Archive for August 8th, 2010


family values

Yesterday’s entry has had me thinking on and off ever since about “family”:  my family, my friends’ families, successful and dysfunctional families, family structures, family law and public policy, etc.

To tell you the truth, my first thought was that some people should be prevented from ever becoming parents. When I imagine how that little boy in Independence had been living, when I thought of the state of filth in the house, and of his being so young and neglected—and most certainly abused—I had the thought that David Champ probably got off too easy just taking a shot in the head.

From new detailed information I’ve learned that has not yet been reported in the media, I now know this was not a groundless conclusion. As the full facts become known, David Champ will be shown to have been a monster. Already a story has appeared in one of the newspapers reporting that a neighbor heard Champ “force” his son to shoot him, threatening that he would cut off his son’s fingers if the child did not comply. There are worse stories to come, and you will probably first hear of them here.

We like to think of our society as “family friendly” in most respects, yet I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that our culture is so profoundly hostile to families that we have forgotten how to even be families. I am basing this, not on extreme examples of horrific dysfunction such as existed in the Champ household, but on the everyday assumptions which are the unexamined foundations of how we think of “family” in today’s culture.

For example, there have been many stories in the media about young adult children returning home to live with their parents after college or a year or two trying to make it in the moribund job market. This phenomenon is almost always (or absolutely always as far as I’ve seen) framed as a problem. A month or two ago I saw a New Yorker cartoon showing a returned son hanging his PhD diploma in his old bedroom, with his worried parents looking on from the hallway. I just don’t get it.

Why do we think of intergenerational families as being a problem, an inconvenience, a burden, a failure? It’s nuts. Intergenerational family units have been the norm for thousands of years because they are stronger and healthier than the inefficient, atomized, and relatively isolated “nuclear families” which are today’s ideal.

When I was a little boy, my great-grandmother Maude lived with my maternal grandparents, and I still cherish the memories of spending time with her as a toddler, of the two of us listening to the radio and sharing Black Jack chewing gum. I still feel a powerful connection to her, even though she died when I was three or four. I would have none of these memories if my great-grandmother had been farmed out to a nursing home with other people whose families had abandoned them to live out their last years in loveless isolation.

Nuclear families are to intergenerational families what tasteless industrial hybrid tomatoes are to garden-grown heirloom varieties—a poor substitute for the real thing.

Another thing that deeply bothers me about modern families is our tendency to outsource traditional family functions to so-called professionals, especially child care and elder care, birthing and hospice. These functions are best performed with the love that professionals cannot simulate.

When I was in college I heard a story in one of my advertising classes about how the first prepared cake mixes flopped because women raised on baking-from-scratch resisted the idea of only mixing in water. It contradicted their urge to nurture. The problem was solved when some marketing genius figured out that women would feel better about cake mixes if they were also asked to mix in a couple eggs (a powerful, symbolic act). Like eggs added to cake mix, love is the critical ingredient in adequately serving our families’ young and old. In family life as in baking, doing it yourself from scratch assures the highest-quality real thing.

The other day Henry shared an astonishing fact with me: that the average worker today earns only the buying-power equivalent (adjusted for inflation) of the average US worker in 1936 during the Great Depression! So how has our society responded so American families can live in McMansions and participate in the great consumerist orgy? Dual-income families, in which parents are forced to farm the kids out to day care and who use TV to occupy the children’s time at home. Kids today are literally raising themselves because parents are too exhausted and absent to do the job properly. I hate to admit it, but Dan Quayle was right.

We’ve gotten things all bassackwards, and it is our families which are weaker and more dependent on commercial enterprises and more dysfunctional as a result.

The hard times we’re experiencing today provide an opportunity to make a break with current wrongheaded trends, and return to the timeless values that will re-create strong and healthy families.

If you would like to read a white paper outlining how I believe this can be accomplished, submit your request as a comment and I will e-mail you A Healthy Family Model, a document which is guiding social developments here at Estrella Vista.