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The dissolving family
I wonder if we can all agree that the western notion of family has ruptured.  I mean of course the idea of family, no specific iteration.

First I should ask how exactly has the family split. In America we see this in the dispersal of the nuclear family and the rise of divorce. While in other societies it is quite normal for children to live with their family late into their 20s and even into their early 30s, in the United States that is considered weird. Here it is commonplace that the child is reared and then sent off into the wild to fend for himself as soon as he is able. Why else do we as a society find it alarming that 22-25 year olds are moving back in with their parents? At every other time in history it would have been alarming if anything else had been the case. A family unit was more or less solid for the duration of every member's lifetime.


The support system of the family has collapsed. The dynamism between generations has collapsed. Whereas never before, the family is now a factory for other ends than its own. Children grow and leave on loop. There is production but little of the necessary consumption a family needs to not only thrive but at the basic level, to survive. They are unsustainable. 

I'm sure you all can think of other manifestations of the breakdown of family. But I also want to use this space to hypothesize about why it is breaking down.

I think maybe a lot has to do with the proliferation of information. Where before the family's word was law, today we receive morality in the form of information from an overwhelming number of sources. From school, to media, to government, friends, neighbors and advertisements. All of these undermine the tradition of family and its power over us as individuals. No longer do we want to associate ourselves to a single group at the exclusion of others.

Information is greedy. It's taught that we should acquire it at all costs. And so the individual becomes all-important. We conceive ourselves by what we know. And so we gather information for our own ends from all over and give little credence to one source over another. It's almost like because we have access to an infinite number of familial traditions we no longer desire to propagate our own.

Am I stretching this too far? What do people mean when they say the family is dead? How did it die and what does it say for those about to start a family of their own?
Interesting post Robert, I don't know if I agree with you though. It seems to me that our traditional view of the family is maybe  dead, but not the idea of family itself which include many new ways of experiencing it. I also think that this modernization of the family notion allows the individual to choose his path better and be more happy, even if it implies taking some wild and untrodden roads.
Don't agree that the family is dead. I think we are just using new ways to keep in touch. Before there was telephone, email etc communication had to be personal or by very slow snail mail. Now we can keep in touch in many ways and still feel connected. It seems to me that the idea of family as sacrosanct previously is somewhat revisionist, us not being able to experience what is was like previously and seeing the history through the memory of special occasions. Yes America has always been different from other cultures. People who came here were willing to leave family for the advantages that America offered and get them a long time later or not at all. Those kinds of risk taking personalities are passed down. 
Connection to family is deep in the genes. We just do it differently now. I was just talking to my great aunt who is 80 and she said the she speaks to each of her 3 daughters (each in their 50's) every day. On the surface of it, it would seem that that family is not connected, they don't live together, but they are incredibly close and know what is going on in each others lives every day.


Just the same way that we don't travel by horse anymore, circumstances change and we call that progress. The family is evolving into something different than it was previously. Thoreau is considered the the great independent. Walden Pond, going out onto the wilderness, etc. But Walden was less than 5 miles from his mother's house! Things change, we change and the family changes.
Definitely ruptured.  Ties are loose, allegiances nominal.  The relationships of between family members, when conducted by email, do not provide the same function - they lack the capacity for deep, biological connection.  And don't forget that we are made of meat.

The modern American family, as an organization, produces offspring well-developed to contribute in other environments, working for other organizations.  The family that spawned them, however, does not receive the benefit of the child's labor; we encourage young Americans to estrange themselves in order to "strike out on their own."  This, I think, is what Robert means when he says families lack "the necessary consumption" of offspring's efforts.  Parents pay heavy fees and dedicate years to build productive, hard-working Americans who then go and feed corporate machines, governmental coffers, etc.

That was a loaded sentence; the family is an excellent production unit operating in the service of society.  I don't think, however, that society is rewarding the family for its dedication.  Where are the family's returns?  And the family, therefore, is a selfless -- and poor -- investment.

Some exceptions apply: I visit my mother in person frequently, and many families do bring their offspring back into the fold after a period of college, job-seeking, financial/social establishment or other such Rumspringa.  I and while I believe that families who produce valuable members of society deserve to benefit directly from their labors, I also have a strong understanding that tying a young person down with forced dedication to a family, to a family's religion, religious community, or secular community, can severely cripple the offspring's innovative potential, her desire to succeed and/or her productive capabilities for that community/family. There is a reason the Amish send their offspring into our world with a pocketful of cash and no strings attached - they come back with a desire to see strengthen the Amish community, or they don't come back at all.  Those are the only two legitimate options, in my opinion; families shouldn't trap externally ambitious offspring, but rather cultivate that ambition so that it feeds back into the family. 

The best way to do feed offspring's efforts into families, I think, is by plugging the family into a larger local community - churches do an excellent job of this - and plug the offspring's ambitions into that community.  Whether it's local (small) business, local government, "community organizing," whatever, the stronger the local community the faster the offspring are drawn to support it, and its familial units.
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Latest Post: April 25, 2011 at 5:29 PM
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