By Alicia Wallace
The “breakdown of the family” has been blamed for everything from national examination results to the murder rate. There is generally no data to support the claims when they are made, but we largely agree something is wrong with the home environment. The family is a small, foundational unit that helps to shape many other groups, so it is logical to assume it affects them, doesn’t it?
Canon Norman Lightbourne pointed to the failures of the family at a church service last week. He mentioned other issues including unemployment and corruption. He talked about the need for change, but noted that “until we deal with home and family life, our efforts will be to no avail.”
The family is the first community we come to know and often struggles to measure up to societal standards. It is expected to lay a foundation, teaching right from wrong and preparing children to become productive members of society. Families are supposed to meet the basic needs of its members, including food, shelter and clothing. Members of a family support one another. Older members are to be watchdogs of the younger members. The family has a name and it is to be protected. The fear of shame encourages members to police one another and, at times, give the impression of a functionality that does not exist.
The family is more than household. It is a school, a church, a courtroom, a clinic and a jail cell. Its functions seem to have no end. More and more is added to the list while less and less time is being spent together as a unit due to the demands of work and other responsibilities. We make demands of families, not fully understanding what they are, because society does not want the responsibility and we all want our jobs to be done when we leave. When we get home, we — especially women — have another shift. We have to manage the family.
The burden of keeping the family together, happy and healthy generally falls to women, expected to do whatever it takes, always putting the family unit before self. When children are harmed or involved in crime, people ask: “Where was the mother?” When they look unkempt, they ask for the mother’s whereabouts. Mothers are called to schools for meetings with teachers about behavioural issues. Wives are held accountable for the misdeeds of spouses. Women, in many cases, head their households or are otherwise responsible for its function and maintenance. When we say the family is not doing its job, we often mean women are not doing what we expect of them as wives and mothers.
What is the family?
Though we know the family can take many shapes and forms, we talk about it as if there is only one, or one type is superior to all others. The nuclear family is understood to be the “traditional” structure with two parents and their children. It is seen as the ideal structure for religious and financial reasons. Other family structures include single-parent, extended, blended families. We, of course, have a mix of these types of families.
In school, my friends and I noted more of our parents were divorced or separated than married and living together. Though we were taught about the different types of families and had to draw our own family trees, many students assumed that nuclear families were the norm and, even if we were in the majority, those of us in other kinds of households were outsiders. There were just as many students in single-parent and extended families as there were in nuclear families, if not more, but there was still the sense that something was wrong.
In many ways, some of us felt like we were part of two different family structures because of how we spent our time. Some spilt their time between parents and one parent remarried. In some of those cases, the step parent had a child. For others, more time was spent at grandparents’ or close family friends’ houses than at home because of parents’ work schedules. When asked to name our family structures, we wondered how “family” was defined. Was it based on the place that had all of our things, or the place we spent more of our waking hours?
We can talk about the perfect nuclear families of two parents and their children, but can we ignore the relationships the children have with other family members through sharing the same physical space, meals, conversations and values? Can we discount the impact of the people raising children in the absence of their parents? These can be grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. They can also be babysitters, teachers, youth group leaders and neighbours. There was a time when a “village” raised a child. Today, we do not want to navigate shared responsibility, nor do we want to incur debt, so we sometimes forbid children from receiving kindness. Independence has become a goal for many individuals and families. We want to function on our own and are often prepared to “go without” to ensure we owe no one and can keep our business to ourselves.
The family can be a source of confusion. There are so many, operating in vastly different ways, that it should not come as surprise that they are producing people as varied as the family units themselves.
Why isn’t it working?
The family is supposed to do quite a bit of work. If they function the way we expect them to, we should automatically have better societies. Communities would be stronger. There would be less crime. Academic performance would increase. Everyone would be happy. That is what we are supposed to believe. The truth is the family was never a miracle-working unit that produced citizens on its own. In the making of a person, there has always been more than one input. We now have more than ever before and most of those inputs do not recognize themselves as such, so they do not acknowledge their responsibility.
Elders talk about days gone by when people were more willing to give and receive assistance. Neighbours watched out for each other’s children. People lived in smaller communities and this made it easier to have relationships, for example, between teachers and parents. It was easier to communicate regularly, and there was less stigma around needing, asking, and receiving. Now, it seems no good deed goes unrecorded. Pride and the quest for independence are difficult to manage when a person needs help, but that help is likely to be broadcast on Facebook or shared in Whatsapp groups to shame the recipient or draw applause for the “good samaritan".
We are not spending much time at home. Parents want their children to be well-rounded and unstuck from electronic devices, so they are enrolled in a range of activities. One income is generally not enough for a family, so parents work full time jobs. When they get home, there is barely enough time to get through homework and have dinner. Weekends aside, there isn’t much time for molding perfect citizens. Children are being molded in a number of spaces outside of the home. Society has to recognize its responsibility in producing the next generation. We can try to put it all on the parents, but the hours do not add up and we end up with the same complaints.
While it has a role to play, just as many other social structures do, we have to stop making the family the scapegoat. Personal independence can be an impediment to growth. Our own desires for praise and the lengths we are willing to go to get it, including embarrassing others, creates a barrier. Aside from personal responsibility, we need to push for better social support systems. They are underfunded and non-profits cannot bridge the gap.
The family, the community and public services all have a role to play in social development and they can all use some work.