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COONTZ I The American family
The American Family
By Stephanie Coontz
r ROM: Life, November 1999
CON T EXT: This piece was originally published in Life magazine in November 1999.
Life magazine was founded in 1936 and is known for its blend of traditional values
and excellent photography. According to its media kit, the magazine “delivers over
27 million affluent, educated, action-oriented decision makers” to its advertisers. The
median age of the readership is 48.4. the average household income is $67,908, and
its readers are split almost equally between men and women. Stephanie Coontz is a
professor at The Evergreen College in Washington state. She also has taught at uni­
versities in Hawaii and Japan and is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow. She is the
director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families,
which awarded her the first Visionary Leadership Award in 2004. Her book Marriage,
A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005) was
selected as one of the best books of 2005 by the WaShington Post. She has testified
before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families; she speaks
about family issues on national television – on CNN and on shows such as Oprah and
the Today show. As you read this article, consider the data Coontz cites to argue that
our contemporary families are in better shape than we think and how this is a particu­
larly appropriate focus for Life magazine.
for the future of America’s families. Our divorce rate is the highest in
the world, and the percentage of unmarried women is significantly
higher than in 1960. Educated women are having fewer babies, while
immigrant children flood the schools, demanding to be taught in their
native language. Harvard University reports that only 4 percent of its
applicants can write a proper sentence. There’s an epidemic of sexu­
ally transmitted diseases among men. Many streets in urban neigh­
borhoods are littered with cocaine vials. Youths call heroin “happy
dust: Even in small towns, people have easy access to addictive drugs,
and drug abuse by middle-class wives is skyrocketing. Police see
sixteen-year-old killers, twelve-year-old prostitutes, and gang mem­
bers as young as eleven. America at the end of the 1990s? No, Amer­
ica at the end of the 1890s.
The litany of complaints may sound familiar, but the truth is that
many things were worse at the start of this century than they are
today. Then, thousands of children worked full-time in mines, mills,
and sweatshops. Most workers labored ten hours a day; often six days
a week, which left them little time or energy for family life. Race riots
were more frequent and more deadly than those experienced by re­
cent generations. Women COUldn’t vote, and their wages were so low
that many turned to prostitution. In 1900 a white child had one
chance in three of losing a brother or sister before age fifteen, and a
black child had a fifty-fifty chance of seeing a sibling die. Children’s­
aid groups reported widespread abuse and neglect by parents. Men
who deserted or divorced their wives rarely paid child support. And
only 6 percent of the children graduated from high school, compared
with 88 percent today.
Why do so many people think American families are facing worse
problems now than in the past? Partly it’s because we compare the
complex and diverse families of the 1990s with the seemingly more
standard-issue ones of the 1950s, a unique decade when every long­
term trend of the twentieth century was temporarily reversed. In the
1950s, for the first time in 100 years, the divorce rate fell while mar­
riage and fertility rates soared, creating a boom in nuclear-family liv­
ing. The percentage of foreign-born individuals in the country
decreased. And the debates over social and cultural issues that had
divided Americans for 150 years were silenced, suggesting a national
consensus on family values and norms.
Some nostalgia for the 1950s is understandable: Life looked
pretty good in comparison with the hardships of the Great Depres­
sion and World War II. The GI Bill gave a generation of young fathers
a college education and a subsidized mortgage on a new house. For
the first time, a majority of men could support a family and buy a
home without pooling their earnings with those of other family mem­
bers. Many Americans built a stable family life on these foundations.
But much nostalgia for the 1950s is a result of selective amnesia the same process that makes childhood memories of summer va­
cations grow sunnier with each passing year. The superficial sameness
of 1950s family life was achieved through censorship, coercion, and
discrimination. People with unconventional beliefs faced governmen­
tal investigation and arbitrary firings. African Americans and Mexican
Americans were prevented from voting in some states by literacy tests
that were not administered to whites. Individuals who didn’t follow the
rigid gender and sexual rules of the day were ostracized.
Leave It to Beaver did not reflect the real-life experience of most
American families. While many moved into the middle class during
the 1950s, poverty remained more widespread than in the worst of
our last three recessions. More children went hungry; and poverty
rates for the elderly were more than twice as high as today’s. Even in
the white middle class, not every woman was as serenely happy with
her lot as June Cleaver was on TV. Housewives of the 1950s may have
been less rushed than today’s working mothers, but they were more
likely to suffer anxiety and depression. In many states, women couldn’t
serve on juries or get loans or credit cards in their own names.
And not every kid was as wholesome as Beaver Cleaver, whose
mischievous antics could be handled by Dad at the dinner table. In
1955 alone, Congress discussed 200 bills aimed at curbing juvenile
delinquency. Three years later, Life reported that urban teachers were
being terrorized by their students. The drugs that were so freely avail­
able in 1900 had been outlawed, but many children grew up in fami­
lies ravaged by alcohol and barbiturate abuse.
Rates of unwed childbearing tripled between 1940 and 1958, but
most Americans didn’t notice because unwed mothers generally left
town, gave their babies up for adoption, and returned home as if
nothing had happened. Troubled youths were encouraged to drop out
of high school. Mentally handicapped children were warehoused in
institutions like the Home for Idiotic and Imbecilic Children in
Kansas, where a woman whose sister had lived there for most of the
1950s once took me. Wives routinely told pollsters that being dispar­
aged or ignored by their husbands was a normal part of a happier­
than-average marriage. Denial extended to other areas of life as well.
In the early 1900s doctors refused to believe that the cases of gonor­
rhea and syphilis they saw in young girls could have been caused
sexual abuse. Instead, they reasoned, girls could get these diseases
from toilet seats, a myth that terrified generations of mothers and
daughters. In the 1950s, psychiatrists dismissed incest reports as
Oedipal fantasies on the part of children. Spousal rape was legal
throughout the period, and wife beating was not taken seriously by
authorities. Much of what we now label child abuse was accepted as
a normal part of parental discipline. Physicians saw no reason to
question parents who claimed that their child’s broken bones had
been caused by a fall from a tree. Things were worse at the turn of the
last century than they are today. Most workers labored ten hours a
day. six days a week, leaving little time for family life.
There are plenty of stresses in modern family life, but one reason
they seem worse is that we no longer sweep them under the rug.
The American Family
Another is that we have higher expectations of parenting and mar­
riage. That’s a good thing. We’re right to be concerned about inatten­
tive parents, conflicted marriages, antisocial values, teen violence, and
child abuse. But we need to realize that many of our worries reflect
how much better we want to be, not how much better we used to be.
Fathers in intact families are spending more time with their children than at any other point in the past 100 years. Although the num­
ber of hours the average woman spends at home with her children
has declined since the early 1900s, there has been a decrease in the
number of children per family and an increase in individual attention
to each child. As a result, mothers today. including working moms,
spend almost twice as much time with each child as mothers did in
the 1920s. People who raised children in the 1940s and 1950s typically
report that their own adult children and grandchildren communicate
far better with their kids and spend more time helping with home­
work than they did even as they complain that other parents today
are doing a worse job than in the past.
Despite the rise in youth violence from the 1960s to the early
1900s, America’s children are also safer now than they’ve ever been.
An infant was four times more likely to die in the 1950s than today. A
parent then was three times more likely than a modern one to preside
at the funeral of a child under the age of fifteen, and 27 percent more
likely to lose an older teen to death.
If we look back over the last millennium, we can see that families
have always been diverse and in flux. In each period, families have
solved one set of problems only to face a new array of challenges.
What works for a family in one economic and cultural setting doesn’t
work for a family in another. What’s helpful at one stage of a family’s
life may be destructive at the next stage. If there is one lesson to be
drawn from the last millennium of family history; it’s that families are
always having to play catch-up with a changing world.
Many of our worries today reflect how much better we want to be,
not how much better we used to be. Take the issue of working mothers.
Families in which mothers spend as much time earning a living as they
do raising children are nothing new. They were the norm throughout
most of the last two millennia. In the nineteenth century; married
women in the United States began a withdrawal from the workforce,
but for most families this was made possible only by sending their chil­
dren out to work instead. When child labor was abolished, married
women began reentering the workforce in ever larger numbers.
For a few decades, the decline in child labor was greater than the
growth of women’s employment. The result was an aberration: the
male breadwinner family. In the 1920s, for the first time a bare ma­
jority of American children grew up in families where the husband
provided all the income, the wife stayed home full-time, and they and
their siblings went to school instead of work. During the 1950s, almost
two-thirds of children grew up in such families, an all-time high. Yet
that same decade saw an acceleration of workforce participation
wives and mothers that soon made the dual-earner family the norm,
a trend not likely to be reversed in the next century.
What’s new is not that women make half their families’ living, but
that for the first time they have substantial control over their own in­
come, along with the social freedom to remain
or to leave an
unsatisfactory marriage. Also new is the declining proportion of their
lives that people devote to rearing children, both because they have
fewer kids and because they are living longer. Until about 1940, the
typical marriage was broken
the death of one partner within a few
years after the last child left home.
Today; couples can look forward to spending more than two
decades together after the children leave. The growing length of time
partners spend with only each other for company has made many in­
dividuals less willing to put up with an unhappy marriage, while
women’s economic independence makes it less essential for them to
do so. It is no wonder that divorce has risen steadily since 1900. Dis­
regarding a spurt in 1946, a dip in the 1950s, and another peak around
1980, the divorce rate is just where you’d expect to find it based on
the rate of increase from 1900 to 1950. Today; 40 percent of all mar­
riages will end in divorce before a couple’s fortieth anniversary. Yet
despite this high divorce rate, expanded life expectancies mean that
more couples are reaching that anniversary than ever before. Fami­
lies and individuals in contemporary America have more life choices
than in the past. That makes it easier for some to consider dangerous
or unpopular options. But it also makes success easier for many fam­
ilies that never would have had a chance before interracial, gay or
lesbian, and single-mother families, for example. And it expands hori­
zons for most families.
Women’s new options are good not
for themselves but for
their children. While some people say that women who choose to
work are selfish, it turns out that maternal self-sacrifice is not good
for children. Kids do better when their mothers are happy with their
lives, whether their satisfaction comes from being a full-time home­
maker or from having a
Largely because of women’s new roles at work, men are doing
more at home. Although most men still do less housework than their
wives, the gap has been halved since the 1960s. Today; 49 percent of
couples say they share childcare equally; compared with 25 percent in
1985. The biggest problem is not that our families have changed too
much but that our institutions have changed too little.
COONTZ I The American Family
Men’s greater involvement at home is good for their relationships
with their partners and also good for their children. Hands-on fathers
make better parents than men who let their wives do all the nurtur­
ing and childcare: They raise sons who are more expressive and
daughters who are more likely to do well in school, especially in math
and science.
In 1900, life expectancy was forty-seven years, and only 4 percent
of the population was sixty-five or older. Today; life expectancy is
seventy-six years, and by 2025, about 20 percent of Americans will be
sixty-five or older. For the first time, a generation of adults must plan
for the needs of both their parents and their children. Most Ameri­
cans are responding with remarkable grace. One in four households
gives the equivalent of a full day a week or more in unpaid care to an
aging relative, and more than half say they expect to do so in the next
ten years. Older people are less likely to be impoverished or Ul’L.U~JU'”
itated by illness than in the past and they have more opportunity to
develop a relationship with their grandchildren.
Even some of the choices that worry us the most are turning out
to be manageable. Divorce rates are likely to remain high, but more
noncustodial parents are staying in touch with their children. Child­
support receipts are up. And a lower proportion of kids from divorced
families are exhibiting problems than in earlier decades. Stepfamilies
are learning to maximize children’s access to supportive adults rather
than cutting them off from one side of the family: Out-of-wedlock
births are also high, however, and this will probably continue because
the age of first marriage for women has risen to an all-time high of
twenty-five, almost five years above what it was in the 1900s. Women
who marry at an older age are less likely to divorce, but they have
more years when they are at risk or at choice for a nonmarital birth.
Nevertheless, births to teenagers have fallen from 50 percent of
all nonmarital births to just 30 percent today: A growing proportion of
women who have a nonmarital birth are in their twenties and thirties
and usually have more economic and educational resources than
unwed mothers of the
While two involved parents are generally
better than one, a mother’s personal maturity; along with her educa­
tional and economic status, is a better predictor of how well her child
will turn out than her marital status. We should no longer assume that
children raised by single parents face debilitating disadvantages.
As we begin to understand the range of sizes, shapes, and colors
that today’s families come in, we find that the differences within fam­
ily types are more important than the differences between them. No
particular family form guarantees success, and no particular form is
doomed to fail. How a family functions on the inside is more impor­
tant than how it looks from the outside.
The biggest problem facing most families as this century draws to
a close is not that our families have changed too much but that our in­
stitutions have changed too little. America’s work policies are fifty
years out of date, designed for a time when most moms weren’t in the
workforce and most dads didn’t understand the joys of being involved
in childcare. Our school schedules are 150 years out of date, designed
for a time when kids needed to be home to help with the milking and
haying. And many political leaders feel they have to decide whether
to help parents stay home longer with their kids or invest in better
childcare, preschool, and afterschool programs, when most industri­
alized nations have long since learned it’s possible to do both.
So America’s social institutions have some Y2K bugs to iron out.
But for the most part, our families are ready for the next millennium.
Are Drifting Apart
The sexual revolution, women’s liberation, relaxation of divorce laws, and
greater mobility are fracturing the traditional family structure.
petty grievances to deep-seated prejudices,
misunderstandings to all-out
jealousies, sibling rivalry, inheritance
feuds, family business disputes, and homo­
sexual outings-are cause for families to
grow apart. Family estrangements are bemore numerous, more intense, and
more hurtful. When I speak to groups on
the subject, I always ask: Who has or had
an estrangement or knows someone who
does’? Almost every hand in the room goes
up. Sisters aren’t speaking to each other
since one of them took the silver when
Mom died. Two brothers rarely visit be­
cause their wives don’t like each other.
A son alienates himself from his family
when he marries a woman who wants to
believe that he sprung from the earth. Be­
cause Mom is the travel agent for
trips, her daughter avoids contact with her.
A family banishes a daughter for marrying
outside her race or religion. A son eradi­
cates a divorced father when he reveals his
homosexuality. And so it goes.
The nation is facing a rapidly changing
family relationship landscape. Every as­
sumption made about the family structure
has been challenged, from the outer bound­
aries of single mothers raising out-of-wed­
lock children to gay couples having or
adopting children to grandparents raising
their grandchildren. If the so-called tradi­
tional family is having trouble maintaining
imagine what problems can and
do arise in less-conventional situations.
Fault lines in Americans’ family structure
were widening throughout the last 40 years
of the 20th century. The cracks became ev­
ident in the mid 1970s when the divorce
rate doubled. According to a 1999 Rutgers
University study, divorce has risen 30%
since 1970; the marriage rate has fallen
faster; and just 38% of Americans consider
themselves happy in their married state, a
drop from 53% 25 years ago. Today, 51 %
of all marriages end in divorce.
How Americans managed to alter their
concept of marriage and family so produring those four decades is the
subject of much scholarly investigation
and aca …
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