The plight of the family, so long a professional preoccupation of social scientists and social pathologists, now commands anxious attention among legislators and government bureaucrats. Everyone talks about the need for a “family policy.” President Carter has repeatedly stressed the importance of holding the family together, and a growing number of agencies—the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, the Select Committee on Education of the House of Representatives, the HEW Office of Human Development, among others—devote at least part of their time to problems of the family.

According to a theory currently popular in Washington, the United States already has a de facto policy on families, since the income tax, social security, medicaid, and many other governmental programs impinge in one way or another on the family. Tax laws reward marriage and discriminate against single taxpayers. Welfare programs help to break up families by restricting aid, in half the states, to fatherless households. Military and foreign service transfers often contribute, inadvertently, to the same result. The $750 personal exemption in the income tax code, which amounts to a partial subsidy of child care, favors the rich, like all personal tax exemptions, and thus puts an additional burden on the poor. These and other programs, formulated with an eye to other objectives, influence the family in an unplanned and often contradictory fashion. What the country needs, according to this reasoning, is a policy designed to promote “family health” and to correct the “anti-family bias” that often results, unintentionally, from other programs.

Current concern about the family probably derives not so much from the crisis of the family itself as from two important policy studies of the Sixties, the Moynihan Report and the Coleman Report. Government officials respond more readily to events in Washington than to events in the rest of the country, and both these documents have had great influence in official circles. The Moynihan Report, although widely criticized and denounced, reinforced a longstanding belief that poverty and broken homes go hand in hand. The Coleman Report, followed a few years later by Christopher Jencks’s elaborate study of education and achievement,1 seemed to show that schooling has little effect on academic achievement (or on jobs, income, or social mobility)—that achievement for the most part reflects the attitude toward schooling that children bring to school from their families.

According to Coleman, “it appears that variations in the facilities and curriculums of the schools account for relatively little variation in pupil achievement insofar as this is measured by standard tests.” Even racial integration showed a “rather small” correlation with scholastic achievement. On the other hand, “a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of the other students in the school.” In other words, middle-class children in middle-class schools expect more from schooling and get it. Jencks insisted even more strongly that families, not schools, determine the course of a child’s educational career and hence his access to good jobs and a good income. Because “family background explains nearly half the variation in educational attainment,” he concluded that school reform “cannot make adults more equal.”

The new interest in the family thus reflects a certain disillusionment with the school. It also reflects a growing disenchantment with the public institutions and welfare agencies that have taken over so many functions of the family—the hospital, the mental asylum, the juvenile court. The medical profession, after upholding the hospital as an indispensable alternative to the family, now begins to think that patients might be better off if they were allowed to die at home. Psychiatrists are having similar second thoughts, not only because existing facilities are overcrowded but because they have failed to attain the high rates of cures once predicted with such confidence. Lawyers have begun to criticize the courts for removing “neglected” children from their homes without evidence that such children suffer serious harm and without proof that institutionalization or transfer to foster parents provides any solution. Even the school’s claim on the child has begun to give way to parental claims. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Supreme Court ruled that Amish parents have a right to keep their children out of the public schools. “The child is not the mere creature of the State,” the court said; “those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” 2

All Our Children, a new study of the family commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation in 1972, shows the influence of the new mood among welfare workers, government officials, social scientists, and social reformers. Until recently, most experts took the position that parents lacked the resources and the technical knowledge to provide for their children’s needs and that their efforts had to be supplemented, or even supplanted, by a proliferation of social services. Keniston and his co-authors, conscious of belonging to “an emerging consensus,” believe on the contrary that parents “are still the world’s greatest experts about the needs of their own children.” They recognize that many of the agencies ostensibly ministering to the family have undermined the family instead. These agencies have taken over much of the work of child rearing yet left parents with most of the blame for whatever goes wrong.


The experts, having assumed or undermined parental powers, still talk as if parents retained exclusive responsibility for the child’s development. Parents thus exercise little authority over the young while experiencing most of the guilt that arises when the young fail to get ahead in life. The parental “malaise,” according to Keniston, consists of “the sense of having no guidelines or supports for raising children, the feeling of not being in control as parents, and the widespread sense of personal guilt for what seems to be going awry.”

The rehabilitation of parenthood, it appears, implies at the same time a thoroughgoing critique of professionalism and the welfare state. Unfortunately Keniston stops well short of such a critique. He takes for granted the family’s dependence on experts and seeks merely to regularize and regulate this relationship. “Few people would dispute that we live in a society where parents must increasingly rely on others for help and support in raising their children.” The family economy has disappeared, children represent a financial liability rather than an asset, the school has taken over the family’s educational functions, and the medical profession has assumed most of the responsibility for health care. These changes, according to Keniston, leave parents in the position of “executives in a large firm—responsible for the smooth coordination of the many people and processes that must work together to produce the final product.”

This line of analysis leads to the conclusion, not that parents should collectively assert their control over child rearing, but that federal policy should seek to equalize the relationship between experts and parents. Yet Keniston’s own reasoning shows that parents occupy a position closer to that of proletarians than of executives. As matters now stand, according to Keniston, “parents have little authority over those with whom they share the task of raising their children”; they “deal with those others from a position of inferiority or helplessness.” The obvious reason for this is that the state, not the parents, pays the bill for professional services, or at least signs the paychecks. (The citizens, as taxpayers, pay in the end.) If parents organized and hired their own experts, things might be different.

It goes without saying that such solutions do not commend themselves to members of the policy-making establishment. Measures of this kind are too closely associated with populism, localism, and residual resistance to centralized progress. They have become doubly objectionable, and for reasons whose force even enemies of the establishment must acknowledge, in the wake of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle of the late Sixties, when “community control” degenerated into reverse racism and education into racial propaganda. The causes of this failure were not simple and a different result might have been possible in a more tolerant atmosphere, but the example is not promising. Yet the alternative to community control is more bureaucracy. I wish Keniston and other social democrats would squarely confront the choice. Instead they try to have things both ways. While advocating an expansion of government services to the family, a federal guarantee of full employment, improved protection of children’s legal rights, and a vastly expanded program of health care, Keniston at the same time proposes to strengthen “parent participation” in all these programs.

Keniston has plenty of good intentions. Service workers, he believes, should take the needs of their clients into account (although the state pays the bills). The government should “enable the simplest units possible—individuals and families—to make their own choices and control the shape of their own lives.” Instead of always blaming the abuse and neglect of children on their parents, the law should recognize that neglect often arises out of intolerable living conditions. Accordingly, the state whenever possible should help the family to provide for its economic needs rather than remove the “neglected” child to an institution.

Yet the hope that the state can provide increased services to the family without undermining parental authority and competence even further remains unrealistic. Keniston himself admits that “people who provide services, at least those publicly funded, have had to account to their bosses, not their clients, for how well they are doing the job.” In order to break this pattern, he wants to set up “consumers’ councils” that would audit service agencies and “evaluate how well programs are actually alleviating the problems they were set up to solve.” But the definition of parents as consumers of services already relegates them to a position of inferiority toward the services on which they depend. The experts’ power rests on their claim to provide services the family cannot provide for itself, and this claim in turn rests on the experts’ special access to technical knowledge allegedly indispensable to the job. Consumer education and participation in decision making—standard tactics of liberal reformers for years—make no assault on the monopoly of technical knowledge by experts and therefore do not alter the balance of power between experts and consumers, in this case between parents and the service agencies that have expropriated parental authority.


All Our Children, for all its laudable intent to restore authority to the family, bears the stamp of American social science, which has never been able to understand the role of power in social life or the way in which its own findings usually support the assumption of power by allegedly impartial, scientific experts. Social science treats the ascendancy of experts as an unavoidable condition of industrial society, even when it seeks to qualify this ascendancy by improving the position of consumers. In fact, however, the concepts of “industrial specialization” and “functional differentiation” conceal the expropriation of the workers’ craft knowledge by modern management, just as the “transfer of functions” from the family to other agencies—the bland formula which social scientists use to describe the transformation of the family under industrialism—conceals the expropriation of parental authority by the so-called helping professions.

During the twentieth century, these professions have extended their authority over the care and nurture of the young by deriding maternal “instinct,” stigmatizing parental services to the young as “home remedies,” and ridiculing the “rule of thumb” methods used in the household. The medical and psychiatric assault on the family as a technologically backward sector complements the advertising industry’s drive to convince people that store-bought goods are superior to home-made products.

The family’s increasing inability to provide for its own needs does not in itself vindicate the experts’ claims. Consumer advocates, who accept the inevitability of consumption as a way of life, have consistently deplored the shoddy quality of machine-made goods, and the same criticism extends to many of the services provided to the family by medicine and psychiatry. At one time the experts believed—and managed to convince their clients—that they had reduced child rearing to an exact science. The collapse of that faith calls into question the inevitability of professional dominance—of the increasing control exercised by the health, education, and welfare professions, and by the state, over the process of growing up in society.3

Social scientists assume that the requirements of a complex society dictate the triumph of factory production over handicraft production and the ascendancy of the “helping professions” over the family. It is significant that Keniston objects to the habit of blaming parents for everything that goes wrong with their children, not because it undermines the family’s capacity for self-help, but because, on the contrary, it rests on “the myth of the self-sufficient individual and of the self-sufficient, protected, and protective family.”

From his perspective—the one that prevails in all the social sciences—modern society constitutes a seamless web of interconnected, interdependent organisms. In such a society, “family self-sufficiency is a false myth,” in Keniston’s words. From his point of view, the consideration that “all today’s families need help in raising children,” instead of prompting questions about how experts came to put so many people in the position of needing “help,” merely confirms the inevitability of professional ascendancy.

Recent studies of “professionalization” by historians have shown that professionalism did not emerge, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in response to clearly defined social needs.4 Instead, the new professions themselves invented many of the needs they claimed to satisfy. They played on public fears of disorder and disease, adopted a deliberately mystifying jargon, ridiculed popular traditions of self-help as backward and unscientific, and in this way created or intensified (not without opposition) a demand for their own services. The case for the rise of the factory system in the nineteenth century, as Stephen Marglin has recently argued, rested not on its technological superiority over handicraft production but on the more effective control of the labor force it allowed the employer.5

Similarly the case for the “helping professions” rested not on their technical superiority over the family but on the control they exercised over the child, which made it possible, in the words of one reformer, “to rescue the child from irresponsible parents.” What Durkheim said about the advantage of the school over the family applied to the whole apparatus of socialized reproduction, and laid bare the real motive behind the experts’ drive to take over the functions of the family.

We have through the school the means of training the child in a collective life different from home life. We have here a unique and irreplaceable opportunity to take hold of the child at a time when the gaps in our social organization have not yet been able to arouse in him feelings that make him partially rebellious to common life.

In Durkheim’s view, the displacement of the family by the school and other agencies of socialized reproduction would facilitate the integration of the individual into society, “the nourishing mother from which we gain the whole of our moral and intellectual substance and toward whom our wills turn in a spirit of love and gratitude.”

Against the hypothesis of professional self-aggrandizement, it has been argued that demands for professional services originate in “real advances of knowledge” and in the “conditions of modern society,” which “place a high premium on esoteric knowledge.”6 But “conditions” do not in themselves generate social change. What counts is the way conditions are interpreted, and professionals have clearly interpreted them, and sold this interpretation to the public, in such a way as to increase the demand for their own knowledge. The evidence of their assiduous self-promotion can no longer be airily dismissed by reasserting the sociological truism that “modern society involves the individual in relations…that are vastly more complex than [those] his ancestors…had to contend with.”7

The work of Burton Bledstein, Anthony Platt, Robert Mennel, and other historians of professionalism is defective not because it underestimates the genuine need for professional services but because it treats professionalism as an independent, autonomous historical determinant, ignoring the connection between the rise of modern professionalism and the rise of industrial management. The same historical development that turned the citizen into a client transformed the worker from a producer into a consumer. The new historians of professionalism, by treating professionals as a separate class with their own interests and identity, repeat the mistake made by earlier students of the “managerial revolution,” who argued that managers constitute a “new class.” In reality, both the growth of management and the proliferation of professions represent new forms of capitalist control, which enable capital to transcend its personal form and to pervade every part of society.

The problem of strengthening the family has to be considered as part of the more general problem of control over production and over the technical knowledge on which modern production rests. The family’s dependence on professional services over which it has little control represents one form of a more general phenomenon: the erosion of self-reliance and ordinary competence by the growth of giant corporations and of the bureaucratic state which serves them. The corporations and the state now control so much of the necessary know-how that Durkheim’s image of society as the “nourishing mother,” from whom all blessings flow, more and more coincides with the citizen’s everyday experience. The “consensus of the competent,” as Thomas L. Haskell refers to the professions in his book The Emergence of Professional Social Science, came into being by reducing the layman to incompetence.

As management extended its control over production, it appropriated the technical knowledge formerly controlled by the crafts and trades, centralized this knowledge, and then parceled it out piecemeal in a confusing, selective fashion guaranteed to keep the worker in a state of dependence. Similarly the “helping professions,” by persuading the family to rely on scientific technology and the advice of scientifically trained experts, undermined the family’s capacity to provide for itself and thereby justified the continuing expansion of health, education, and welfare services. Having monopolized or claimed to monopolize most of the knowledge necessary to bring up children, the agencies of socialized reproduction handed it back in the form of “parent education,” “consumer education,” and other devices intended to enable the citizen to shop more efficiently among proliferating professional services. As two child-guidance experts8 put it in 1934, “Old functions of child welfare and training have passed over into the hands of sociologists, psychiatrists, physicians, home economists, and other scientists dealing with problems of human welfare. Through parent education the sum of their experiments and knowledge is given back to parents in response to their demand for help.” Having first declared parents incompetent to raise their offspring without professional assistance, social pathologists “gave back” the knowledge they had appropriated—gave it back in a mystifying fashion that rendered parents more helpless than ever, more abject in their dependence on expert opinion.

What is to be done? Keniston’s formulation—that policy should seek not to replace the family but to enable it to provide more efficiently for its own needs—can serve as a guide to social policy in general. Strengthen the citizen, not the state; above all, avoid the creation of new bureaucracies. Disenchantment with “institutional” solutions, together with a shortage of public funds, makes such proposals attractive right now. Unless access to knowledge can be made more radically democratic, however, reforms undertaken in this spirit may simply add to the family’s burdens without adding to its power. In order to break the existing pattern of dependence and stop the erosion of competence, citizens must take the solution of their problems—the deterioration of child care, for example—into their own hands. They must create their own agencies of collective self-help, their own “communities of competence.” This sounds utopian, but American society contains many traditions of localism, self-help, and community action, not yet defunct by any means, on which to base such a politics of decentralization. On the other hand, the well-meaning attempt to strengthen the family by improving the professional services that minister to it will merely strengthen the professions instead.

This Issue

November 24, 1977