Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family
edited by David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, and Jean Bethke Elshtain
Family Service America, 261 pages, $16.95
This relatively slim volume is one of the most important books about the American family to be published in recent years, and it is arguably the most significant of the several recent anthologies on family change and family policy in this country. Its significance grows not only out of the high quality of the papers it brings together but also out of the fact that its publication reflects a major development in elite academic and intellectual thinking about the American family—the growing advocacy by well-respected academicians and intellectuals of alternatives to the liberal-progressive-individualistic views that have dominated elite thinking on the subject for several decades.
The product of a conference on “What Families Do” held at Stanford University late in 1989, this collection consists of fourteen papers—all but one by conference participants—and a concluding chapter in which each of the three editors reflects briefly on the issues addressed by the papers. The authors are mainly academicians, with specialities in such fields as sociology, psychology, economics, law, religion, and political science, and they include some of the most prominent authorities on the American family. In general, they address what has happened to the family, why those changes have occurred, what the consequences have been, and, to the extent that the consequences have been negative, what can be done about them. Several of the authors deal with more than one of these questions, but the papers are organized into three sections, titled “Conditions: Is the Family in Decline?”; “Causes: What Are American Family Values?”; and “Solutions: What is the Family Agenda for the 1990s?”
In his brief introduction, David Blankenhorn states that one of the book's objectives is getting debate about the family away from “sterile political polarizations,” such as left versus right. The goal, he emphasizes, is new thinking that cuts across both political labels and academic specializations. In this respect, the book is largely successful, at least to the extent that most of the rather diverse views expressed in it do not fit neatly into any of the traditional political and ideological categories—certainly not into the extreme ones. Only one of the authors, Dennis Orthner, seems to represent the “progressive” view that until recently dominated discussion about the family, and his progressivism is not extreme. Several of the authors agree with social conservatives on some issues, but most if not all of them disagree with the conservatives on some important issues, such as the desirability of trying to reconstitute traditional gender roles and trying to return to the family form that existed during some “golden age” of the past.
In the first paper, titled “American Family Dilemmas,” David Blankenhorn succinctly delineates the major dimensions of disagreement in current debates about the family. Perhaps the most important of those dimensions, and the one Blankenhorn emphasizes, is optimism versus pessimism. He uses Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and her book Champion of the Great American Family to exemplify the optimistic position, the one held by most family social scientists and psychologists until recently. According to that position, the American family is at least as strong and viable today as it was during most of its history, and recent changes should be viewed as adaptive rather than as indications of decline and decay. For instance, according to this optimistic view, the current high divorce rate reflects primarily a process by which poor marriages are replaced by better ones and the institution of marriage is kept healthy and viable. Pessimists, in contrast, maintain that when recent changes in the American family are assessed from the perspective of commonly held values, many though not all of those changes must be evaluated negatively.
Blankenhorn fairly represents both sides of this debate, but his sympathies clearly lie with the pessimists, as when, for instance, he cites evidence on the deinstitutionalization of marriage and refers to our culture's “conspicuous tilt away from children's needs.” Most of the other authors share Blankenhorn's pessimism. For instance, David Popenoe, author of the influential book Disturbing the Nest, recites evidence that, measured by a number of objective criteria, the prominence and influence of the family have declined substantially in American society. Urie Bronfenbrenner, the noted child development expert, writes that “the more we learn about the conditions that undergird and foster the development of human competence and character, the more we see these same conditions being eroded and destroyed in contemporary societies.” Victor Fuchs, an eminent economist, cites evidence that Americans' “investments” in children, especially in terms of adult time and attention, may have declined substantially in recent years. Robert Bellah, the senior author of Habits of the Heart, argues that the money economy has invaded the family, to the great detriment of the latter. Developmental psychologists Edward Zigler and Elizabeth Gilman describe four systems of influence essential to healthy human development and then report on social indicators relating to each system. In their words, “The news is very bad, and it is worsening daily . . . In the past 30 years of monitoring the indicators of child well-being, never have the indicators looked so negative across all four systems.”
In the one paper not written by participants in the Stanford conference, pollsters Mark Mellman, Edward Lazarus, and Allan Rivlin report data from a 1989 survey on family values in America sponsored by the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. That survey, along with several other recent ones, indicates that, whatever the reality may be, most adults in this country think that American families as a whole are not doing very well and that matters are getting worse (although these same people generally rate their own families positively). The most commonly reported reason for the poor condition of American families is lack of time, and almost half of the Massachusetts Mutual Survey respondents admitted that they did not spend enough time with their families.
The only author represented in this volume who is clearly in the optimistic camp is sociologist Dennis Orthner, who argues (and musters supporting evidence) that Americans have not become as individualistic as some observers believe, that family commitments in our society have weakened little or not at all, and that family values remain strong. Although he does not say so, the implication of Orthner's arguments is that the concerned tone of most of the rest of this volume is unwarranted. I think he is wrong, since his optimism rests too heavily on (a) face-value interpretations of answers to survey questions without consideration of the possibility of social-desirability response bias, and (b) inferences of little or no change from data gathered at one point in time. Nevertheless, Orthner's views, and even more sanguine ones, are widely held and deserve a hearing in the current debates about the family.
Despite the book's general leaning toward pessimism, it is not fatalistic or lacking in hope. The subtitle is “A New Commitment to the American Family,” and the belief that such a new commitment can be achieved is evident in most of the papers. Some of the authors have very specific ideas about what should and can be done. For instance, Zigler and Gilman call for expanded parental leave policies and Fuchs proposes larger tax credits for families with children. Other suggestions—such as Popenoe's call for a new social movement to reinvigorate the cultural ideals of family, parents, and children—are less concrete. Blankenhorn gives ten rules for improving the family debate in the 1990s, including “strive for a new consensus on ‘family values,' “ “analyze the family primarily through the eyes of children,” and “critically evaluate today's prevailing cultural ethos of ‘adult individualism.' “
How these suggestions might be implemented is not entirely clear, and of course this book is only a first step toward formulation of the family agenda for the 1990s. But it is a substantial first step—one that should give all concerned observers greater hope that there indeed can be a renewed commitment to the American family.
Norval Glenn is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, Austin.