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Parenting Roles: From the Village to Passionless Conception
The “wisdom of the ages” regarding parenting roles has been forgotten.
As societies evolve, social relationships that work are retained and those that don’t are discarded. Often, a community or a tribe or even a kingdom will disappear because it made the wrong social choices in organizing its internal relationships including provisions for collective security (group defense).
Internal relationships are part of the group’s paradigms-the subconscious lenses through which the social group sees the world. Paradigms provide predictability but also filter and distort reality. Paradigms underlie social organization so deeply that the group does not think about them, discuss them or even recognize them. Ultimately, every paradigm distorts reality so severely that parts of the social organization become dysfunctional.
The Chinese have the so many proverbs because they have been at the business of civilization so long and have suffered so much from the failures of their paradigms–violations of the wisdom of the ages. Confucius, Lao-Tzu and other Chinese philosophers didn’t invent wisdom. They distilled it from Chinese experience over 7,000 years.
Western philosophers have had fewer millenniums from which to distill wisdom, but they have more diverse sources: from intellectual elites in a fractured Old World Europe, from tribal shamans of Native Peoples and from attention-deficient sages in the New World.
Mid-Eastern “wisdom of the ages” filled the Holy Books: the Torah, the Bible and the Koran. The three monotheistic belief traditions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–spread in every direction. They trace their roots to Abraham and share the common premise that all people are ”brothers and sisters-children of one God.” Ironically, they have spent their entire histories trimming the buds of brotherhood with fratricide–within and between.
Whatever the origins, the “wisdom of the ages” differs little from time to time or place to place. The differential is in its stage and status. Is it being revered? Or is it being ignored. Or consciously discarded. Or rediscovered.
Consider, for example, the adage: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Surely, that statement is part of the “wisdom of the ages.” Perhaps, the core curriculum of all the sages. Sages in different ages and different places have concluded that children need the love and mentoring of two parents, other relatives, and a broader community to grow up into productive members of the society.
Over the ages there have been various violations of that wisdom. In some societies boys were raised outside the community in deliberate attempts to prevent them from developing emotions and thus make them better warriors-immune to pain and killing. Whether the military objective was achieved or not, the community had to deal with the consequences-first the anguish of parents losing their young sons, and later, when the surviving warriors came home from battle, their difficulties in functioning as husbands, fathers, employees and citizens.
European immigrants to both rural and urban America formed tight ethnic communities and often retained their native language for generation. My father, a fourth generation American, attended a public school taught in German. Church services at Trinity Lutheran-Rantoul (south of Green Bay, Wisconsin) were offered in German until roughly 1970. I was raised in that ethnic community in which the whole village molded my values and behavior in ways that neither they nor I recognized. I was in the socialization clutches of hundreds of people who knew each other and whose ancestors had known each other for generations.
With prototype German values I operated a small livestock business that required daily attention from age 14 to age 18 when I graduated as an over-achieving high school valedictorian. They sent me off to college with their fingers crossed. More accurately, with their hands folded; they prayed a lot–especially my mother. I was the first person in my extended family to go to college-a common situation for Baby Boomers. I went over 100 miles away to the big city of Madison-a city now known for big temptations.
Other students went further away from home for college or work. A national job market for college graduates meant that increasing numbers took jobs far from home. Even if they were able to get a job near the village, many had to eventually choose between a career promotion to a distant location or staying in a supportive and comfortable home town. The choice was doubly hard after they became parents. The kids had friends. The American norm was to put career (economics) first. Besides, there would be a new community to help raise the kids. But the substitute, the new community, was rarely equivalent to a generations-old village.
As parents, the Baby Boomers not only left their home community, they moved periodically or even regularly. Some companies purposefully moved their employees to keep them more loyal to the company than to their community. Government agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, used the same tactic for the same purpose.
Promotions were often contingent on moving to a new office in a distant city. For the breadwinner father to get his next promotion, the family had to move again in a few years. Those parents got virtually no help in raising their children. They raised their children as a nuclear family of two parents and the kids.
After WWII the media gave America an idealized TV First Family: Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their sons Ricky and David. The TV First Family’s life style broke the long-standing wisdom of the ages: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Though the Nelsons, the media popularized a new social norm by portraying model American parents living in a serene suburb close to the big city where father earned a good salary. To give their children a better chance in life, these parents had the courage to move their children away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a quaint village where one set of grandparents probably still lived on a farm. According to the Nelson family model, father should be vocationally aggressive. Families should be on the move to take advantage of his promotions.
At first, the moves were usually for the father’s career, while the mother assumed most of the parenting roles-a bigger burden in the suburbs than back in the village where a lot of people helped. Only a generation after they dismissed the “wisdom of the ages” regarding the critical role of the village in raising children, Hollywood began dismantling the model nuclear-family parenting roles they had created. Father continued to be the chief breadwinner but the modern mother did some part-time work outside the home when the kids were young, then worked full-time after the kids left home. A couple decades later, mother was a full-time professional gallantly juggling the demands of the office and the home with only short breaks for maternity leave. Countless movies and TV programs played on the themes. The media had a vested interest in promoting new social arrangements-by show casing social conflicts in a new context, they created interest, attracted viewers and charged more for advertising. And they clearly relished being avant-garde. Hollywood’s subculture evolved around challenging, often shocking, the dominant culture–shaking up the moral order–for good or for bad.
The initial working mothers came from poor and working-class families where the husband couldn’t support the family by himself. My mother had to resign from her professional job when she got married; keeping her job would be an embarrassment to my father. It would have indicated that he couldn’t support the family himself. Eventually, middle-class women entered the work force in large numbers because they wanted the personal fulfillment of a career or because the consumption patterns of the family required two incomes or both.
By the turn of the century, some high-status careers, like law and medicine, were attracting more women than men. Proud, professional women began earning nearly as much or even more than their husbands. At the same time, feminists used the media to ridicule stay-at-home moms as sad souls, too weak to unshackle themselves from the dominance of their husbands. House wives were told they needed to get a life–as liberated women.
First, children were deprived of the village. Then when mothers and fathers both went to work outside the home, children were deprived of their parents for major parts of a typical day. Daycare centers provided socialization with peers and an academic start but less emotional security than equivalent time with parents and little “little person” training for eventual adult roles. Total hours of parenting dramatically decreased.
Biological parents, supported by the village, have had the primary responsibility for raising the young for all of recorder history. A religious leader or order might give a special boy full-time training to be a shaman or monk. Occasionally, tyrants removed youngsters (usually boys) from their families to train them for service to the ruler. Communist leaders tried to sever the inter-generational bond by inserting Party activities and Party loyalty at a young age. The family structure in the Soviet Union and, to an even greater degree, in China withstood the assault. Rearing of children differed from culture to culture; however, most cultures have consistently taken advantage of the biological instincts of biological parents to nurture their offspring.
From Biblical times forward, provisions were made for those unfortunate children without both parents. Widows provided the most obvious case. The village provided extra help and remarriage was encouraged. In polygamous societies, a brother was often expected, or even required, to marry his dead brother’s widow. Getting pregnant without being married carried a great deal of stigma. Unwed mothers were encouraged to give up the illegitimate baby for adoption.
Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, the term “illegitimate child” became taboo-first as a politically incorrect label for a child born of out of wedlock through no fault of its own. Then it became politically incorrect to ostracize or criticize a couple who had children before they were married. They were just exercising their individual freedom to procreate on their terms.
Similarly, the term “broken family” became a politically incorrect way to describe the parents and children who had experienced a divorce. Thus, both the failure to create a formal legal family unit and the willingness to legally end a formal marriage lost their long-held stigmas-stigmas that had provided the society with more or less uniform family units as social building blocks. The behavioral norms–the mortar holding those building blocks together as a social structure–began dissolving. On the positive side, changing attitudes toward women working outside the home, toward parenting without marriage and toward divorce, meant that the individuals engaged in these activities suffered little discrimination or even social discomfort. In the context of a general conflict between community and individualism, freedom for the individual won again, as it invariably did in the United States in the 20th century.
If modern parenting roles no longer required two parents, breaking up a marriage was easy. It is hard to know which was cause and which was effect. More single mothers meant less stigma for divorce and more divorce meant more single mothers. In 2008 the U.S. divorce rate was about 40% and about 50 of marriages were remarriage for one or both spouses.
Initially, single mothers were mostly adolescent women who had babies out of wedlock. In the second wave, single mothers were almost exclusively poor women abandoned by boyfriends or husbands. Minorities, especially Blacks, were heavily over-represented. Remarriage rates among middle-class, white women were higher and thus the numbers of single white mothers remained relatively low-for a while.
As the Women’s Rights Movement matured, larger numbers of white, professional women began to rethink their need for marriage. Some decided to delay marriage and children until after they had launched their careers. Their career gave them money for a nice car and a nice apartment and professional fulfillment and independence. Many tried live-in boyfriends, but did not find a Mr. Perfect who could slip into their lifestyle without messing it up. They were in their 30s and the child-bearing clock was ticking. Increasingly, they decided to forgo marriage entirely. They were confident that they could find sexual fulfillment without marriage as they had been doing courtesy of the birth control pill. Why keep looking for Mr. Perfect and wait for marriage or remarriage. Why not just be a solo parent by choice? How cool would that be?
If men had the same reproductive capacity as women, they would probably be just as arrogant about raising a child by themselves. Certainly plenty of men are willing to be co-conspirators in conception without any future responsibility. Of the two alternative ways of donating sperm, being an unnamed live actor is certainly more fun than selling genes to a sperm bank-but probably less lucrative. Either way, the child will never know its father; much less experience a home with a male role model.
While the structure of raising children was changing, those changes were not the focus of public policy. Instead, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers screamed and shouted at each other about abortion policy. Abortion policy was a matter of life and death for the fetuses, for the doctors performing them, and for politicians advocating them.
The Pros fought bitterly over the Right to Choose (mother’s right) an abortion versus the Right to Life (unborn baby’s right to be born). In the process, long-term societal care for babies already born languished.
A few social service agencies worried about teenage pregnancies but the focus was on saving the mother from a lifetime of poverty while still supporting her desire/freedom/right to keep the baby. School boards fretted about allowing a teen mom to bring a baby to school where other teenage girls could see how cool it was to be loved and needed by a baby. In the end the individual freedom of the mother was considered paramount. Legislatures and the courts declared that it was the interest of the young mother to continue her education as a “child” with the right to a K-12 education and also have “adult” maternal rights to keep and raise the newborn child.
Had society focused as much on the baby as it did about the mother’s rights, young, unwed mothers would have been encouraged to, perhaps required to give the baby up for adoption to a family who could provide food and education as well as love to the baby-the love of both a mother and a father. Then the young mother could have returned to her proper role as student-perhaps with a bit of well-earned shame rather than as a model of early womanhood. Instead, child psychologists obsessed about protecting the self-esteem of children from the devastating effects of shame. Ever since humans lived in a cave, shame has been an important construct in helping people co-exist. The use of shame and social ostracism to teach conformity to group norms was part of the “wisdom of the ages.” Western civilization, especially American society, in the 20th century virtually eliminated shame in the interest of enhancing individual self-esteem and expanding individual freedom.
Single moms were featured in the media with more than a little heroism. Single motherhood became a fully acceptable lifestyle. Single mothers became a large and distinct demographic category and a political constituency.
The media had taken women full circle from the self-reliant Rosie the Riveter working long hours in a wartime factory, to a full-time housewife raising Baby boomers and standing at the door with a drink when her breadwinner husband came home from work, to her own part-time work outside the house, to full-time work, to professional careers. Sexist jokes about dumb blondes were inappropriate in Rosie’s day, popular in the media in the “housewife era” and became politically incorrect by the time women outnumbered men in professional schools.
The media played an even larger role in changing the status of men in American society. They were appropriately glorified for winning World War II — a war in which 1,600,000 served and over 400.000 died. Guardians of national security during the War, they became guarantors of economic security for their individual families after the War. (The GI Bill helped many get a home in the suburbs and a college education.) With their breadwinner status in a paternalistic society, most had absolute power in the family. That role was re-enforced by male heroes in the movies and TV programs like “Father Knows Best.”
However, over time consistently gallant roles for men, didn’t help at the box-office or in the TV ratings. And new roles for women meant corresponding new roles for men. As women earned larger incomes, they gained power in the family. First, the role of the bread-winning father was diluted by the income of the mother. Next, film and TV sit-coms degraded husbands to secondary roles in the family while portraying wives as intelligent women earning professional salaries, making dinner after work, taking the kids to soccer and paying the bills, while dear old dad came from work, grabbed a beer and spent the evening (and weekends) watching football. Next, the media portrayed fathers as buffoons-the new dumb blondes. Men became fodder for media productions and even more frequently TV ads. Finally, after being fully discredited, the male family role was discarded. The male counterpart to the model single mother was a dead-beat father who had abandoned his wife and his children-without regret.
Social acceptance of single mothers reduced social pressure to marry or remarry. Great Society welfare programs like food stamps and other subsidies, reduced economic pressures to marry or remarry. The quality of life for single mothers improved.
Little thought was given-and there was no national debate-regarding the unintended consequence to children, especially boys, of growing up without a father in the home. Probably, even worse, many single mothers had live-in boyfriends who had little commitment to the mother and even less to the children. Without a role model of a stable, caring father, little girls didn’t expect to marry such a man and might not want to marry at all. Little boys found other male role models, often leaders of the pack-a neighborhood gang. The gang, rather than uncles, took the boys through their rites of passage into manhood.
Instead of learning how to survive in the wild, break a horse, climb a mountain or hunt a deer, the young men learned how to carry and how to use guns, how to sell drugs and how to outwit the cops. The spiral also became self re-enforcing for girls: fewer girls had a positive experience with a father and thus fewer girls were looking forward to creating a two-parent home through marriage and thus fewer girls decided to marry and even fewer of their daughters had a positive attitude toward a long-term relationship with a man.
In 1960, 91% of children lived with two parents. By 2010 that number dropped to 59%. That means that 41% of children under the age of 18 are living the new model of single parenting. Forty-one percent and climbing!
However, the entertainment business had to go on-there are always social norms and mores to challenge and new ones to champion. It is the surest way for the media to attract viewers and thus advertisers. The latest model parent doesn’t need a village to help her raise a child. She doesn’t need a breadwinner husband. She doesn’t need a second wage earner in her household. She doesn’t need a beer drinking buffoon on the couch-husband or boyfriend. She doesn’t even need one man for one night. She is confident that she can manage a professional career and also independently meet all the needs of her children by herself. She only needs a few minutes time from a medical professional to get her an artificial insemination “straw” for a passionless conception.
In just a couple generations, in a series of dramatic role changes promoted by the media, the “wisdom of the ages” regarding parenting roles has been more than forgotten. The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” has been turned on its head: “Who needs a village when one woman and passionless conception can raise a child.”
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