Research Paper: Way We Really Are Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families by Stephanie Coontz

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¶ … America's Changing Families

In her book the Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families, which is partially a continuation and response to criticism of her older book, the Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz examines the current state -- or, as Coontz suggests would be more accurate, states -- of the American family. A historian by nature and training, according to the book's introduction, Coontz examines the family structure from a historical and sociological perspective, noting and clarifying the changes to our institutions and perceptions that are currently shaping families and the debates surrounding them. Though a decade old, this book still rings true on almost every page, with the issues discussed and the various sides of the argument Coontz lists as recognizable today as they were when first written.

The fact that this book has remained so current signals that the confusion and stagnation that Coontz so accessibly describes is still just as present today as it was in the late 1990s, and that little progress has been made in redefining or even understanding the nature of the family in our post-industrial age. It could even be fair to posit that Coontz might think we have taken a step backwards on issues such as same-sex marriage and other familial limitations since this book was first published. One thing that Coontz very consciously does not do, however, is moralize; in fact, moralization is one of the things -- perhaps the main thing -- that she credits with the warped view of historical family life that many, particularly the political right, hold onto as a cherished dream for the future.

Her first book dealt more directly with this falsely optimistic and utopian view of the "American Family" through the ages. In this text, as the title suggests, Coontz shifts her attention to the realities that face the American family today. In nine chapters, from "Getting Past the Sound Bites: How History and Sociology can Help Today's Families" to "The Future of Marriage" to the ominously titled "Working with What We've Got," Coontz details the historical paths and complex interplays of gender roles, sexuality, economic progression, and "traditional" values that have created the hodge-podge of lifestyles and ideals practiced and adhered to by American families today (or at least as recently as the book's publication). The common thread throughout the book -- the main sociological problem Coontz sees in our current concept of what the family is and should be -- is an insistent belief that the traditional happy family of working Dad, stay at home Mom, and well-behaved Bro and Sis actually existed at one point, and that it created greater societal harmony and personal fulfillment.

Coontz points out the historical and sociological flaws in arguments that rely on this concept of the traditional, and even reveals some outright deceptions practiced by certain groups, especially conservatives, in touting moral platforms that capitalize on this mistaken image of the family. For example, she notes that "members of groups such as the Council on Families in America claim they are simply expressing a new consensus when they talk about 'reinstitutionalizing enduring marriage,' but in the very next breath they declare that it 'is time to raise the stakes'" (Coontz, 78). The hypocrisy she finds in the arguments of these groups is indicative of their disregard for and misrepresentation of historical facts, which Coontz credits with basically brainwashing the public into wanting a family that doesn't exist.

The book's true aim is not to harpoon conservative political groups, however. Rather, Coontz asserts that she believes "a historical perspective can help us place our personal relationships into a larger social context" (Coontz, 11). She does not promise a cure-all for the family's ills; despite the fact that she makes several qualitative evaluations and recommendations, these come from a careful analysis of past and present facts, and this volume is anything but a self-help book. Keeping that in mind, the first chapter does deal with ways to improve today's family, which necessarily includes Coontz's opinions on what the American family's purpose is and what it ought to look like. Though all family and identity issues are highly individualistic, personal, and sensitive issues fraught with external pressures, Coontz remains reasonably objective in her overview of what a family is supposed to accomplish. One of those basic responsibilities is the raising of children, a familial role with which it is hard to dispute. Citing growing concerns over adolescent behavior, Coontz maintains that "there is no evidence that the majority of today's teenagers are more destructive or irresponsible than in the past," but rather that there is "hard data" suggesting that "young people do better on almost every level when they have meaningful involvement in useful and necessary tasks" (Coontz, 13). She goes on to detail how adolescence became an interim period between childhood and adulthood, without any defined expectations or responsibilities, to the detriment of the teenage psyche.

Her tone remains engaging yet unemotional as she describes the shift from the nineteenth century's equal treatment of teens and adults to the twentieth century's growing chasm between the two in issues of personal freedom such as sex, drugs, etc. She also notes the media's influence in the perception of this problem, stating that "what we often call youth culture is actually adult marketers seeking to commercially exploit youthful energy and rebellion" (Coontz, 15). This is one way in which the situation itself is changing.

If the problem were only one of perception, it would not be a difficult problem to fix. The real issue, however, is that the world is a different place for the current generation of kids, teens, and adults -- the general constituents of the American family -- than it was before. The perceptual difficulties are compounded by this fact; we cannot see the world as it now is because we don't even understand the world as it was. What it wasn't was as pure and innocent as it is believed to have been, but it is clear that today is even less innocent in many respects. Coontz insists that parents' increased fears for their teens are at east partially justified by the rise of STDs, specifically AIDs, and the increased availability of illicit substances and materials. Other ways in which the world has changed, and thus forced or allowed families to change, occupy later chapters of the book. In the fourth chapter, titled "The Future of Marriage," Coontz maintains that most people do not actually want a return to the single-breadwinner family structure that existed for many -- though perhaps not as many as supposed -- families in the 1950s. It would seem simple, then, for women to transition into working more, and men in a family compensating by becoming more involved in the family. In fact, according to Coontz this exactly what most Americans prefer and seem to be striving for. The problem is, there is no way to reconcile these ideals with the same ideal of marriage that existed, or is though to have existed, in the past.

In one of very few instances scattered throughout the book, Coontz finds herself agreement with the conservative right on this issue. She does not believe that women ought to give up working and devote themselves solely to the home and family, but she does concede -- insist, really -- that "so long as women continue to make long-term commitments to the workforce, marriage is unlikely to again become the life-long norm for the vast majority of individuals" (Coontz, 80). The reasons for this are complex, but Coontz identifies two basic issues. First, she believes that more women will find decreased satisfaction in marriage in general, and the hugely decreased stigma attached to leaving a marriage will enable more of them to exit more frequently -- a phenomenon we can already see happening. The other reason is actually much the same -- men, Coontz suggests, will also derive less satisfaction from a marriage that woman are not solely occupied with. The fact is, as each gender takes on roles and responsibilities traditionally assigned to the other -- that is, as men become more involved in the family and women gain financial independence -- they have less need for the particulars of familial duties that the other performed. Yet Coontz also maintains throughout the book that children are generally better off with two parents, creating a modern dilemma it can be difficult to see a way out of.

This is the shortcoming of an otherwise immensely informative and even entertaining book -- Coontz is short on solutions. She accurately and objectively describes the issues and the various viewpoints, making a good case for the her perception of the way the family was and the way it is, but she does not often suggest a new way for the family to be. Still, it is hard to fault her for this; it is a complex issue that really will always be years… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Way We Really Are Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families by Stephanie Coontz.  (2008, November 30).  Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/way-really-coming-terms-america-changing/896483

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"Way We Really Are Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families by Stephanie Coontz."  Essaytown.com.  November 30, 2008.  Accessed July 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/way-really-coming-terms-america-changing/896483.