Family is last refuge in a world of 'culture'

November 05, 1996|By Susan Reimer

THE PICTURE psychologist Mary Pipher paints of the American family is of parents and children hooked up like life support to their own electronic toys: phones, TVs, computers, video games, VCRs.

This family does not leave the house except for work and school -- no neighbors know them, no children play in the yard -- but fierce cultural winds whip at them as if that house had no walls.

Their children learn how to behave from sitcom children and interact only with the little people in video games. The family gathers to watch a prime-time version of life instead of engaging each other in a real one, and the commercials leave everyone feeling discontent.

"Our culture is at war with families," Pipher writes in her new book, "The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families."

"Families in America have been invaded by technology, mocked or kitschified by the media, isolated by demographic changes, pounded by economic forces and hurt by corporate values."

Pipher's timing could not be better. It is election season and everyone running for office is saying the same thing. But Pipher's new book is not a polemic. Pipher is not the mouthpiece for a conservative think tank, she is not sharing Bible-based child-rearing precepts on talk radio.

"I am extremely mainstream," Pipher says in an interview from her home in Lincoln, Neb. "I am the mother of two kids who works. I have neighbors and friends. I am a middle-aged, middle-class woman from the middle of America."

It is just that lack of pretense that makes Pipher credible. She finds words for what many of us feel -- that we are overrun, that somewhere we lost control of our family life. We are stuck on a work-spend treadmill and someone keeps cranking up the speed. That we are unhappy and uncertain and uneasy, and we cannot soothe ourselves.

Pipher names the usual villains: the media, materialism and isolation. But she also points a finger of blame at her own field. Families troop into psychologists' offices too quickly with a "fix my kid" or "fix my mate" agenda.

If that were not trouble enough, these families are met by professionals who tell them to look inside themselves for the source of their unhappiness or encourage them to cut ties with troublesome family members.

These family members leave their therapy sessions feeling inadequate, determined to ditch their nuisance relatives and devote more attention to themselves. It is a formula not for mental health but for narcissism, and it fails to account for the impact of the real culprit in our malaise: a high-speed, techno-spend culture.

Pipher's book takes its title from an Irish proverb: "It is in the shelter of each other that people live." And her solution to the troubles she illuminates is to return to the family as "our shelter from the storm, our last great hope."

This does not require that we pack up and flee to the mountains. What she suggests is a simultaneous pulling in and reaching out: that we solidify our family time and make it sacred, but also reach out to our neighbors for advice and support.

"As parents we have two jobs: To protect our children from what is noxious and harmful and to connect with what is good and beautiful," says Pipher. "I don't tell people what these things are. But I do tell them not to let the culture happen to them. To make choices about what you accept, about what you consume.

"I don't want to send people on a mission of culture change. People's eyes glaze over when you talk about something that large. But you can break it down to millions of individual acts. You don't have to take responsibility for changing the economic nature of this country, but you can decide not to buy jeans from a maker who advertises them with semi-pornographic pictures of young girls."

Pipher offers lots of solutions in this book because she did not offer them in "Reviving Ophelia," and her readers -- legions of them that made it a best-seller -- were feeling powerless and dismayed.

" 'Ophelia' raised a lot of questions. It stated the problem. 'Shelter' is my best answer about what you can do," says Pipher.

Many of Pipher's solutions do not require that you organize a national boycott or gather signatures to place an issue on a ballot, although she strongly recommends that parents lobby hard for quality television between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. because TV is the defacto after-school baby-sitter of our children.

Other solutions are so easy to do. And it is easy to see their value.

Become the cookie lady on your block. Let the kids know they can always get a cookie if they knock on your door.

Turn off the phone and the TV for a time each evening and introduce your kids to silence.

Make dinner time sacred. If you can't schedule dinner together, try breakfast.

Take your kids outside and introduce them to nature so they stop thinking of themselves as the center of the universe.

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