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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1997 Issue #48

the new family imbalance
by: David Elkind
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1994
Book Review by: Lon Woodbury 

(Author David Elkind is best known for his 1981 book THE HURRIED CHILD. In that book, he claimed children were being expected to grow up faster than previous generations had, and outlined the problems this was causing children.)

In TIES THAT STRESS, he continues with the question: Why does there seem to be an increase in negative behaviors in contemporary young people? He partially answers this question in the statement, “When young people’s developmental needs for protection and nurture are ignored, when their human differences in growth rates and behavior are deemed deviant, and when they are given little or no space to live and to grow, they are stressed. Young people who are stressed often do what adults do: they engage in actions that are destructive to themselves, to others, or to both. The consequences of these self/other punishing practices are increasingly evident, and have been given a new name, the ‘new morbidity.’” 

He goes further. Young people are more stressed because the family is losing the ability to meet children’s needs. Instead of the all too common “blame the parents” and leave it at that, he sees the stresses families and children are dealing with as just one aspect of massive social changes that have been going on throughout our society for quite some time. He sees a conflict between a system of thought he refers to as “Modern,” opposed to a system of thought he calls “Postmodern.” He then spends a large portion of the book defining and explaining these concepts as he understands them. 

“In the broadest sense, modernity arose in the seventeenth century as a revolt against the autocracy of the pre-modern world.” It contained the concepts of rationalism, humanism, democracy, individualism, and romanticism. The underlying theme was the “celebration of the individual over established authority.” 

According to the author, one result of the modern era was the industrial revolution, and the Modern family form evolved out of that when families moved into the city and sensed that the outside society was “exploitative and uncaring.” The result was the family developed three sentiments to nourish the members of the family and provide a safe haven: “romantic love (the tie of parents to one another), maternal love (the tie of parents to offspring), and domesticity (the tie of family to community).” This resulted in the family being configured to provide a child-centered safe haven to protect children as they were growing up. Children were considered innocent and immature, needing protection and space of their own as they learned how to be adults, and there was a clear differentiation between parent and child. One example the author uses is that Modern children were given a “greater latitude of acceptable behavior than were adults.” 

He then goes on to define the Postmodern system of beliefs. “Postmodernism is, therefore, first and foremost a critical attitude toward the values and beliefs of modernity, including such cherished notions as rationality and individual freedom.” According to the author, Postmodernism sees several things different than Modernism. Postmodernism believes an individual can never be truly objective but can only perceive according to the framework in which he or she has lived. Postmodernism believes the irregularity of language is a better model for human transactions than is logical discourse; it believes knowledge and power cannot be separated; that diversity must be celebrated, and “universal principles must arise out of consensus.” 

From these different beliefs, the author claims the Postmodern family is based on consensual love rather than committed love, on shared parenting (including day-care, nanny, etc.) rather than a stay-at-home mom, and urbanity rather than the home as a safe nurturing haven. In addition, the author sees Postmodernism as assuming the competence and sophistication of children, shared authority between parents and children, and has the result of opening opportunities and options for adults while narrowing options for children. In Postmodernism, according to the author, children have less latitude in behavior than children in Modern families. In other words, children are less likely to be given a second chance for negative behavior, something common in the Modern community. 

The author concludes in many ways the Postmodern family has been a disaster for children. He concludes this from literature that their needs are not being met, and consequently their stress levels are going up resulting in increased negative behavior. 

However, he doesn’t argue for a return to the old fashioned Modern family since he agrees there were a number of weaknesses in the Modern family, the very ones he sees as having brought on Postmodern revisions to family form. He optimistically thinks he sees signs of what he calls a “vital” family, which combines the strengths of both, and avoiding their weaknesses. 

What the author brings to the table with this book is that children ARE doing more poorly than in the past, and he believes it is because we are casting off the protections and systems for children of the Modern family, and have not yet developed something in their place that works for the future. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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