All Our Children/Haven in a Heartless World

by Christopher Lasch
Basic Books, $15.00
Raising a family, historians point out, was once an enterprise embraced with confidence, pride, and a sense of economic gain. Current literature on the subject presents quite another picture.
All Our Children, by a Carnegiefinanced task force headed by psychologist Kenneth Keniston, argues that raising children in contemporary America is fraught with perils well beyond the control of even the most earnest parents. The very idea that “families are free-standing, independent, and autonomous units,” the report declares, is a myth we must abandon swiftly. The truth of the matter, says the Keniston report, is that family functions are now widely distributed (among schools, community peer groups, medical and other professional specialists, employers, and the like). That being the case, the burden of family care ought to spread a bit more evenly as well—which, the Keniston task force proposes, can be achieved through full employment, guaranteed annual income, national health insurance, flexible work schedules, childrearing leaves, and other familiar humanist reforms. These arguments are plainly put and not wholly surprising, which may explain the book’s leaden tone and effect.
Quite a contrast is the book by Christopher Lasch, who agrees that the family is besieged, but sees loss of authority—rather than functional fragmentation—as the core of the problem. Lasch’s review of the literature of family life is fascinating and stylish, even if well short of programmatic wisdom. The Keniston proposals, one can imagine Lasch arguing, may provide a basis for raising healthy children, but they will also weaken still further “one of the principal sources of social cohesion,” and substitute for the myth of the self-sufficient family the more degrading myth of the omnicompetent state.