Family Policy Matters Radio Posts

  "Family Policy Matters" Radio   Marriage & Parenting

How To Combat A Family-Unfriendly Culture (With Timothy Carney)

Timothy Carney Headshot

Parenting is hard. And our culture has made it even harder, pushing parents to do more and more to invest in and protect their children. The result of all of this effort? Record rates of anxiety, depression, medication, debt, and loneliness. So what gives? And what can we do better?

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Timothy Carney, author of Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be, to discuss how America has created an increasingly family-unfriendly culture and what parents can do to combat it.

  • Subscribe to our podcast so you can hear our interviews every week.
  • Tune in to one of the radio stations that carry Family Policy Matters (see the list below).
  • Click below to listen online.

SpotifyApple PodcastsiHeart RadioAudacyAmazon Music

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: How To Combat A Family-Unfriendly Culture (With Timothy Carney)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Why are younger American adults opting less and less to prioritize family and children? Well, today’s guest argues that to be a sane and happy parent, you need to be countercultural in our family-unfriendly culture. We’re pleased to welcome Timothy Carney, who has been a Washington DC columnist, author, and editor for more than 20 years. He’s currently a senior columnist for the Washington Examiner and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Following the success of his 2019 bestseller Alienated America, Tim’s newest book, Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Children Much Harder Than It Needs To Be, is being released this month. He joins us today to talk about what he learned as he traveled the country asking families and experts why parenting is harder and yet kids are less happy than a generation ago. Timothy Carney, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

TIMOTHY CARNEY: Thank you for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what happened in your life that you started asking these important questions and decided this deserves a book? So you mentioned some of the examples about why it might be harder to be a parent these days. What’s behind this? Why did we make it so much harder?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: Well, there’s a few things. You had mentioned Alienated America where I wrote about the collapse of community and belonging in America. And I thought one of the biggest consequences of that might just be the collapse in the birth rate, the reduction in marriage in the United States. And then I look, my wife and I, we have six children. And I found that the sort of social circles we swam in were very countercultural. That we weren’t expected to put our kids in travel sports; we weren’t expected to helicopter our children at every moment to make sure they don’t stub their toe. And that our aspirations for our children, while very high, didn’t necessarily include a D1 scholarship or an Ivy League or job at some major law firm. And so I realized that our culture was imposing these pressures on parents that made parenting so much harder, while at the same time taking away the kinds of supports people need, which is neighborhoods, schools, churches, extended families. And so I realized if the biggest story of the last 30 years was the collapse of community in the US, the biggest story of the next 30 years, I think, is the shrinking American family and the falling birthrate.  It’s like a lot of things in economics or sociology, there’s sort of a vicious cycle. People started having smaller families for one reason or another, and then started, sociologists put it, investing more in each child. And this helped drive home the idea that the point of parenting is some worldly, measurable success and that you shouldn’t sign up for parenting unless you could give your kids all the best. That parenting became such a deliberate choice rather than kind of a natural thing that most adults do. And that mindset, this sort of materialism and idea that you can plan your whole life, all of that leads parents to think, Okay, I have to give my kids the best of absolutely everything. And then families started shrinking, and then it became more of that. And the results are in Family Unfriendly, I call it the travel team trap. The belief that youth sports is about making your kid a pro athlete. It’s helicopter parenting, the expectation that you should be hovering over your kids. And just more broadly, the cultural belief that if you chose to have kids, that’s all your problem. It’s nobody else’s job to support you in raising your kids.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And then you make the contention that despite all of this increased attention, kids are less happy. Do you have some data to throw at us about that?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the fact that some people say, Well, we’re choosing quality parenting over quantity. It is not high quality to invest so much time and money and giving your kids a tutor and putting them in the best school and all that; children’s mental health is an absolute crisis. You’ve had this declared by the American Association of Pediatrics, the Biden administration even chimed in on that. adolescent and teen and youth mental health are at all-time lows. And there’s lots of evidence and I’m pointing to the studies in the book showing that it’s sort of over control by parents that causes this. What kids lack is independent play. Just think about our generation. We were told go ride your bike, run around, come home when the streetlights come on. That was actually good for our mental health. Parents obviously are much more harried because they’re micromanaging max effort in their kids’ lives. But really, I think the the more, the tragic consequence is that children are more anxious, they have less confidence in themselves, because they’re less free to just either be bored, make up a game, wander the neighborhood with their friends.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What is it about the American culture then, and we’ve been kind of talking about the parenting culture, are there some things about the American culture that are also family-unfriendly?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: A big thing is our car dependence. This is something I didn’t think I’d be writing about. But I realized that as a parent, what we need is to let our kids run around a neighborhood and some of the neighborhoods we lived in, we were just surrounded by massive roads, three lanes in each direction. There was nothing we could send our kids to, that we didn’t have to drive them to. So their walking was hampered by the way the environment was built, their ability to do stuff was hampered by how distant and car-dependent everything was. And we realized what a drag that was on family culture, that if one kid had a baseball practice, some parent had to drive them there. And maybe another parent had to drive another kid. So that car dependence, and then as when they’re little, you know, that has the buckling and the unbuckling and the rebuckling. That car dependence, that’s a very American thing that’s family unfriendly. There are other things in other cultures that have these really low birth rates as well. But that probably is the most American aspect of it. And also our independence. That’s, that’s really one of our strengths, you have responsibility for yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, that doesn’t quite work with a family. If you don’t have extended family, if you don’t have neighbors, if you don’t have a church community, then it’s going to be impossible for you to stay sane and raise kids. And that’s one of the trends in American culture right now.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So if someone’s listening, and they say, Oh, I see what you’re saying, because I grew up where I could run around behind our house and down to the pond in my particular instance, but what do we do about it?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: In Family Unfriendly, I try to have suggestions for parents and for policymakers. You know, local governments need to build sidewalks, local governments need to build more playgrounds, you might need to slow down traffic. But another thing is if you just make the effort to A) Get to know your neighbors, B) tell your kids to get to know the neighbors, and then touch base and connect in that way, you will find that you feel liberated. If you’ve been keeping your kids up because you don’t know what’s out there, you have to go out there and figure out who your neighbors are, say hi to them, explain to them, Oh, these are my kids, your kids can hop over the fence anytime they want. Those connections between neighbors, that’s what makes the childhood free and liberated. But I’d also say do everything you can to resist the maximum effort parenting. If there is a little league as opposed to just a travel team, sign up for the little league sign up for whatever’s closest, whatever works into your family culture. That’s a phrase I use in the book that I think not enough people think about that you have the ability to build a culture for your family. A final note and the advice for parents, one of the biggest things that undermines family culture is social media and smartphones, keeping social media and smartphones away from children. That’s a way that you get to be the people who build the culture within your household. And that culture is really only going to thrive, though, once it’s connected to the broader community outside of the home.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What are the practical suggestions that you would make regarding the smartphones and social media?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: The first thing is, if your child does need a phone, there are phones that are basically dumb phones, they don’t have internet access. But two, the institutions need to support the parents. A lot of parents give their kid the social media, the smartphone, because everybody else has it. So schools need to say okay, no phones out during the school day. My wife and I we get together with our daughters’ and our sons’ new classmates and say, by the way, we’re not giving our kids a smartphone. We’re certainly not telling you what to do. But don’t let them tell you that everybody else has them, because we’re not. And always then a show of hands goes up and says we’re not either, we’re not and you can build solidarity that way. Parents need support. That’s why the subtitle of the book is about our culture making things harder, but our culture can make things easier. So churches, schools, local governments need to do what they can to support parents who want to say no, there’s going to be no smartphone in my kid’s hands. We’re not going to ever give our kid a smartphone. When they’re 18 and go off to college, hopefully, we’ve introduced them to the technology enough that it’s not going to be a shock. But right now, if they need a phone, and they can text their friends, but they can’t get on the internet. And you mentioned pornography, absolutely destructive for boys, for girls, the social media and the comparison, looking at the filtered photos, of photos of other girls having a good time. That’s absolutely devastating to girls’ mental health. And again, I’ve got the data in the book that shows that.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned family culture. So talk a little bit more about that. What is a family culture? How can we get a family culture that is countercultural and healthy for all of us?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: One way of looking at it, I had a friend who once said children hear nothing and see everything. That is, if you lecture them on how to live, on table manners, on whatever, that isn’t as effective as you might think. And I think of myself as a good speaker, it doesn’t really sink in. If you build a way of living. So my wife and I were Catholic, we raise our children Catholic, and I realize that the most important thing is for that to be part of our home, part of our week, part of how they see us living. And so a family culture, I mean, there’s tons of research on the importance of having family dinner together all of you whenever possible. But also being a fun place. That’s another thing. My own friend’s parents said, what we tried to do is we tried to be the house that kids wanted to come to and hang out and have pizza on a Friday night so that we could get to know these kids and sort of set a culture for that. And so that idea of building a family culture, it allows you to let your kids go free a little more, to some extent, because they’re not just walking with your words echoing in their ear, but a way of life that’s sort of residing in their heart. So whether it’s your faith, whether it’s your values, whether it’s just customs and norms and games that you play, that’s what makes up a family culture.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit about the letting the kids run free idea because that is also, as you’ve mentioned, countercultural, and I can just see parents being accused of being neglectful, and how do you combat this perception that they’re being neglectful?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: I mean, a lot of it is just going to be overcoming the fear of being judged. Now, there are some places that have bad laws. In Connecticut, for instance, you used to not be able to leave your 13-year-old babysitting an 11-year-old. So, in some places, you need to actually change the laws because you could do something that’s perfectly safe if you trust your 13-year-old, but it’s illegal. But in most places, that’s not the case. It’s about fear of being judged by society. And if you’re confident enough that your kids can go to the playground, that they know how to cross the street, that they know to stick together, then you can project that confidence and it trickles out. That’s the other thing. All these things. There’s so many vicious circles, but you can create a virtuous circle. And we had people tell this to us that the more they saw our kids at the playground running around, the more they felt, Oh, we can let our kids run around A) because of the example by our children, but B) because of the company of other children. So sometimes it really does involve sticking your neck out there, doing something that’s a little uncomfortable and say, No, we’re confident this is safe, we can’t protect our kids from every possible harm, but we know that this is not actually any sort of exceptionally dangerous thing to do to let our kids go to the basketball court and play pickup basketball at age 11. That’s a perfectly fine thing to do, and other people will follow you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I like that term, virtuous circle. So why do you argue that the root of this decline in family culture is tied to a very basic misunderstanding of humanity. So what’s happening there?

TIMOTHY CARNEY: The two things that are happening here is A) there’s a belief that we are good if we accomplish lots of stuff in our life. There’s a belief that then our job as parents is to make sure our kids have this worldly success in career or academics. And that’s a false view of humans. Humans are good by being humans, by giving love, by receiving love, and by just trying to do good work, regardless of how prestigious it is. So that’s my own view of humans. That’s the way I think the Western civilization has largely seen people. But in our modern age, where we think we can measure everything, we get this materialistic view. But there’s another one which is that having children is just another lifestyle choice. Like if you had a boat, I would not think okay, it’s my responsibility to help her take care of her boat. Once we apply that same logic to families, to having children, then that’s how you get a family-unfriendly culture. Oh, have as many kids as you want. Just don’t let me hear them at the local coffee shop. Don’t bring them on the airplane. Don’t expect me to help out. You’re the one who chose to do it. That’s really the poisonous mindset. Children are the next generation. Having children has historically been considered kind of what most adults, not all, but most adults do. And just as we would help somebody grow up, society is going to help people raise children. That’s the mindset that’s really been lost. That makes our culture family-unfriendly.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, well, we’re about out of time for this week. Before we go Timothy Carney, where can our listeners go to follow your work and of course find your books, especially the newest one, Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs To Be.

TIMOTHY CARNEY: You can find me all over. has a link to my book, American Enterprise Institute is, and Pick up Family-Unfriendly at your local bookstore is the best place to get it, but Amazon, Barnes and, anywhere has it in the shelves right now.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thank you very much. Timothy Carney, thank you for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

– END –


Receive Our Legislative Alerts