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The Children’s Hour

An all-too-sentimental education

Amid a slew of golden anniversaries this year marking signature achievements of the civil rights movement, it was easy to overlook the fiftieth birthday of a slim document titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The 1965 study, which soon became known as the Moynihan Report (it was authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at that time an assistant secretary of labor under Lyndon Johnson), presaged the retreat from robust racial egalitarianism that would take shape in America after legal segregation was dismantled. In laying out his interpretation of the nation’s slow progress toward racial equality, Moynihan presented a barrage of sociological data to claim that no matter how many Jim Crow laws the federal government struck down, black Americans would remain a subordinate group for years to come.

The reason was not white racism—at least, not in any straightforward sense. Rather, Moynihan suggested that slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow—“three centuries of injustice”—had profoundly distorted the family life of black America, creating matriarchal family structures and undermining male authority. The result, Moynihan argued, was a chaotic array of social ills: alienation, crime, delinquency, unemployment, low IQ scores, you name it. Many black men were not even able to pass the test to serve in the Armed Forces—a special tragedy from Moynihan’s point of view, since the army might be able to provide a system of male authority to counter the female-dominated culture from whence black male recruits had emerged. Dotting his account with ominous-sounding statistics about crime, drug use, and birth rates (“fertility rates for nonwhite women are one-third higher than for white women”), Moynihan maintained that serious racial progress would require that the white establishment stop dwelling on Southern laws, voting restrictions, employment discrimination, and economic indicators and focus instead on a more intimate matter—namely, the “tangle of pathology” that was the black family.

Released just after the civil rights movement achieved the landmark victories of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Moynihan Report warned that racial inequality was ultimately rooted in family structure, not institutional arrangements or public disparities of wealth and educational access. The demolition of traditional family norms among black Americans had created a separate culture, one that was dysfunctional, twisted, and incapable of producing people who could be equal citizens. In rhetoric melodramatic and sensationalistic by turns, Moynihan urged readers to turn away from the political understanding of inequality advanced by the civil rights and black power movements and instead trace inequality back to a far deeper and more intractable place: the subterranean realm of family life. The Moynihan Report emerged out of the War on Poverty, and Moynihan argued that providing more jobs for black men would help to restore order within the family, but his brief also helped to form the intellectual infrastructure for undoing the welfare state. After all, if black men and women were trapped within a self-defeating culture, how could anything as prosaic as health insurance or child care help?

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, $28), the latest book from Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, picks up where the Moynihan Report left off. It marks Putnam’s foray into the contemporary debate about the causes of and possible cures for economic inequality. In a sense it is a post-Occupy document, a response to the notion that the startling rise of the very rich might have something to do with policies, laws, and political influence.

Putnam’s earlier claim to fame was his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which asserts that political participation has flagged because the civic organizations that flourished in the tight-knit communities of the postwar years have disappeared—such humble groups as parent-teacher associations, bowling leagues, and knitting circles. Far from being a nation of rugged individualists, the United States was once a country of cozy joiners. The decline of these kinds of groups, which formed the building blocks of communal life and democratic association, meant a lonelier, less egalitarian culture and helped to produce an anomic politics in which people no longer bother to vote.

Like Bowling Alone, Our Kids is at once a jeremiad and an academic work. As Putnam contends that the decline in social mobility and the rise in inequality in the United States proceed from class-based differences in child-rearing, he tacks between portraits of families on disparate rungs of the class ladder and reviews of the recent sociological literature. (Putnam’s framework draws heavily on the far more nuanced and generous work of sociologist Annette Lareau, as well as Coming Apart, the 2012 tract by Charles Murray, anti-welfare theorist of the Reagan years and coauthor of The Bell Curve.) The neighborhoods, the schools, and most of all, the families of the poor, says Putnam, raise children who will be unable to compete and succeed in the economy of the twenty-first century. These families, by Putnam’s account, lack the all-important “soft skills” of grit, perseverance, patience, self-discipline, and charm so carefully inculcated in middle-class and well-off children. Poor kids hear fewer words, leaving them with reduced vocabularies and shrunken horizons, and well before the age of reason, their very brains may have developed in ways that set them apart from the wealthy. To intervene in this cycle of social pathology, we need to find ways to reach into lacking homes and help the young.

It’s undeniable that social class pervades the most intimate aspects of life. It shapes family life and childhood, molding people down to their bodies and their psyches. And schools, as Putnam notes, have long ceased to resemble the elevators of mobility they perhaps were once upon a time; now they typically reflect rather than challenge existing social divisions. Yet despite Putnam’s nod to the clear imprint of class upon families and the allied distortions of childhood experience wrought by poverty, there’s something cloying about Our Kids. At bottom, the book’s prescription for reform trades on a hokey, ill-defined call for communitarian revival—which translates, in this context, into an unsympathetic, one-dimensional portrait of the family life of the poor. Putnam has perfected a breed of social science that verges on schmaltz. Homilies about “our kids” and an unmoored nostalgia steeped in paternalism wind up leading to a fatalistic vision—one in which the stable communities of the rosy past have been irretrievably lost, the contemporary family is inequality’s motor, and class status is decided in infancy (if not in utero), making it almost impossible to undo.

Bedford Falls Lost

The Midwestern lakeside town of Port Clinton, Ohio, is described by Wikipedia as the “Walleye Capital of the World.” (Walleye, for the uninitiated, is a type of freshwater fish that flourishes in Lake Erie.) Its population is a little more than six thousand, its economy is centered on Great Lakes tourism, and the local poverty rate is over 16 percent. It is also Robert Putnam’s hometown, but it serves his book as a hometown for everyone, the place that we all wish that we were from. Putnam sees it as an archetype of the American Dream at midcentury: a community that truly nourished its youth, where “virtually everyone” in his high school graduating class lived in a home with two parents who owned their house, in “neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else’s first name.”

The economy has come to resemble some baroque game of musical chairs, and there might not be enough seats for your kids.

In those days, men worked in gypsum mines, on family farms, or at the nearby Camp Perry Army base. Women were housewives. Almost all the kids at the high school participated in extracurricular activities—drama, sports, the school paper—and on Friday nights, the whole town could be found at the football game. Families had dinner together nightly, whether they were rich or poor.

For Putnam, this idyllic community was valuable not just on its own terms, but because it was an incubator for social mobility. The drama club, the team sports, the school band—all these self-improving civic undertakings added up to prosperity and helped nurture a generation of kids who did better than their parents. Putnam’s data comes from a written survey he did of the 150 people in his high school graduating class, 75 of whom replied. (Some classmates had died, others could not be tracked down, and still others failed to respond, raising the question of just how much credence we should give to the finding that “everyone” knew “everyone’s” first name.) Among the respondents, fully half of those whose parents had not completed high school went on to finish college. Putnam attributes this pleasing development to the high level of social cohesion and communal commitment in his small town, to the sense that all the kids were “our kids.”

Today, however, Putnam’s happy and prosperous Bedford Falls has become a sour, stagnant Pottersville. He depicts a contemporary Port Clinton riven by class. School officials relate that wealthy teenagers drive BMWs to school, parking them next to the clunkers that “homeless classmates drive away each night to live in.” No longer do poor families socialize with middle-class ones; instead, they live in distant neighborhoods and inhabit separate worlds.

Stuck in the Middle with You

Putnam is a bit vague about what has actually caused the rise of this new inequality; his real topic is the way that inequality now passes from one generation to the next. In the Port Clinton of his youth, the divide between the local elite and the working class was not so vast, and the children of the working poor were able to gain a foothold in the town’s inclusive middle class and to build decent lives. Today, the opportunities open to the children of the poor and those of the rich are so far apart that they seem hardly to live in the same city at all.

Through his portraits of twenty-first-century families from different racial, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds, we begin to discern some common themes in the parenting styles Putnam admires. The “successful” families catalogued in Our Kids are not those of the super-elite. Putnam steers clear of the trust fund babies and the scions of hedge fund billionaires. Instead, the families he cares about are more humble and familiar, hailing from small cities like Port Clinton and Bend, Oregon, and from the exurbs of Atlanta. They are IT workers and sales managers, denizens of the service economy, and they are desperate to instill in their children the values and personalities that they will need to survive.

In these families, parents (especially mothers) read to their uncomprehending infants. They distribute phonics workbooks for a little practice before dinner; they bring math flash cards on family vacations. Birthdays are celebrated with special themed social gatherings: tea parties, Barbie playdates, Academy Awards confabs. (These might seem over-the-top exercises in conspicuous consumption, but Putnam stolidly views them as examples of parental devotion, a way of communicating to children the importance of their tastes and interests.) Children take piano lessons and must play a sport each season. They enroll in art and ballet classes and take part in track meets. In the evenings, the family eats together, discussing current events and what happened at school. Mothers (yes, again, mostly mothers) devote themselves to taking the kids to the myriad extracurricular activities and, when these are almost at an end, to building props for the school prom. All the years of effort—the violin practices meant to instill self-discipline, the chess classes, the careful attention to school projects, the building of rapport with teachers, and the concerned meetings with therapists—produce young adults who are able to participate and flourish in our postindustrial economy, who possess the skills and confidence necessary to go to good colleges, excel in interviews, and ultimately hold jobs in which a childhood’s worth of accumulated social capital is paramount.

By contrast, children in poor families are raised by parents who live highly chaotic lives. They’re less likely to be married or in stable relationships, instead drifting into one entanglement after the next. “A steady stream of women flowed through his dad’s life during David’s childhood, often floating on drugs,” reads one typically rueful sentence. Families sprawl across a range of partners. Half-siblings proliferate. Parents berate or slap their kids instead of listening to them.

Forget about family dinners at which children’s opinions are carefully solicited; at best, meals are free-for-alls focused on food. Abandonment by one or both parents is common. Parents disappear into the streets, drug-addled fogs, or—often—prison. Roles become uncertain. Children act as caregivers to their parents, as when a father develops inoperable brain tumors, preventing his daughter from moving forward with her own plans. Sometimes this turmoil even encompasses incestuous relationships and sexual abuse; there’s one mention of a girl who has a baby with her stepfather. Needless to say, birthdays are forgotten; not only are there no elaborate festivities, but they barely rate a cake.

The experience of family life in the lower classes is so distant from the norms of the upper that the interviewers found themselves flummoxed at times by the gap between their questions (“Did you take the SATs? Did you plan to go to college or get a job? At what age did you start talking with your parents about going to college, and how was college talked about?”) and the brutal pathos of their subjects’ lives. Take, for example, young Mary Sue, who was abandoned by her mother in early childhood and “left with no company but a mouse.” In such situations, the people conducting the interviews had mercy and jettisoned the queries about college admissions for a more open-ended approach. To ask about college in the face of such abject misery would be absurd and borderline obscene.

Just as the depiction of postwar Port Clinton seems lifted from a pastiche of cultural tropes of small-town 1950s America, Putnam’s twenty-first-century families are almost comedic in the ways that they perfectly realize their stereotypes. All the middle-class families are striving, polite, upbeat. The children who grow up in these families are all close with, and affectionate toward, their parents. No one feels that they are being pushed too hard, nagged about admission to the Ivies; no one (even if the interviewee is barely out of adolescence) has anything critical to say about those dinner tables; no one looks back and remembers awkward silences, forced conversation, or arguments.

If Putnam’s middle-class families are benign sitcoms, their poor counterparts are soap operas, distinguished chiefly by violence and rampant sex. They are nightmarishly awful, with no redeeming qualities—there’s no suggestion that they experience any love, joy, or laughter alongside their luridly tangled pathologies. There is no analysis of the function that their parenting style might serve, and no effort to explore its sources from the inside. Even though the children of these terrible parents do seem capable of remarkable acts of loyalty and love—as with the young woman who takes on her father’s care when he develops brain tumors—the families themselves are presented as total, abject failures. These flat depictions fail to capture the complexity of actual family life, for either the poor or the well-to-do. Instead, they evince a curiously bloodless utilitarianism, one that reduces the family to a tool of social policy that either transmits the right values or goes disastrously wrong.

As Putnam hews to this binary moral scheme, he turns a blind eye to the broader atmosphere of competition that surrounds the chummy intimacy of the affluent family. He somehow fails to notice that all the affection, labor, and enthusiastic engagement he detects between middle-class parents and their children is generated partly by a terrible fear of the nastiness of the rest of the world. These families are bound together by love, yes, but also by the overriding conviction that from their earliest years children must be groomed to compete in a fierce race that graces the winners with minimal stability. The “cultivation” that parents of the professional class bestow on their children—the constant ferrying to lessons, the expenditures of time and money for tutors and camps, the careful dinner-table chat—conceals a fear of the very real possibility of downward mobility. If you are a middle-class parent now, getting your child into an elite college can seem like the only way to protect him or her from the perils of a ferocious world. The meritocratic success of your child acts as a measure of your own parental worth. Pride in your children and hope for their future mixes with a powerful sense of dread: the nightmarish sense that the economy has come to resemble some baroque game of musical chairs and there just might not be enough seats left for your kids. All the therapy, piano enrichment, and cheerleading may wind up giving them extra advantages (that is, unless they rebel and reject the entire project—a possibility Putnam doesn’t countenance), but the effort is tinged with panic. For as the portraits of the poor suggest, the consequences of falling out of the middle class are horrific.

Think of the Toddlers

In the opening pages of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith made an argument that might seem heretical today, at least in its particulars: The children of philosophers and those of porters, he insisted, were indistinguishable until about age seven. They played the same games and displayed identical native intelligence, and while individuals were of course different from one another, the divisions of class were not yet apparent. This basic equality of children did not start to erode until they went to school and were trained for radically different kinds of lives.

Putnam, by contrast, cites social science that suggests a child’s destiny is largely roughed out between the ages of three and four, or perhaps even earlier, and he is not alone; many liberal policy wonks see toddlerhood as the critical dividing point. (As journalist Will Boisvert has observed, this thinking underlies some of the support for universal pre-K.) By kindergarten, the minds of children have already been molded—their life chances curtailed, their futures set. In this achievement-minded scrum, seven-year-olds seem over the hill. Usually the importance of early childhood is invoked to make the case for devoting resources to education at this critical moment, which is all to the good. But it is hard, at the same time, to avoid the anxiety that lies just below the surface of this heroic mobilization of effort: If the differences of social class have been written indelibly into brain structure by the time children are learning how to read, what hope is there for undoing such hierarchies later in life?

This kind of fatalism helps to explain the weird circularity at the heart of Putnam’s analysis. He documents the wide gaps separating the opportunities available to children, but seems uninterested in explaining why American society has become so radically divided. And because his exploration of family dynamics and community cohesion lacks this deeper curiosity, it makes the problem of inequality seem even more entrenched than it needs to.

In his conclusion on “what is to be done,” Putnam runs through a variety of public policy strategies, such as giving poor families a little extra cash (even $3,000 a year could lessen the caustic stress that damages developing brains) and providing “professional coaching” to poor parents. But what really infuriates him are the school districts that now charge students to participate in extracurricular activities. Studies seem to show that a student’s interest in extracurricular pursuits is correlated with success later in life. That may be due to the mentoring that comes along with them, the “soft skills” they help to develop, or the more mundane, competitive-minded overlap between kids who go out for the teams and those who go on to college. In the golden age, high schools ran clubs and teams that were open to all free of charge, and teenagers—who in Port Clinton, at least, were never, ever disaffected—lined up to join. Today, a place on the band or the football team can cost $300 to $400 a year, to say nothing of the time and money devoted to the music lessons or youth rec leagues that are the necessary foundation for these school-sanctioned activities.

Putnam sees the fee-gouging of extracurricular pursuits as a woeful sign that schools have turned away from their mission of communal uplift, allowing the incalculable benefits of debate competitions and swim meets to be meted out by class. “Close this book,” he admonishes, “visit your school superintendent—better yet, take a friend with you—and ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy.” But while he is right that there’s something repellent about schools charging for such activities—a practice that surely has grown more common as school budgets have been cut back, although Putnam suggests that school finance has not contributed much to the class divide—the emotion seems misplaced. The real economic segregation comes with the $40,000 price tag for elite universities. Why stop with the chess club: why not make the case for free college tuition? Why not take a friend and go down to the state capitol and talk about that?

It’s hard to imagine that the real cause of social mobility in midcentury Port Clinton was the Friday night football games or even the number of words parents imparted to the fungible brainpans of their toddlers. It seems more likely that the “full employment and strong unions” that Putnam mentions in passing made possible the more equal society and community that he longs for now. But instead of saying anything about how one might imagine more egalitarian economic institutions, Putnam focuses on families, parents, communities, and schools. His sentimentality hides a deeper pessimism: the grownups are a lost cause, so rally around the kids.

Just as the Moynihan Report would ultimately become part of the conservative onslaught on the welfare state, Putnam’s work could well be used to attack its last vestiges. His focus on “our kids,” after all, has a long political pedigree. In a 1987 interview, Margaret Thatcher famously said (criticizing those loafers who would blame “society” for their problems), “There is no such thing as society.” Less well known is the second part of her thought: “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Even as she denied the existence of the entire social world, Thatcher had to allow for the family—the last institution that keeps people from being completely atomistic.

Although Putnam’s communitarianism distinguishes him from Thatcher, one can see the lineaments of the same basic worldview in his thought. Social structures have vanished, leaving only individuals whose brain development is the source of all things. Families (parents, really) are the ones who shape these tender brains, which means that the family is the one social institution that matters, and thus represents the only real way to affect the future. Children—innocent, vulnerable, malleable human beings for whom we must assume collective responsibility—are the only legitimate targets of public policy. But this accent on children hides a deep and lingering sense of inevitable failure. Although Putnam’s book concludes by encouraging the well-off to recall their common responsibility to the poor and to have a “bias for action” to mitigate the “opportunity gap,” implicit in the argument is the fear that the children of the poor will never, no matter how we try to help them, be able to catch up with those of the wealthy.

Fortunately, though, the reality might be the inverse of what Putnam suggests. What if we started with the assumption that families are embedded in a culture that shapes how parents and children interact, or with the recognition that the lives parents can provide their children will be guided by the place of the parents in this broader social world? Of course the sharp class divides of our contemporary scene affect children and parents, neighborhoods, and schools—but for affluent and poor families alike, these little societies cannot be separated from the larger context, which weighs on them and determines what they become. Both the families of the poor and the families of the middle class must contend with the shrinking opportunities our society offers. There’s no real way to protect children from the society they live in, which influences them as deeply as it did their parents from their earliest days. No amount of stoking the young to run the race faster than the rest can save them. In the end, the only way to help “our kids” is to try to create a world worthy of them and of the hope and possibility they contain: one in which we’d be happy, and not only anxious, to have them grow up.