In the Press
A new scapegoat may be replacing schools as the purported "cause'' of America's troubled social landscape for children, according to the Summer 1994 edition of The American Prospect: the single-parent family.
In a special series on "Family Fractures,'' the quarterly journal of liberal thought examines terrain first broached by Dan Quayle during the 1992 Presidential campaign and forecasts the raised profile of family structure and policy as a divisive political issue.
Arlene Skolnick and Stacey Rosencrantz, psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, respectively, critique in one article "the new crusade for the old family'' being waged by pundits, radio personalities, and politicians. They argue that an unyielding push to recapture the nuclear family in the name of "family values'' may harm more children than it heals individual families.
"The nation as a whole is long overdue for a serious discussion of the upheaval in American family life since the 1960's and how to mitigate its social and personal costs, especially to children,'' the authors warn. But family restorationists, they say, merely rely on outworn paradigms of the American family, as they push for such punitive correctives as an end to welfare payments for unmarried mothers and the enactment of laws to make divorce more difficult.
Such policymaking is simplistic, they argue. "Sooner or later, we are going to have to let go of the fantasy that we can restore the family of the 1950's.'' The 1950's family actually is a false standard, they maintain, in that the decade broke statistical trends begun in the 19th century--and later continued to the present--of rising marriage ages, divorce rates, and female participation in the labor force.
Pining for the old model, Ms. Skolnick and Ms. Rosencrantz contend, ignores the real progress made for families: rising levels of educational attainment, declining mortality rates, the advent of reliable contraception, and increased opportunity for women.
The debate over demographic change must seek buffers to protect children and families from harm, the authors conclude, not lapse unrealistically into nostalgia. They write that the nation must "recogniz[e] both the diversity of family life and the continuing importance of the family,'' and seek comprehensive reforms.
In the same issue, Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, focuses on schools as they learn to tend to students and their divided families.
"Divorce and unwed motherhood are being blamed for children's school troubles, delinquency, and drug abuse, as well as the renewed cycle of teenage pregnancy and family collapse. Yet the reality is far more complex than the cartoon,'' he writes.
Mr. Weissbourd emphasizes the need for "anchors'' in the lives of children psychologically dislocated by divorce and other traumas. The presence of others outside the family who can be relied upon for long-term support, mentoring, or care will make all the difference, he argues, in keeping a child in school and learning.
Teachers and school staff members can, and should, be such anchors, he stresses. But students who have lost fathers will inevitably "test'' teachers to see if these adults, too, will desert them. And high teacher turnover in schools does little to dispel the notion of all authority figures as transient.
Schools owe support to single parents, too, he says. Teachers must determine how to engage mothers, noncustodial fathers, step-parents, and other adults in each child's education.
The "happy irony'' of a determined school support system is that it provides not only aftermath care, Mr. Weissbourd says, but prevention as well. Community backing of families early on may help keep them whole.
Parents need to open their eyes wide to the television screen and to the programs their children watch, according to an article in the July/August issue of Ms. magazine. Suzanne Braun Levine, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and herself a mother of two, pleads for an active caution on the part of parents when it comes to TV violence.
Getting children to recognize television violence as just that proves a difficult task. "When I have tried to engage them in dialogue over the issue, I find my children's sophistry daunting,'' she writes. The Ninja Turtles cannot really be violent because they're only cartoons, her children argue.
But Ms. Levine cites the most recent statistics from the Center for Juvenile Justice--247,000 violent crimes were committed by minors in 1992--to illustrate the real and present danger of childhood violence.
Suggested legislative remedies, however, also concern the author and seem to her to smack of censorship. While Sens. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina have backed a bill to limit violent programming broadcast during peak viewing hours for children, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has proposed "the television violence reduction through parental empowerment act,'' which would allow parents to block violent programming through a microchip installed in the television set. Both bills, Ms. Levine contends, "raise important questions about freedom and responsibility.''
To banish violent images wholesale from children's view only dulls the real lessons, she asserts. Newscasts, when coupled with family discussions, can serve as "reminders that when violence strikes, real people bleed and suffer and die, and real people mourn them.''
Parents lead by example, she adds, when they call or write networks to protest violent programming and to praise exemplary shows, when they more closely monitor their children's viewing patterns, or even when they turn off the television and offer alternate activities.
Beyond television, educators are looking anew--sometimes with the aid of city planners--at the most basic level of children's play. Once only asphalt sprawls, playgrounds are attracting attention as vital spaces for children. Ellen Ruppel Shell, the author of A Child's Place, writes in the July 1994 issue of Smithsonian of the recent trend to create playgrounds that respond directly to children's needs.
"The history of playgrounds is a history of bad ideas,'' she writes. Schools have too long depended on equipment, manufacturers, and concrete to shape play areas. Now, she says, designers concentrate on the integrity of an open space, so that tree stumps and mud holes become as much a part of the equipment as swings or slides.
Successful playgrounds, such as the one at P.S. 197 in New York City, are built to work from the particular context of a child's world. She describes this playground as one that speaks to what its students know. As a scaled-down replica of Harlem, it comes complete with an Apollo Theater-like stage and a "tenement house'' climbing structure. More important, it holds a garden, which grows and changes, just as the children do.
Letting not just bodies but imaginations play opens up a natural educational opportunity, Ms. Shell asserts. In playgrounds truly built for children, she notes, the play is "messy, unpredictable, spontaneous, freewheeling, and sometimes a little scary. It looks a lot like life.''--CHRISTY J. ZINK