Here’s a surprising analysis of the American family I recently found:
“Today the forces of social change have further broken down the family. It is now tiny - a husband, a wife and one or two children. Its members do little more than sleep and eat together. They buy everything - food, laundry, entertainment - and produce nothing but the money for these purchases. The outward pull of movies, automobiles, bridge clubs and Elks constantly threatens what little family unity remains. The individual now looks outside his home for his interests. He is atomistic, an individualized fragment rather than part of a unified whole.”
Maybe the “bridge clubs and Elks” tipped my hand.
This paragraph isnt of recent vintage. It is from Life magazine, July 26, 1948.
Who would have thought that in those happy postwar days - when families ate dinner together, moms greeted the kids when they came home from school, and a boys Christmas dream was a Red Ryder BB gun - anyone would be decrying the “atomization” of the American family?
I have been thinking about family trends since reading professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s book about Americas “red” and “blue” families. That book deserves its own discussion another time.
But in reading the Life article, its clear that a “red-blue” schism has been dogging America for at least 60 years.
The Life article even had its own scholarly debate: Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman warned that Americas family culture was in deep trouble, while Vassar sociologist Joseph Kirk Folsom said families were fine - they just need to keep adjusting to the times.
In the Life article, Mr. Folsom urged parents to become more lenient and respectful of their childrens’ “private worlds and personal values.”
Families should not resist the idea of each person pursuing his own interests, because thats how each person develops, said Mr. Folsom, author of “The Family and Democratic Society.” In fact, such atomization was good for the nation because it raises people who can live in a free democracy, he said.
Its true such a culture will have a high divorce rate and looseness of family ties, he added, but “something called ‘the family has survived all the revolutions of history. We need not worry about its continued existence.”
Mr. Zimmerman was not so sanguine. His view, according to Life, was that a family culture can atomize to the point of chaos, and lead to national self-destruction, as happened among the Greeks and Romans.
The same signs of decay that “plagued the ancients” are within the American family, Mr. Zimmerman said. Marriage has become a personal affair rather than an life-changing event with real religious significance. “Causeless” divorce has become popular. There’s growing acceptance of “sexual perversion.” Couples were having fewer children, and “revolt of youth” has occurred, resulting in more juvenile delinquency and creation of a “youth class,” with idols and customs of its own.
Mr. Zimmerman urged married couples, especially those with higher education or leadership roles, to have at least three children. This is because when families have many children, they are more likely to learn the value of interdependent family life and not fall into “unbridled individualism.”
But Mr. Zimmerman, author of “Family and Civilization,” concluded in 1948 that there was already “little left now within the family or the moral code to hold [it] together.”
“Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. The very continuation of our culture seems to be tied up with this nihilism in family behavior,” he said.
The atomization of the American family has been ongoing for another six decades, and family scholars - as they should - still debate whether it’s a good thing or not.
For me, I won’t be surprised if the next generation decides it wants a family culture that’s a little more Norman Rockwell and a little less Lady Gaga.
*Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.