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Louis Roussel

Forgotten Childhood

Louis Roussel’s La Famille incertaine, published about a decade ago, was one of the first books to describe the profound upheavals that had taken place in the French family since the 1960s. According to Roussel, the statistics — a drop in fertility rates and in the number of marriages, accompanied by an increased divorce rate and a rise in the number of cohabiting couples — pointed to a generalised refusal among the French to allow their private lives to be placed under any form of authority. The family as an institution seemed to have lost its regulating role. Of course, life continued: many cohabiting couples ended up by getting married and having children; and although couples divorced, new families were formed. But the normative institution, inherited from tradition and the existing social structure, was gradually being replaced by private pacts, whose legitimacy and durability had to be ensured by new means. The family had become “unstable”, and it was now up to its members to invent its new forms, rules and history. What is the state of the family in France today? The question is especially relevant for children who were born into the new family structures. For a long time it was thought that the changes the couple was undergoing would not alter parent-child relations. The new situation seemed particularly beneficial for the child, who was in most cases wanted and desired. Public opinion often expressed fears concerning the upheavals in the traditional family structure, but the dominant mood was one of optimism for the child’s condition.
But all is not well. Roussel points to a number of frightening signs among children today — failure at school, depression, suicide, juvenile delinquency, violent behaviour — and concludes that childhood itself is seriously threatened. It has become a social issue since the causes of the crisis are not just personal and individual. The changes in family relations have played a determining role and they affect the lives of all children — each and every one of them potential victims of the upheavals that shake our society. Such is the theory that Roussel presents in this book, as he traces more that 20 years of changes in the family and examines their impact on education. His conclusions are often harsh, but it is the future of our children that is at stake.

Louis Roussel is a scientific adviser for France’s national institute of demographic studies, and the author of La Famille incertaine.