What's Happening to the American Family : Interview with Dr. Margaret Mead, Noted Anthropologist

Dr. Margaret Mead, discusses the changed pattern of American home life.


I think that the first thing we want to realize is that most working mothers are working because they have to keep up with the standard of living we've set up today.

We tell people every day in the advertisements, on TV, over the radio: "This is the kind of house you ought to have. This is the kind of car you ought to drive. Are you keeping your wife a prisoner because you only have one car? Are you making a slave of your wife because you've turned her into a dishwasher instead of buying a dishwasher?"

As a result, we're forcing husbands into "moonlighting"—holding two jobs. And we're forcing wives into "sunlighting"—that's a word I made up and I like it—which is having an extra job in the daytime.

Q  With mothers away during the day, and fathers holding two jobs, who takes care of the children—the school?

The danger to society from the "sunlighting" mother comes when the children are small, before they got to school, if she doesn't have time to give them adequate care.

By the time the children are 3 or 4, programs on TV and radio intrude into the home. The outer world takes over.

Moral training used to come from the parents. Now it comes in the standards that are being spread—and they're not very high, either—directly to the children by TV and radio. It's very hard for the parents to mediate between their children and these standards.

Q  What do you mean, "mediate"?

A  I mean, for instance, what happened back in the days when people read aloud to youngsters. You read "Bluebeard" to a child and the child began to cry, "Is Daddy going to hang Mommy up in a closet?" At this point, you said, "This is just a fairy story. It did not really happen."

But if the child sees a murder mystery on TV, and somebody who looks like Daddy is strangling somebody who looks like Mommy, what happens if there is nobody to explain that this is fiction? And we also often have prescriptions for murder, robbery, burglary—that are not fiction—put on the screen for children to watch.

Q  Do you recommend that parents ought to be standing over the TV set when there are young people around?

We've got thousands and thousands of parents in their late teens in this country—young people who aren't old enough or mature enough to direct their own reading or television viewing.

Q  Can't grandparents do it?

Well, grandparents don't live in the home to any great degree any more. Even when they do, people feel they shouldn't be there. The grandparents feel they shouldn't be there. The parents feel they shouldn't be there. The children are taught they shouldn't be there.

Q  Isn't this a change? What's caused it?

It's partly because of the size of the house, of people living in city apartments with no room for grandparents. Also, improved Social Security benefits mean that some grandparents can afford to live alone better.

And another thing: Twenty or so years ago young people married when they were older. Often they married people their parents had never met. Often the two sets of parents didn't like each other and so the safest thing to do was to move away from both sets of parents, so you didn't get involved in their disapproval. Besides, grandparents were supposed to be old-fashioned.

In the last 15 years grandparents have become popular again—but always provided they don't live in the house.

Q  Why the regained popularity, then?

Children are marrying so young, they're going steady so early, that the two sets of parents are almost bound to know each other, almost forced to like—or at least accept—each other. Often they are forced to combine to support their married children, and the grandchildren that come along.

Also we have that wonderful invention, the sitter. That's a wonderful thing to do with your mother-in-law. You see, when she comes in, you can go out.

Q  Doesn't this mean we might get back to the three-generation family—children, parents and grandparents living under the same roof?

No. There is, I think, a continuing trend away from it, especially in these "ghettos" that are being built for older people.