Watch this CBS video on the Cattoor family (http://www.centertao.org/media/family.mp4) 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. Sure, “fences” are essential, but only if they are natural and healthy ones. This video depicts quite the opposite. I found a more natural approach to family life. I’ll make the case…
My parents reared me in the standard American family way. In the 1950’s most every American thought the American way of life was superior. Neither I, nor the 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 undeveloped world. That soon opened my eyes to the cultural myths to which I was accustomed. I finally realized 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. Even so, 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. These migrants 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. To be sure, with few ancestral ties to lean on in hard times, independence was essential. Unfortunately, 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.
No doubt, folks who fully embrace the American cultural paradigm will find it difficult to evaluate these observations impartially. The dysfunctional aspects of the American family model blind us to those same aspects. It normally takes a unique jarring personal experience to see outside one’s box. Alas, I expect independence will eventually become the world model as increasing wealth and technology liberates everyone from a close dependence on one another. (See A Tao of Parenting, p.343, for other ways to approach family life. Also, cbsnews.com/news/easy-rider for the transcript of the video.)
(1) This ‘every man for himself’ situation may account for the appeal churches have in America. They help fill the need for extended family ties. ‘Every man for himself’ also serves the highly industrialized and expert driven life style that people value. Now technology is putting the final nails in the coffin of natural ancestral ways. Be patient though, natural ways are certain to reemerge in the long run. I doubt cell phones, e-mail, Facebook, Thanksgiving-get-togethers, or churches will ever make up for the loss. Nature always wins in the end!