The Revenge of the Rohdamite Village People

Allison R. Hayward

April 1, 1996

Hillary Rodham Clinton

It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us

Simon & Schuster, 318 pp., $20.00.

When I decided to review this book, a friend noted that as a “congenital lawyer,” I would be the perfect person for the task. (My father and great-grandfather were both lawyers). I want to assure readers that this book does not require a law degree to comprehend. A modern high school education would be adequate to absorb the homilies, cliches, and road-worn campaign rhetoric that occupies many of the book’s pages. Nevertheless, I review this book as though it were a serious contribution to the debate on our culture’s moral decline, rather than as what it appears to be–a hastily assembled, tedious political tract.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is capable of making a serious contribution. She was an early advocate of “children’s liberation.” Her articles supported abolishing the legal status of infancy or minority, and extending to children all procedural rights guaranteed adults under the Constitution. She argued that courts and the state should reject the presumption that children and parents share the same interests, and maintained that a child should be able to assert his own interests. These contentions lead to several interesting consequences: for starters, many of the laws designed to protect children would be abandoned, as they are justified by the child’s minority status.

Hillary Rodham Clinton also advocated that age-based laws be subjected to “strict scrutiny” by the courts, which would probably bar child-specific legislation as violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Small wonder that her present offering provides different child welfare prescriptions. I seriously doubt that many readers would be receptive to a book that advocated legal protection for childhood brattiness. Instead, accompanied by a liberal smattering of citations to Margaret Mead, Mrs. Clinton weighs in as a culture vulture.

There is some continuity, however, between her early views and this book. Both reflect a profound skepticism over the ability of parents to adequately care for their children. Hillary Clinton has in her sights not the poor-single-drug-urban-nightmare-crisis-of-a-parent, a situation which should provoke real concern. Instead, she sets forth against the middle class parent–in the family confronted with “broken homes, discrimination, economic downturns, urbanization, consumerism and technology.”

Middle class parents cannot be trusted to raise children. These parents feed their children fast food, and let them watch too much television. They neglect to read to their children, and fail to provide “developmentally appropriate” care during the work day, as they commute from the suburbs to the city listening to radio talk shows spewing “second guessing and cynicism about the motives and actions of every leader and institution.”

Mrs. Clinton thinks that the “village” should step in and fix the modern middle class American family. What is this “village?” At first, the “village” seems to be the neighborhood–Mrs. Clinton refers fondly to her neighborhood when she was growing up, which, she claims, was “managed for the benefit of children” by neighbors, friends, and family. However, it becomes clear within the first fifty pages that the “village” is really the government. Not just the local community government–many of her prescriptions for what the “village” ought to do involve federal legislation, for example raising the minimum wage, setting national curriculum standards, and reforming our health care system.

Mrs. Clinton believes the “village” is up to the task because our society now has the scientific knowledge to manage the family. To appreciate her breathless confidence in the scientific management of the family requires a quotation:

We know much more than we did even a few years ago about how the human brain develops and what children need from their environments to develop character, empathy, and intelligence. When we put this knowledge into practice, the results are astonishing. Also, because when I read, travel and talk with people around the world, it is increasingly clear to me that nearly every problem children face today has been solved somewhere, by someone.

So, the crisis of the middle-class family is a problem of technique, to be solved by the helpful social workers, teachers, and politicians of the “village.”

Mrs. Clinton states that “this new information makes it clear that a child’s character and potential are not already determined at birth.” She believes that a baby is essentially a blank tablet, ready for whatever life engraves upon it. I suspect instead that a baby comes to our world with some of his individual character already in place. Notably, even Mrs. Clinton does not seem to hold her view consistently, for while she decries the inevitably tragic future facing people who were ill-treated as children, she acknowledges (in the center of the book, no less) that her husband the President suffered from ill-treatment in childhood. Apparently some of us are more than a sum of our childhood experiences.

While Mrs. Clinton’s faith in science and the institutions of the “village” seems almost boundless, her book contains a sprinkling of accounts of social welfare run amok. She criticizes policies that forbid foster parents from adopting children in their care. She relates how a state child care worker asked one of Chelsea’s teachers about her odd eating habits (“The teacher refrained, thankfully, from naming the parents and assured her that she would talk to them.” How fortunate for the Clintons). She argues that child welfare workers are insufficiently aggressive in terminating parental rights when child abuse is detected. She complains about a teacher who was more concerned about whether a child has finished her workbook than whether she was learning to read. Mrs. Clinton seems unconcerned that it will be these people, and throngs of others, who will administer her science-based policies to reform the middle-class family.

I do not question that poor parenting takes a toll on our society. I believe, however, that hyperventilating about a crisis in the middle class family is inappropriate. Our society has yet to solve (or even address) many of the moral problems exacerbated by our prosperous times.

One need only read Jonathan Silvers’ “Child Labor in Pakistan” in the February issue of the Atlantic Monthly to be reminded just how tragic childhood can be. Silvers describes how low-caste Pakistani families sell their children to factory owners as soon as they are old enough to walk. The median age of Pakistani children entering the work force is said to be seven. Ninety percent of the workforce in Pakistani carpet factories are children. I can also recall my grandfather telling me how he worked in a textile factory as a little boy, pulling lint out of the looms. I find it difficult to take Mrs. Clinton’s diatribe against “urbanization and consumerism” very seriously. Things could be, and have been, much worse.

Allison R. Hayward, who clerked for Judge Danny Boggs of the Sixth Circuit, is now an attorney in Washington, D.C.