HPPUB BOOK REVIEW of The War on Parents


Author (or Editor):  Hewlett, Sylvia Ann and West, Cornel

Title: The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads


Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin

Date: 1999

ISBN:  0393957974.


Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound

Relevance to HPPUB:  family values

Review: The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), ISBN 0393957974.


Hewlett, in her own television interview on ABC “Good Morning America” (July 21, 2000) certainly took a more “communitarian” view of children as a resource for everyone. On the surface, she presents an antithesis to Burkett’s argument, even if her (and co-author West’s) suggestions seem a bit predictable.


First, a note on the format of the book. Part I, comprising the first two chapters, present alternating prose sections by Hewlett and West, many of them autobiographical, setting up a non-fiction narrative technique that I used in DADT and that Tafel used in his own book about being a gay Republican. The remaining parts consist often social policy discussion, seasoned with many third person parenting accounts (some quotes), again setting up a book that could be filmable.


And she does not necessarily contradict Burkett (note below).  Indeed, many parents struggle in today’s competitive world, and on the other hand many non-parents are discriminated against. What becomes important is what facts are presented and how they will be interpreted.  In fact, lower income and some middle-class parents indeed are very much beleaguered, and lower income singles and non-parents are quite a bit vulnerable to discrimination. 


However, the tone of the writing is often a bit strident, overbearing and adversarial, sometimes bordering on hysteria. 


Hewlett/West are certainly correct about many of their basic observations.  Particularly important is their observation about the stress that the “Darwinian workplace” (particularly as it developed in the 1980’s [when employers tended to take out the pressure put on them by investors on their associates, demanding that they compete with each other as individuals to keep their jobs and remain “indispensable”), to subside during the 90’s) has placed on some families. A good question indeed is, with the gains in productivity why can’t we all enjoy a shorter workweek and time for families or personal pursuits? (The answer used to have to do with the cost of benefits with more employees, but that is turning around as consultants now cost more a lot of times than employees).  It is well to point out that parenting is not a simple “economic investment” and that the cultural distractions (entertainment violence) can provide a big challenge to the most well-intended parents.  The authors do not get into the details as to how the workplace actually works as much as they could, nor do they go into some areas like Internet censorship issues as much as I would have expected. The authors do make an interesting point about African-American families, that the credibility of the male provider role in the black family was wiped out by slavery (the film Amistad) in the 19th Century; the CNN “Millennium” series has pointed out that slavery was a critical, if immoral, foundation for capitalism throughout all of the Americas for over two centuries and was brought to colonial Virginia almost by accident! .    


Their solutions are mostly rather routine, but some are noteworthy.  For example, longer school days, and allowing parent to cast votes for their children, increasing the power of parents as a voting block—which will raise the issue as to whether parents would use “democracy” to force non-parents to subsidize their “chosen” responsibilities. But most important is their demand for legally mandated or driven paid paternal leave, such as is practiced in Europe.


Then the question is: who pays for these privileges and benefits for parents? Logically, people who don’t have children.  Should parents have the legal right (beyond what they already have) to force others to subsidize their choices to become parents?  If so, it seems at least that they forfeit some control over their own child-rearing—if after all children are a community future resource.  So will parents want this right?  According to the authors’ surveys, apparently many of them do. But many parents aren’t exactly conscious of their differential “choice”; they view family and parenting as so fundamental to fitting in that everybody must eventually do it.


Except that there is a caveat.  The underlying theme—despite the authors’ criticism of some of the excesses of modern culture and their reiteration of George Gilder’s ideas about marriage—is that most of the solutions are governmental and federal (they overlook that the evils of foster care are driven by government).  Okay, then, let’s pay for all of these parental privileges by soaking the rich. Let’s take it out of corporate profits, out of CEO stock options and parachutes.  Then nobody gets hurt. 


But in a technology-driven, more individualistic society this “socialistic” buffer sounds less convincing.  Many “average joe’s” now own stocks and pay attention to corporate profits, especially as they approach retirement age. Furthermore, if government is going to force private employers to pay salaries to parents for extended periods when they are not working, inevitably some of the money—and time (often unpaid overtime or on-call time) is going to come from the childless. 


The authors say rather little about gays, although it seems that the authors view gays as intrinsically different, mathemtacially and socially small in importance, and not “part of the problem.”  Gay marriage is not addressed, although I rather speculate that the authors might favor adoption by stable gay couples, considering the dire collective need for more parents. A social system that heavily favors parents and penalizes the unattached might not be noticed much by younger gays and other singles (except maybe those with large student loans) but could gradually become very difficult for older gays.


One also ponders whether government need not mandate what amounts to the “family wage,” but merely permit it.  Employers could intentionally favor “families with children” or employees with any dependents (such as elderly parents) if they announced their policies openly, or they could allow small work self-managed teams to work out some of these problems on their own.


Putting this book together with Elinor Bukett’s The Baby Boon, with my own experiences and with a lot of other reading, I’d proffer the notion that maybe our social system really should expect adults, periodically if not continuously, to demonstrate that they can take care of others besides themselves (be it children, parents, lovers, or other committed volunteerism).  Maybe we can develop a culture where employers and other powerful institutions expect this.  What we do have is a culture where many people are unaware of the different values of others with whom they interact, with respect to the most basic choices and responsibilities that free people make and take.  Ultimately, common decency and professionalism will require that people without obligations to others sometimes yield to facilitate the needs of people with dependents, but that list would include elderly parents of other needy persons as well as children; and this is a process or differentiation that government should stay away from.  


On August 14, 2000 the Boston Globe ran a comparative essay on these two books by Scot Lehigh. There was reference to a Canadian non-parents’ web site, “No Kidding.”


Related Reviews: Burkett, The Baby Boon


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