Parenting like it’s 1954 | WORLD
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Parenting like it’s 1954

Social capital made family life in the Eisenhower era less daunting

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A STAND-UP COMIC said something like, “People in the ’50s had a bunch of kids and weren’t stressed about it. You know why? They didn’t care.”

I laughed out loud because even though that’s not precisely true, I sort of knew what the guy was talking about, being a child of ’50s parents.

Let us state up front that it would be scurrilously defamatory to say that ’50s parents didn’t care. By and large, kids were fed, clothed, and somehow made it to adulthood. When my brother and sister and I crawled out through the upstairs bathroom window onto the roof in our pajamas, and a neighbor phoned the house, my parents responded quite promptly. That’s prima-­facie proof of care right there.

What the stage performer may have been alluding to was how the grown-ups of the Eisenhower era sent us out to play with no instructions but to come back home for dinner when we saw the streetlights coming on. This is true enough but proves no more than that the helicopter parent was not born yet.

The mystery remains: Why were Ward and June less anxious than their modern counterparts? Why does having two kids seem like having 10 for young parents today? Why was the prolific postwar parent more laid back than today’s one-and-doner? Why am I constantly reading guest editorials about how Alexis has decided on the child-free life because of insurmountable economic and personal obstacles X, Y, and Z?

Having given the matter some thought, I will hazard that it’s not that the ’50s parents didn’t care, but more accurately (though less funnily) that they were free of care because so much of parenting back then was automatic.

Let me explain “automatic.” For one thing, it was almost a given in the ’50s that you would get married and have children, and that the Mommy would stay home and look after them and the Daddy would go off to work. For another thing, there was no birth control pill, so you took what God gave you. You can already see, I hope, that our 21st-century burden of a surfeit of choices (who has not felt its oppressive weight while strolling the cereal or dog food aisles?) didn’t exist.

The family was such an ingenious creation that if God had not devised it, I can imagine somebody eventually inventing it and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As Charles Murray wrote in his meticulously documented Coming Apart, “The family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remained married.”

Not much more was needed. But of course society is always bent on improving on perfection, with mixed results: “The new-upper-class parents tend to overdo it. The children in elite families sometimes have schedules so full of ballet classes, swimming lessons, special tutoring, and visits to the therapist that they have no time to be children” (Murray).

In the ’50s there was diffused the almost unconscious comfort of what Murray calls “neighborliness” (see roof caper in paragraph 3). The Gabrielsons and Barrettes next door were on the same page as Mom and Dad and could be counted on to administer reproofs for bad behavior in loco parentis.

People went to church on Sundays. “People who don’t go to church can be just as morally upright as those who do, but as a group they do not generate the social capital that the churchgoing population generates. It’s not ‘their fault’ that the social capital deteriorates, but that doesn’t make the deterioration any less real” (Murray).

Richard Tessier, a boyhood friend, was the second oldest of 16 siblings by the same mother and father. They lived in a duplex with the wall between taken down. They were not rich unless you count what God calls rich—a “quiver full” of kids (Psalm 127:5).

As for me, I had my last child at age 42, and panicked at the news—“what shall we eat, what shall we drink, what shall we wear!” (Matthew 6:31-33). My husband said the sweetest thing: “Don’t worry, Andrée, God will take care of this one too.”

And He did.

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.


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