Remember When Parents Were in Charge?

Negotiating, "empowering the children," and everything wrong with running your family like a corporation.

I just read the second news story in as many weeks about a new trend in parenting: the family as corporation. The idea, according to a couple of new books that are out there, is to bring home the principles that make your company run smoothly and apply them to your spouse and kids. And it is a terrible idea.

If you’re anything like me, the best thing about your family is that nobody is forever holding endless meetings where nothing really gets decided. And yet these gurus of happy home life would have us all export the company meeting from the office to our homes. We’re supposed to gather around the kitchen table and discuss the different options we have for decisions we need to make. We’re supposed to set out our family’s values and mission (um—snack foods? Survival?) in a manifesto. The way Bruce Feiler and his wife, Linda Rottenberg, explain it in their book The Secrets of Happy Families, “Families are finally reaping the benefits of decades of groundbreaking research into group dynamics.” To which I say—I’m supposed to toss out thousands of millennia of accumulated parental wisdom to listen to a bunch of Wharton MBAs who drove our banking system into utter ruin?

Apparently so. The first rule of this technique, Feiler explained in the Wall Street Journal recently, is “Empower the children.” Why any parent would think this is a good idea escapes me. There’s already a dreadful power imbalance in the modern household, in favor of the children. Since the day they were born, my husband and I have organized our lives according to their wants and needs. Now that they’re almost out of the house, we’re dearly anticipating a time when we can once more empower ourselves.

Never mind that, though; Feiler assures me empowering the kids by giving them a voice in decision making is a good idea. And once the children are sufficiently empowered, you need a family mission statement. Apparently, “Getting the little sons of bitches through college” doesn’t qualify. It will help you form your mission statement, Feiler says, if you focus on your household’s core values. This is problematic. Doug and I value peace, quiet, and washing any dish you use as soon as you’re done with it. Marcy and Jake value noise, chaos, and leaving ice-cream bowls strewn throughout the living room.

Maybe I’m not approaching this in the right spirit. But when I read the sample “core affirmations” that Feiler included in his WSJ piece—“We live lives of passion,” “We are travelers not tourists,” “We don’t like dilemmas, we like solutions”—I busted out laughing. Granted, Feiler’s twin daughters are seven years old. Maybe you can get seven-year-olds to say things like “We live lives of passion” without setting off mad giggles. It doesn’t work with 20-year-olds. I know. I tried.

I’m all for the spirit of including kids in family discussions. But I like being with my family a lot more than I like being at work—and hell, I actually enjoy my job. What I love about family is that you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to; you can sit in companionable silence in the living room together, so long as the kids are wearing their earphones.

But here’s where Feiler’s advice gets really thorny for me. He quotes a guy named William Ury—“co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and co-author of Getting to Yes,” I’m told—about why these sorts of machinations are necessary today, when they weren’t in the age of my parents: “Ours is the first generation where continuous negotiation is the norm.” This is a trenchant observation, as anyone who’s ever had an eight-year-old will agree. Why do I have to put my shoes on? Because we’re going out. Why are we going out? Because we need to get you to your swimming lesson. Why do I have to take swimming lessons? So if you fall off a cliff into a river, you won’t drown. NOW PUT ON YOUR GODDAMNED SHOES!

I may just be blocking it out, but I’ll be damned if I can remember this sort of continuous negotiation taking place between me and my mom and dad. The answer to “Why do I have to put my shoes on” back then was simply, “Because I said so.” Fortunately, Feiler explains to me that because “families are no longer top-down, new rules have to be brokered all the time.” This, he further explains, will increase “family productivity.” I’m not sure how his household measures “family productivity”—craft projects completed? Girl Scout cookies sold?—but I’ll bet it doesn’t include getting the mortgage paid off.

Maybe it would be easier if we just made families top-down again.