Years ago we came across a cartoon showing what was going on inside the minds of various family members when one of them suggested, “Let’s get a dog.” As we recall, in the mom’s mind there was a tiny Chihuahua sitting on a pillow. In the dad’s it was a Great Dane walking nobly by his side. In the daughter’s mind there was a cute French poodle sitting quietly in her lap as she did her homework. In the son’s it was a Saint Bernard rolling and tumbling with him in the backyard. To each family member, the word “dog” meant something different. Thus, the decision to “get a dog” had different implications to each.
In today’s world the word family is often met with the same variety of mental images. From the Brady Bunch to the Simpsons, the Cosbys to the Sopranos, people’s media- and experience-created images of family vary widely.
So where does your seeing about family come from?
From your own growing-up experience—good or bad?
From your own experience as an adult—good or bad?
From social statistics, newscasts, movies, and television programs that create a sense of cynicism or resignation about family life?
From TV sitcoms and comedy routines that model abrasive and mocking family interaction?
From your perceptions of the family life of your neighbors or friends?
How extensively do these or other influences impact the way you see family . . . what you expect with regard to family . . . the way you interact with family members . . . the quality of your family life?
We live in a time when social messages about family are incredibly mixed and confusing. Even the purpose of family itself seems muddled. While in the past, the family was generally seen as a sacred institution that was necessary for physical survival, procreation, intergenerational character and skill training, and emotional and spiritual strength, for many today it is seen as optional and essentially social and recreational.
We also live in a time when we’re fragmented and diverted by many other things in our lives, making it hard to take the time to think deeply about the quality of our family life and the impact it has on us and on future generations.
But if we really want the richly satisfying and incomparable joy that comes from quality family life, we must make time to think about how we think about family.
As thousands of years of civilization attest, family is the very DNA of society.
The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.
The family is the nucleus of civilization.
—William J. Durant
As Allan Carlson, general secretary of the World Congress of Families II, observed in his opening address to that body:
Our very identity as human beings impels us toward family life; toward marriage and children. A religious person would probably explain this as a consequence of Divine intent, in the Creation.The person of science could explain this as a consequence of 10,000 generations of human evolution. The conclusion, though, would be the same: to be human is to be familial.
As we look at today’s disturbing family statistics, it’s easy to get discouraged. Consider the following:
Over the past 30 years . . .
Teenage suicide has increased almost 300 percent.
One-fourth of all adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease before they graduate from high school.
Out-of-wedlock births have increased more than 400 percent.
The divorce rate has more than doubled.
The percentage of families headed by a single parent has more than tripled.
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among all students have dropped 73 points.
In addition, the number one health problem for American women today is domestic violence. Four million women are beaten each year by their partners. And more and more children have no functioning fathers. One of three American children go to bed each night in a home where his or her father does not live.
Perhaps one benefit of such statistics is that they bring to our awareness—in dramatic and unforgettable ways—the foundational and essential nature of family. With strong, stable family life as an almost given in the past, perhaps many of us have been blind to the fact that it was the primary thread around which all other threads in society were woven. But as the threads have begun to unravel, the vital necessity of those primary threads has become unmistakable.
George Haley, former United States ambassador to Gambia— and brother of Alex Haley, who wrote the stirring intergenerational family saga Roots—has observed:
Much like protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles constitute the building blocks of our physical world, the family is the cornerstone for both our social existence and individual development. It has been said it takes a village to raise a child, but I tell you it takes strong families to make a true village.
Clearly, strong families nurture a strong society. A strong society nurtures strong families. Thus, happy, healthy families are both the roots and fruits of a stable and enduring civilization.
And what makes a happy, healthy family? Extensive research explores a variety of factors, but almost everyone who takes a serious look at family issues will agree that:
A strong, loving marriage tends to create a strong family.
Families are generally happy and successful to the degree that family members:
trust each other
love each other
believe in each other
help each other
comfort each other
forgive each other
Families who have healthy relationships with their extended families are generally happier and more resilient to the challenges of life.
Despite some media images to the contrary, research shows that married couples usually live longer, exhibit fewer risk-taking behaviors—such as drunk driving, smoking, and drug abuse—have lower rates of suicide and alcoholism, suffer less from illness and disease, and recover more quickly when they do fall ill.[9 ]They have less depression and fewer psychiatric disorders.[10 ]They’re better off financially, and tend to save more and invest greater amounts for education and retirement.[11 ]And faithfully married people report being more satisfied with the physical intimacy in their relationships than all other sexually active people combined. In the words of one researcher, “No part of the unmarried population—separated, divorced, widowed, or never married—describes itself as being so happy and contented with life as the married.”
Research also shows that children from strong, stable families are more likely to be successful and happy in every way—physically, mentally, spiritually, economically, and socially—and that those with a strong extended family support system are better able to successfully cope with the challenges of life.
Research aside, consult your own navigational intelligence. Can you honestly imagine anything that would tend to create greater personal happiness and contribute more to societal stability than a family made up of parents who genuinely love each other . . . who welcome children into the family and team well to provide for their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs . . . who teach their children to love and serve each other . . . who pass on a wonderful heritage of the principles, such as honesty and integrity, that create quality of life . . . and who are supported in their efforts by a loving network of grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, and aunts?
One of the fundamental characteristics of a principle is that it is self-evident—that its opposite appears absurd. Could anyone imagine that the opposite of what we’ve just described would serve individuals or society better: parents who despise or are indifferent to each other; who resent children; who act selfishly and independently; who fail to meet their children’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs; who fight and quarrel and don’t seem to care when their children do the same; who teach dishonesty, slovenliness, and indulgence; and who are critical of and distance themselves from aunts, uncles, cousins, or other extended family members?
Whether you consider it self-evident or you validate it through sociology, biology, theology, or your own navigational intelligence, the reality is that quality family life is essential and foundational to personal and societal well-being and happiness. Even with the enormous challenges of marriage and parenting, the essential ingredients of the family ideal are—and have been—the foundational life experience for many people around the globe and throughout history. Even in the face of significant political, economic, and social problems, “family” has been the strength in the midst of the challenge.
Bottom line, there is simply no better, stronger, more deeply satisfying, richly rewarding, productive, and effective way of life.
Carlson, Allan. “The Natural Family is the Fundamental Social Unit: A Summons to Create Social Engineering,” Speech given at the World Congress of Families II, Geneva, Switzerland, November 15, 1999.
From references cited in Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. Golden Books, New York, 1997, p. 17.
Ibid., p. 17.
Horn, Wade F., and Sylvester, Tom. Father Facts, 4th edition. National Fatherhood Initiative, Gaithersburg, MD, 2002. Statistic in the text is from the 1997 Fatherhood Initiative Study, also accessible at www.fatherhood.org.
Haley, George. “Family.” Speech given at the World Congress of Families II, Geneva, Switzerland, November 17, 1999.
Used by permission of Family Leadership International, LLC. (Notes 7–13 and information referenced in the text were taken from the following source: VanDenBerghe, Elizabeth, “Happiness, Health and Marriage,” Ensign Magazine, August 2001, pp. 28–35.)
Lillard, L.A., and White, L.J. “’Til Death Do Us Part: Marital Disruption and Mortality.” American Journal of Sociology, March 1995, pp. 1131, 1143.
Burr, J.A.; McCall, P.L.; and Powell-Griner, E. “Catholic Religion and Suicide: The Mediating Effect of Divorce.” Social Science Quarterly, June 1994, 300–318; Robins, L.N., and Regier, D.A. Psychiatric Disorders in America:The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (1991).
[9 ]Waite, L.J. “Does Marriage Matter?” Demography, November 1995, pp. 483–507; Gove, W.R. “Sex, Marital Status, and Mortality.” American Journal of Sociology, July 1973, pp. 45–67.
[10 ]Robins, L.N., and Regier, D.A. Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (1991).
[11 ]Rindfuss, R.R., and VandenHeuvel, A. “Cohabitation: A Precursor to Marriage or an Alternative to Being Single?” Population and Development Review, December 1990, 703–26.
Michael, R.T.; Gagnon, J.H.; Laumann, E.O.; and Kolata, G. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (1994).
Coombs, R.H. “Marital Status and Personal Well-Being: A Literature Review.” Family Relations, January 1991, p. 100; Gove, W.R.; Style, C.B.; and Hughes, M. “The Effect of Marriage on the Well-Being of Adults: A Theoretical Analysis” Journal of Family Issues, March 1990, pp. 4–35; Wood, W.; Rhodes, N.; and Whelan, M. “Sex Differences in Positive Well-Being: A Consideration of Emotional Style and Marital Status.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 106, no. 2 (1989), pp. 249–64.
The Family and Society Data Base—a component of the John L. Swan Library on Family and Culture. See www.profam.org.