November 25, 2014

The Idea of Family

The idea of a nuclear family consisting of two biological parents and one or morel children living together in one home emerged strongly in 20th century affluent societies. The suburbs of all major cities in Canada and the USA were designed for one family detached houses and the great experiment in “nuclear families” began. Suburbs with their one family dwellings soon revealed repeating patterns of social pathology that received academic attention. The cost of detached houses increased and new architecture appeared to increase population densities but retain the idea of one family units.  These families failed about half the time and those that persisted were not always happy, productive social units.  Marriage became less popular, as parents were separating and divorcing. Single parent households became more common. Even when parents stayed with their children, they often both worked and spent little time at home.


We recognize that the move toward two parent families probably involved an exaggeration of the importance of the pair bond that is less stable than life-long marriage proponents would wish. Smart observers are not inclined to blame men or women, or the system or the culture, but appreciate that social arrangements are in constant flux. You could argue that many different combinations of adults and children can form a functional family. What matters the most to children is that they have a home that protects and nurtures them and are loved by stable adults who provide guidance and support.


In my medical practice, I saw children under the care of one or more biological parents, step parents, adopting parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters, social workers, foster care parents and same sex parents.    
Families were never wonderful and stable and there is no golden age of family life to return to. If there was a golden age, it was not mother-father and children living in nuclear families, but small groups of humans who lived and worked together in a symbiotic manner, the way social mammals have lived for millions of years. If there is a normative standard in our evolutionary history, it is the small, local community who lived in the same village, slept under one roof, shared resources, shared child-rearing responsibilities and had flexible relationships that changed over time. Woman and men tended to form separate groups and were not confined to monogamous pair-bonds. Women tended to support each other and shared child care responsibilities.

This is not to argue that village groups are ideal or that members enjoyed harmonious, secure lives. The deepest feature of human social existence is tense, competitive interaction that requires daily attention to the feelings and needs of all the people who live close to you. Conflict is normal in human groups, small and large. If the goal is to reduce or eliminate conflict, then each member of the group has to learn and practice social skills that override innate tendencies with reason and affection. Celebrations and rituals are important to maintain the peace.
We can ask: ‘How are children best cared for in this changing world of excessive population, scarce resources, migration and temporary pair-bonding?”  Another question is: “Can social or economic policies realize idealistic goals such as restoring the “nuclear family”, resolving poverty and preventing crime?”  I am not a fan of ‘top-down fixes of deeply rooted human tendencies. I shudder when I hear politicians proclaim that they will save the family by making federal funds available to family-support programs. Federal programs are amateurish meddling that, at best, will provide a short-term benefit to a small number of families. I am more enthusiastic about bottom-up solutions that originate with parents and the local community.

Lakoff suggested: “Models of idealized family structure lie metaphorically at the heart of our politics. The very notion of the founding fathers uses a metaphor that construes the nation as a family, with familial roles, such as parents and children… The metaphor of the Nation as a Family maps the values and relationships from those family models onto our politics, creating "liberal" and "conservative" models. A progressive worldview represents, metaphorically, the Nurturant Parent family model, and the conservative worldview represents the Strict Father model. The two models come with distinct moral systems that are founded on different assumptions about the world, interpret shared values such as responsibility or fairness differently, and center around different moral priorities… those with a strong Strict Father model are likely to support a more punitive welfare or foreign policy than someone with a strong Nurturant Parent model, who are likely to favor more cooperative approaches. Those with a strong Nurturant Parent model are more likely to favor social policies that ensure the well-being of people such as health care and education, whereas someone with a strong Strict Father model would object to social programs in favor of promoting self-reliance.” 

From Children and Family by Stephen Gislason MD

Children and Family


Persona Digital Books

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