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Redefining the American Family

The FutureThis article was originally published 20 years ago in “The Future: Images for the 21st Century”, edited by University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant.

American families today are so unlike those in which human beings have traditionally raised children that it is questionable whether they should be called families at all.

Since the invention of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, children and young people have been raised in families which included not only parents and siblings but other relatives of all ages.  Within this multi-generational family growing children developed a sense of their continuity with the past and the future. Naturally and normally they each discovered that their own individual uniqueness was the result of a subtle interplay between ancestral influences and  individual choices and contingencies. Surrounded by a wide variety of adult models on whose conversations they “eavesdropped”, they acquired the ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

At the same time, because the agricultural family was an economic production unit, work life and home life were intermingled. Women and children were subordinate, but everyone had a socially necessary role to play. Through the performances of daily chores children developed competence, a sense of responsibility, and self-esteem.

It was only with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the shifting of work from the field to the factory that family structures and patterns began to change. To go where the jobs were, families had to be mobile. Thus the “extended” family” became the “conjugal family” of parents and children, stripped of relatives, streamlined so that it could serve as a labor pool for expanding industry.

It has taken more than two centuries to complete this change in the United States. Before World War II the great majority of American working people still raised their children in some form of the “extended family”.

Since the end of World War II, however, the American family has been steadily shrinking so that today it has been reduced to the “nuclear family” in all classes, and in the suburbs as well as the city. The automobilization of our society has made it possible for the upwardly mobile to move to the suburbs, leaving behind blacks, the poor and the elderly. Thus nuclear families are housed in one-dimensional neighborhoods segregated by race, class and age.

Instead of being a community of work, the American home has become the bastion of consumption. In single as well as two-parent households, mothers have two jobs. After working all day in the factory, office or hospital, they continue to shoulder the main responsibility for the care of the children and the home. An increasing number of children grow up in single-parent households, and raising of children has been turned over to schools and baby-sitters.

For most children the parents, grandparents, relatives, neighbors, and other caring adults of an earlier period have been replaced by the TV, same-age cliques or gangs, loneliness.

The effects of this erosion of the American family have been catastrophic.  Child abuse by parents has become a national problem. Our country, the most scientifically and medically advanced in the world, is 17th among nations in combating infant mortality. Crime, vandalism, drugs, suicide, and other anti-social and self-destructive behaviors among youth are so widespread that programs to save our sons and daughters have become a growth industry.

Liberals and conservatives are little help to parents trying to survive and to raise their children in a society which is constantly undermining their role. Both add to the cause of inadequacy and powerlessness which parents are already feeling, liberals by claiming that the solution lies in more support from state agencies, conservatives by insisting that responsibility for raising children rests solely with today’s “families” and by implying that parental laxity is the cause of youth errancy.

The weakness in both the liberal and the conservative approaches is their inability to recognize  that the crisis of the American family is part and parcel of the disintegration taking place in all our institutions as we come to the end of a civilization that has been ruled by the blind, fanatical, and destructive forces of the market. Our families, like our communities, our cities, and our country, are suffering the consequences of a system which has been miraculously efficient in the production of goods, but devastatingly destructive of all our human relationships.

However, by the same token, we are privileged to be present and to participate in the creation of new families, new communities, and new cities based on more human and more spiritual values. This is our challenge and our opportunity.

To be continued: The American Family: Rebeginnings 

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