Public celebrations of family life such as the International Day of Families should be uncontroversial.
But they sometimes focus on the definition of the family, with the claims of the stable nuclear family of father, mother and children set against the claims of other kinds of family groupings — same sex couples, single parents, blended families and serial partners, for example. The discussion can then become acrimonious.
Definitions are important, as is reflection on the challenges facing each kind of family grouping. But these discussions should not distract from such larger questions as: why are families of any description important, and what qualities are needed if they are to be effective?
In any society families are important because in them children are nurtured so that they become connected and contributing members of society. The best environment for this to happen, whatever the shape of the family, is one that is stable, predictable, affectionate and formative.
Although children are resilient and can grow into emotionally mature adults even in the face of obstacles caused by sickness, death, poverty, violence or separation, their path will be very demanding.
No family, of course, is ideal. The ideal Christian family in which children grow up with a loving mother and father in a life-long relationship, for example, is admirable but rare in practice, just as are the ideal families of any culture. The varied shapes and the differing quality of relationships that families display are a fact of life.
The family background of many disadvantaged and vulnerable children is far from ideal. They may have experienced and witnessed family violence; the relationship between their father and mother may often be broken or unstable; they may have left home early, become homeless, suffer mental or physical illness, lack education and have no skills in building and keeping relationships. They long for a home that they have never found.
The effects of such deprivation both on the child and on society can be catastrophic. Left to themselves children may grow into adults who are unable to form deep and non-violent relationships, who lack the social skills and confidence to learn systematically or to find work.
"The nuclear family is a network of relationships between parents and children. But it can be understood fully and its resources appreciated only when we attend to the wider network of relationships that govern its flourishing."
They will draw on the costly resources of the health system, the welfare system and the justice system. If they are to overcome the effects of life in a dysfunctional family they will need people from outside their family circle to hang in with them, show them how to form good relationships and to connect with society.
In many societies deficits in family life are compensated for within the extended family. In Australia grandparents often have a huge and positive influence on their grandchildren, particularly where the parents are separated. In many cultures uncles and aunts and cousins also take responsibility for the welfare of children after death or separation strikes the nuclear family.
In other cultures, too, the welfare of children is everyone's responsibility. The village is an extension of the family. So when children are disadvantaged, they become everyone's care. This suggests that our celebration and imagining of family life should reach beyond the nuclear to embrace the extended family. The nuclear family is a network of relationships between parents and children. But it can be understood fully and its resources appreciated only when we attend to the wider network of relationships that govern its flourishing.
The International Day of Families is an occasion for gratitude for the part that families have played in the building of the society we have inherited and its values. Public achievement is usually measured by financial and professional success or by celebrity. The contribution made by ordinary families who would not think themselves special to building a peaceful and hopeful society, however, is greater.
The day also invites us to keep in mind people whose memories of family life are a nightmare, and to ask how can we help people deprived of good parenting to connect with society and to build the good personal and working relationships that will enable them to form stable families.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
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15 May 2017
The last paragraph of this great article should resonate with all Victorians as our government seeks higher walls and heavier punishments for often frustrated, desperate kids who have broken our laws. The state too is a dysfunctional family and we are in a sense responsible aunts and uncles to those kids. These kids need a particular kind of mercy - not perceived justice that will prevent their growth.
15 May 2017
Focusing on the definition of 'family' or, worse, a single definition of an 'ideal family' to the exclusion of all others is, as Andrew suggests, less than helpful. The common idea of a nuclear family (a man, a woman, a boy for him and a girl for her, all co-dependent and self contained) is a relatively recent idea. Anyone who has done any family history will know that, except perhaps among the rich, or except for the first generation immigrant, the exception was the rule. Widows with children were frequent, melded families where one or more of the parents had been previously married were common. Older daughters took younger, orphaned, siblings under their wings and into their homes. Grandparents cared for grandchildren, uncles and aunts for nephews and nieces, and their were more than a few examples of children being taken in by friends. And even when the biological mother and father were present, the nurturing group spread to all these others. Isn't there an account in he gospels of Jesus, as a 12 year old, travelling to and from Jerusalem with kith and kin?
19 May 2017
Thank-you, Andrew, for another excellent article and so timely for the current situation.