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The Way We Never Were: American Families and…

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

by Stephanie Coontz

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730919,508 (3.82)15
  1. 20
    The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner (Othemts)
    Othemts: A lot of politics and punditry are based on mythology of how America used to be better and how its so bad today. Read "The Way We Never Were" and "The Culture of Fear" to help the scales fall from your eyes and see the truth behind these myths.
  2. 10
    Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz (Othemts)

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» See also 15 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Funny how we remember things. As a child I did believe everything I was told and saw on the TV. I highly recommend this book. It is fun and recalls many memories. Odd too is how we thought of things then and how we think of them today. I will share this experience with friends and recommend they purchase a copy. ( )
  mable1002000 | Aug 12, 2018 |
This should be required reading! ( )
  Lindoula | Sep 25, 2017 |
Coontz presents the historical facts of American family life and political and economic movements in hopes of demonstrating that the families of the past were not so idyllic and the families of the present are not so dysfunctional as they are often portrayed. She argues that historical mythologizing about family life distracts us from constructively examining how best to serve families and communities. She points out that drug abuse was more widespread a hundred years ago, alcohol consumption was three times higher, and prostitution and serious sexually transmitted infections were more prevalent. The US has had the highest homicide rates in the industrial world for 150 years, and we had sadistic lynch mobs and teen murderers long before violent video games or gay people could be blamed. The 1950s was an extremely atypical economic period, with higher job security , more affordable housing, and less income inequality...but these were not due to 1950s family practices but rather the time's economic and political support systems for families. Families have rarely been economically or socially self-sufficient; families have relied upon governmental assistance from the frontier times and beyond. By correcting these sorts of historical distortions, Coontz frees us up to learn the actual lessons of the past: that children can thrive in a wide variety of caregiving arrangements, that racist and sexist assumptions harm our families and children, and that poverty and economic insecurity have a huge impact on personal and family dysfunction. Coontz ends her introduction with this:

"As long as our view of family change is refracted through the lens of nostalgia for the past, we will not be able to see a way forward. But by learning how complex and multifaceted the experience of family life has been in the past, along with the trade-offs, reversals, and diverse outcomes that have accompanied change, we may be able to develop a greater tolerance for the ambiguities of contemporary family life, rather than longing for a past that was never as idyllic or uncomplicated as we sometimes imagine...Only when we have a realistic idea of how families have and have not worked in the past can we make informed decisions about how to support families in the present and improve our future."

I thought the book was well argued and drew upon a good variety of sources. She cites well and often. Truthfully, I want to own this book so I can return to it often. ( )
1 vote wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Also known as: Everything You Know About the American Family and the Social State Is Wrong, or, other lies your grandparents told you.

A little dry, in the endless evocation of statistics, but that's what gives it its power. It's certainly depressing, I think, because it points out the systematic failures of policy and rhetoric that has not been, you know, based in reality, so it's hard to avoid the sense that the whole problem of policy and myth and whatnot is just unsolvable. But it's really good at intersectionality, and the tone is clear and refreshingly direct throughout. ( )
1 vote cricketbats | Mar 30, 2013 |
If there's one thing that's great about this book is that it dismantles the myth that middle class white people "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" to get where they are now. The GI Bill, highway system, low-interest mortgages and much more government aid helped build the middle class after World War II. Of course there's much more in this book about the mythology of the Golden Age of America's past and that makes it all the better still. A great book and recommended reading for all Americans. ( )
2 vote Othemts | Nov 7, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0465090974, Paperback)

Did you ever wonder about the historical accuracy of those "traditional family values" touted in the heated arguments that insist our cultural ills can be remedied by their return? Of course, myth is rooted in fact, and certain phenomena of the 1950s generated the Ozzie and Harriet icon. The decade proved profamily--the birthrate rose dramatically; social problems that nag--gangs, drugs, violence--weren't even on the horizon. Affluence had become almost a right; the middle class was growing. "In fact," writes Coontz, "the 'traditional' family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves." This clear-eyed, bracing, and exhaustively researched study of American families and the nostalgia trap proves--beyond the shadow of a doubt--that Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary.

Gender, too, is always on Coontz's mind. In the third chapter ("My Mother Was a Saint"), she offers an analysis of the contradictions and chasms inherent in the "traditional" division of labor. She reveals, next, how rarely the family exhibited economic and emotional self-reliance, suggesting that the shift from community to nuclear family was not healthy. Coontz combines a clear prose style with bold assertions, backed up by an astonishing fleet of researched, myth-skewing facts. The 88 pages of endnotes dramatize both her commitment to and deep knowledge of the subject. Brilliant, beautifully organized, iconoclastic, and (relentlessly) informative The Way We Never Were breathes fresh air into a too often suffocatingly "hot" and agenda-sullied subject. In the penultimate chapter, for example, a crisp reframing of the myth of black-family collapse leads to a reinterpretation of the "family crisis" in general, putting it in the larger context of social, economic, and political ills.

The book began in response to the urgent questions about the family crisis posed her by nonacademic audiences. Attempting neither to defend "tradition" in the era of family collapse, nor to liberate society from its constraints, Coontz instead cuts through the kind of sentimental, ahistorical thinking that has created unrealistic expectations of the ideal family. "I show how these myths distort the diverse experiences of other groups in America," Coontz writes, "and argue that they don't even describe most white, middle-class families accurately." The bold truth of history after all is that "there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world."

Some of America's most precious myths are not only precarious, but down right perverted, and we would be fools to ignore Stephanie Coontz's clarion call. --Hollis Giammatteo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:46 -0400)

This myth-shattering examination of two centuries of American family life banishes the misconceptions about the past that cloud current debate about "family values." "Leave It to Beaver" was not a documentary, Stephanie Coontz points out; neither the 1950s nor any other moment from our past presents workable models of how to conduct our personal lives today. Without minimizing the serious new problems in American families, Coontz warns that a consoling nostalgia for a largely mythical past of "traditional values" is a trap that can only cripple our capacity to solve today's problems. From "a man's home was his castle" to "traditional families never asked for a handout," this provocative book explodes cherished illusions about the past. Organized around a series of myths and half-truths that burden modern families, the book sheds new light on such contemporary concerns as parenting, privacy, love, the division of labor along gender lines, the black family, feminism, and sexual practice. Fascinating facts abound: In the nineteenth century, the age of sexual consent in some states was nine or ten, and alcoholism and drug abuse were more rampant than today . . . Teenage childbearing peaked in the fabulous family-oriented 1950s . . . Marriages in pioneer days lasted a shorter time than they do now. Placing current family dilemmas in the context of far-reaching economic, political, and demographic changes, The Way We Never Were shows that people have not suddenly and inexplicably "gone bad" and points to ways that we can help families do better. Seeing our own family pains as part of a larger social predicament means that we can stop the cycle of guilt or blame and face the real issues constructively, Coontz writes. The historical evidence reveals that families have always been in flux and often in crisis, and that families have been most successful wherever they have built meaningful networks beyond their own boundaries.… (more)

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