Sunday, October 23, 2016

Joe Omundson

Nuclear family vs. community upbringing

Few ideas in our society are held on a higher pedestal than Family. If you're a red-blooded American, your default goals are expected to include marriage, kids, and a house. The nuclear family is regarded as the most legitimate lifestyle structure.

There's nothing inherently bad about being in a nuclear family. Sometimes people fall in love for a long time, have kids, and go through life together as a unit. That's natural and it can be very healthy. But, there are also ways this arrangement can turn into something truly horrible, especially for the children.

Here's the thing: as children, our perception of the world is created by our early experience. Whatever we experience during our childhood becomes our reality. It can only be changed later with a good deal of work, if we're lucky. Children are extremely malleable.

A nuclear family living alone in a house is very isolated. They interact with others during the day to an extent, but otherwise they're separate from the rest of society, walled off and private. Their patterns of interaction are unique to the family, the parents alone decide how to treat the kids, and the kids are completely dependent on the parents to provide for their needs.

Inside a family, the parents play an enormous role in defining a new human being's entire universe. They essentially own that child as property for the next 18 years.

If this arrangement is to work well, parents should be confident, competent, loving people, who understand the ways in which children need to be loved and supported. Those kids usually come to know the world as a stable place where success is attainable and love is natural. But other parents will be insecure, fearful, hateful, and unempathetic people. They might neglect or abuse their kids. They might blame the kids for their own problems. Those kids learn that they aren't good enough, that life is pain, that they can't trust anyone. Children who grow up in abusive situations are usually at a huge disadvantage to those who grow up in loving and stable environments.

If you are an unlucky child and your parents happen to be abusive, sick, and destructive, you're going to be subjected to a lot of agony, and you're basically stuck there. It's luck of the draw. Parents who use physical violence, or emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse, are likely to get away with it because it's behind closed doors and it's justifiable in any number of ways ("Spare the rod, spoil the child! Kids need tough love to prepare them for the real world!").

Society often sides with the parents when a child is suffering. Like owning a dog, a child is considered property, so by default they don't get much of a say in how they're treated. Plus, they "probably deserved it"; they were acting up; they were throwing a tantrum; they were being annoying; they needed to be taught a lesson. The deeper reasons that a child "acts up" are often ignored, and abuse goes unrecognized and unreported. When it is reported, the solutions are often just as bad as the problem (foster care). As a result, many children grow up to become adults who are traumatized, fearful, dysfunctional, depressed, and who then transfer the exact same set of problems onto their own children because they don't realize that there are other options available.

Since the nuclear family is presented as a noble, status-giving, life-legitimizing paradigm, it sets up an unrealistic expectation that starting a family will automatically provide happiness. People pledge their eternal love to a partner, move in together, and start having children just because they assume it will be the right thing to do or because they think it's their only option. It results in a lot of scenarios where people who are unhappy and unfulfilled start a family hoping it will make life feel better, and when it doesn't feel better they become more miserable than ever -- and now they have kids in the equation who are totally at their mercy.

When the number of adults responsible for a child's upbringing is so low, parents run out of energy to satisfy their kids' endless curiosity. Children want to understand things, so they repeatedly ask "why?", and when parents lose patience they eventually answer "because I said so." When children are forced to accept this as an answer, part of their curiosity dies, and instead of being encouraged to understand the complexities of reality, they learn to rely on someone else to tell them what is real and what is right, without questioning why. This leads to adults who unhappily try to live their lives according to what other people have told them is right rather than following their own internal guidance.

Because family is so idealized, there is a lot of social pressure to stay in contact with our close relatives as an adult even if it is unhealthy. Society tells us that we owe our parents something for creating us, even though it was completely their choice . Manipulative behaviors are written off because "that's just how parents are"; while it may be descriptively true that family members commonly use abusive tactics on each other, that doesn't mean human interaction is inherently that way and that it needs to be tolerated. Parents can use this social pressure to coerce even their adult children into accepting situations that are emotionally destructive, for the rest of their lives.

Everyone deserves to be surrounded by loved ones who support them and care for them in healthy ways. The unfortunate reality is that our blood relatives do not always provide this. While we should strive to honor our families and those who poured love into us, we should also be under no obligation to yoke our lives to theirs when doing so is destructive. In cases where our families do us more harm than good, we should feel free to find new groups of people to prioritize in our lives, people who have common goals and values, who accept and understand us. These people show us the real meaning of family and provide us the safe, nurturing, loving care that we need to grow strong in ourselves.

If you are someone who has had a bad experience with family: I believe you. I'm sorry it happened. That sucks. I support you in getting space from them and cutting ties to whatever extent you need.

What if instead of the single-family, single-house, nuclear family paradigm, we became more open to other options?

In my opinion, if children grew up in living spaces that included a larger community of people rather than a strict nuclear family, the odds of them having positive adult influences would balance out greatly. If the parents were absent or incompetent, there would be other stable adults around to help them. There would be other adults to hold the parents accountable if they treated the kids unfairly. This would also be easier on the parents because the community could share the responsibility of watching the kids when the parents want to spend some time doing their own thing.

When kids have more adults to turn to for their questions, they receive more thoughtful and varied responses that encourage them to explore the world and maintain curiosity. They learn more balanced and nuanced views of the world, different perspectives, and they learn to love people with a wider variety of strengths and weaknesses. And they're more likely to hear, at least some time in their lives, "you're OK just the way you are. I love you."

If raised in a community, the attitude toward children might be less that they are property, and more that they are equal members of the group; that they are everyone's future, and everyone's responsibility. This is more along the lines of how human tribes operated for tens and hundreds of thousands of years before recent developments of civilization made it possible for families to live in isolation.

Think of how 1000 fish live in a lake. They can all explore wherever they need to; the amount of available oxygen and nutrients is distributed across the whole community. Their ecosystem develops naturally with the other organisms in the lake. This is like how socialization would work if we still lived as tribal communities. What if you took those fish and put them into 200 different small tanks, and changed the composition of each of the tanks so that none of them was the same? Fed them artificially, starved some of them for oxygen, put fertilizer in some of the tanks, and kept them from interacting freely? You'd get a lot of sick fish. To some extent this is what we've done by creating the expectation that nuclear families should live alone in houses.

As always, topics like this are extremely complicated, and the sad reality of abusive homes can't be blamed completely on any one factor. But to me, our embrace of the nuclear family is an interesting one to explore because it hides in broad daylight. People don't tend to consider it as a possible problem. I think we need to examine all of our ideas, even the ones that feel the most ingrained, because sometimes it's the assumptions we've held the longest that do us the most damage.

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