From the September/October 1994 issue

NEARLY THIRTY YEARS AGO, IN A BOOK CALLED TECHNIQUES of Family Therapy, vanguard family therapists Lynn Hoffman and Jay Haley vividly brought to life the theoretical generalizations of their fledgling profession in a collection of case histories based on transcriptions of actual family sessions and interviews examining the reasoning behind the therapists’ clinical work. One of the family therapists interviewed was Charles Fulweiler, then a consultant in the psychology department of the University of California at Berkeley. Fulweiler had seen a family in which the 13-year-old son had been picked up for breaking into a store and stealing some cigarettes and loose change. The boy had never done anything remotely illegal before and was, said Fulweiler, “a nice-talking, nice-acting, sweet-looking kid” from a “run-of-the-mill, lower-middle-class family… the sort of naive, churchgoing people who are convinced that they are living a good life and doing good works.”

Much of the therapy centered not on the mildly delinquent behavior of the son, but around the father’s right to wield authority over the boy, and his obligation to protect him by prohibiting his smoking, a focus that seems sweetly antique today, when, by some estimates, 25 percent of all fourth graders have tried marijuana and 50 percent of all high school students get drunk at least once every two weeks. His main goal, Fulweiler said in the commentary, was to “reinforce the father’s role as the father, as the head of the household, and to point out that he has the right to make demands he should be making but isn’t.”

What really gives this particular case its almost quaint aura of another age is the unspoken assumption that, its current difficulties notwithstanding, this family was as snugly moored in a supportive community, itself embraced by a largely benevolent society, as a bird’s nest in the branches of a tree. “If [your father] says you will not smoke, you will not smoke,” Fulweiler firmly points out to the boy. “The court will back him up, everyone will back him up. He has the say about this. It still remains… a legal offense for you to be caught smoking outside…. There’s a good deal of license in your own home, but outside that isn’t so. And… anyone, everyone will back your dad up on this.”

Ironically, the time when this intervention took place is not exactly remembered as an era of unquestioned parental authority; never in American history had young people so vehemently and publicly trashed their parents and everything they stood for. Whatever the explicit goals of the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, sexual revolution, early feminist stirrings and hippie culture, they also expressed a massive youth rebellion against the values, politics, mores and habits of the older generation. And yet, no hint of anxiety comes out in any case reports from Techniques of Family Therapy of what might seem to be a profound social threat to the continued existence of parental authority, of the family itself no suggestion that the bonds of community and society sustaining the sacred triad of mother, father and child might themselves be coming unglued. Even as late as 1974, when family therapy pioneer Salvador Minuchin described one of the families in his book Families and Family Therapy as “an ordinary family. . . like all normal families,” he could confidently assume that everybody knew what he was talking about. Indeed, most people seemed to know by osmosis, or at least believed they knew, not simply how the “normal” family should look, but how parents should raise their children; not only what kind of adults they would one day release into the world, but what kind of world these young citizens could expect to inherit. The children’s rebellion, in fact, was backhanded evidence for the reality of the parents’ authority you can’t rebel when there is nothing to rebel against, and during the ’60s, there was plenty. The kids might be temporarily crazed by the siren songs of Woodstock and the New Left, but the remedy was clear: to restore hierarchies and prudent boundaries in individual families, while the basic institution itself remained as safe as a savings and loan bank. Society expected parents to raise good kids and in return for their efforts, it would provide a secure, even prosperous future. The lynchpin of this fiduciary arrangement was the family; the private authority of parents over this charmed circle was a given, theirs for the taking if only the therapist could get them to take it

FAST-FORWARD TO THE PRESENT. A therapist gets a call from a dismayed mother because her 15-year-old son wants to bring his girlfriend home to spend the night in his room, in his bed, something that would have been virtually unthinkable to any right-minded, middle-class parent even during the laid-back ’60s. The mother is adamantly opposed, but not for reasons of morality and reputation that might have concerned her 30 years ago. “What if he gets AIDS? What if she gets pregnant and wants to keep the baby?” she asks. Meanwhile, the boy’s father (who is hard to reach he lives with his new, young wife and infant child three time zones away) vaguely approves of the idea (“At least we know where he’s sleeping and whom he’s sleeping with”). The boy insists that “everybody else” he knows is doing it, and the school counselor says it all depends upon whether or not he’s practicing safe sex. Furthermore, the mother’s own lover frequently sleeps over, so why can’t the boy and his girlfriend do it, too? Meanwhile, the same struggle is going on in the girl’s home.

Welcome to the quicksand of family therapy in the ’90s, where therapists can find themselves up to their eyes in slippery ambiguities before they can utter the phrase “confused hierarchy.” “Let’s say a family comes in for therapy around a difficult adolescent who is ‘acting out,'” says Philadelphia family therapist Harry Aponte. “The trouble is, nobody knows anymore what ‘acting out’ means, what ‘deviance’ means, including the therapist.” Now, before addressing questions of power, hierarchy and authority, the therapist “has to help the family determine their own reality, what their values and morals are. Unless you can help them define that, you can’t define ‘acting out.'” Twenty-five years ago, says Aponte, teenagers might have had sex, or they might not, “but they knew what they were allowed to do and what they were not allowed to do. If they got caught, they were upset, but they didn’t argue over whether they had a right to do it in the first place.”

But today, there seems to be no answer to the question, “Is this good or bad, right or wrong, normal or abnormal?” except a babble of different tongues. It is no longer news, in these postmodern times, that we are seeing a balkanization of morals and mores, and that the impact on the authority and institutional solidity of the family is like a fragmentation bomb in a crowded market. Says Aponte, “The kind of work I used to do with low-income families who were not intact, who did not live in ‘conventional’ situations, having to work with outside agencies schools, courts, police, child welfare agencies juggle competing claims from divorced parents and struggle to help people create the values and morality that define family life in the first place… well, lo and behold, I’m now doing that kind of therapy with everybody.”

“That kind of therapy” ad hoc, idiosyncratic approaches owing less to theory and technique than to improvisation sometimes produces cobbled-together therapeutic solutions that would once have seemed peculiar, if not completely wrong-headed. For example, a single mother, a successful advertising manager, married and divorced several times, was referred by the school system to Des Moines, Iowa therapist Lois Braverman because the client’s 17-year-old daughter was spending very little time in school. While the girl did technically make an appearance in class (a couple of hours a day) and wasn’t failing her grades were Bs and Cs the school intended to withhold her high school diploma because she had been legally truant. Meanwhile, the mother was implicitly aiding and abetting her child’s truancy-sending in notes that the girl was “sick,” for example, on mornings after she had allowed the girl to go out partying with friends most of the night.

Unfortunately, no amount of therapeutic work could get the mother to exert more authority in her daughter’s life. Perplexed, Braverman asked the mother why she wouldn’t take a stronger stand. Was she, perhaps, afraid of something?

The mother was, in fact, paralyzed by the fear, said Braverman, that if she came down too hard on her daughter, the girl would run away and end up sleeping under bridges something she herself had done in the ’60s as a flower-child rebelling against her own strict parents. What really struck terror into the mother’s heart, however, wasn’t the idea that her daughter might follow the same path as much as the perception that the path itself had become infinitely more dangerous over the years. The tattered street people muttering and gesticulating on every corner looked so much more menacing than the spaced-out panhandling youngsters of her youth, while the media blitz about the crack epidemic, gang wars, drive-by shootings, kidnappings, rape, prostitution, abuse and murder of young runaways made street life a death trap compared to her heady memories of vagabonding during the love generation. “She may not be going to school,” the mother said in effect, “but at least she’s safe in her own home, eating well, staying alive.”

The resolution of the case had its own slant peculiar to the ’90s. Braverman never did get the mother to assert her authority in any traditional sense “make demands [she] has a right to make,” as Fulweiler put it. Nor did she try, as family therapists sometimes did 30 years ago with single mothers, to get the mother remarried, or otherwise corral a surrogate father figure onto the scene who could make the girl toe the line. Instead, she supported the mother’s decision not to make her child go to school, actually taking her client’s side in a successful lawsuit against the school board to grant her daughter a high school diploma, regardless of her attendance record.

To a previous generation of family therapists and clients, this intervention might have seemed unorthodox at least, perhaps even contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Whatever happened to the goal of reestablishing parental authority and shoring up generational and hierarchical boundaries? And what about flouting the hallowed sanctity of education and undermining the civic authority of the school?

But that was then, this is now; then, few children lived with one unmarried parent; now, about 27 percent of American children do, while, according to one estimate, more than 40 percent of all children 14 years old will be living in one-parent households by the late ’90s. In these times, old wine turns sour in new bottles, and the old interventions seem archaic, irrelevant, even inappropriate. Braverman, after a good try at an old game, switched to an intervention tailor-made to a kind of family rarely seen by her professional forbears but now very common: a professional women and her adolescent daughter sharing a household (and a social milieu) in which the traditional ideas of paternal authority and generational hierarchy have lost their currency. Even the traditional link between academic achievement now and financial success later rings hollow to a generation of young people who expect to do less well economically than their parents. Recognizing the futility of rewriting this family’s story to fit a traditional plotline, Braverman accepted it as written (editing it a little to give the narrator a more confident voice) a tale of our times about a self-created, harmonious and democratic little dyad that does not require the blessings of educational officialdom for its well-being.

THIS CASE IS NOT AN ARGUMENT for the psychological benefits of truancy, but it does suggest something about the strategies of besieged middle-class parents these days. The sheer excesses of American culture drive many parents to wish they could enclose their families in the domestic equivalent of an underground bunker. Unfortunately, most of them can’t afford to boycott the culture; instead, they devote long hours working for it, commuting to it and buying from it, then rush home to cram a little rejuvenating family life into the thimbleful of time they have left. Besides, many parents are already so isolated from each other, so muddled about their own values and so worried about doing something wrong that they often doubt their competence to raise their own children anyway.

“It’s surprising the number of college-educated parents who come in wanting permission to be in charge of their own children,” says Rowland Barret, chief of psychology at Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. According to Barret, some parents are so determined to be perfect, and so frightened of failing that they are virtually paralyzed when they need to exert control, “The parents do not know what they need to do as parents; they try to set limits, but the kid whines, nags, has a tantrum, and the parents cave in. They think that because they are nice people and want to be good parents, their children will grow up knowing how to behave without them having to train them, and they confuse discipline with being mean. They think parenting should just come naturally and that they are entitled to have well-disciplined children, even though they do not know how to be well-disciplined parents.”

According to Tony Jurich, professor of marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University, it isn’t that parents prefer being liked by their children to being respected, but that they can’t really tell the difference, and seem to believe that the essence of good parenting is nonstop good feelings. “Parents sometimes think that if their kids like them, they will somehow automatically do what is expected of them. These parents don’t understand that part of being a parent is being a hard-ass, being able to say no, set limits and tolerate kids who are furious with them.” Ironically, many middle-aged parents, with their own resentful memories of the authoritarian, conformist and narrow-minded atmosphere in which they were raised, wanted to bring up a different, better kind of child one freer, happier, without the prejudices and rigidity they associated with the benighted childrearing values they endured 30 years ago. “Unfortunately,” says Jurich, these romantic parents “taught their kids all the best ideals in the world” peace, love, freedom, human rights “but forgot to teach them the importance of hard work, self-discipline, the need to acquire mundane living skills and learn a trade.”

But even realistic and sophisticated parents, not in thrall to their own adolescent idealism, struggle to balance love and authority. “I’m an easygoing parent,” says David Treadway, a family therapist in Weston, Massachusetts. “I have open conversations with my children, which are delightful, and they talk to me about stuff I never would have talked about to my father. But when I try to switch to the authority position, it’s laughable. In my family, we negotiate the laws, and I think we do it pretty well I have really high-functioning, well-behaved kids. But I think for the sake of connection and openness and closeness, I have sacrificed a kind of parental authority that most of us sort of presumed of our own parents when we were children. And I find it difficult to figure out how you can have both intimacy and connection, on the one hand, strong authority on the other.”

At a suburban, church-sponsored group discussion on parenting that Treadway leads, the conversation among middle-class, professional parents is subdued, thoughtful, sometimes depressed. “The problem for dual-career households, when you’re both working and away so much, is that you feel you are not doing your job,” says one man, “so you have a tendency to appease your kids, give them all they want to make them happy so you don’t feel so bad as a parent.” He pauses, then says, “But maybe we have more authority than many of us are comfortable exercising.” Several men and women wonder how they can control their children’s exposure to media violence without leaving them too naive to deal with the realities of the world “allow them to be innocent, but enable them to protect themselves, too,” says one father. Where can parents draw the line, they ask one another, without alienating their children to the point of rebellion as if an implicit but unmentioned agenda item at the meeting is, “How could we stop them if they did rebel?”

Not surprisingly, almost nothing makes children, including adolescents, feel as insecure and adrift as parents who also feel insecure and adrift, tossed by waves of social pressure like oarless skiffs in high seas. All children need an “empathic envelope,” writes therapist Ron Taffel in his book, Parenting by Heart: How to Stay in Charge of and Connected to Your Children, “a container around your kids and your family, a boundary between your family and the outside culture.” The empathic envelope, according to Taffel, director of family and couples treatment at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City, is “made up of your values, your expectations, and your ways of being with your children … Every family just feels different. And this differentness is a crucial fact of life for your children. It gives them a sense that they belong somewhere, that they are held by their parent[s] in a safe and secure place.” But they cannot be held securely by parents who are too overwhelmed, confused and frightened by the conditions of their lives to do the job. Taking care of growing children has probably never come naturally, much less easily to human beings we don’t produce little marsupials who just pop out of the pouch when ready to stand on their own; rather, we learn from our own parents and peers how to coax them to adulthood. But there used to be more family and peers to help. Earlier in our history, extended family networks, strong church involvement and vital community ties often compensated for inadequate parents. The widely repeated aphorism du jour, “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” suggests that the “village” could take over when parents became ill, died or simply fell down on the job. Even for very good parents, the spells of frustration, grief and tedium that have always been occupational hazards of parenthood were once mitigated by the ready availability of that handy, floating day-care center known as the “local neighborhood.” What adult, middle-aged or older, does not remember the open-door policy of their friends’ parents: the automatic setting of another place at dinner, the sleepovers, the phone calls “Send John home now, he has to go to bed,” the safe house where a child could go when home was not very inviting. There were safe houses for parents, too, particularly mothers, who could complain about their own children, praise one another’s, and thereby come away reassured that they were doing a decent, if not perfect, job.

Now the houses are closed tight, the parents don’t know one another. How could they? They spend almost no time in their own neighborhoods. The result is a pervasive loneliness and isolation for many parents, particularly those (still overwhelmingly mothers) who choose and can afford to stay at home, at least part-time, to care for their own children. Karen Craft, a newspaper copy editor and mother in Bethesda, Maryland, caught between her desire to build a career and intense longing to stay with her new baby, decided for the latter, at least for a year or two. So they could afford the decision, she and her husband sold their new, four-bedroom home for a smaller, two-bedroom house with correspondingly lower mortgage payments.

Craft was immediately cut off from her old network office contacts do not necessarily follow the worker who chooses to leave; her father told her how “dreadfully disappointed” he is that she was forgoing her chance for a successful career to become a “nothing.” Her mother and chief social support worried that her daughter will end up as she has divorced by her husband in her mid-forties after raising a family, and left with no mate, no job and no prospects. Meanwhile, though Craft did not regret the time spent with her new baby, she says she found the isolation “terrible…. When you have a job, you don’t have to work at finding friends you automatically have a lot of people to talk to, a peer group, a community. If you stay at home, you are in the position of never seeing or talking to another adult unless you make elaborate arrangements days in advance. I can walk through completely empty neighborhoods, with my son in a stroller, and not run into a single soul except maybe a nanny pushing another stroller. If I take him to the playground, we are often the only two people there.” In contrast is the single mother who comes home from work so exhausted that she can barely relate to her children, let alone raise and discipline them. Gary Stollak, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, reports that the calls he gets most often on his phone-in radio show come from single mothers, usually poor, usually very young, whose children, ages 3 to 10, are out of control, hitting them, and they don’t know how to stop it they either crumple into tears or overreact and hit back. These mothers are emotionally and physically depleted “We are a nation of exhausted women,” says Stollak largely unsupported by family or neighborhood networks, often unskilled in parenting and frequently dependent on alcohol.

Tony Jurich says that such isolated, hard-working parents often don’t have their own needs met for emotional nurturance and therefore have no resources left to bring the kind of authority into parenting that their children need. Instead of taking care of their children, they require their children to take care of them, turning their kids into confidants and quasi-parents, or even surrogate spouses. “A divorced dad or mom may ask the child for advice about the divorce, or bitch and moan about the child’s other parent, or complain about money troubles, work problems or difficult romances.” Suddenly, however, says Jurich, the child turns 13 or 14, begins to try his or her own wings hangs out with friends the parent doesn’t like, maybe smokes a little dope, starts to drink, won’t do homework and the parent is shocked that it is now too late to begin setting down any boundaries or rules. The peer culture has already taken hold, and the parent, who has never exerted any authority to begin with, cannot regain the control she or he squandered.

WHAT STRUCTURAL, INTRAFAMILY intervention would a family therapist of the mid-’60s use if a middle-class, 14-year-old client told him that he had been mugged 13 times? In fact, Ron Taffel is seeing this boy for therapy, and while the number of muggings is unusual even for a New York City child, the experience of kid-mugging is not. “Almost every pre-adolescent or teenager I have worked with has been mugged at least once,” says Taffel, “while walking down the street in the city, but also in the suburban malls mugging is a part of mall life for kids these days.” There is very little parents can do to protect their children once they pass beyond the front door of home, continues Taffel, and they are lucky if their kids even tell them what calamity has befallen them. “According to most police estimates, 60 percent of the kids won’t mention it to their parents because they are ashamed and humiliated, especially the boys, and they know their parents can’t do anything about it,” says Taffel. “Or, they’re afraid their parents won’t let them go to the malls anymore.”

This is New York City, though, infamous city of the damned; surely, it’s not like that out in Anyplace, USA But exaggerated or not, the perceived dangers of American life have parents on edge in every corner of the country. In Des Moines, Lois Braverman says that after a spate of highly publicized local kidnappings, parents, including herself, are afraid to let their children leave their houses alone, even in the heart of the leafy, middle-class suburbs. “I would not send my 7-year-old son alone to pick up a quart of milk at the store five blocks away,” Braverman says. Recently, she and another mother, a dentist, discussed very seriously whether they should allow their 14-year-old sons to bicycle two miles to a special summertime academic program being offered at nearby Drake University. Braverman said she intended to let her son ride his bike despite the risk because she thought it was important for his sense of independence to get himself there and back. But she was disconcerted by this example of the strange new world taking hold in America’s heartland. “When I was his age and living in Philadelphia,” she muses, “I was taking the subway all over the city. I’m still the only mother around here who lets her son take the bus by himself.”

Danger inspires fear, and fear, in turn, keeps people silent. Therapists are discovering that the wall of silence separating members of abusive families from one another and the community also stifles family communication when society itself is experienced as the abuser. Parents and children, feeling mutually threatened, stop talking to one another. Preternaturally sophisticated children are afraid to tell their parents what their parents, in any case, are afraid to hear-about alcohol and drug abuse by themselves or their friends, date rapes, suicide attempts, abortions, violence from peers or strangers. In our culture, teenagers have always kept parts of their own world secret from parents, but never before have they started keeping such physically lethal or emotionally damaging secrets at such a young age.

Benina Berger-Gould, a psychologist and family therapist in Berkeley, California, says that one scared 12-year-old client tipped her off to an interesting piece of mental health epidemiology. “This little girl told me that all girls like her blond, blue-eyed, about 11 to 13, could be kidnapped because they all looked a bit like Polly Klaas,” the young girl kidnapped from her home in Petaluma, California, while playing with a friend, her mother asleep in the next room. But this child had never confided her fear to her mother; like the mugged children in Taffel’s practice, she remained silent. So did the mother. “The mother told me about walking down the street with her daughter, seeing the ‘Missing’ signs for Polly, the composite drawings of the kidnapper, and said, ‘I can’t bring myself to talk to her about it it’s just too frightening.'”

In another case, an 11-year-old girl, an only child, was constantly angry with her parents and refused to spend any time with them at all during the week. As it turned out, says Berger-Gould, she was furious with her parents because they had forbidden her to walk to school with her friends instead, her mother took her but wouldn’t explain why they were forcing on her this humiliating and juvenile role. What she took for pointless despotism, however, was really their never-mentioned fear that she, too, might be kidnapped. They discussed, finally, their anxieties in therapy and came to a resolution characteristic of the technology-rich ’90s: her parents let her walk to school, but only if she carried a beeper with her at all times.

As everyone knows, the fear, as well as the reality, of violence poisons tranquility. “These fears are like a slow death,” says Berger-Gould. “Parents feel they have no control over them. We all have to admit we can’t do anything about the world situation, that we are powerless. I, too, feel the sense of siege. My own daughter will never be able to walk to school; she will have to worry about violence and AIDS, and she will never have the freedom I had.”

Some commentators have argued that the pervasive middle-class fears of violence and crime are exaggerated, more media-fanned hysteria than reality. But while the FBI reports that crime decreased by about one percentage point in 1993 (4 percent in cities of more than one million), the overall rate of violent crime in the U.S. has almost doubled since 1973; and murder, separated from other violent crimes, rose three percent last year. Furthermore, the number of American teenagers ages 15 to 19 who were killed more than doubled between 1985 and 1991, as did the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes in general. According to a nationwide CBS/New York Times poll of teenagers, a staggering 31 percent of white and 70 percent of black youths personally know someone who has been shot during the last five years. No wonder that, in the same poll, 36 percent of white and 54 percent of black adolescents said they worried about crime “a lot or some of the time.”

EVEN WITHOUT FIRSTHAND experience of violence, Americans are bombarded by enough lurid reports and images of gore to cause a national epidemic of secondary post-traumatic stress syndrome. The danger may be more vivid “in the imagination than in the statistics, but tell that to a parent whose 5-year-old child has just seen the bloody, sheet-covered corpse of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife for the 44th time in two days. Of all the external forces that seem to have most fundamentally written finis to the family world of 30 years ago, few seem to inspire the same visceral sense of helplessness and confusion in parents as the role of the media, and their own role in monitoring it.

The problems associated with in-your-face-whether-you-like-it-or-not media have become a regular topic in therapy. “I’ve been seeing kids and families for 25 years now,” says Berger-Gould, “and I would say that besides the more serious pathological issues raised, the main question parents have for me today is not about how late their children stay out, or who their Mends are, but whether and when they should be allowed to watch TV, or how many videos they should be allowed to see.”

If a therapist practicing in the ’60s could be time-warped into the present, he or she might consider the decision to control a child’s exposure to media no more problematic than any issue involving parental authority, no harder than getting up enough backbone to say “no” to a son’s smoking, for example. Why can’t parents simply turn the TV off, unplug it, throw away the set? According to the television industry, to watch or not to watch is entirely a matter of personal choice. Why is this so hard to do? Why is the media becoming one of the most passionately discussed and debated parenting issues in America today? If parents can’t “just say no” to this, how can they say no to anything?

Can a fish say no to the water it swims in? Not only has the media blanketed every inhabited place in America probably not one tiny village or crossroads or wilderness cabin or fishing camp has entirely escaped it but it has insinuated itself into the folds and furrows of our minds. The language, images, sounds, ideas, characters, situations, values, aesthetics of mass media become the stuff of our thoughts, feelings and imaginings, as well as the currency of ordinary social exchange. Who does not bring into daily conversation with co-workers, spouses, friends something seen on TV last night, heard on the car radio this morning, gleaned from a photo spread in a fashion magazine? If presumably mature adults find it hard to resist the media’s omnivorous, seductive power to compel attention, how much more vulnerable are their children?

Many parents do try valiantly to limit the amount and kind of TV, movies and videos their children watch, but they are likely to see their own efforts sabotaged by the media itself, which tends to superimpose its own agenda on any household it enters. Ron Taffel tells about sitting down with his two young children to watch Full House, a child-friendly sitcom, which was interrupted by a gruesome promo for a slasher movie that terrified his young daughter. One mother he knows reports that while she and her husband were walking down 34th Street with their child, they passed a large department store window banked with television sets, all showing the same, vivid ad for the movie Dracula, this particular media guerrilla assault kept the little girl awake in fear for three nights.

Furthermore, a commitment to a TV-free, or a TV-controlled household is more than many overwhelmed parents can manage. Working parents usually return home too tired and frazzled to begin an evening camp of approved, child-centered activities. “It’s easier for an exhausted woman to just let her kids stay up and watch Beavis and Buttbead, says Gary Stollak.

“It takes a lot more effort for parents to say, ‘Let’s not watch TV, let’s play,'” says Berger-Gould. “Kids themselves are so emotionally overstimulated and wound up from day care that watching Batman may be more grounding for them than sitting down to dinner with their parents every night.”

Certainly, it takes an abundance of moral fortitude to deny children something that all their peers take for granted. “My 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter are not allowed to watch TV during the week, and they feel miserably left out because they can’t join discussions on the school bus in the mornings about shows the other kids watch,” says one mother in Treadway’s church discussion group. This is not a trivial issue for either this mother or her children; she is, in effect, denying them access to the cultural mainstream in which all their peers frisk like little tadpoles.

It is a truism now that the mass culture has become, via television and the media, a substitute for the disappearing community in our society. But the images and ideas of the tube, the videos, the glossies have not so much replaced community and family life as they have absorbed and digested it, then spewed it back as a jumble of mass-produced life simulations. These processed, contrived and massaged visions of “our” lives are not necessarily bad. But it is pure pretense that the sitcoms, talk shows, celebrity profiles, even “educational” programming somehow bring us together into real community. A community is above all an expression of human reciprocity and mutual recognition, and while we know these ersatz characters and places and situations as personally as if they were part of our lives, they don’t know us at all. How could they? They are fabrications, products beamed out to us, an anonymous mass of consumers, outsiders, as unknown individually to the media makers as we are to one another.

Over the past 10 years, still another powerful player has elbowed its way into the intimate family circle: the sprawling legal, social, cultural (and media-sensationalized) offensive against child abuse. Today, most schoolchildren receive public instructions about child molesters police often make special presentations in grade schools on how to avoid “dangerous people,” and even fingerprint children as a precaution. Children are educated by school personnel about “good touch” and “bad touch,” and told that they can talk openly about what is happening at home to sympathetic teachers and counselors, who will protect them from their own parents, if necessary. Indeed, many states legally require “disclosure” of suspected child abuse by various professionals who routinely work with children. This official paternalism can be disconcerting to parents. “My 7-year-old child told me, ‘I can tell the school counselor anything I want to, and I don’t have to tell you,'” says Lois Braverman. “I said, ‘I hope you told her good things.'”

If the child says “bad things,” however, parents may be in deep trouble; they can no longer count on the automatic confidence of the community, the general assumption that they, not the children, deserve the benefit of the doubt. Consider, for example, a case, not unique, that could only happen in the ’90s. Tony Jurich has been seeing a family in which a father, disliking his 16-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, ordered her to quit seeing him. When she refused, he “grounded” her. She got tired of being cooped up at home and reported him to the authorities for sexually abusing her. The child welfare service acted immediately, as it was legally required to do, and removed her to a foster home to stringently religious caretakers so much more restrictive than her own father that she recanted her allegations in order to be sent back to her parents.

Unfortunately, once in the maw of the legal system, the case won’t be disgorged until it has been thoroughly masticated. Meanwhile, the girl languishes in the foster home, where she has been for 16 months, while Jurich and the family continue drawn-out negotiations for her release.

Family authority in these issues is no longer a private matter to be settled internally by members of a particular family nor should it be. By any measure, the public awareness of child abuse, and the steps taken by schools and social service agencies to prevent it, are among the great public reforms of our time. But, as family therapists know, the solution to one problem not infrequently introduces another. The metastatic quality of public life in America makes it almost impossible for parents to keep the obstreperous outside world from invading every crevice of what was once called private life. And the current national vigilance about child abuse could make even a confident parent feel uneasy and self-conscious, as if a suspicious, omnipresent eye were peering over his or her shoulder during every disciplinary encounter with a misbehaving child.

ONE OF FAMILY THERAPY’S MOST venerable goals with middle-class families has always been promoting the “differentiation” and separation of the growing child from what was often regarded as the “enmeshed” family circle; if the field’s most characteristic intervention could have been reduced to a single maxim, it would have been: Let Your Children Go. The child was often viewed as struggling against overcontrolling, overanxious and intrusive parents. Typically, for example, therapists postulated that the refusal of anorexics to eat was a desperate bid for more freedom, self-assertion and separation from parents who allowed them no psychological room to grow and become their own persons. The goal of therapy was not to tear the child ruthlessly from the bosom of the family, but to help parents who were perhaps too close, too nurturant, too protective learn to grant their children enough autonomy to develop as independent personalities.

Today, however, the therapeutic objective of helping children to separate from their families seems geared to an intact, enclosed and self-contained family that looks rare enough to be on display at the Smithsonian. Many family therapists see their job as less about helping enmeshed children differentiate from their families than helping enmeshed families differentiate themselves from the mass culture. The new challenge for clinicians, never imagined by their predecessors, is to help postmodern families identify the particular values, norms and goals that set them apart from what might be called the “undifferentiated ego mass” of a society that threatens to swallow them whole.

This process of what might be called “reverse differentiation” helping the family pull itself out of the cultural vortex can be very tricky, because it often requires working with the family to create de novo a set of core values in a society almost devoid of a common moral framework. Furthermore, the very lack of any widespread social agreement about the meaning of “family” knocks right out from under therapists some of the standard props of their clinical repertoire. Once, it was a sure bet that the problems of a middle-class child or adolescent were symptoms of a pathological family process, a dysfunctional pattern arising within and probably limited to the sovereign little system of parents and children. Classically, an absent father and stay-at-home mother routed their own submerged and unexpressed marital conflicts through their children, who carried the symptoms representing their parents’ unacknowledged struggle. But today, it can no longer be automatically assumed that an alienated, depressed, anxious, underachieving, sexually active, pot-smoking, beer-drinking adolescent is the “identified patient” bearing the pathological symptoms of a “dysfunctional family,” when most teenagers exhibit at least some elements of this profile and for good reason. They are exposed to a far more complex, demanding, dangerous and frightening world than their parents dreamed of when they were young.

Similarly, how does a therapist diagnose the marital dysfunction of dual-career parents who haven’t taken a vacation or even had sex in four years because they haven’t had the time and would be too tired even if they could find an extra half-hour in the day? This describes a couple recently seen by Froma Walsh, co-director of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago. The husband manages a small, struggling business and often doesn’t get home until after 9 pm, while the wife is an emergency-room nurse on a rotating schedule. Both are so chronically exhausted, tense and irritable that marital fights come easily, but they prefer to avoid interactions rather than risk one more stressor in their lives. “Couples like this often come into therapy personalizing and pathologizing their problems,” says Walsh. “They think there is something terribly wrong with one or the other or both of them. In fact, they are often coping with enormous difficulties working two different shifts, juggling child care and custody arrangements with former spouses, trying to keep up a semblance of home life. I tell them we can’t really talk about their marital distress until we can look at it within the context of the external pressures on their lives.”

Twenty years ago, theory and the technique that flowed from it the correct intervention skillfully applied was really the only game in town for family therapists. Today, many therapists find themselves making do with a therapy that looks a little like structural-strategic, behavioral, Bowenian or even psychody-namic approaches, but a lot more like Ann Landers. Humane advice about how to live in inhumane times, practical ways of solving problems of daily life often constitute more effective therapy than fancy technical interventions to help families create small islands of sanity in a sea of lunacy. So Walsh begins therapy by asking couples simply to describe a typical week; often, during the ensuing recitations of 16-hour days passed on the gallop, the reason for their sense of disconnection, frustration and lack of family cohesion becomes painfully clear. Such couples, says Walsh, begin to see themselves resembling two speeding trains, only pausing briefly together at the station before speeding off again in opposite directions.

“These dual-career families are always on the verge of chaos,” says Walsh, “living with a constant undercurrent of stress just with the normal problems of life; any unexpected issue a sick child, for example pushes them over the edge. Sometimes, therapy is the only oasis they have in their lives, one hour during the week when they can take stock of themselves. I suggest that they take a fresh look at the way they are living and think

about what they need to do to give their relationship a higher priority, rather than simply following the culture’s lead in ranking family life at the bottom, way behind work, career and financial success.” This often means they must make difficult choices, says Walsh. A husband or a wife may decide to forgo a career promotion (and the new car or extended vacation they could then afford), if it will mean even less family time. A couple may renegotiate the original marital agreement a husband, heavily invested in his career, may pull back to three-quarters time while his wife attends school, or she will take on more of the household and childcare duties now, in return for a commitment from him to do the same a few years hence.

Some of Walsh’s therapy resembles lessons in just lightening up. Walsh assigns couples the task of spending two hours together talking at home, or actually going out on a date the only rule being that they are strictly forbidden to mention any problems. “They almost always start laughing at how absurd it is that having fun has to be assigned as a task,” says Walsh. “But I think the intervention validates for them how hard their lives really are, and that they are truly entitled to have a little time off.”

There can be no chance for families to differentiate themselves from the mass culture, to inscribe a small, symbolic circle of privacy on the large, unbounded field of public life, unless parents take the offensive. For this most critical of tasks, parents must become “protective parents,” and learn strategies to “preserve the sanctuary of childhood … a refuge, a safe house in which the spirit as well as the body can be protected from harm,” writes psychologist Ava Siegler in her book, What Should I Tell the kids? Siegler, director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, advises parents on how to talk to their children in age-appropriate ways about terrifying subjects that most middle-class parents never heard mentioned when they were youngsters, including divorce, AIDS, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, violence, even genocide (they’ll see it in graphic detail on the evening news), as well as the ethical and moral challenges these issues raise.

Not only do parents often fail to initiate what Siegler calls “plain talk” about hard subjects out of their own fear they sometimes mistake silence for protection. “Parents say they don’t want to spoil their child’s innocence,” says Siegler, “or they tell me, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,’ and I say it is exactly what your children don’t know that will hurt them. We don’t have a choice anymore; there is no place to hide, whether in the city or country or tiny village either you tell your children, and you tell them early, not waiting until they are teenagers or the media will tell them, or their friends or they will learn it in the street.”

Candid talk, delivered with compassion and sensitivity to the child’s needs, is the most powerful weapon protective parents have in the struggle with what Siegler calls the “betrayal of childhood.” A 6-year-old girl sees the bodies of dead babies in Rwanda or Bosnia on television, for example, and asks her parents “Why are they killing children? Will they kill me?” Her parents, says Siegler, can empathize with her about how scary it is to see kids being killed, then reassure her that Mommy and Daddy won’t let anything happen to her. At that point, the parents can also begin educating the child about war, “draw from her own experience of

anger how she feels when her brother pushes her and she pushes back to explain why people fight each other, how much worse fighting is when lots of adults are doing it and they all have guns. Finally, parents can talk a little about how people can sometimes avoid war when they sit down and try to talk things out together.” This is not the time, says Siegler for sophisticated geopolitics, but an opportunity to teach the child something she needs to know about the real world and, at the same time, instill a sense of realistic competence in the child, letting her see that while not all problems can be solved, even by grownups, everybody, including her, can learn the skills and patience to try.

If therapists must patiently lead parents through painful drills about how to explain ethnic atrocities and sex-change operations to their children, they also find themselves interpreting the strange customs of the youth culture to parents for whom the truth about their children is about as welcome as an IRS audit. Of course, family therapists have always tried to help parents enter the world of their child, but never before have they encountered what Portland, Maine, family therapist and Baptist Minister Doug Sholl calls an “incredible cultural war” between traditional beliefs about personal morality, family loyalty and parental authority, on the one hand, and the voracious media-driven youth culture, on the other. Perhaps never before have connections been so frayed between adult society and the pervasive media-created, adolescent-focused popular culture that teenagers everywhere inhabit, no matter how hard their elders try to sanitize the environment. Furthermore, adolescents have seldom in our history had such little faith in the future, so little sense that the traditional rewards of adulthood financial success, satisfying marriage, vocational contentment and security would be theirs.

The war can be particularly bitter, says Sholl, when adolescents break the rules that have guided strictly religious families for generations. While secular parents are concerned or disturbed when their children drink, smoke, experiment with sex or smoke marijuana, they are not likely to feel the same devastating sense of shame and horror as highly religious parents. The latter, unable to understand, much less accept, the alien world views their kids absorb from peers, are unprepared to forgive them when they literally “fall” into the dragnet of pop culture.

“Too many of these parents have high expectations of their children,” says Sholl, “but don’t understand what they’re going through their isolation, loneliness, craving for social stimulation and whey they need a peer network of their own to belong to. Nor are they aware of the tremendous [cultural] influences affecting adolescents; they need to listen to their music, watch what they watch on TV, get to know their friends they need to be students of their own kids.”

An example of this kind of therapeutic culture brokering was a case in which the parents had forbidden their 17-year-old son to rent the video Body of Evidence, starring Madonna. The family’s therapist, Tony Jurich, instructed the whole family to rent the video, sit down together to watch it, then devote one hour afterward to talking about it. “Both the parents and the kid hated me for this idea,” says Jurich, but they did it. Not only did the family have a fascinating two-hour discussion about the movie, talking about sadomasochism, Madonna’s questionable character, the nature of sexual aggression they had their first open conversation about sex since the boy was 13. “They talked about their gut feelings,” says Jurich. “His parents expressed their fear of AIDS, for example, and he could reassure them that he was sexually responsible. They all ended up with a far better understanding of one another as real people.”

BECAUSE PARENTS THEMSELVES are so overwhelmed by their own lives, or ignorant about what is really happening to their sons and daughters, schools are increasingly expected to take on both the socialization and consolation of young people providing, to the extent they can, the sanctuary and protective parenting kids may not get at home. “Sometimes, after hearing a story on Monday morning of what happened to a student over the weekend,” says Jennifer Miller, a counselor at a smallish (700 students), affluent, suburban high school near Boston, “I am left wondering how this young human being can do homework, walk into this building, sit down at a desk and try to learn something. I talked to a kid who witnessed a friend slitting his wrist over the weekend, and held a cloth over the cut while getting someone to call 911. I talk to 8th graders who are in recovery groups for their alcohol or drug abuse. I’ve spoken to kids with PTSD from having abortions or seeing fetal car crashes, or being raped at parties after drinking too much or smoking marijuana I can’t count anymore the number of young women who’ve been date-raped. I see kids who feel completely hopeless, who say they want to kill themselves, but when they try to tell their parents, they’re brushed off, told not to be so ‘hysterical.'”

When she can, Miller tries to reestablish communications with parents, but sometimes, the only safe dialogue the kids can have is at school with Miller, with one of the school’s three other counselors or two psychologists (one full-time, one part-time) or with other students. The school sponsors eight peer-support groups, serving, among others, kids who suffer from depression, who are going through alcohol or substance abuse treatment, who are from abusive and/or alcoholic families, not to mention several women’s groups and a gay-lesbian alliance. “These kids are often wonderful to each other,” says Miller. “They help each other through [drug and alcohol abuse] rehab programs, take care of each other and accept each other regardless of their behavior. They understand the concept of unconditional love for one another far better than their parents do.”

Antagonism between school personnel and parents is an old story, and therapists have long acted as buffers between the two, but lately there is an exacerbation of helplessness on both sides. Now, says one New England teacher, “you call a parent and say, ‘I’m having trouble with your son.’ She says, ‘So am I, but you can handle it better than I can,’ and hangs up.”

But overburdened school personnel often feel just as helpless, says Don-David Lusterman, a family therapist in Long Island who regularly mediates between parents, their children and schools. “Parents may get 10 phone calls in a week from various school personnel teachers, psychologist, counselor, school nurse, principal that are really calls to the parents to rescue the school from a kid they can’t control, as if the parents had a solution, which they don’t.”

In these cases, Lusterman sometimes becomes in locoparentis to the child vis-a-vis the school, in effect temporarily taking the parents out of the loop. While the parents are being helped to improve family relations, Lusterman arranges to be the sole conduit between the school and the child, receiving all complaints and reports from the former and working with both parties until the child becomes more responsible, his or her performance improves, and the crisis is on its way to resolution.

Lusterman reduces chaos and restores a stable sense of adult order and hierarchy both at home and at school by separating two confused and mutually disturbing systems and temporarily cutting the parents out of the information loop that is bombarding them with more disturbing news than they can handle. Ron Taffel recently achieved something like the same ends restoring order and hierarchy to both teachers and parents by bringing both together into an information loop from which they had been excluded by their own children!

Taffel was called into a school, he says, when it became obvious that “the parents were being held hostage by their children.” Kids individually talked about their friends’ illicit use of drugs and alcohol to their parents and then swore them to secrecy with the familiar threat, “If you ever tell anybody I told you, I will never tell you anything again.” One mother, unable to hold the information to herself, did blow the whistle and reported the drug abuse. The news got out about whose mother had “told,” this child was immediately and brutally ostracized by everybody in her class, making every other kid afraid to tell his or her parents, and making the parents afraid to talk to one another. It was, says Taffel, “a case of the kids teaching the parents a lesson, saying, in effect, ‘Do something we don’t like, and we will punish you,’ a perverse, upside-down version of the normal family hierarchy.” The result was a body of silenced, terrified parents, both fearful for their children and blackmailed by them, unable to talk to other parents, much less protect their offspring.

In order to create a community of adults at least as cohesive and authoritative as this powerful secret society of kids, Taffel helped the teachers and parents build their own strategic information system, a school-based confidential hot-line and phone chain that parents could use to pass on information to one another about what their kids were doing without identifying themselves or letting their children finger the source for any late-breaking story. “At first, the kids were outraged by this new development,” says Taffel, “and wanted to have some sort of counter-meeting of their own.” But both parents and teachers stood firm, the chain held, and when one parent found out that a “shadow junior prom” had been planned by some kids a gigantic melee on Times Square with free-flowing drugs and alcohol the word was passed, the law laid down in many households and the event fizzled before it began. Afterward, Taffel says, many kids who had planned to go secretly admitted to him that they were relieved not to have to prove how cool they were by actually showing up.

THERE IS A DANGER IN TELLING A story like this of felling into the “Hell-in-a-Handbasket” fallacy, as if the widely acknowledged flattening of community in America by the steamroller of mass culture and socioeconomic dislocation had already destroyed the American family. Most parents and children have proven themselves astonishingly resilient in the face of what may be the most difficult and tumultuous but transformative and visionary era of our history. Parents married, remarried, single, employed, unemployed struggle to make a success of family styles never before seen under the sun, and a majority manage against formidable odds to create an acceptable, and sometimes an outstanding empathic envelope for their children.

Nonetheless, there can be few parents in America who do not feel the strain of living in a culture that often seems deeply hostile to family and community life. Some of those who feel the most wounded and defeated in their encounter with the ’90s need more help than they can get from browsing through stacks of parenting advice literature, and they may turn to family therapists. And family therapy may look different than it did 20 years ago. Whether working through the schools or within their own offices, therapists and counselors find themselves not only mending the broken links between parents and children, but trying to knit new ones between parents and parents, between parents and teachers in short, trying to revive, through their own work, the moribund American community. In couples and family therapy, clinicians like Froma Walsh actually try to compensate for missing community in the lives of isolated, distraught and overworked parents by providing them with a kind of secondhand network telling them about the legions of other parents just like themselves who are undergoing the same struggles. By creating this keyhole vision of a kind of “community” to which these parents belong even though its members are unknown to them the therapist partly fulfills the function of a working neighborhood by alleviating their loneliness and sense of failure and reassuring them that they are normal people living in abnormal times.

The self-sufficient parent is as much an American cultural myth as the self-made man or woman; like the old-fashioned Russian nesting dolls little, ovoid figures fitting one inside another every human family can be imagined sitting at the center of concentric rings of extended family, neighborhood, community, region, society and world. Without the intermediate rings of neighborhood and community, families are set adrift in a sea of strangers; without community, the very qualities that flow from sustained and dependable human connection familiarity, affection, sympathy, trust, forbearance, mutual help disappear. “Human beings were designed to parent in groups, not all alone, isolated from each other behind our little white picket fences,” says one man from David Treadway’s church parenting group. “We are naturally pack animals, we’ve spent 300,000 years working collectively together, telling each other our stories, learning from each other’s wisdom. And now we live in a culture that separates us from each other, splinters us apart.”

Throughout history, except for periods of extreme and radical disorder wars, plague, famine community has always been something human beings could take for granted; something every child was born into, in which every family was naturally included. In our time, obviously, community has by and large disappeared, and, if it will not come back by itself, neither will it be revived by government or corporate mandate. Nor is it something that can be reestablished by rugged individualism though individuals, including therapists, may act as catalysts. Therapists who recognize in the loss of community a social “pathology” afflicting families may consider using their skills to contribute to its renewal. Ron Taffel, for example, uses the parenting workshops he leads in schools all over the country as springboards to local community building. His goal, he says, “is to encourage each group of parents to form a peer network of their own before crises happen, a neighborhood, a common fabric comprised of people whose children play and sit in class together.”

Ironically, the formation of community, which used to be the most natural and unpremeditated of human groups, is now the object of formal volunteer efforts in American society a special category of endeavor beyond work and family, sometimes called the “intentional community.” Restoring community in the ’90s will require the conscious, committed decision of the people who hope to comprise it, and who are willing to expend the time and energy necessary to get it off the ground. But, unlike other collective efforts organized around specific social or political goals saving a tidal marshland, preserving an historical building, forming a support group for cancer patients, joining a chamber music ensemble parents coming together have aims that are broader, harder to define and more fundamental. Without necessarily agreeing on any one program or set of standards-how to raise children will probably always rest upon private, individual choices they nonetheless agree that some indefinable quality of relationship is missing from their lives and necessary both for them and for the future of their children. Forming an intentional community is a little like getting married the participants don’t know exactly what they want or expect, but they are pretty sure they want it and expect something good from it.

For the kind of loneliness and isolation afflicting postmodern families, however, purely private, personal and professional solutions will not be found. “Being a therapist and a teacher is no longer good enough,” says David Treadway, whose own intentional community is his parish church, and the efforts he and his fellow parishioners are making to build a community-forming task forces to engage in political action (boycott violent video games, for example) and joining a long-time “sister” church in Boston’s inner-city to create opportunities for parent networking and mutual support.

At bottom, a community consists of people who, whether or not they share geographical space, harbor a sense of common purpose and, most important, trust one another. “I realize,” says one member of the church group, “that in this parish, we’ve held one another when we’ve buried children, we’ve helped each other when our marriages are in trouble. We know that if we get stuck as parents, if our kids get into drugs, we can talk to each other, and that our kids can feel comfortable going outside the family to talk to another adult in this parish. We can talk about things freely as we can in no other group because we know that whatever we say will be held sacred by this community.” Treadway’s church has not come up with any concrete plans or visionary schemes for remaking America part of the value of the effort, he says, is its ordinariness. “In a spirit of humility, we are trying to rebuild a sense of community through dialogue and mutual respect,” says Treadway. “We don’t feel we have any great solutions to the problems of this country, but community is not about having final answers; it really is a way of expressing the heart of our yearning for connection. What we are trying to do is help each other ask the right questions, hold each other in our distress, find some strength in sharing our common dilemma.”


Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.