Close window  |  View original article

The Government's War Against Families

Government hurts families too much to be merely accidental.

By Will Offensicht  |  September 9, 2011

After the London riots, Allison Pearson in the London Telegraph asked:

Where are the parents? ... The adults are afraid and the children, emboldened by adult timidity, are fearless.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that of the 74 million Americans under 18, 20 million, or 27%, live in single-parent homes.  More than a quarter million live in government-managed foster homes.  In times past, these children would have been cared for by relatives or by neighbors instead of becoming the responsibility of the government.

The Telegraph is right to ask why parents didn't keep their children from rioting.  After all, the last decades have demonstrated that government simply can't raise children to be productive adults.  On the average, only parents can do that.  We not only know this, we now know why.

The Telegraph is correct in pointing out that adults have become afraid of children, but that's in large part because government programs starting decades ago made it impossible for parents to control their children.  Never having been controlled by anyone, the rioters were unable to control their impulses to live it up, run with the crowd, and have a good time at someone else's expense.

Why are Western families no longer able to constrain young people or teach them responsibility, something that hasn't been a problem for the prior six thousand years of recorded human history?

The Destruction of Families and the End of Duty

In former times, most adult behavior relating to spouse or children was based on duty.  You didn't have to like what you had to do, but you did it anyway simply because it had to be done and you were the one who had to do it.

Any sense of duty to families has pretty much gone now.  The thought of people exerting great effort to care for one another or doing things they dislike simply because they're necessary has passed out of fashion.

A number of government actions have specifically led to the destruction of families and the death of duty.

No-Fault Divorce

Government once supported marriage by making a marriage commitment difficult to end.  Until California became the first state to offer no-fault divorce in the 1970's, divorce was rarely granted and only when one party or the other would accept blame.  This forced some couples to stay together when they really didn't get along well.

Nobody wants to be stuck in an unhappy marriage, but scientific studies show that children are better off in an unhappy natural marriage of their biological parents than in a family of any other form.  If you're stuck, you'll make stronger efforts to put things right, or at least make them livable.  With no-fault divorce, it's easier to get out of being married than to get out of paying for an appliance, so why bother making a marriage work?  Families fall apart and the children pay the price.

Two-Income Families

Some years ago, the government forced banks to include a wife's income when determining the maximum home mortgage to be offered to a couple.  This gave the relatively few two-income couples of the day an advantage in being able to buy more expensive homes or being able to outbid single-earner families for desirable homes of any size.

Permitting bigger mortgages had the easily-anticipated consequence of making homes more expensive.  It soon became impossible for most single-earner families to buy homes; if they hoped ever to buy a house, the wife had to work whether she wanted to or not.  As women poured into the workplace, the increased labor supply depressed men's wages, making it even harder to live on one income.

Two-income families whose debts are sized to both incomes have no reserve.  If either party gets sick, income drops below maintenance levels.  In the old days, the wife could go to work for a while if the husband was ill.  This provided a bit of slack, which is now gone.

Making it necessary for wives to work greatly reduced the time available for interaction with children.  In recent years, the "quality time" mantra was put forth to ease parents' consciences - it was OK not to spend much time with your child if gave high-quality time.  This isn't totally false - children benefit from quality time with parents - but they need quality time in quantity.

The time mothers spend working has to come from somewhere, and it usually reduces the time spent helping children with homework, encouraging them to excel, teaching right from wrong, and a host of other lessons which used to be imparted by parents.  Fathers don't have time to do it either because they're both working.

A neighborhood of child-rearing mothers helped limit the worst periods of stress.  If a mother had a sudden emergency, she could usually send her kids down the block to play with a neighbor for a few hours.  She'd reciprocate in her turn, of course, but having friends who'd provide short-term help was a great benefit.  Now that most mothers are working, a mother who tries to raise her own children stands more or less alone.   

Department of Children, Youth and Families hard at work.

Child Protection

Parental overload has been made worse by child protection agencies.  Every state has a child protection agency which was set up in response to the offer of substantial federal funding.  These agencies seek to justify increased budgets and increased federal funding by involving more and more families in their system.

There's no need to repeat what we've said about government's inability to raise children effectively.  Let's consider just one aspect of the child protection apparatus - turning doctors and other professionals into "mandatory reporters."  A doctor, teacher, policeman, or other professional can get in big trouble for not reporting something that might be abuse.

This attitude was put into words a long time ago:

A doctor should think of abuse every time he sees an injured child. Ruth and Henry Kempe, Child Abuse, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 66

Doctors have been warned over and over that they must probe for signs of abuse at all times no matter how good the family looks.  What is that attitude going to do to the relationship between parents and medical professionals?  Are parents going to be open with doctors?  Not if they're afraid the doctor will call the government goons to come and steal their kids.

Making parents feel wary in dealing with the "helping professions" increases the psychological burdens parents face and makes it harder for them to pour emotional energy into their children.  Poisoning the interaction between parents and professionals doesn't help societal efforts to raise children to productive adulthood.  How can parents cooperate with doctors, teachers, and others if they're afraid of being ratted out?

Attack on Parental Control

One of the most vehement social engineering efforts of the so-called progressives has been their attack on spanking.  These are quotes from "Child Abuse" by Ruth and Henry Kempe, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1978.  The Kempes have been widely read among social workers and their views have shaped popular views of how government should limit parents' authority.

Parents, teachers, and ministers alike have believed that the only cure for the "foolishness bound up in the heart of a child" was repression by the rod, and "beating the devil out of him" is still a common expression today.  p 4

But values are clearly changing.  The same act that might have met with applause from clergymen one hundred years ago must be referred to the authorities for criminal justice today.  p 6  [emphasis added]

There is a group [of abusive parents] amounting to perhaps 10 percent of the total, who are seriously mentally ill--too seriously, in fact, for any treatment to be possible.  For these, there is only one alternative--to end the caregiving relationship by placing the child with relatives or in permanent foster care, or by formally terminating parental rights, to be followed by adoption. This 10 percent is made up of 4 groups...  p 68

A final 2 or 3 percent who are seriously mentally ill are the "fanatics."  This group includes a great variety of people who use religious or other terms to justify beliefs and approaches to child rearing that to the rest of the world seem clearly and wholly irrational. p 69

We recommend early termination of parental rights, instead of prolonged effort at treatment, when parents are members of one of the four groups described in Chapter 6.  p 104

In other words, the Kempes recommended that government take children permanently from parents who insist on spanking.

Although the laws in most states permit parents to spank their children, social workers are able to drag parents through extremely expensive court proceedings whether the parents are abusive or not.  Word has got round, and many parents are afraid to discipline their children.  Knowing that they can't be disciplined, children act on their most primal motivations.  After all, they've been told, "If it feels good, do it!"

I have a 64 year old friend who was walking through a supermarket when a 6-year old stuck his leg straight out and tripped her.  She went right over his leg and fell flat.  The mother said nothing, but grabbed her child and ran off.  There was nothing anyone could say - everyone knew that the government could and would attack anyone who attempted to correct the child, even though the child had perpetrated what amounts to attempted murder, elderly women being famously fragile.

Progressive Education

One idea behind progressive education is that humans are social animals who learn best in socially-rich settings.  Instead of drill, therefore, teachers are supposed to create lifelike situations so that children can learn by doing.  John Dewey, the father of modern progressive education, believed that teachers should concentrate on socialization and self-actualization more than learning any specific facts in particular.

Teachers were happy to support the change because self-actualization and building self-esteem is so much less work than actually imparting knowledge.  Self-esteem requires only that teachers tell kids they're wonderful and promote them every year whether they do the work or not.  What's hard about that?

Laws which stated that people had to graduate from government-certified teachers colleges in order to teach in public schools cemented the progressive's control of the entire educational system.

Once they took up the "social engineering" cause, teachers ridiculed students whose parents' beliefs differed from theirs.  They did not realize that by undermining parental authority, they undermined all authority in their students' eyes, even theirs.  Our modern youth acknowledge no authority, not their parents, not their teachers, not the police, not even their own.  Never having heard an enforceable "No!" from anyone, how can they say "Just say no!" to drugs or to any other temptation?

Teacher's Unions

Teachers' unions make it impossible to get rid of incompetent teachers.  One of the most important reasons for the success of charter schools is that management is free to fire teachers who won't or can't perform.

Union leaders complain that we ought to treat American teachers like professionals as in other countries.  The trouble is, American teachers don't act like professionals because they won't accept responsibility for getting the job done.  In some countries, each parent gets one vote for every child in a class.  If the teacher doesn't get at least an 80% positive vote each year, the teacher's gone, no questions asked.

Instead of respecting parental judgment, American teachers claim that parents can't even be trusted to tell the difference between a good school and a bad school.  Public schools are required by law, free to consumers, and are losing market share.  What's wrong with this picture?  Could it be that whenever schools lose kids to home schooling, private schools, or anything else, the educrats often accuse parents of "educational neglect" and to go court to force their kids back into the system?  Is it a good idea to convince parents that the teachers and social workers are the embodiment of evil?

The Educational Disconnect

Successful schools make stressful demands on their staff because they try to impart knowledge instead of boosting self-esteem.  Part of the reason that imparting knowledge has become so much more stressful than in the past is that teachers don't get as much help from parents as they used to.  The Wall Street Journal visited one of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools in upper Manhattan.

Keeping performance high was a never-ending job.  After visiting a class that seemed to be running smoothly, the principal pointed out a number of small-seeming deficiencies in what was going on in the class.

"Making all those things work is the job," he [the principal] continued. "It's exhausting, and it's not exciting, but it's what you have to do."

Super teachers are rare and tend to burn out rapidly.

"I feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and underpaid," a teacher told me one morning at one of the Success Charter Network schools in Harlem. Like KIPP, these are schools whose students consistently top the charts in achievement scores, often testing at or above the level of students in affluent nearby suburbs.

"I work from 7:30 to 5:30 in the building and then go home and work some more," the teacher told me. "I get disrespectful pushback from parents all the time when I try to give their kids consequences. I get feedback from my [supervisors], who demand that I change five or six things by the next day. I think we are doing a great job, so I keep at it. But there is no way I can do this beyond another year or two."  [emphasis added]

Back in the day, most teachers didn't do the job for more than a few years: they got married, had kids of their own, quit working, and stayed home.  School boards wouldn't hire a teacher who had kids.  This made sense - there's only so much emotional energy available from each person.  The more emotion a woman pours into her own kids, the less she has for teaching, and vice versa.

Assuming that our politicians break the union stranglehold and get rid of truly incompetent teachers, getting American education back on track would still require retraining and re-motivating 3.3 million teachers in public schools.

How, then, do the educational systems in other countries get so much better results?  Mostly because teachers don't labor alone.  In most countries, parents provide a great deal more supervision, encouragement, feedback, and quality control than American parents do.  Having parents laboring on the same page makes the job a lot easier for teachers.

The Journal quoted another high-performing teacher who had to get off the treadmill during one of her rare trips to the gym to spend a half hour "arguing with a parent who thought I was being too hard on her daughter for not completing her writing assignment."  Having parents criticize teachers for assigning extra work due to non-performance is unheard-of overseas.  What's the effect on a child whose parents are so vocal about their belief that the school is assigning too much work?

Encouraging the Laggards?  Or Patronizing Them?

Another reason for better academic performance overseas is that other countries permit school authorities to administer corporal punishment for infractions in addition to holding back students who shouldn't pass.  This is like nuclear deterrence - it doesn't happen often, partly because kids know the school can spank and can hold back.  That used to be the case in the US - every student, every teacher, and every parent knew this government-approved song from 1907:

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick

It was well understood that learning often had to be enhanced by applying the board of education vigorously to the seat of learning, repeat as needed.  Being forbidden to punish their own kids makes it hard for parents to support teachers who want to impose extra work, but without unpleasant consequences for failure, how can kids learn to excel?

The problem is that learning and mastering the material become pleasurable for most people, but it generally takes considerable encouragement for each student to learn enough to get to the point that further learning is fun.  There simply isn't any way to make learning the multiplication tables fun - it's a pure drag.  No classroom teacher has enough time to make sure that each student learns the multiplication tables.  That's a job which must be done by parents or it doesn't happen at all.

There is pleasure in knowing, but many students need a lot of encouragement to learn enough to find pleasure in learning.  Pain is one of the best motivators around.  The faster a student learns enough to take off based on love of learning, the better for everyone, but there's simply no mechanism to encourage students in most American schools - honoring excellent performance would harm the others' self-esteem.


Welfare destroys families because married women are eligible for much less money than single mothers.  Welfare offers financial incentives for women to bear children without any attachment to their fathers or any ability to raise them.

Not only that, welfare removes from the poor the spur of their poverty.  Why work when you don't have to?

Children who grow up in single-parent welfare homes tend to see welfare as the only viable career; why should they care about learning?  It doesn't take any education to collect a welfare check and pop out another generation of illegitimate babies.  Anything else is a lot more work, so why bother?

Welfare mothers are even more under threat by social workers than working families.  As President Ford observed,

A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.

In the case of welfare families, the government really does give them literally everything they need.  They don't own anything - everything they have can be taken away at the stroke of the pen of an irritated or vengeful bureaucrat.  Working families at least have a source of money that doesn't come directly from the hand of government.

Three Times is Enemy Action

We are all used to governmental incompetence; for government to harm families through unintended consequences or well-meaning misadventures is no surprise.  When we see this full-court-press destruction of families on all fronts, socially, economically, politically, legally, and societally, it's hard not to think that it's being done on purpose.

Unfortunately, as government has offered more and more programs which allow people to void their duty to support themselves, more and more people have learned to be irresponsible, to ignore their children, and try to get by on someone else's effort.  To quote Ronald Reagan:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.  [emphasis added]

A smaller government will not merely be cheaper, not merely increase individual liberty, not merely reduce the pettifogging bureaucracy that is crushing business and employment.  It will also reduce the destructive power wielded against families which, as the Founders well knew, are the foundation of any society.

If we don't, if we let our children grow up with no sense of responsibility or duty, what will happen in our inner cities will make the London riots look like a tea party.