Author: Nancy Pearcey

    Do kids today need their parents? Since much of their socialization takes place in school and scouts and soccer league, we sometimes get the impression children really don’t need their parents much any more. A new ideology is spreading rapidly in our culture that stresses children’s autonomy, an ideology that suggests to parents that continuous supervision of their children is neither necessary nor particularly healthy.

    That ideology is repeatedly contradicted, however, by the evidence. For example, a recent study carried out at the University of Southern California found that latchkey kids are at significant risk of substance abuse. As reported in the September 6, 1989, issue of Pediatrics, children who return from school to an empty home are almost twice as likely to drink alcohol and to smoke cigarettes and marijuana as are children under the supervision of adults. The researchers studied 5,000 eighth-grade students in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. The findings held regardless of a child’s sex, race, family income, academic performance or the number of parents the child lived with. The more hours children were left to take care of themselves after school, the greater their risk of substance abuse.

    The risks of unsupervised after-school hours has been targeted by earlier studies focusing on teen and adolescent sexual behavior. These studies found that today’s teens aren’t having sex late at night in the back seat of a car but between three and five in the afternoon on the living room couch war or the parental bed.

    Clearly, teen and adolescents do need the supervision and guidance of their parents. The very fact that some people question that fact is a sign that there is a war going on between the dominant ideologies of our day and the real needs of children and families. Modern ideologies suggest that family responsibilities interfere with individual fulfillment that personal satisfaction comes from activities carried on outside the home, that what families do can be done just as well – if not better – by various other social arrangements.

    Christians believe God created the institution of the family; they are ready to defend it against any force or ideology that would undermine what God has created. Yet, to fight effectively Christians must understand the history of the family in Western culture and the various social and economic developments that have weakened it. How did the war against the family start? Who declared it? And who is likely to win?

    The family we know today in the West is much reduced in both size and significance from the family as it was (and is) in traditional societies. The reasons for this are largely economic, a result of the industrial revolution. The removal of work from the home to the factory sparked a tread to transform many of the other functions of the family to outside institutions as well. The home has been emptied of all but child rearing and the simplest household chores. No longer the place where most of the important activities of society are carried on, the home no longer commands great allegiance or respect.

    Alongside these economic processes, hostility toward the family was buttressed and justified by the ideology of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was immensely popular in America from the late 1800’s to World War II, and the fall out from that period is still with us. To understand the dilemma of the modem family we must trace both the economic changes unleashed by the industrial revolution and the ideological effects of social Darwinism.

    Economic Developments: From Producer to Consumer

    In the colonial era, the home was the site of production. Like the vast majority of people in the world before the nineteenth century, colonial families lived on farms or in peasant villages. Productive work was done in the home or its outbuildings, whether the goods produced were for the family’s subsistence or for sale to others.1 Shops, offices, and workshops were typically located in a front room, with living quarters either upstairs or in the rear. The home was a workshop.

    Colonial life was characterized by an integration of life and work. Husband and wife inhabited the same universe, unlike modem marriage partners who typically work separately at widely different tasks. Engaged in a common enterprise (though not necessarily in identical tasks), they worked side-by-side, suffering common defeats and rejoicing in common victories.

    Since work was done at home, fathers figured prominently in raising their children. Sermons, child-rearing manuals, and other prescriptive literature of the day addressed not mothers but both parents, admonishing them to “raise up” their children together. Since production was carried out on the family hearth, the father was a visible presence day in and day out. He trained his children to work alongside him. Fatherhood was an extension of a man’s routine activity.2

    Colonial mothers did not need to start a feminist movement to gain the opportunity to engage in economically productive work. A mother was able to raise her children while exercising a wide range of skills, both in household manufacture and alongside her husband in a craft or trade.

    All this is not to idealize colonial life, which was often filled with arduous and backbreaking labor. Yet in terms of family relations, it had certain advantages over modem life. The family was threatened neither by careerism in fathers nor by feminism in mothers. Now let’s see how this integration of life and labor was lost.

    Separate Spheres

    Industrialization took place in America at a breathtaking pace, within the years 1780 to 1830. Its effect was to take work out of the home. This apparently simple change-in the physical location of work -disrupted the happy integration of work and family life that characterized in the colonial period.

    It soon became evident that industrial work was in many ways inhumane. Capitalism gave rise to a growing class of managers and contractors that took over the prerogative for planning and decision-making, leaving the worker little room for creativity or responsibility. Factory work was governed not by human needs but by the clock, oriented to the regularity of the machine. Work in an industrialized society was impersonal, fragmented, standardized.

    It was not long before a great social outcry was raised against the new, alien work style. Large-scale efforts were made to restrict its dehumanizing effects. The primary strategy was to delineate one outpost in which the “old” personal and ethical values could be protected and maintained – namely, the home. Laws were passed to limit the participation of women and children in the factories. This was followed, beginning in the 1820s, by an outpouring of books, pamphlets, advice manuals, and sermons that delineated a doctrine of separate spheres. The home was now to be a refuge, a haven, from the harsh and competitive world outside, a place of solace and spiritual renewal.3

    Along with the new definition of the home came a new definition of male and female roles. Forced to leave home to earn their living, men gave up their previous position as parental and religious leaders in their families. They simply were not physically present in the home enough to tend to the continuous, daily task of training and disciplining their children. Perhaps the most striking feature of the child rearing manuals of the mid-nineteenth century is the disappearance of references to fathers. For the first time we find sermons and pamphlets on the topic of child rearing addressed to “mothers” rather than to “parents.”4

    Women, on the other hand, were gradually squeezed out of their traditional productive tasks. Spinning, weaving, baking, sewing, knitting, preserving, pickling, and candle making were transferred to the factory. As women’s productive activities dwindled their maternal and housekeeping duties became more prominent. Mothers were called to stoke the fires of affection, to minister to her world-weary husband, and to impress moral sentiments into the hearts of her children.

    In what has come to be called the “cult of domesticity” the home was exalted as a force to redeem men from the amorality of the market economy. It be came the main stay of culture and piety and was accorded a transcendent value that balanced the productive value of the outside world. But such a balance was not to last.

    The War of the Spheres

    The removal of production from the home to the factory led to a bifurcation between public and private, between “life” and “work.” Not only were these two spheres separate, however they were also incompatible. They developed incompatible attitudes and values in men and women. In the words of Kenneth Keniston, “the family became a special protected place, the repository of tender, pure and generous feelings (embodied in the mother) and a bulwark and bastion against the raw, competitive, aggressive and selfish world of commerce (embodied by the father).”5 Men and women inhabited such different worlds that it became difficult for them to communicate.

    Such a situation was inherently unstable. Thus began a war between the two spheres for cultural domination. Women sought to extend the values of the home into the public sphere, while a growing body of professionals sought to take over, or at least control, the private sphere, while a growing body of professionals sought to take over, or at least control the private sphere.

    Homemakers on the Offensive

    Women came to realize that they could not succeed in guarding the home unless they exported home values to the outside world. It is impossible to hermetically seal off the private from the public sphere. Once a part of life is unleashed to be aggressive, selfish, and amoral, these attitudes creep into family relations as well. Immorality, drunkenness, and poverty indirectly affect even middle-class families. Public vices have private consequences. So women sallied forth to make the world safe for family values.

    The churches were a major catalyst in helping women to organize. Women set up benevolent societies to feed and clothe the poor, they began the Sunday school movement and founded missionary societies; they formed “reasoning” societies and literary groups that met to discuss politics and economics, they worked in behalf of temperance, education and anti-slavery. Homemakers fell called to redeem the world, to make it home-like.

    Yet the attempt by women to infuse the world with the values of the hearth failed. In the end, it was the public sphere that won the war for domination.

    The “World” Takes Over

    For all the glorification of the home during the height of the “cult of domesticity,” the stubborn fact remained that many important functions once per formed in the home were now performed by other institutions. The family’s sustenance came from without; the home was no longer the producer of vital goods but merely a consumer. A husband’s wages, status, and professional friendships were all based on associations outside the home. Home life began to be a sidelight to the “real” world outside.

    In the first place, then, the development of industry undermined the material base of the home by continuing to take over household tasks. But the war did not stop there. Non-economic tasks were likewise transferred to outside agencies. The education and socialization of the young was taken over by schools and early childhood education. Care of the sick was transferred to professional health care workers. Families began to rely on church programs for all their religious exercises, abandoning family worship and religious training. Recreation became something you pay for and go outside the home to find.

    The only functions left in the home were child rearing and the simplest of housekeeping tasks. Yet even these were infused with an ethos derived from the industrial world. “Scientific management,” the movement to apply the methods of science to industrial management, was now directed to household management. There arose a huge army of sociologist, psychologists, educators, child development experts, doctors, social workers, and home economists to teach the homemaker the new scientific way to run her home. What had once been done according to tradition and moral precept now demanded scientific study. On the other hand, there was the rise of “scientific” child study, part of a general movement to apply science to cooking, decorating, home furnishing, and cleaning. The home should run be as efficiently as a business enterprise. Standards taken from outside the home, from industry and the professions, were imposed upon American homemakers. The home economists “stove to make the home as much like a male work place as possible.”

    Whereas earlier writers had stressed the character and intelligent necessary to run a home and raise children, the new experts stressed technique. Their goals for the home sounded more like the management program for a business. The mentality of industry had take over the home.

    Ideological Justification: Social Darwinism and the Home

    Economic development may have provided the impetus for the deteriorating status of the home, but social Darwinism provided the “scientific” justification. It did this in three ways, as described by Glenna Matthews in Just A Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. It undermined confidence in transcendent values; it reduced women’s esteem by reducing them to their biological function; and it ascribed the creative role in evolutionary development to male activity outside the home.

    Loss of transcendence

    Before Darwin, scientists had devised theories on the origin of the solar system and of the geological features of the Earth terms of purely material forces. But the origin of living things eluded material explanation. Scientists were unable to shut out the possibility that there was “something more” at work than natural processes. Divine creation remained the only logical explanation of how life came to be. And once God was allowed in at the point of creation, the door was open to the entire Christian worldview with its moral requirements and it’s teaching on salvation.

    When Darwin proposed a purely material theology of the origin and development of living types in Origin of Species, it was seized upon as the final piece in a puzzle. Now a consistent and comprehensive worldview could be advanced that appealed to natural force alone. Religious belief was no longer necessary to explain natural phenomena. As a result religion lost its link to the objective world; it was reduce to a matter of subjective feelings, hopes and moral preferences.

    How did all this affect the home? In the doctrine of the separate spheres, transcendent moral and religious values were rooted in the home. With its implacable materialism, Darwinism undermined confidence in any transcendent values. If home stood for the outmoded values of piety and religion, then the home itself was an outmoded institution.

    From Ministering Angel to Walking Womb

    Writers at the height of the “cult of domesticity” liked to describe women as “ministering angel.” Women were thought to possess a greater sensitivity to culture, morality, and religion, which enabled them to minister to men in the finer things of life. Men might go out into the world to acquire the things needed by the body, but women nurtured the human spirit.

    Darwin undermined the very notion of a human spirit. In his book Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, he suggested that emotions arose by evolutionary processes from animal instincts. The most sublime or human capacities were reducible to biological urges. The biological reductionism Darwin unleashed strongly affected the status of women. Woman was reduced to a biological mechanism whose abilities and intelligence were directly related to the state of her uterus.

    The most notorious example of such thinking was Dr. Edward Clarke’s Sex in Education published in 1873, which claimed that women’s reproductive apparatus ( e. g., the menstrual cycle) required so much biological energy that there was none left over for intellectual or cultural achievement. Women were reduced from ministering angels to walking wombs – and the home reduced from the fount of culture and morality to little more than a breeding pen.

    A Drag on Progress

    Social Darwinism took direct aim on the home by exalting the public sphere as the seat of evolutionary progress. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection located the source of evolution change in male struggle for mates, making men and male activity the vanguard of evolution. In The Descent or Man, Darwin argued that “man is more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius.” How did male superiority arise? The answer lay in the struggle among savages for women: With social animals, the young males have to pass through many a contest before they win a female, and the older males have to retain their females by renewed battles. Over time, both sexual selection and natural selection will favor the stronger, more courageous of the males. While modern man does not literally fight for a mate, he does continue to struggle to maintain himself and his family, which increases his mental powers.

    Women at home nutruing the young, is out of reach of struggle and competition, – and hence of natural selection. There is no force acting to select only the best and strongest women. As a result, women have evolved more slowly. This explains their present inequality. (It should be remembered that in Darwin’s time no one understood the mechanism of inheritance, and it was often assumed that males passed on more of their traits to their sons, and females, to their daughters.)

    What is noteworthy here is the contempt for what was taken to be the female nature and the female environment (i.e., the home). The skills in which women are superior -verbal skills, nurturing skills – were played down in their contribution to human progress. Women’s tasks within the home were deemed not only trivial but actually, negative, a hindrance to evolutionary progress. As Matthews puts it, social Darwinism made the home “utterly irrelevant to human progress. Male struggle outside the home is the engine of change.”7

    Social Darwinism was immensely popular in the United States right up to the Second World War. It seemed to conform to common experience. After all, where did progress take place? Not in the pre-modern relations and working style of the home. Astonishing material progress followed only when manufacture and industry were removed from the household and subject to scientific management techniques.

    Even those who sought to defend women against theories of biological inferiority did so by denigrating the home. Lester Frank Ward argued that women are not inherently inferior; their faculties are merely, underdeveloped because of their restriction to the home. Since nothing of significance happens in the home, those who spend time in it have only trivial matters upon which to exercise their minds. No wonder they are stunted in their development. 8

    One of the most vivid writers on this theme was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She argued that women are isolated in the pre-scientific home and hence cut off from evolutionary progress. All the functions that remain in the home should forthwith be removed and put under the care of scientifically oriented professionals. Only when taken out of the amateurish hands of the housewife will any progress be made in cooking, cleaning, or childcare.9

    All this was in striking contract to writers of an earlier period who stressed the stressed the strength and character necessary to run a household, and who argued that home duties enlarge the social sympathies. Just years before Darwin began to publish, women in America had used the home as a springboard to go out into the world and apply themselves to social and charitable causes. They saw home life as training both for practical skills and for sensitivity tot the plight of the unfortunate. The time is gone when it was generally held that the home trains its inhabitants in important skills and sentiments. Today, when a woman contemplates taking a few years off from her career to raise children, she formulates the effects on her job completely in terms of a loss. It does not occur to her that time spent at home may actually enhance her skills for the world of work. Yet, raising a family gives opportunity to handle responsibility, to mange time more effectively, to be a self-started, to be a sensitive manger of personal relations, to develop a concern for the future and the broader community – all valuable skills that generalize to any other endeavor.

    No one believes any more that males are literally more advanced than females in an evolutionary sense. Yet, clearly, the inferences drawn from social Darwinist theories about the marginality of the home continue to shape our way of thinking.

    The unexamined image most Americans hold of industrialization is one of steady progress (with a few problems along the way like monopolies and pollution, but nothing we can’t solve). And it’s true that we in the industrialized nations enjoy our manufactured clothes and cars and computers. But in terms of family relations, the story has not been one of progress. Family life was first pushed off center stage to a separate sphere of its own, eventually to be degraded as unprogressive. Household tasks were steadily stripped from the home to be taken over by industry, until only housekeeping and childcare were left. And today the child-care industry wants to remove the latter from the home as well.

    Some sociologists seek to soothe us by insisting than the family is better off now. The loss of “external props”; such as production, has allowed the family to specialize in its most basic function, providing love and affection. Yet the empirical fact is that the family has not been strengthened by the reduction in its function. The family in modern America is more fragile than ever. Fathers continue to withdraw from family obligations into their work; mothers are conforming to the same pattern, leaving the home in record numbers for paid work. Divorce continues to rise, tearing apart the emotional fabric of the family, schools and day care are taking over the socialization of children. The family doesn’t seem to be very good any more even at providing emotional solace. Contrary to the social theorists, loss of its erstwhile functions has made the family stronger than ever by allowing it to specialize in its affect ional function. 10

    The problem lies in the fact the stripped-down home no longer represents values than can make serious demands on inhabitants. Most people today are trying to build families on the fragile base of personal affections and sentiment. Indeed, this is often presented as something desirable.11 But such relationships are only as strong as the fluctuating emotions upon which they are based.

    What can Christians do in the face of the decline of the family? If the problem began with the loss of functions, the logical place to put our efforts is in regaining those functions. The home schooling movement represents an effort by families to regain the education and socialization functions.12. In addition there is a growing trend to establish home businesses and cottage industries. 13

    Perhaps most important is to regain a sense of transcendent obligation or calling. Christians trace the origin of the family to God himself. The family was divinely created and has its basis in God’s purposes, not in our own needs or wishes. If we want our families to be strong, we must commit ourselves to a spiritual vision of the family seeing the family as a structure that transcends the individuals in it, with a purpose that goes beyond what anh idividual can accomplish on his or her won. If we begin here, we will have already accomplished a great deal in rebuilding the family.


    1. Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family In America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 5.

    2. John Demos, Past, Present, and Future: The Family and the Life Course In American History.


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