It is misleading to discuss recent changes in family life without emphasizing the fact that for generations some Americans have had to raise children under particularly appalling pressures. Although much of what is worrying American parents is shared by them all, the most grievous problems are those that especially afflict a large minority--the poor, the nonwhite and, in various ways, the parents of handicapped children.
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For Americans the contradiction between national ideal and social fact required explanation and correction. Ultimately this contradiction did not lead to the abandonment of the ideal of equal opportunity but rather to its postponement: to the notion of achieving for the next generation what could not be achieved for the current one. And the chief means to this end was a brilliant American invention: universal, free, compulsory public education. This "solution" was especially important for children and families because it gave children a central role in achieving the national ideal.
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The most important difference between these early American families and our own is that early families constituted economic unitsin which all members, from young children on up, played important productive roles within the household. The prosperity of the whole family depended on how well husband, wife, and children could manage and cultivate the land. Children were essential to this family enterprise from age six or so until their twenties, when they left home.
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In the end, the fate of children depends on our ability to use technology constructively and carefully. The connection of childrenand technology is not simply a matter of seat belts, safe toys, safe air, water and food, additive-free baby foods, or improved television programming. These are all important issues, but to stop here is to forget that today's children will soon be adults. Technological decisions made today will determine, perhaps irrevocably, the kind of physical and social world we bequeath them and the kind of people they become.
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Poor children live in a particularly dangerous world--an urban world of broken stair railings, of busy streets serving as playgrounds, of lead paint, rats and rat poisons, or a rural world where families do not enjoy the minimal levels of public health accepted as standard for nearly a century. Whether in city or country, this is a world where cavities go unfilled and ear infections threatening permanent deafness go untreated. It is world where even a small child learns to be ashamed of the way he or she lives.
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The myth of self-sufficiency blinds us to the workings of other forces in family life. For families are not now, nor were they ever, the self-sufficient building blocks of society, exclusively responsible, praiseworthy, and blamable for their own destiny. They are deeply influenced by broad social and economic forces over which they have little control.
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In the early nineteenth century, the doctrine of self-sufficiency came to apply to families as well as individuals.... The familybecame a special protected place, the repository of tender, pure, and generous feelings (embodied by the mother) and a bulwark and bastion against the raw, competitive, aggressive, and selfish world of commerce (embodied by the father).... In performing this protective task, the good family was to be as self-sufficient as the good man.
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Today's parents have little authority over those others with whom they share the task of raising their children. On the contrary,most parents deal with those others from a position of inferiority or helplessness. Teacher, doctors, social workers, or television producers possess more status than most parents.... As a result, the parent today isa maestro trying to conduct an orchestra of players who have never met and who play from a multitude of different scores, each in a notation the conductor cannot read.
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Within forty years of their arrival in the Plymouth colony, the first white settlers were afraid their children had lost the dedication and religious conviction of the founding generation. Ever since, Americans have looked to the next generation not only with love and solicitude but with a good measure of anxiety, worrying whether they themselves were good parents, fearful that their children would not turn out well.
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One current reaction to change in families, for example, is the proposal for more "education for parenthood," on the theory that this training will not only teach specific skills such as how to change diapers or how to play responsively with toddlers, but will raise parents' self-confidence at the same time. The proposed cure, in short, is to reform and educate the people with the problem.
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Television thus illustrates the mixed blessings of technological change in American society. It is a new medium, promising extraordinary benefits: great educational potential, a broadening of experience, enrichment of daily life, entertainment for all. But it teaches children the uses of violence, offers material consumption as the answer to life's problems, sells harmful products, habituates viewers to constant stimulation, and undermines family interaction and other forms of learning such as play and reading.
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To be sure, changes in American family structure have been fairly continuous since the first European settlements, but today thesechanges seem to be occurring so rapidly that the shift is no longer a simple extension of long-term trends. We have passed a genuine watershed: this is the first time in our history that the typical school-age child has a mother who works outside the home.
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We measure the success of schools not by the kinds of human beings they promote but by whatever increases in reading scores they chalk up. We have allowed quantitative standards, so central to the adult economic system, to become the principal yardstick for our definition of our children's worth.
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Schools, the institutions traditionally called upon to correct social inequality, are unsuited to the task; without economic opportunity to follow educational opportunity, the myth of equality can never become real. Far more than a hollow promise of future opportunity for their children, parents need jobs, income, and services. And children whose backgrounds have stunted their sense of the future need to be taught by example that they are good for more than they dared dream.
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Parents still have primary responsibility for raising children, but they must have the power to do so in ways consistent with their children's needs and their own values.... We must address ourselves less to the criticism and reform of parents themselves than to the criticism and reform of the institutions that sap their self-esteem and power.
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Despite the long-term reduction in familial roles and functions, we believe that parents are still the world's greatest experts about the needs of their own children. Virtually any private or public program that supports parents, effectively supports children. This principle of supporting family vitality seems to us preferable to any policy that would have the state provide children directly with what it thinks they need.
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Recognizing that family self-sufficiency is a false myth, we also need to acknowledge that all today's families need help in raising children. The problem is not so much to reeducate parents but to make available the help they need and to give them enough power so that they can be effective advocates with and coordinators of the other forces that are bringing up their children.
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The myth of the self-sufficient individual and of the self-sufficient, protected, and protective familytells us that those who need help are ultimately inadequate. And it tells us that for a family to need help--or at least to admit it publicly--is to confess failure. Similarly, to give help, however generously, is to acknowledge the inadequacy of the recipients and indirectly to condemn them, to stigmatize them, and even to weaken what impulse they have toward self-sufficiency.
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