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By Richard Louv
Houghton Mifflin, 1990, 420 pages

Childhood's Future is about the crisis of the American family. Newspaper columnist Richard Louv spent a couple of years traveling across the country listening to children, parents, and educators. The book is part report of what he found, part analysis of the problem, and part prescription of how we might reweave the webs that connect family and society.

Louv pictures society as an intricate web of diverse and interdependent strands, many of which have become strained and unraveled in the last generation or two. This, he says, has had profound implications for the American family, and the new environment of childhood in particular. Quoting extensive conversations with parents and children across America, he describes an increasing absence of neighbors and kin in family life; a widening rift between children and adults as children become more and more attuned to the adult world through computers and mass media yet have less and less positive contact with adults; the "overprogramming" of family life; and the increasing cultural polarity between proponents of traditional family values and what Louv calls the "high-tech" modernists.

Louv also describes a pervasive anxiety among parents today rooted in part in the structure of modern life — which has robbed many families of time together — and in part in a declining sense of trust. "The clearest evidence that the supportive web for children and for parents has pulled apart is the lack of family time," he writes. Modern parents are exhausted and overbooked. They long not for quality time so much as free time, dream time, time to really be with their families and themselves. The fear and lack of trust among many parents is more difficult to penetrate, he observes, but it stems from a declining sense of freedom and community in American life and is directly linked to a culture of increased crime and violence where parents no longer feel a sense of control over the lives of their children.

The fragmentation of American families is not simply a matter of personal morality or individual fidelity, in Louv's view. It is linked to broader changes in society at large — especially the imperatives of a changing economy. The United States is the only Western nation where family life is considered a private, not public, matter, he notes. It is also the only nation in the West where workplaces are thoroughly disconnected from family concerns, and where families are expected to fend for themselves without support from corporations or government.

According to Louv, reweaving the tattered web of social relationships involves a great deal more than rhetorical calls for "family values." It involves fostering a supportive environment for families and addressing the interconnected issues of child care, school reform, work schedules, and even our relationship to the natural world. He calls for a "family liberation" movement that can cross ideological and class lines — indeed, his interviews suggest that the seeds of such a movement have already been planted. Among the fundamental principles for such a movement are: that none of us raises a child alone, even if we believe we are alone; that the main goal of programs involving children and families should be to increase positive contact between children and adults; that truly family-friendly workplaces respect employees' needs for flexibility and time; and that little meaningful political change can happen for children without grass-roots action beginning in the family and extending through neighborhoods, schools, and the workplace.

Louv proposes a number of the concrete initiatives toward restoring the web. For example, he contends that employers should set up day care centers and offer flex-time and home-based employment; malls, parks, and subdivisions should be designed with children in mind; and schools ought to turn themselves into all-day community centers that serve every member of the family. While he stresses the importance of civil society in restoring the web, Louv doesn't imagine that it can be adequately repaired without major changes in public policy. Above all, he argues, policy must be decided not on the basis of false choices between moral and economic concerns — which merely tend to reflect narrow partisan ideologies — but rather by mutual support for the welfare of all American families and the lives of future generations.

This is a long book, but a very good one. Louv's observations of and insights into everyday family life in America are both disturbing in their implications and encouraging in what they suggest about genuine family values — not the bogus "values" our politicians like to talk about. But, not surprisingly considering that Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the book has a tendency to read like a series of interconnected newspaper columns. Parts of it read like the sort of vapid op-eds one runs across in small-town papers where the editorial "we" is used to imply all morally righteous citizens. But just when the tone begins to jar the nerves, Louv offers something bold and unexpected and draws the reader back in. Thankfully, he offers considerably more depth and vision than his style at first suggests.