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Redefining the American Family: A 21st Century Perspective

This article was originally published 20 years ago in “The Future: Images for the 21st Century,” edited by University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant. It is the second of three parts.  Part one was published in the April 21 issue of the Michigan Citizen.


The American family must be redefined, reinvented and re-created because today’s nuclear families are caricatures of what families have been and can be.  The family is still the best place to prepare the next generation for life.  But to fulfill this role, families need to become multi-generational communities of work.  This transformation cannot take place separate and apart from the transformation of our communities, our cities and our schools.

Communities of Work

In order for our families to become communities of work, our cities must move toward greater economic self-reliance.  That means we must rid ourselves of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international markets.  Actually, our experiences since World War II have been teaching us that production for the national and international markets makes it much easier for multinational corporations to eliminate the jobs of millions of workers and to turn cities like Detroit into wastelands.  Moreover, large-scale production promotes consumerism, which is one of the chief causes for the decline in the American family.  Because it is based on a huge separation between production and consumption, large-scale production turns both producers and consumers into faceless masses who are alienate from one another and at the mercy of the market and the mass media.

To increase economic self-reliance, our cities need to move toward import substitution.  Instead of importing food and goods, we need to create small local enterprises, which produce food, goods and services for local consumption.  Instead of destroying the skills of workers as large-scale industry does, these enterprises would combine craftsmanship with the new technologies that would make possible flexible consumers.

Families can play a critical role in this movement toward local self-reliance by creating community gardens, greenhouses and workshops.  They can come together to plant a community garden, to rehabilitate a house for a community center, to produce T-shirts for community organizations and activities, to repair appliances and to organize community recycling centers and garage and yard sales, which can develop into neighborhood stores.  By creating a closer relationship between families and the work process, we can involve children in productive activities that develop responsibility and self-esteem.

“Living this Equality”

According to Betty Friedan, the mother of the modern women’s movement, we are now in the second stage of the struggle for equality between men and women.  The first stage was just having access, breaking through the simple barriers of sex discrimination to get access to training and opportunity in all of the work outside the home. We have done that significantly.” The second stage is “living this equality.”

In this stage there ‘has to be a profound restructuring of both work and home.  In the past, work — the preparation for professions, the lines of advancement, the very hours – was structured in terms of the lives of men who had wives to take care of their other life.  And home was structured in terms of the 24-hour service of a full-time housewife-mother.  The great majority of women are now working outside the home, as much from sheer necessity as from new opportunity and they are working for most of their lives.  Most women and most families can’t afford to have women go home again, but the implication is that this is your own personal problem and it’s all because the feminists are giving you ambitions for careers that have gotten you into this predicament.”

Integrating work with the home and community creates a basis for mothers and fathers to “live this equality” by spending more time at home with their children and less time working in factories and offices.  Men especially need this involvement with the life process.  One of the chief reasons young Black males are an “endangered species” today is that they have become so removed from the lives of those whom they helped to create.

For this integration of family and work to succeed, work outside the home will also have to be restructured so that men and women can work flex-time and part-time.

More Family, Not Less

The overwhelming majority of AMericans who today live in cities and suburbs cannot be expected to go back to the farms where parents, siblings, relatives and grandparents lived in the same household or nearby.  But we do not have to accept the frightening and dangerous isolation of today’s families.  Whether we live in the city or the suburbs, we can consciously cohos to live close to our parents and friends so that children grow up knowing their grandparents; we can choose to live within walking or biking distance of concerned adults, instead of being dependent upon cars or phones for such contacts.  When we rent, buy or build in a neighborhood, we can consciously cohos one with a diversified and intergeneration cross-section of the population, consisting of persons of all ages and at all stages of the life cycle — young families, larger families with older children, retired and working older persons and couples, singles, people with a wide variety of skills, occupations and lifestyles — so that children will have many different adult role models.

Together with our neighbors, we can organize block parities, youth block clubs, community parks and other projects so that we do not simply live next to one another but are naturally and normally developing a common interest and concern for the children of the neighborhood.  To prepare children to become self-governing citizens, we can participate in ongoing struggles and activities to decide policy for our community, our city and our country.

One of the fears we have inherited from communities of the past is that they will be narrow-minded and parochial.  To safeguard against this danger, parents can consciously choose to live in ethnically diverse communities where their children, while learning the richness of their own cultural heritage, are also exposed to the cultures of other groups.  Conscious that their children are growing up in a period of rapid change, parents can welcome neighbors who, like Socrates, do not tell young people what to thing or how to live but encourage them to thing for themselves.  And recognizing that our market economy is producing growing numbers of the homeless and hungry, parents can consciously create ways and means for our children to relate compassionately to those less fortunate so that they are not perceived as “the other.”

Communities of this diversity and common concern can be created through the conscious choice made by millions of individuals and families as to where to settle and how to live together as neighbors.  Those who want to make a deeper commitment can organize cooperatives or international communities with common areas (central house, backyards, gardens, workshops, etc.). In the past, these intentional communities usually had to be established in remote rural areas.  But as more vacant lots and abandoned houses become available for “rehabbing” in cities like Detroit, there are increasing opportunities to organize Urban Cooperative/Enterprise communities or what is known as “Co-Housing.” The important thing is not that communities all be alike but that as we decide where and how to live, we think of our homes and neighborhoods as human settlements rather than as labor reservoirs or markets for industry.

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