Free-Enterprise Parenting



LONDON. — London -- The exuberant and unambiguous images of machismo displayed in the footage of war from the gulf, eagerly reinforced by the popular press, have given new prominence to stereotypes of men which have never been far below the surface in Western culture, but which had been eclipsed in recent years by a milder imagery of maleness.

With the growing number of fragmented families and single parents (mostly mothers, naturally), young men are often left to fend for themselves, scavenging scraps of male identity where they can. This provides vast opportunities for free-enterprise parenting; and is one of the functions that devolve upon the heroes, stars and adventurers of both reality and fantasy. One has only to cast an eye upon the picture-covered walls of the rooms of young people, the images, photos, pin-ups, icons; all of a barely human perfection, rarely known personally, a beckoning, seemingly tangible abstraction.

This is perhaps why so many parents admit themselves powerless in the presence of their children's development. ''I don't know where he gets it from, who he mixes with.'' ''They don't listen to me, you can't tell them anything.'' In such phrases they record the passing of their function to those who are so much better qualified to do it than they are.

The traditional male iconography has been modified somewhat by the decorative androgynes of the pop world and soap opera. These allow for certain embellishments and departures from the fundamental stereotype, as is only to be expected where freedom of choice is paramount.

But what relief when the traditional images can reassert themselves with such vigor and force! No wonder army recruiting offices have reported such a large increase in applicants, impelled by a media-crafted resuscitation of models of military heroics.

The ''family values'' so dear to conservative mythology could not be more remote from the experience of millions of young people. The personnel of such families are embalmed, even mummified, lay-figures; archaisms stranded, ironically, by the realities of an extreme individualist ideology, of which conservatives are themselves the most ardent promoters.

For individualism does not obediently confine itself to the realm of economic endeavor, but busily invades social life too, rearranging relationships, fracturing and dispersing those cozy family units which conservatives claim to cherish. The truth is that there is only one thing they cherish even more highly, and that is the profits to be made out of the dissolution of the family.

It was through the workings of capitalist industrial society that more extended family structures were ruined at an earlier stage of its development. More spacious and ample forms of the family shrank into the depleted and claustrophobic spaces, the depopulated entities that the nuclear family has become. It is too cramped; one or two individuals -- mostly women -- must bear impossible burdens; feelings and passions have insufficient scope to express themselves without inflicting great damage on the small number of people it contains. Should it surprise us if so many families collapse in anger, violence and recrimination?

It may be that the nuclear family is destined to follow the path of the extended family into extinction. If so, the primary cause of this benign evolution will be the same agent of those earlier dissolutions. An executive of British Ford admitted some time ago that the break-up of families benefits car sales: It is not a question of who will have the car; each must have one.

Parenting has become far too important to be left to mere parents. It is far too arduous a task to be undertaken by individuals in the vast division of labor within rich Western societies. The handing over of children to experts and professionals is only half the story; the other half is the role of television as child-minder and instructor, the function of the advertising industry as solicitous mothering monitor of needs and wants, the shopping malls as consoling universal nanny.

*Jeremy Seabrook is a journalist and author based in London. This commentary was distributed by Third World Network Features.

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