These days bipolarism appears to be the “in” childhood malady touted by leftist psychologists, who previously promoted ADHD to explain away the disturbed behavior exhibited by postmodern children and adolescents.  The list of problems is long: antisocial behavior, poor performance in school, sexual promiscuity; depression and suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism; violence and random acts of homicide in school.  For all these ills leftists have devised medical explanations.  Conservatives have their own set of simple explanations: School shooters play video games or take Ritalin or watch violent movies.

This is not to say that video games or even ADHD (if it is really a disease as opposed to an inexplicable syndrome) is insignificant.  Who is to say?  There is no such thing as a social science.  Though there may sometimes be a dash of merit in the opinions of psychologists, sociologists, “political scientists,” and economists, they utterly lack a rigorous scientific method and are completely incapable of predicting (much less preventing or curing) any of the maladies of an individual or a society.

The one possible explanation that cannot be discussed is the pathology of postmodern family life.  When, for example, a young girl is sexually abused, the fact that her mother sleeps around and brings her partners home cannot be mentioned.  When a child misbehaves in school, neither the mother’s marital state nor the children’s experience of daycare is supposed to be taken into consideration, because even to raise such questions would be tantamount to challenging the official theory of the family promulgated by psychologists, counselors, and other “experts.”  The new theory of marriage and family has virtually nothing in common with the old historical reality.  In the course of the 20th century, the family underwent a transformation.  What had been a semisovereign and autonomous social institution was undermined by the liberation of married women, liberalized divorce laws, child-protection statutes, public education, and the injection of women into the workplace.  The result is something less like a traditional society made up of families than the soft totalitarian community of wives and children whom the sultan imprisoned in the Topkapi Palace.

Adolescence is a difficult period of transition from the carefree world of childhood to the heavy burden of adult responsibilities.  In the simplest societies, young males must learn how to hunt and to fight and to establish themselves within the tribe whose rules they must learn.  As societies become more complex, the transition becomes ever more difficult.  In the 20th century, the troubles of youth and young manhood were a staple of American fiction, from Scott Fitzgerald to J.D. Salinger.  But the anxieties of Holden Caulfield were nothing compared to the bewilderment of our young people, who do not brood over poetry  but obsess over brand names and seem in all too many cases to prefer to conduct their courtships by computer.

American children are no longer brought up within sheltering households; from an early age they are shipped off to schools and camps, sports teams and music classes.  In economic terms, families are outsourcing many of their vital functions.  Children are now separated from their families for a large part of the day, and they are taught to depend on experts in various agencies and organizations for everything they do.  In fact, many kids today have never known what liberty is; have never spent an afternoon in the woods, unless it was organized by the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound; have never read a book unless it was assigned in school; have never indulged a whim that was not scripted and directed by some group of professional do-gooding malefactors with social-science M.A.’s. 

The conventional explanation for this phenomenon can be summed up in the word ambition.  Students and their parents understand that success in a career depends on success in college, and prestigious colleges require not just good grades but evidence of leadership displayed in multiple activities: sports, music and drama, part-time jobs, and volunteer work.  Parents complain frequently that they spend too much time driving their children from soccer practice to guitar lessons, but the busy schedules they are imposing on their children are also a reflection of their own overscheduled lives that leave little time to spend with their sons and daughters.  I am often tempted to ask these ambitious kids and their parents: What are you ambitious for?  In other words, what is the object you are so busily pursuing at the expense of all the qualities that people have believed are conducive to happiness?

Some psychologists have been warning parents not just against overscheduling and overprogramming the lives of their children but against the “disengagement” that results from the idle hours spent watching television or text-messaging, and some have gone so far as to call for children to form closer connections with their families and communities and even with the past.  There was a time when parents did not need to be told the plain truths that every parent since Adam and Eve had known.

If the ideal remains a stable marriage that is the basis of an autonomous family, how is it possible to realize that ideal under the terms of what some Marxists call “late capitalism,” when even the consumption functions of the household—eating, housecleaning, laundry—are routinely handled by outside providers, and when all the functions of intellectual instruction, moral guidance, and even such things as entertainment can be discharged by public officials and paid professionals?  We blame society for our ills, but we might reflect that these extrafamilial services are only available; they are not mandatory.

It is still possible to educate one’s children at home or in private schools.  Such things are difficult and expensive, because families are required to pay taxes to support government schools; the choice is, however, open to most people, and in a period of marked decline in the quality of all schools, homeschooling becomes ever more attractive to more people.  Government drains much of the family’s authority, but there are other sources of conflict that tend to legitimate the family as an institution.  There are many circumstances under which a married woman might need to or might wish to work.  Some of the reasons are better than others, but one of the effects will be an inevitable competition between a man and woman who are no longer “merely” husband and wife but two wage-earners on career paths.

The rivalry is most pronounced where both spouses are active members of a profession, but a working-class male is just as likely to resent the authority conferred by his wife’s low-paying clerical job, especially if they treat his salary as the family income and reserve hers for special purposes.  Any distinction of this sort is liable to breed dissension.  If husband and wife cannot always act as one flesh, they can at least be merged into one bank account and a joint tax return.

Religious, political, and ethnic differences can also turn the family home into the battleground of a civil war.  In cases of mixed marriage, some conservative religious groups have insisted that the “alien” spouse either convert or promise to rear the child in the faith.  What may seem, at first sight, to be bigotry is probably a sound idea.  If husband and wife cannot agree on their worship of God, they are either indifferent to religious questions or else so divided on essentials that the children will end up being torn between the parents’ churches.  In either case, they are unlikely to rear the children in either or any faith.

We all know of families in which each child is encouraged to discover his own identity.  I used to know an academic family in which each member had chosen, almost at random, a religious tradition: The son opted for Zen Buddhism, one daughter became a liberal rabbi, while the other became a staunch Episcopalian.  It all seemed endearing to outsiders, but quite apart from the problem of sincerity—they picked their religion the way most people choose a brand of beer—the family could not worship together.  They did not eat together either.  At one Thanksgiving feast I attended, the father took his tray to a chair in front of the television set in order to argue with the anchorman.

It is through the rituals of common meals, common worship, and common work that a family discovers its identity.  The pleasures and opportunities, no less than the pressures and stresses of modern existence, threaten this identity.  Children have their endless rounds of music and dance and tennis lessons, clubs and parties to attend, to say nothing of school functions that sometimes seem to require whole weeks of afternoons for meetings and practice sessions.  Parents also join clubs and attend classes and may only have the chance to greet their children as a group on the way out the door to school.  In popular entertainment, these activities are conventionally portrayed as the fruits of success and popularity, the sometimes hectic rewards that await exuberant and talented individuals.  What many of us sense, however, is the familiar story of the hare with many friends.  The more activities we undertake, the less seriously we devote ourselves to any of them; the more friends we make, the less we value them (and they us); the more we spend time outside the home, the less capable we are of being at home at any time in our lives.

There is no single formula to fit all circumstances.   Some people are more active, more demanding than others, and it would be wrong to stigmatize them as disloyal to their families.  Of course, many enthusiasms can be shared by an entire household, even if all the members are not equally enthusiastic.  Many families have passions for outdoor life—camping, hunting, fishing—on which they spend a great deal of time together.  For others it may be music or tennis.  Many might like the idea of teaching at home or running a family business, but either their circumstances or their lack of aptitude is an obstacle.  What is important is the main objective—a family that sees itself as an indissoluble mystical entity like the Trinity: multiple persons but fundamentally one substance.

For those who take the deeper view of family life and understand the consequences of divorce, their commitment to family is more than a question of staying married, because we are inevitably forced to deal with other people who do not share our perspective.  But even in the absence of community sanctions, it is still possible to act as if such sanctions existed and to communicate our sense of propriety to family and friends.  What is the alternative?  A society in which our wives and children are prisoners of Uncle Sam’s Harem.