The War Against Parents
Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West
Reviewed by Scott Schaffer
Sunday, November 01 1998, 8:13 PM
Once again, Cornel West takes on the world. This time, teamed with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, head of the National Parenting Association, West examines the sad state of parenting in America. In his usual fashion, West adopts a Marxist stance against big business, the mass media, and the US government, taking them to task for making parenting such a damn hard business rder than it was, West and Hewlett argue, for their blue-collar parents when they were growing up in the 1950s. By exposing the contradictions inherent in American political discourse about parenting, that parents are supposed to be clones of the Cleavers and Ozzie and Harriet, when in reality most end up closer to the parents from Home Alone, the authors hope to show the ways in which parents can begin to take positive control over their commitment to their family.
Hewlett and West begin with their own childhoods. Hewlett, the second of six daughters of a technical school principal in the south of Wales, and West, the second of four children of a supplies officer at an Air Force base near Sacramento, find that the problems that faced their parents in the 1950s -- and now, themselves in the 1990s -- are nearly parallel: ensuring that the family has a reasonable standard of living, taking care of their children's growth and development, and maintaining their commitment to the spouses they swore to remain with until death. The confessional does not end there: Both Hewlett and West talk about their own experiences raising children and admit their own failings as parents. These autobiographic parallels between two different families, separated by race, gender, and geography forms the personal basis for their book's argument, and an example for anyone who wants to improve the situation of parents in America.
The primary thrust of The War Against Parents, is that the problems that face families in the 1990s affect all parents equally, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or class background. Reductions in real wages, corporate downsizing, and the cessation of the "company man" ethos that governed American labor relations during the 1950s and 1960s, has made it impossible for parents to devote the necessary time to their children because they have to work harder than ever just to make ends meet. Those who have full-time work have to commit more time to their jobs in order to ensure their continued importance to their company. Those who do not have regular jobs have to work multiple, shift-work positions in order to simply pay their bills. In both cases, children are left to fend for themselves.
According to Hewlett and West, the government is not helping either. In addition to reducing family-friendly social policies instituted in the 1940s and 1950s, such as personal and dependent tax exemptions and the GI Bill, welfare programs helped split apart families by encouraging mothers to kick their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers of their children out of the house in order to receive aid. The elimination of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program during the Reagan era meant that the social services provided in conjunction with financial assistance were replaced by Child Protective Services. This made it more financially expedient for cities and counties to put more and more children in foster care. In recent years, Bill Clinton's "pro-family" standpoint, best expressed in his war on "deadbeat dads," assumes that non-custodial fathers are going to want to provide money to custodial mothers in exchange for being refused visitation rights. Throw in the mass media (with parent-bashing taking the forms of the bumbling fools in Home Alone, the abusive father in Shine, the cover girl on Crack Whore magazine on South Park, and the single, neglectful mother railed against in the music of various rap artists), and what you have is an all-out war on parents, the result of which is ultimately the decline of civic virtue and the overall welfare of the nation.
The mass media, big business, and the government are not the only problems though. American interpretations of Freudian psychoanalysis th its emphasis on the traumas suffered through the conflict between the child's instinctual id and the societal superego and self-help "psychology," with its emphasis on the individual, also contribute to the problem. Further complicating the predicament is that neither the left nor the right really wants to deal with the difficulties facing the family. Reagan-style deregulation; right-wing emphasis on individual rights; and feminist arguments that men aren't necessary for the full development of women (remember Gloria Steinem's famous comment, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle?") all contribute to a cultural war over parenting.
Further adding fuel to the fire is the way in which the American left characterizes the family renewal movement. West and Hewlett argue that American progressives overlook an excellent example of a new commitment to parenting by painting organizations such as the Promise Keepers as an extremist group bent on eliminating abortion rights and persecuting homosexuals and women; and by characterizing organizations such as the Nation of Islam as one-dimensional black separatists that can do nothing more than fight the "blue-eyed devils." The authors interview members of each of these groups, arguing that their commitment to the family should serve as an example for leftist plans to reinvigorate the family. Otherwise, such organizations will continue to follow a right-wing trajectory. West and Hewlett propose a new political agenda for parents: A multi-gender, interracial, cross-class coalition, akin to that formed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which draws its strategic lessons from the Promise Keepers and the Nation of Islam, and the GI Bill in formulating public policy regarding parenting.
Hewlett and West's "Parents' Bill of Rights" provides an excellent starting point for the development of a renewed commitment to parenting. Taking as their fundamental assumption that the quality of the parent-child relationship has a direct effect on social relationships, the authors lay out a plan for improving the chances for successful parent-child relationships, by integrating proposals for paid family leave; the extension of the school day and the provision of after-school supervised activities; the right of children to vote by proxy through their parents; a tax credit for people who choose to be stay-at-home parents and later return to college; and increased child care opportunities.
There is a fair degree of nostalgia in The War Against Parents. Both Hewlett and West yearn for a time when parenting in America was a valued endeavor rather than the "non-market commodity" it has become in our time. However, they do not return to a mythological conception of Ward and June Cleaver as the ideal parents. Instead, their emphasis is on the development of a consensus form of parenting, one, which takes into account the social needs of parents across gender, ethnic, and class lines. Much like the "rag-tag" group of ships that made up the fleet of Battlestar Galactica, the only way for parenting to return to a culturally valued position, one consistent with values those of us on the Left share, is to organize across our differences and work to reinvigorate society through the primary relationships in our lives.
1998: Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.