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The speed of life

Professorsí book examines fast-paced families

Cover of book 'Fast Families, Virtual Children'

It’s 5:45 p.m. on a Friday. You’re stuck in traffic as the minutes tick away. A block ahead, cars streaming from the other direction turn in at the fast food restaurant, where you need to stop and buy dinner so you can get your child fed and back to school by 6:30 for (choose the one that fits) an orchestra concert, a basketball game, the science fair.

Your spouse left that afternoon for a weekend Scout campout with your other child, so you can’t ask for help. Just as the traffic begins to snake forward, your cellphone rings, immersing you in a crisis at the office you left only 20 minutes ago.

Sound familiar? It’s reality for many American families, say sociologists Ben Agger and Beth Anne Shelton, authors of the book Fast Families, Virtual Children: A Critical Sociology of Families and Schooling.

Drs. Agger and Shelton do not just theorize about child-rearing and family life, they experience it daily as employed (UT Arlington sociology professors), married (to each other) parents of two teenagers. They live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood that is home to many professional couples and their children.

“The technological advances that enable flex time, that theoretically free people from offices to work anywhere, also give their employers access to them at any time,” Shelton said. “The work week is not 40 hours for most people. With cellphones and e-mail, the work week is more like 55 hours.”

Agger said that hours in the work week have declined in Europe, while they have increased in the United States. Vacations are much longer in other industrialized countries as well, and long-term paid leaves for parents of newborns are common.

“Our political rhetoric says families are important,” he said. “But our country does not have policies in place to support that.”

We live, the authors say, in a post-Fordist era. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, coined the term more than three decades ago to describe the mass production economy. It was categorized by workers on assembly lines who produced so many cars that the increased sales units meant the corporation’s profit margins could be smaller and the price of its product lower.

Cars were no longer exclusively for the rich, and the changes brought about by a newly mobile society, not only in the economy but also in family life, were immense.

The economy of western and industrialized eastern nations is increasingly termed post-Fordist. Rapid information and communication technologies take production out of large factories, freeing workers from the assembly line and the office cubicle.

This stage of capitalism, which began with the advent of the Internet during the 1980s and ’90s, has blurred the boundaries between work and home. If work is done not only in the office but also by cellphone in the car and on the Internet at home, where is work? And what is home?

“It is by far the minority of households where a parent is in the home during the day,” Shelton said. “More and more children are in self-care.”

In addition to spending more time in their homes alone, often with the company of Internet chat rooms, iPods and television, children face a lot more pressure, the sociologists said.

“It’s not uncommon for seventh-grade children to have two hours of homework each night,” Agger said. “If they’re playing a sport or involved in other activities, it may be 8 or 9 o’clock before they even begin.”

Shelton said most of the families she knows anticipate summer as an opportunity to carve out a little family time. During the school year, there is little opportunity on weeknights for anything except dinner and homework.

Competition, a hallmark of the capitalist economy, has permeated schools, creating an atmosphere that rewards children for being the best at athletics and other activities and robs less-talented children of the joys of participating.

“Even when a child makes all-state orchestra, the focus is not on the accomplishment but on the placement earned,” Shelton said. “Is it first chair or last chair?”

Agger says exposing children to different activities is important for their development but that, instead, society encourages overscheduling and not allowing the time to daydream, to play and to just be kids.

“Children are the forgotten minority group in American society,” he said. “They are off the radar screen, except to advertisers, who view them as consumers. Children are not simply little adults.”

Shelton said it is challenging for parents to set limits when children are exposed to so many things that are not age-appropriate.

“The world has come into the household in ways that were not possible when we were growing up,” Agger said, pointing out that in his youth there were three or four television channels and the household’s only TV set was in the family room, which afforded controlled access as well as shared viewing experiences.

As an important step in redirecting family life, Shelton and Agger posit that children have six basic rights and parents have six corresponding responsibilities. Children have to right to be naïve, to be idealistic, to be imaginative and creative, to empathize, to have their health needs met and to participate democratically in their world.

Parents have the responsibility to protect, to avoid cynicism, to avoid rote learning and rote culture, to teach social and political awareness, to promote health and good self-care, and to provide occasions for democracy.

“Any critical social theory worth its salt must consider children and childhood as important topics, although these topics have nearly always been neglected,” the authors argue in their book. “No truly universal humanity is possible if we leave out children.”

And that means taking back real family values: children’s rights, good schools and nurturing families.

— Sue Stevens

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