not really the quality of the time that is important. What is critical is that the children feel that they are important enough in their parents'' lives that the parents are going to sacrifice something for them. Real quality time is when parents say, "Look, I know I have this meeting but you are more important, and I am going to come to your recital." Children need to know they are important in their parents' lives.
      Children used to be thought of as innocent. But our TV shows today often depict kids as smarter than their parents. You've even said that Home Alone is the perfect metaphor for our concept of childhood. Did the concept of competent children come out of popular culture or child psychology?
      It didn't come from any new discoveries in child development. We have no data indicating that children are more competent today than we knew them to be in another time in history. The perception of child competence comes directly from social changes and from our need as parents and adults to have competent children. As society has changed, we can no longer protect children in the way we once did. So now we believe we have to prepare them by exposing them to everything and anything.
      Television is the prime culprit, but not the only one. We can no longer control the information flow to children. When we were dealing with print media, children had to have a certain level of intellectual ability and skill to decipher words. With television, even young children can get information visually. After the tragedy in South Carolina when a mother drowned her children, a woman called me and said, "What do I say to my 5-year-old? She saw the news on TV and she is asking, Mommy, are you going to kill me?' " It's a whole different world today. As a result, parents and society have to see children as competent. It's a way for us to stay sane to say, "Well, you know, they are seeing all this stuff, but they can handle it. It will prepare them for the real world."
      You don't think that children today are more savvy than they used to be?
      We overestimate their competence. As I travel and lecture across the country, teachers tell me routinely that they see much more aggressive behavior and much more hostility on the playgrounds. We see many more learning problems. We see much more depression in children. These are all the stress symptoms of kids who are expected to be more competent in handling all sorts of experiences than they really are.
      You call this the new morbidity, all the stress-related illnesses that affect children and families.
      Right. The pediatrician Robert Haggerty and his colleagues called it that. Up until mid-century, most young people died from polio, tuberculosis—from disease. Fortunately, medical science conquered these illnesses, but today we lose as many young people through stress-related causes as we once lost through disease. We lose 10,000 youngsters a year in substance abuse-related automobile accidents. We lose 5,000 kids a year in suicide. We have two million alcoholic teenagers. All of these are stress-related problems arising from the fact that in our society the needs of children and youth are simply weighted less heavily than the needs of adults. A few decades ago, women consumed millions of pounds of tranquilizers because their needs were not being met. Today children and adolescents are reacting to stress in equally self-destructive ways.
      If we really want to attack this problem, we can't just talk about drug and sex education. They are important, but we have to talk about how we can better meet the needs of children and youth. Their needs for love and care and adult supervision and guidance. Their need for more space for activities. More age-appropriate curricula. More sense that they are important in their parents lives and in the life of society.
      I was watching a documentary program last night. The reporters were asking a group of kids about stealing and lying. These kids had no strong moral sense about doing these things. They didn't worry about whether the person would be hurt or damaged by taking something from them. It's not true for all of our children, but I think that to the extent we don't really care about kids, kids are not going to care about other people.
      Are they a lost generation?
      No, not entirely. The question is, Can a society survive when the number of kids who are lost gets larger than the number of kids who are not?
      Returning to the idea of the competent child, do schools buy into that notion, too? Are there practices at school that might be creating too much stress?
      One of the most serious examples of schools buying into the notion of childhood competence is the whole early childhood issue. Up until the '60s, fewer than half of children had been in early childhood programs prior to kindergarten. Today 85 percent of children enter kindergarten with some preschool experience. As a result, administrators tend to believe that a child entering 1st grade should know letters and numbers. If children don't have those literacy and numeracy skills, they are held back or put in transition classes. Nationally, we are retaining 10 to 20 percent of kids; in some communities, 50 percent. The average age in many of the suburban 1st grades now is 7.
      You are saying that children this age shouldn't be retained because they might just need a few more years to develop?
      Right. What people don't recognize is that the 4-7 age period is one of very rapid intellectual growth, much like the period of rapid physical growth in early adolescence. Children grow at different rates, quite independently of their intellectual potential. If a 6-year-old isn't able to read, it may have nothing to do with his or her motivation or ability and everything to do with intellectual immaturity. And we punish children simply for having different growth rates.
      Pushing the curriculum down to lower grade levels is another example. The decimal fractions that used to be taught at 6th grade in a week or two are now being taught at 4th grade. It takes 4th graders a month and they still don't understand it. There are a great many things that children can learn in 4th grade. They don't have to learn decimal fractions. We should have them learning things that are challenging at their level but not so daunting that they feel frustrated.
      I hear the same thing at the high school level. One instructor used to teach organic chemistry at 12th grade. Parents pushed the school to teach it at 10th grade. Many 10th graders were in tears over that course. Yet we hold to the idea that somehow anything can be taught at any time and kids can learn it.
      At the same time schools are being criticized for not challenging students or for not having high standards.
      There isn't sufficient individualization in the schools. High standards are best met by individualization. Most of the printed curriculum material makes little provision for wide differences in learning styles. It's not that we shouldn't have expectations and standards, but we need to recognize that children don't all learn in the same way at the same rate.
      One of the most important findings of the Tennessee study (STAR) is that class size makes a difference. It's the amount of one-on-one time between teacher and child that has the most impact.
      Of course, it's easier for us to have a one-size-fits-all curriculum. And it's economically easier to have larger classes. But those concerns speak to the adult issues, not to child issues. If you reduced class size to 18, did just that one thing across the country, you'd see a remarkable improvement in education across the board.
      In this issue of Educational Leadership, several articles point out that there is increasing division among what parents want from schools. Some parents object to cooperative learning and call for a back-to-basics approach, prayer in the schools. Other parents want to build their child's self-esteem and have a multicultural curriculum. How can schools please parents with such different values?
      We must start from the truism that most parents want to do what's best for their children. They want schools to provide a safe place for kids. They want teachers who are trained and knowledgeable. Everybody believes that kids should know how to read, do math, and use a computer. Parents may differ over other things, but schools can't serve all needs. If parents feel strongly about religious faith, hold classes after school. We have become very secular and our society has a need for spirituality, but there is an established principle of separation of church and state. Schools can only do certain things.
      A problem I see with some parents is that they want to go back to an earlier, less complicated time. But we will not get the postmodern genie back in the bottle.
      If you are a teacher and you see children in your classroom who aren't receiving much attention from their parents, what do you do?
      One of the things I tell our student teachers is that children want to be loved, as we all do, by the people whom they love. If that love is not reciprocated, we can't replace it. Certainly loving and caring teachers are important, but they cannot fulfill the parental role. Teachers cry out for these children, but they have to recognize there are limits to their role as providers of the kind of affection and love that kids need.
      How can schools help families feel more connected to a larger community?
      Many schools already are reaching out to families by providing the quality child care that is so difficult for parents to find and afford.
      Another important thing schools can do is to provide parenting classes. There is a wonderful program (Parents as Teachers) in 14 midwestern states where the school systems send trainers on home visits to help young mothers engage in developmentally appropriate activities with their infants.
      A lot of other things can be done—schools are bringing grandparents in, using tutors, bringing social services and health services into the school.
      We have to recognize, however, that we are a very, very diverse society, not a homogeneous one. You can go to Brownsville, Texas, where 98 percent of the kids speak Spanish. You can go to some towns in California, where the kids speak eight different languages. In Groton, Connecticut, most fathers are in the Navy, and get transferred out of town every three years. The result is that no child both starts and finishes the elementary school. In communities around Pittsburgh, kids still walk to school and go home for lunch. You could lift those neighborhoods out of the '20s or '30s.
      We don't sufficiently appreciate the extraordinary diversity of our society. It's one of our great strengths. There is no one way to interact with the community. Schools have to work with the community in ways that are meaningful in their particular miniature world.
      One last question. Some of us have grown up in nuclear families and are experiencing all the stresses of post-modern families today. What's next for families?
      I am hopeful that we will move beyond the permeable family to a vital family that meets the needs of both parents and children. The problem with the postmodern permeable family was that it went to extremes. Erik Erikson once said something to the effect that to be heard in our society, you have to take an extreme position and shout it loudly. Once your position is heard and taken seriously, then you can move back to a middle ground. I hope that we are moving back toward a more balanced family. I see some signs of it, especially in our concern with community.
      Statistics show that young people are marrying later and are having fewer children. They are trying in their own lives not to make the mistakes their parents made. They don't want to go through divorce. When they do get into a relationship, they want to make it work. This bodes well for the family. At schools, there is a new excitement about change. Hopefully, we will individualize more and begin to place the needs of teachers and children on a par with political and economic considerations. That's the most significant way schools can help families.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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