You Can't Go Home Again


Listening to the American Family: New Hope for the Next Generation, by Richard Louv, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 420 pages, $21.95

George Eliot captured the essence of childhood in The Mill on the Floss: "We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass, the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows, the same redbreasts that we used to call 'God's birds' because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?"

Had she written that passage today, she might have described how children lisp to themselves (often in unprintable language) between beeps from the Nintendo game as their tiny fingers grasp the controls; she wouldn't mention the hips and haws because they are not found in the sprawling urban areas where most children live. In any case, children are so divorced from nature that they wouldn't notice them, or God's birds, unless they appeared on the television screen. Monotony exists in the fast-paced, scheduled living of the 1990s, but it is not sweet; everything is known, but that familiarity has produced boredom, not love.

It is against this backdrop that Richard Louv has written his book calling for a rebuilding of community and family life. Louv, a father of two and a columnist for the San Diego Union, says he spent three years interviewing more than 3,000 parents, children, volunteers, teachers, and other professionals nationwide—a staggering pace for a man with his own family obligations.

Louv identifies two themes that stood out in his research: "First, time—the sense that time is a decreasing natural resource for both children and parents; and second, the lessening of trust. Powerful, often subliminal fear burns slowly beneath the surface of American culture. One mother summed up her most intense feelings this way: 'Childhood today scares me. But I don't have time to do anything about the fear.'"

Parents, he writes, are torn between investing time in their children and earning money to offer them material goods. As one woman put it, "I want to be there for them yet I want them to have what's good, too." And since parenthood, along with childhood, has been devalued, parents often choose to offer their children "what's good," which has profound consequences. The lack of parental time manifests itself in the disappearance of family rituals, dinners together, and even after-school time together, since most parents work away from home all day.

Estimates of the number of children who care for themselves during some part of the day range as high as 7 million to 15 million. In extreme cases, children as young as 3 are being left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings. They feel neglected and abandoned, and as they get older, Louv writes, many turn "to peers, to gangs, to early sex partners, to the new electronic bubble of computers and video."

Louv is a good reporter, but his analysis is faulty and his solutions are misguided. Part of the problem is that his vision is clouded by milk-and-cookies memories of growing up in Missouri. Childhood today certainly is different from Louv's idyllic recollections of the 1950s, but that is not necessarily all bad. For example, while children may not get as much time as they'd like with their parents, both parents can now be strong role models. Children no longer have the skewed view of gender that prevailed in the '50s, reflected in "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It To Beaver."

Sometimes it's not clear whether Louv is trying to make a policy statement or simply wants to give parents self-help advice. He often slips into the latter, with tips, for example, on how to make the most of time with your children. When he does offer broader prescriptions, however, he is quick to resort to government.

Other institutions are gradually taking over childhood, Louv says, but they are not doing a very good job of it. Poor television, inadequate day care, lousy schools, and stingy public policies that restrict what libraries can offer have all contributed to what he calls "the vanishing web." He notes that the United States is the only advanced Western nation where family life is a private matter that government and employers have largely ignored.

Louv wants the government to ensure leave for parents after a baby is born, and he wants firms to recognize that family pressures often spill over into the workplace in the form of distracted employees and lost productivity. He suggests that companies offer more flex time and more part-time options to parents—not particularly innovative solutions.

Louv calls vaguely for "family liberation" and a "new web": "As part of a family liberation movement, parents ought to demand more freedom in choosing their own work hours and their children's school hours, thereby creating larger windows of family time. Our goal should be to help parents care for their children and to have the time to do it." The children Louv interviewed seem to want these changes, but he never really convinces the reader that parents want family liberation. Many claimed that they work too many hours and don't have enough time for their kids. But parents make choices, often preferring to pursue their own interests rather than spend time with their children.

The amount of time parents spend with their children has dropped 40 percent during the last quarter century, Louv reports. In 1965, the average parent had roughly 30 hours' contact with his or her children each week. Today the figure is down to 17. It's easy to say, "I don't have time" and dodge the real reason some parents don't spend time with their children: "I don't have the desire or the patience." Even when they have the chance, many parents don't invest time in their children; instead, they depend on television and computers to babysit, or they fill their children's schedules with organized activities away from home.

Throughout his book, Louv refers to the need for "a vast public effort, much of it by government," to support the family, but he never outlines what kind of effort he has in mind. Still, the words are ominous. The money for this "vast public effort" would come from families who are already heavily burdened by taxes. Moreover, whenever the government takes over family obligations, there's the danger that it will replace rather than assist the family, ultimately weakening it. David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, writes in a recent issue of The Public Interest that this is precisely what has happened in Sweden, "where the family has grown weaker…than anywhere else in the world."

"What has happened to the family in Sweden over the past few decades," Popenoe writes, "lends strong support to the proposition that as the welfare state advances, the family declines. If unchecked, this decline could eventually undermine the very welfare that the state seeks to promote…The family in the welfare state may become so weak that it is unable or unwilling to provide the kind of personalized child rearing that it alone can offer." That ought to give any policy maker pause.

Louv keeps returning to his memories of growing up outside Kansas City, at the far edge of suburbia. "How much of who we are, as creative adults, was formed long ago on a slow summer day, watching the trees move?" he asks. He recalls going with his pet collie to the woods near his home, where he would "build my own world out of small mysteries: exploring near a farm hidden away next to a swamp, lost in those woods; climbing a poplar, one of the tall, straight hedge trees overlooking the corn fields, clear to the top, until the trunk was three inches thick, until it began to bend and sway in the Missouri wind."

While this sounds like the ideal American childhood, it is hardly typical, even for those raised in the '50s or '60s. Louv identifies some genuinely disturbing trends, but his understanding of them is skewed by an idiosyncratic standard. He wants America to recapture not just childhood but his childhood.

Fern Schumer Chapman is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.