Being a spiritual (as opposed to “religious”) person, I do so recognize and admire how circumstances create a convergence of serendipity in daily life. In this case, the fact that I work with at-risk teens, recent news items, and contemporary social issues have merged to create a ready-made focus of observation, specifically with regards to the American family as a functional institution.
Every day, I witness first-hand the effects of the disintegration of the nurturing nature of the American family through the behavior of (the) children. Sadly, the dysfunction of today’s youth, characterized by substance abuse, criminal activity, and teenage parenthood, has become more of the socially pathological norm—especially during the last quarter century. The reasons for this growing breakdown in the traditional American family’s function to nurture each other has many socioeconomic causes, both valid and speculative. However, even as shifting socioeconomic forces have indirectly affected changes within the traditional family’s structure to weaken it, shifting roles of the individual family units—that is men, women, and children—are most directly at fault. Consider how each member’s role in the traditional family have caused its disintegration from within:
Perhaps no individual unit within the traditional family unit—at its overall expense—has benefited most from (the) shifting roles than women. According to the most recent observations, women have been steadily outpacing men in many areas of modern society. Last month for example, it was revealed for the first time that more men than women are earning PhDs (granted me still dominate being awarded doctoral degrees in the hard sciences such as mathematics and computer science, the rate of representation for women in most other disciplines has grown to surpass that of men). In the African-American community, this growing gender gap in education is even more pronounced.
Similarly, the wage gap—the earning of dollars for the same work performed—between women and men has also begun to shrink (although women still age behind in dollar-for-dollar earning). This is due in part to the erosion of once male-dominated jobs (such as construction-related labor) during the current recession. And given the previously ongoing trend in rising female representation in traditionally male-dominated fields, the effect is that women now are increasingly earning more money than their husbands in many instances (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33196583/ns/business-careers/). In other instances, women are the sole breadwinners in many families in the wake of the current recession. Combine these gains with the other widely-known gains for women in the fields of politics, economics, and society as a whole over the last generation and you have the basis for what is the current status quo in America—a society in which traditionally-held values—the same traditionally-held values which helped to make the traditional family unit’s cohesion the basis for America’s rise as the sole global superpower—have become feminized.
We needn’t look further than our television sets to see this shifting dynamic in the family unit in action. Long gone are the days where the image of the traditional father figure in the American family was depicted as the sometimes stern, but still loving and sensible head of the family unit. Today on most television sitcoms, the father/man is typically portrayed as a bumbling oaf displaying more lack-of-wit than common sense, while the mother/woman is contrarily rendered as the intelligent soul of tact and all things sensible (e.g., Tim Taylor from the ABC’s “Home Improvement” or Homer Simpson from FOX’s “The Simpsons”). This is a role-reversal that was hardly reciprocated in previous times; even when women were depicted as the doting stay-at-home, stand-by-her-man helpmate, she was not so caricaturized as the male is now (with the possible exception of Lucy Ricardo’s character from the syndicated “I Love Lucy” show). This depiction of new family roles has transcended the family unit and infected society on a wholesale level (view the video “Bill Maher on Feminism” below).
What can be said about the poor American male? Without a doubt, men have been the biggest individual losers insofar as the disintegration of the American family. Between the rise in the overall influence of women throughout every aspect of society, the decimation of his earning potential by trending and current economic forces, and his own intractable nature to avoid changing with the times and/or to embrace irresponsibility with regards to the family, the modern man in America has all-but become emasculated. This observation was validated in the September 20th edition of Newsweek magazine. In the article “Men’s Lib,” writer Andrew Romano asserts (to his and most men’s regret) that the American male has resisted the same socioeconomic makeovers that women have undergone, resulting in his sliding reduction to second-class citizenship both within the family and in society (http://www.newsweek.com/2010/09/20/why-we-need-to-reimagine-masculinity.print.html).
Women for their part have quickly taken to the (new) role of head of household…in some families because she’s had to due to the absence of males/fathers, while in others because the rise in female influence in society has translated into her increased influence within the family unit. In many families, especially in those made up of common-law arrangements and those among the working class, women have become emboldened enough to use her newfound strength of authority to challenge men living under the same roof rather than support him. Needless to say, men who have already had their egos crushed by the unforgiving shifting in economic and employment trends, find themselves on the verge of “bitchhood.” And men feel the sting of this new reality.
Writer Hanna Rosin illustrates this seething resentment among men in her eye-raising article, “The End of Men” in the July/August edition The Atlantic Monthly (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/8135/). In the article, Rosin recounts one particular day in the weekly gathering of a class for delinquent (and unemployed) fathers in Kansas City. Lead by social worker and teacher Mustafaa El-Scari, he recounts that
Like them [his students]…he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical “white picket fence”—one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. “Well, that check bounced a long time ago,” he says. “Let’s see,” he continues, reading from a worksheet. What are the four kinds of paternal authority? Moral, emotional, social, and physical. “But you ain’t none of those in that house. All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911. How does that make you feel? You’re supposed to be the authority, and she says, ‘Get out of the house, bitch.’ She’s calling you ‘bitch’!”
The result is a new norm comprised of disjointed compromise and misunderstanding in both potential and actual relationships between men and women (Comedian Dave Chappelle lampoons this misunderstanding between men and women below).
The verdict for children within the modern American family is mixed. In many families, children no longer have the structure or close supervision they once had due in part to the upheaval among parents and their shifting roles within the family unit. The result is a rising trend in juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and poor academic performance in school that many erroneously attribute to “bad schools/teachers” (the real culprit with regards to the latter issue is the lack of direct parental involvement in many children’ education).
And of course it doesn’t help that New Age/Liberal thinking on issues such as punishment vs. spankings vs. vocal admonishment have taken away a parent’s right to intervene in the lives of their own children in order to ensure proper behavior. In fact, this new wave of thinking on rearing children has emboldened children to challenge their own parents—creating a sense of anxiety in them—in how they are to be punished for doing wrong. Many are the instances where I have heard children threaten their parents with police intervention for daring to spank them. As a result, virtually everything we could potentially do to our children now a days to correct their behavior is considered a virtual “abuse.” We’ve given children the same rights and privileges as adults, which is a serious mistake considering that many lack impulse control or the wisdom of foresight to anticipate consequences. We’ve made children our friends instead of our charges (Comedian Chris Rock’s mother, who has successfully raised 10 children including Chris himself, offers up her take on being an old-fashioned “strict” mother on National Public Radio’s program Tell Me More. Click on the link to listen: (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=125344896&m=125344887)
In addition, the late comedian Bernie Mac lampoons how he deals with unruly children, in a performance (from 2000's Kings of Comedy) which brings back memories of Old School discipline (below).
Changing roles due in part to economic forces have disrupted the functionality of the American family. Women have become the heads of households in many families, which has caused resentment among men, who cannot reconcile their new roles as financial and influential subordinate. And among the segment of men who seem destined for chronic absenteeism and irresponsibility, their actions only serve to reinforce to women that men are growing incapable of assuming (or rather resuming) the role of family head and contributing breadwinner he once was.
For their part, too many women have taken to their new roles a little too readily, as their attitudes reflect an inability to compromise with the men in their lives, as if they are all that matters within the family unit. This creates a source of disharmony within the family, which results in rampant number of breakups and single parent-led households.
At the same time, our children have seemingly developed a crippling sense of direction. Although not an epidemic (yet), they have taken to engaging in sex, drugs, and crime seeming to pass the time. Their lack of structure and discipline has affected their schoolwork, and with working mothers being the only parental force in many families, they act out with both impunity and alack of appreciation for authority.
Men need to broaden their horizons and consider making themselves open to new professions which would aid in their getting their groove back (so to speak). Employers have to be as open and willing to accepting men in traditionally female roles as readily as they have women who have done the same with traditionally males professions. Men also need to develop some sense of responsibility from within to regain the respect of women.
The welfare of children needs to be the primary focus for any family, not just paying the bills. As women become career seekers in their quest to “have it all,” their absence as nurturing mothers in the home has a profound effect on both children in need of structure in order to help keep them out of trouble, and men who would need their emotional support in these harsh economic times (children are not the equal of adults and therefore do not merit the same protections, at least from their own good-intentioned parents).
Women need to learn to not to be so touchy when it comes to sharing influence within the family. To a traditional man, no amount of money she earns will make her the head of the household; the best she can hope for is a co-chair position within the family. If influence is shared, and respect is mutual, then the family can regain its role as the nurturing unit it has been in times past.