The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads
Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com Auditorium, Cornel West. We are pleased you could take this time to discuss THE WAR AGAINST PARENTS with us this evening. Do you have any opening comments for the online audience?
Cornel West: Simply that we are delighted to be here, and we think that the silent undeclared war on the precious act of caring, nurturing, and loving others exemplified in parenting is a very real issue at this time in this nation.
Moderator: Welcome, Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Thanks for joining us this evening to discuss THE WAR AGAINST PARENTS. How are you this evening?
SH: I'm good, thank you.
Jennifer from New York City: Why do you think America's parents are more "beleaguered" now than they ever were?
CW: Well, one is because we have got the high level of wealth and income inequality that results in parents being more overworked and underpaid than 30 or 40 years ago. Second, that the government provides fewer supports to help parents come through for their children, so that tax burdens, the financial weight of mortgage and rent, and the onslaught of television, film, and video make it more difficult for parents to come through for their kids.
SH: What we describe in the book is a war with several kinds of attack, which have become more intense in recent years. For example, there are more families in poverty than ever before, wages for young men have fallen quite rapidly, and on the cultural front, movies, TV, and even pop music often target parents as either incompetent or evil. Just think of "Home Alone" or "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Although those two movies seem innocuous enough, they nevertheless send the message that parents are stupid and can be outsmarted by most nine-year-olds. Compare this to sitcoms and movies in the 1950s and 1960s where parents were seen as wise, loving, and effective.
Daniel from Houston, TX: Do you really think the problems plaguing black America and white America are so similar that they can be fairly addressed in one book?
CW: Well, one, it's a good question. The kind of policy Sylvia and I promote would surely uplift and empower and ennoble parents, especially working and poor parents across the racial divide, yet certainly, the presence of subtle and not-so-subtle racism would still affect parents of color. To improve the quality of parenting would improve the quality of life in communities of all colors, though lingering racism still challenges us.
SH: Very interesting question. In some ways the problems in the black community have always foreshadowed problems that we find facing us just down the road. For instance, when out-of-wedlock births started to skyrocket in the black community in the late '60s and '70s, we though somehow it was a new and separate trend line. It is now happening in mainstream America. Last year 26 percent of births in the white population were out of wedlock. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we do share similar problems, it's just that these problems are more exaggerated in black or brown America. One thing I would like to stress is that in this book we talk about values as much as social policies because what we are trying to achieve is more durable marriages and stronger families that will be able to do a much better job by their kids. And as you and I know, weak family structures and out-of-control kids are as typical for the vanilla suburbs as the chocolate cities these days.
M. D. King from St. Louis, MO: Would this book be considered liberal, conservative, or neutral?
SH: Well, a good thing about this book is that it doesn't belong to any ideological camp. What we are saying is that parents share a great deal of common ground. They are passionately involved with their children and desperately want to come through for them. What we hope to do with this book is enable communities around the nation and individual adults across the nation to find it easier to put children in the center of life.
Heather from Port Washington, NY: How do you think the children in the recent rash of school shootings should be handled? Do you think they should be tried as adults for committing these crimes?
CW: No, I don't believe that the children should be tried as adults under any circumstances. Though there's no doubt that they need special attention.
Monica from Brooklyn, NY: I've just received your book and have begun reading it -- it's interesting, because the beginning, although it speaks to the point of the book as a whole, is almost memoir. What was it like to write this section? What made you include personal examples?
SH: That's a fascinating question because that first chapter, the one about our lives, was the last chapter we wrote and by far the most difficult. You see, when we had almost finished the book, we realized that there was a danger that we would come off as some kind of expert team that somehow had escaped these problems, so we decided to put in our stories, particularly our own struggles to be a good mom and a good dad in this parent-hurting society. It was in fact very hard to revisit some of that pain and share it with the readers of this book, but I think it makes us more real as we bear witness to the difficult struggles of parents.
Erin from Chicago, IL: Although you coauthored JEWS AND BLACKS, I see that one of your two examples of "escape routes" for dads is the Nation of Islam. With all of the controversy surrounding Farrakhan, who continues to make bigoted comments against Jews, don't you think you could have found a more healing group to seek out as an example of unity and strength?
CW: Well, one, neither Promise Keepers nor Nation of Islam were chosen for their healing. Both groups were chosen because they are significant movements in which parental energies are emphasized and stressed. Both groups have major shortcomings. Our challenge is to channel these parental energies into more democratic practices.
Ellen from Evanston, IL: How did you two come together?
CW: We worked on the book for nearly four years, because of our deep concern about the quality of life for children as well as parents in this community.
SH: Cornel and I met in the summer of 1992, when Bill Bradley and Bill Bennett brought together a group of scholars and activists to try and figure our why families were so fragile and communities so hollowed out. The group disintegrated after its first set of meetings but Cornel and I continued to work together, because we found that we wanted to find a way of talking about both economic insecurity and values. As you know, these two issues are generally talked about in different ideological camps. We wanted to put them together. We then went on to set up a task force on parent empowerment, which spent three years taking testimony from parents across the country, and, obviously, we went on to write this book.
Kingsley from Bennington, VT: I found it interesting that you were both writing from the perspective of parents in broken homes.... Do you think that parents who are together have it easier than single parents, or is it a fundamental problem that runs deeper than the situation of the parents? Also, do you think that these societal stresses are adding to the breakup rate for parents?
CW: The problem certainly runs deeper than the divide between single parents and two parents. Yet, we do believe that children are better off in loving two-parent families, as opposed to loving one-parent families, primarily because two sources of affirmation is better than one. Yet, there are many heroic one-parent families in this country whose valor is unsung. As to the second question, very much so.
SH: Very good question, and I guess I have two answers to the different parts of the question. In a way the book was written from the perspective of complicated family lives. I'm not sure I would use the word "broken." I have a 21-year-old marriage, and all of my four children were born in this marriage -- which is a good one. However, I do have a stepdaughter from my husband's first marriage -- a relationship that has been richly rewarding but has presented many challenges over the years. Cornel has one son who was born in his first marriage, and for much of the last 20 years, Cornel has dealt with being a noncustodial dad, with all of the special difficulties of that situation. He has, however, managed to create an extremely strong relationship with his son. The reason I describe our family situation in detail is that many Americans are affected by divorce and remarriage. This tends to be a very common set of challenges in the late '90s. In our recommendations at the end of the book, we do have some fresh ideas as to a) how to strengthen marriage and b) how to make divorce less painful for children. In part, these recommendations reflect our analysis, but also our personal experience.
With regard to your second question, we do think that the very stressful conditions around parenting -- the economic insecurities, the lack of any social support -- make it much harder to maintain stable, loving marriages. For example, some new work in California shows that the seeds of divorce are often planted in the very first weeks of life, as parents deal with the extraordinary strains of a newborn when they have no right to paid parenting leave and in may case no right to medical coverage. This is why we see policy measures such as paid parenting leaves for both moms and dads as a necessary part of creating stronger families.
Stacy from Newark, NJ: How do you distinguish between gangsta rap glamorizing violence and misogyny and simply portraying the world that the rappers see? Is it fair to silence an accurate portrayal of a specific world?
CW: Well, one, gangster rap consists of a number of different voices -- some less misogynist than others. The best of gangster rap, as in the work of the late Tupac Shakur, constitutes a form of truth-telling that includes ugly elements but also challenges us. The worst of gangster rap is nothing but machismo identities that pose and posture.
Tara from Florida: You met through William Bennett. What do you think of his definition of morality and "family values."
CW: I think Bill Bennett's conception of virtue and morality is too narrow. The precious qualities of decency, honesty, dignity, and respect are accented in his text, but he tends to downplay the broader scope of social justice and economic equality that I promote.
SH: The reason that's such a good question is that some of our conservative leaders, and obviously Bennett is an example, have done a very find job in showing how families play an essential role in shaping the soul of a child -- the value system, the ethics. Liberal politicians, on the other hand, have tended to stress economic and social issues. What we tried to do in this book is put together the social supports that we really do need to have in place so that parents really find time to spend with their kids and the values framework, which give enormous weight to the character-building questions that Bennett talks about so well. Clearly you need both elements, if you are going to create strong parents and well-developed children.
Chris from Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Do you think that American moms have it worse than American dads?
CW: Well, that's a good question. I think both are in trouble. On the economic front, male wages have decreased more rapidly than female wages, yet female wages still constitute only 74 percent of male wages. In fact, they have increased in part because the male wages have decreased. So, working families and working parents still face an uphill battle, especially given the managerial greed that now runs amok in our society.
SH: That's a critical question, especially given the emphasis of our book. You might not be aware of it, but two full chapters of this book are devoted to the special struggles of dads, because we feel that our policies and culture are especially onerous for fathers. For example, we talk about the demonization of deadbeat dads. Now, obviously we feel that fathers should support their children, but when we go after deadbeat dads, we seem to forget that 38 percent of absentee fathers have no right to see their kids -- no custody, no visitation rights. It clearly goes against common sense to expect parents who have no right to see their children to pay up every month. The sensible thing to do is to create policies that emphasize loving contact between fathers and their children, and then the support would flow much more readily. We also talk about the culture. Obviously movies such as "Thelma and Louise" and "Waiting to Exhale" give the idea that men are totally expendable -- and irrelevant to modern family life. All of this can be very undermining for fathers.
Jen from Madison, WI: I see that Bill Bradley endorsed your book. Would you endorse his candidacy for the office of the President of the United States?
CW: Bill Bradley is my friend, comrade, and brother. He is a person of great integrity and character. He is an experimental liberal. I am a radical democrat. This means we have deep agreements and some disagreements. As to whether he would make a great President, I have no doubt, especially if radical democrats like myself keep loving and democratic pressure on him.
SH: It's a little hard to be definitive on my choice for the next Presidential election, since we are not quite sure what the lineup is yet. But I certainly have a great deal of respect for Bill Bradley, who I think is an enormously thoughtful man. I particularly admire the way in which the values displayed in his private life are as solid as those he talks about in public. In the very recent past, he as seen his wife through a debilitating illness, remaining an extremely hands-on, loving parent.
Gretchen from Boston, MA: It seems that every politician preaches "family values" without ever going into the depth that your book demands. What is the difference between this phrase, with which we are all too familiar, and the approach to family that you advocate in this book?
CW: One, "family values" has been used oftentimes as a rather empty rhetorical device. We attempt to examine closely the everyday experiences of parents and families. Our national survey of parents is the first attempt to find out what parents want. They wanted two things: more time for their children, and less economic insecurity. Any serious talk about family values must come to terms with the need for paid, job-protected, parental leave and a decent and livable wage for working parents.
Jane from Bethel, CT: Does your book speak to people who have ended up not having families? People who are concerned but have no children?
CW: Very much so. That we understand parenting as an act of caring and nurturing, hence all of us care, nurture, and love others. In addition, the quality of life for children affects each and every one of us, whether we have our own biological children or not. And, since children are 100 percent of our future, their behavior, aspirations, and hopes effect us all.
Jacquelyne from San Mateo, CA: In your book you call for the organization of parents in the form of a group similar to the AARP. To your knowledge, has anyone begun to do this? If so, would you provide the information?
CW: Yes, the National Parenting Association, founded by Sylvia Hewlett, is a major attempt to do this. The number is 1-800-709-8795, and we would welcome your interest. I am a member of the board.
Elana from South Orange, NJ: What exactly is the National Parenting Association?
SH: It's a nationwide group that is attempting to give a voice to parents in the public square. In other words, we are spending a lot of time listening to parents, finding out what kinds of policies would help them most as moms and dads. Much of what our research has come up with is actually in this book. Parents want all kinds of things, ranging from concrete support (paid parenting leave is a good example) to symbolic help (priority seating on buses. priority parking in malls are good examples).
Roger from St. Louis, MO: I don't mean this to sound extremist, but when you look at history, as the discrepancy between classes grows, a revolution usually occurs. Do you think that this country is gearing up for a revolution?
CW: Well, it all depends on what one means by a revolution. I do not believe that we are anywhere near a violent revolution. If we mean a revolution in values, attitude, orientation, that can produce a more egalitarian and free society, then, in fact, this revolution in values is necessary. This is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. was calling for.
Harry from Wichita, KS: At the beginning of this book, you write that, although your backgrounds are on the surface different, they are laced with strong similarities, given the time period and existing prejudices and handicaps of the era in which you grew up. Do you think that, if you were both raised by the same parents today, you would still be on an even plane?
CW: That's a tough question. I think both of us were blessed with indescribably loving parents. Such parents always make a big difference in one's life, no matter when or where one is. Whether we would end up on the same plane is hard to say.
SH: Well I think the similarities we saw in the '50s as I grew up in a Welsh mining village and Cornel grew up in a segregated blue-collar community in Sacramento is that our families benefited from a wealth of community support and government policies that really did strengthen family life. For example, Cornel's parents benefited from the provisions of the G.I. Bill of rights, which gave them a 2 percent mortgage, free college education, and health insurance. This is why Cornel's mom was able to be home when he was a small child, and this is why they were able to be homeowners. In my case, my family, despite the fact they had very little in the way of material resources, did benefit from free medical care and what was called a family allowance -- a weekly stipend that was given to all families with children in Britain in the '50s. Which brings me directly to your question: Even if Cornel and I were to be growing up in the same community in the 1990s, our families would not have access to these external supports. There is no modern equivalent of the G.I. Bill, and we all know that housing costs, medical costs, and college tuition costs have become enormously onerous for most families with children.
Mary from West Philadelphia, PA: What do your children think of this book?
CW: I have one child, Clifton West, and he appreciates my honesty and views the book, like myself, as both a challenge and act of self-criticism.
Johannes from Greenwich, CT: Is your book geared toward the average American reader, or do you expect a more academic audience?
SH: It's not at all academic. The book is full of stories. We start off with the stories of our own lives, and we also sprinkle our other chapters with the voices of parents, wanting to show that this country is full of heroes -- men and women struggling valiantly to come through for their kids. One thing that is clear is that the struggle goes on in upper-middle-class circles as well as in the inner cities. We have several stories that show how professional parents wrestle with lengthening workweeks. Even when we come to our solutions, our Bill of Rights for Parents is driven by the yearnings of moms and dads across the country.
Halley from Houston, TX: What do you think is the most important immediate change that must take place for today's parents and children to begin to beat the war against them?
CW: I think flexibility at the workplace, and decent and livable wages go hand in hand as the major priority.
SH: I guess there are two things that I think of immediately -- First, we have to give new honor and dignity to the role of being a parent, and on a very small scale, making parents welcome in our public places would go some distance toward doing that. In our book we suggest simple changes like creating priority seating for parents and their small children on buses. Secondly, we need to give parents priority in our tax code and all of our public policies, recognizing that being a good parent is an enormous social blessing. We all know that when a child is neglected and goes off track, that child costs the taxpayer an enormous amount of money in damage control, whether it be prison or welfare charges. Empowering parents so they can be good parents is a sound investment. Just think of it, back in the 1950s a child was the biggest tax shelter in our nation -- the dependent deduction was at the $6,500 level in today's dollars.
Harlin from Richmond, VA: I was fascinated by your analysis of the 1950s. It's so true that we look at it as a happy time when nothing could go wrong -- without thinking that it was in large part a governmental construction. Could you talk more about this, in comparison with how things are in the U.S. today?
CW: I appreciate that question. There are so many myths about the 1950s. It is certainly true that the '50s were too racist, sexist, and homophobic, in my opinion, yet the G.I. Bill of Rights, to the tune of roughly $14 billion, provided social support for the Ozzie and Harriets that conservative politicians, like Newt Gingrich, celebrate. If Ozzie and Harriet were up against the kind of unregulated markets that the Speaker of the House promotes, they would have been beleaguered and belittled, as present-day parents are.
SH: That's a very accurate take on how we see the '50s. It's clear that in the postwar years the government did reach out and do a stellar job in buttressing family life. The G.I. Bill made a huge difference for 16 million parents and their children. Clearly things have changed enormously. The '60s, with its countercultural revolutions, made us uncomfortable with supporting marriage in our tax laws. And our social programs increasingly targeted welfare families as the only families government needed to support. What we construct in the final chapters of this book is a generous and respect-filled parent's Bill of Rights that would extend new support and new honor to parents across the board. We feel that we need to make these policies universal if they are to gain the heft that they need to turn things around. Perhaps we could almost call it a G.I. Bill for the 21st century.
Michaela from Ann Arbor, MI: It seems that people are always blaming parents for where their children "go wrong," without really tuning into who or what is responsible for making the parents go wrong in the first place. In your minds, where does it all start?
CW: We must start with personal responsibility and social accountability. One without the other gives us a distorted picture of the realities facing each and every one of us.
Lauren from Los Angeles, CA: What do you think of the furor surrounding the Boston magazine article about Henry Louis Gates called "Head Negro in Charge"?
CW: I wish that we had the kind of attention and focus on the plight of children in this society, especially poor children, that the Boston magazine article received. In short, we need to focus our energies on some concrete and crucial issues facing the disadvantaged among us.
Margo from Washington, DC: When parents are so beleaguered by the lack of real options they have and the lack of real concern or action on the part of Congress, do you really think that a book will help give them enough?
CW: Any book can only serve as a catalyst to cast the national limelight on issues that have been relatively invisible in our public conversation. No book can substitute for a movement -- organized and mobilized citizens shaping and reshaping our social life.
Leonard from Lubbock, TX: Do you think our prison system is helping to weed out "undesirables" from our society, or do you think that forcing people into jails is only making things worse?
CW: I think that permitting conditions in which people too easily lose hope provide the occasions for much, though not all, of criminal behavior. A more just society and loving families and communities would certainly reduce, though not eliminate, crime.
Philomena from Arlington, VA: Could you compare the situation for parents here in the United States to other countries? Is there a country that we should use as a model in terms of taking care of our children?
SH: Good question. What we show is that many other countries -- Canada, Australia, Italy, and France -- do a much better job in underpinning families so that they can give more time and attention to children. France is a particularly good example. This nation spends 6 percent of GNP on children under six. We spend much less than 1 percent. France does this not as some kind of handout, but in full knowledge of the fact that high-quality preschools and excellent medical care for mothers and babies yields dividends downstream. These facts are known in America, but we have a real hard time funding these programs. In our book, we create a framework that can produce new political will so that the needs of families with children are put on the front burner. For example, we show how the creation of an AARP for parents could produce the clout to finally create the social supports that other nations have.
Chris from Troy, OH: Mr. West, I am a recent graduate of Miami University and have read your book RACE MATTERS and actually had the benefit of seeing you speak when I first arrived on campus in Oxford, Ohio. I did my student teaching in an inner city school in Cincinnati and during conferences had, remarkably, only three parents show up. The racial makeup of this school is 95 percent black and 5 percent white, and the school definitely has its problems. I respect you as an authority on the black community and was wondering two things. First, how can I get parents involved in this type of setting, and secondly how does a white teacher like myself bond with a student such as this to enable me to reach him/her?
CW: Deep love, commitment, and interest in students can overcome any racial, gender, or religious barrier. This means that in respecting students and parents, one attempts to enter their world, learn about their world, and be open for them to enter your world. This kind of respectful mutuality and reciprocity creates the neccessary bonds of trust for good teaching. In addition, of course, you bring your own skills and expertise as a teacher.
Sarah from Connecticut: Do you worry that it is too late because people have become desensitized to real problems because they are so pervasive in our society?
CW: No, I believe it is never too late for democratic energies to reinvigorate our often lethargic, but still operating, democratic process.
Moderator: Thank you again for joining us, Mr. West. Do you have any closing comments you would like to make?
CW: Simply thanks to barnesandnoble.com, and to say that the wonderful questions best exemplify why the seeds of hope can still sprout in our society and culture.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Ms. Hewlett. Do you have any closing comments you would like to make?
SH: I really was immensely impressed by the breadth of the questions. It is wonderful to see the historic and ideological depths of some of the comments. Our partnership in this book -- a black man and a white woman coming together to show how to give new support and new honor to parenting -- symbolizes what we wanted to do with this book. That is to create a healing agenda, one that crosses the usual divides of race and gender, because we firmly believe that parents are passionately connected to their children, and by tapping into their desperate yearning to do a good job on this front, we can produce a movement that can pull people together in this nation.
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