Watch this CBS “everybody has a story” Easy Rider video first if you can. The final comment stands out, “Giving your kids what they need is always harder than giving them what they want. Only when you’re older can you appreciate those fences“. This hints at how the American family dynamic ‘evolved’. If you concur with what this approach implies for child rearing, I imagine you will have difficulty understanding, let alone appreciating, another family way. Nevertheless, I’ll make the case.
My parents reared me in the standard American family way. Not surprisingly, in the 1950’s it was common knowledge that American ways were the ultimate in human evolution. I, nor most folks I knew, had any reason to doubt that. In fact, when I expressed my immanent plans to travel abroad, older colleagues at work warned me that scores of women abroad would want to marry me in order to live the American dream.
For the next fifteen years, I worked and traveled abroad, often among the peoples of the ‘impoverished and backward’ cultures of the second and third world. That quickly opened my eyes to the cultural myths to which I was accustomed. I finally saw some of the dysfunctional aspects of American culture, especially in its obsession with independence and the disconnecting effect that has on basic family life in America.
In many ways, the American family paradigm is out-of-sync with some innate social instincts that have seen us safe and sane for countless millennia. Of course, Americans didn’t choose to opt out of humanity’s ancestral family norm.
The American family ‘norm’ arose with the rapid settlement of the country by Europeans. They left their ancestral home with its extensive family ties and landed in an open and ‘every man for himself’ situation (1). This became the seeds of the American ethical belief that ‘independence was best’. Indeed, with little ancestral ties to lean on in hard times, ‘independence’ was the only way. However, ‘independence’ does not truly match the needs of our social nature. We are happiest and most emotionally secure when closely connected with others. Tribe and family have provided this social security for our species from the beginning. Tribe and family also form the social foundation for all the other primates, except perhaps the more independent orangutans of Borneo.
Finally, I realize that folks who embrace the American cultural paradigm will find is difficult to evaluate these observations impartially. It usually takes personal experience to realize what is outside one’s box. My reason for this post is to support anyone seeking an alternative to the dysfunctional aspects of the American family model. Alas, I expect it will become the world model eventually, if it isn’t already. (See A Tao of Parenting for hints on another way to approach family life.)
(1) This ‘every man for himself’ situation may account for the high draw churches have. They helped fill the need for ‘extended’ family ties. ‘Every man for himself’ also serves the highly industrialized and expert driven life style that people value. This puts the final nails in the coffin of ancestral natural ways. Be patient though, natural ways are certain to reemerge in the end. I doubt cell phones, email, Facebook, Thanksgiving-get-togethers, or churches will ever make up for the loss. Nature always wins in the end!