The Flaws of the Fifties: Ozzie and Harriet’s Rebellious Children

[World, January 22, 1994]

As Christians today push for the renewal of moral values in our nation, they have a tendency to idealize the Fifties. Wouldn’t it be great if families were like the Ozzie-and-Harriet households prevalent then? Strong two-parent families, where the dads worked and the moms stayed home with the kids. Where kids were cherished and not hurried through childhood. Where “family values” were celebrated by schools, the media, and entertainment. If only things were like that again…

…we could raise a new generation of Americans who would take drugs, burn flags, have indiscriminate sex, champion abortion, mock the faith, and complain continuously about what a lousy deal we handed them.

There must have been something wrong with the Fifties: they led to the Sixties. The kids that grew up in those tidy two-parent homes weren’t out of their teens before they began doing all they could to overthrow that wholesome security. We shouldn’t try to blindly recapitulate that social experiment before asking: What went wrong?

Though there are many factors, one short response might be: children received *too* much pampering attention. This sounds impossible in an age when millions of children are aborted, abandoned, and institutionalized in faceless day care. But there are two different traditional approaches to childrearing, and they have widely differing results.

In the Fifties an attitude toward childhood bloomed which had first sprouted in the Victorian era. In this view, childhood is seen as a carefully delineated, circumscribed experience; it’s almost a physical place, a playroom stocked with toys, where precious children linger all a long golden afternoon. Adults look on with wistful, vicarious pleasure, fawning over the tots and shielding them from the harsh winds of the cruel adult world. Adults place a high value on preserving children’s “innocence.”

But this view expects both too much and too little of children. The assumption of childhood innocence is naive; although children are unknowledgeable about much of the world’s evil, they are far from innocent when it comes to the root of inborn sin, self-centeredness. The adult who expects children to be angelic sprites is in for a disappointment. The idea that children are born pure, then gradually corrupted by this evil old world, is a Romantic notion of the late 18th century; it has no support in Scripture, developmental psychology, or common-sense experience.

The process of unlearning self-centeredness is a difficult, life-long one, elsewhere known as “dying to self.” When a child’s natural tendency to pamper self goes unchallenged, there’s trouble down the road. Witness the late sixties, when my generation took a sledgehammer to every aspect of cozy Fifties life we could reach. The Baby Boomer crew is still mirror-gazing in fascination, gluttonous with consumerism, blubbering over its fragile self-esteem. We are a cohort of Emperor Babies, leaving spittle on everything we touch.

But Fifties-style child-rearing also expected too little of children; it expected them to stay idle children, not adults-in-training. In indulgent child-rearing, parents pay attention to children. In the earlier, Scriptural approach, children pay attention to parents. Childhood is not a resting-place isolated from the world, but brisk walk of growing self-discipline and responsibility; at the end, the child has earned the right to be counted as an adult. Childhood is just one phase of a continuum, a path of life-long growth and accountability before God.

Responsibility parenting does not isolate children in a special protected sphere, but places them at Mom or Dad’s knee learning daily the trades, chores, and skills of adulthood. Parents attempt to include their kids in the adult world as much as is feasible. As children accompany a parent moving through the day, they learn, not only skills, but values: how to be courteous, deal fairly, control temper, and plan ahead. If they are not spending those hours watching a parent, they’re watching someone else—and learning someone else’s values.

An approach that directs attention from child to parent, rather than the reverse, also calls into question another Fifties assumption: that a mother’s job is full-time doting. Not only did the Fifties style of child-centered mothering feed childish self-fascination, but it led to such loneliness, frustration and depression in some educated women that the feminist movement sprang up in backlash.

Instead, responsibility mothering includes setting an example of full-fledged adult womanhood. While time spent cuddling and playing on the child’s level is an indispensable source of fun and security in a child’s life, a mother must also prepare her children for adulthood, not life-long childhood. Her own long life will encompass many more roles and responsibilities than the intensive child-tending of the early years. So she sets her kids an example of the “virtuous woman” of Proverbs 31, busy with home management, hobbies, and church ministries; she may even find it feasible to keep her hand in a career while caring for small children, by working from home or keeping on top of continuing education opportunities.

When contemporary Christians look back longingly at the cozy family life of the Fifties, we may forget to read the experiment to the end and assess how those kids turned out. Rather than adopting the Ozzie-and-Harriet model wholesale, we should look to older traditions for something more spiritually nutritious.

Jesus used the illustration of a father who, when his son asked for bread, would not give him a stone. In an age when children are treated as property, discarded and killed, we may long to answer the simple call for bread with cuddling and cake. The Fifties glow as a time when children were similarly indulged. But the damage those children, now grown, have done will haunt us the rest of our lives. Let’s give our children something better than unlimited coddling; let’s give them the example of ourselves.

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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