By Eric Levin
March 14, 1983 12:00 PM

Energy, weapons and families have one thing in common: Put the word nuclear in front of them and you’ve got a controversy on your hands. For more than a decade, the debate has simmered and seethed over whether the nuclear family—the traditional Mom, Dad and kids configuration—is outmoded or, in the most radical critiques, a social malignancy perpetuating sexism, racism, dependency and every manner of drudgery including the kitchen sink. As a veteran journalist and specialist in family issues, Rita Kramer has examined the debate and, in her three books on education, child rearing and childbirth, has taken her place on the side of “basic, old-fashioned common sense,” as she puts it. Her views and her intellect have put her in the front rank of neoconservative writers. In her just-published In Defense of the Family (Basic Books, $15.50), Kramer looks askance at day care and shouts “Vive la difference” when it comes to sexuality. Though her parents were divorced when she was 2, Kramer, 53, grew up in the Midwest safe and emotionally sound, she says, thanks to a “brave, wonderful” mother (a secretary) and a father who was “not absent emotionally” and visited frequently. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she married Brooklynite Yale Kramer in 1951. Rita and Yale, a psychiatrist, live on Manhattan’s Central Park West and have two daughters, Debbie, 27, a graduate student of languages, and Mimi, 25, who just received an Oxford degree in classics. Kramer discussed her views with PEOPLE Senior Writer Eric Levin.

What kinds of things made you feel the family needed defending?

I know quite a few young women—friends of daughters and daughters of friends—who are ambivalent about wanting to use all the education they’ve acquired at great cost, not just financial, and raising a family at the same time. It seems to me they have been getting just one kind of advice from the world: The only way for an intelligent woman to realize her capabilities is through work outside the home. As a society, we should be more aware of the value of the family and pay less attention to all this nonsense about the family’s being a range of things from irrelevent to destructive.

What is the family’s value as you see it?

A free society can afford minimal restraints because it can rely on its citizens for self-restraint—meaning character and conscience, an internalized code of conduct. These things are formed though a complicated process of identification between a child and special adults who are both the givers of love and the setters of limits. Unless they set limits, they are just indulgers. Unless they love, there is no reason for the child to take their rules and make them his own. While it’s appropriate to indulge a baby, you have to begin to socialize the child sooner or later. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do it, but the process seems to work best when parents combine the two roles.

Why do you encourage mothers to stay home with their babies for at least the first two or three years?

The earliest stages of life are crucial because every later stage builds on the strengths, bonds and capabilities established then. For instance, it’s an infant’s union with a caring, responsive mother that lays the basis for a sense of trust later in life. For toddlers, the more certain they are that mother will be there for emotional refueling, the more adventurous they will be able to be.

Especially at first, when the baby doesn’t distinguish between itself and others, does it have to be the biological mother?

It doesn’t have to be. But in most cases, it’s probably better, because the chances of that child’s being as important to anyone else are small. In other ages and cultures, a whole class of people provided continuity—nursemaids who would stay with a family for 10, 20 years. But American society today is too mobile for that, and child care is looked down upon.

Isn’t day care the modern equivalent of that? You write that people who would let day-care centers tend their children are “besotted.” Why?

I think I’m going to regret that word. But I’ll stick with it, because everything that’s known about children says they need one-to-one relationships in order to thrive. Some day-care workers are kindly and affectionate, but their attention is too diffused to relate much to anyone child.

Are you minimizing the importance of outside work to women today?

Not at all. I would make distinctions in a broad spectrum of things women do. If a woman has a big investment in a profession—if she’s a lawyer, for instance, in her mid-30s and is worried about making partner—it’s not an easy question whether she should give up a year or two. But because that woman is intelligent and highly paid, she has options. She may be able to afford good help, which means one consistent, care-giving person. If she’s antsy staying home, it isn’t going to do her or her kid any good.

What about the average working woman?

There are some jobs and even professional careers that can be interrupted without wrecking the future. In many cases, it’s unlikely a woman will be able to get help with small children for a lot less than she’s earning. But everybody talks about rights and nobody talks about obligations. Women share the obligation of men to do something in the world, and one of the most effective means of social action is raising a family of decent, happy and ultimately useful people.

What do you say to the growing number of women raising families on their own?

I’m not prophesying doom for the offspring of every woman who doesn’t have a man in the house and has to work to support her kids. There are lots of strong, devoted women whose children will be okay. I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty, or say there is only one answer for everyone. I’m addressing myself to the ambivalence of middle-class mothers who have options.

Why do you so emphasize the nurturing of mothers, but not of fathers?

I believe there is biological bedrock there. Women are the bearers of children, the givers of life, the nurturers. Mother can be a law professor or an executive, it’s just that as mother she will be nurturing. Of course, the nurturing thing exists in men too—it’s all a matter of degree.

What are some of the current child-rearing ideas you object to?

The idea that you can bring children up to believe there are no significant differences between the sexes except for the obvious anatomical ones, that the sexes don’t really have different feelings or natural tendencies. I think we want to remove unnecessary strictures. To push a tomboy into party dresses or take a doll away from a very little boy is silly. But just as silly is forcing a little girl to want to be a mechanic or telling a little boy he should play with dolls. This is just standing things on their heads in a different way.

What lessons for the family do you draw from the social tumult of the ’60s?

The radical college kids were having temper tantrums. Kids—whether toddlers or teens—have temper tantrums because they are scared. They are scared of their own impulses because they do not believe there is anyone out there bigger and stronger and caring enough to stop them from doing things that will hurt themselves and hurt other people.

You attribute some of this to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “permissive” philosophy. What is wrong with his ideas?

I think Dr. Spock was advocating democracy in the family at a time, after World War II, when we believed there would be a new world and, naively, perhaps a new human nature. Everybody was sick of war and conflict, and this may have led him to deny the fact that conflict is ubiquitous in mental life. You don’t want to avoid conflict between a child and his parents. You want a good resolution of the conflict. That means building a relationship in which the child identifies with the parents enough to accept their restrictions. If you overindulge a child all his life, avoid all confrontations, ultimately you get a very frightened, anxious, weak and mixed-up person.

The “utter passivity” of TV viewing disturbs you, but what about educational shows like Sesame Street?

For kids in totally disorganized households, where they’re not getting any other stimulation, it’s better than nothing for preschoolers. But in general, the effects of such programs don’t seem to be lasting. Where they do last, it seems to be from the reinforcement of adults discussing the material with the children and making it seem important. Learning for children up to 3 or 4 is meaningful only in the context of human relationships. What a child learns watching television is how to watch television, not how to read.

How did you handle the TV issue with your own kids?

I did not say, “You can never watch TV.” I was crabby about it. I clearly disapproved. As psychoanalyst Erik Erik-son said, if they watch, it’s better for the kids to be in rebellion than to have parents with totally compromised values.

You urge parents to read to their kids, but fairy tales and classics rather than current young people’s fiction. Why?

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explained that better than anybody: Fairy tales present the unconscious fantasies of children without forcing the child to recognize the fantasy, which is the mistake these modern books make. For older readers, Judy Blume’s books are funny and cute, but books like hers in no way stretch the mind or the imagination. They show you that somebody else survived a divorce, that other kids also masturbate. Is that such a big deal? It seems to me you’re more enriched by great authors like Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, whose works have lasted because they contain so many universal fantasies and human truths. Sure, they’re harder, but most things in life that are worth anything are hard.

But kids like books like Judy Blume’s and say they’re helpful.

Sure they like them. They’d like eating nothing but candy, if you let them. Kids are not the best judges. They can’t be, by definition, because not until you’re older do you have the perspective to say, “This mattered, this meant something to me.” That’s why you don’t make a curriculum by asking kids what they want to study.

Don’t you agree it’s difficult to be a parent today?

Of course. What you have to develop as a parent is a thick skin. People used to have it easier because nobody told them it was so important for children to be happy. They were glad their children survived and grew up and made a living on their own. Children just happened to you. Now every child is a conscious choice, agonized over, and your ambitions for them are exquisitely tuned, so the hard thing is to withstand their disapproval. Conflict can’t always be avoided. You can’t have conscience and character without it. Somebody has to tell parents, relax; it’s not cruel to say “no.”