Re-valu-ing the American Family, Part Eight: The Cause of Family Breakdown

by Richard and Linda Eyre

How our newest, largest institutions are destroying the oldest, smallest institution of family. Social problems are the symptoms, broken families are the illness. Larger institutions are the bacteria or “germs.” Eroding values and false paradigms are the deficiency in our immune system.

Note: In this sixteen-part column, Richard and Linda Eyre explore the recent revolution of the family from the honored centerpiece of society to a disrespected and seemingly redundant appendage to the larger corporate and cultural institutions of our new world. Re-valu-ing the family, the Eyres believe, is the only alternative to America’s demise. The sequence of the column is: A. Re-valu-ing the family (part one); B. The “crux” (parts 2 and 3 — why family is the foundation for everything, including happiness); C. The “curse” (parts 4 and 5 — the social problems that plague our society today); D. The “crisis” (parts 6 and 7 — the breakdown and breakup of families that allows and leads to the social problems); E. The “cause” (parts 8 and 9 — the reasons our families are failing); F. The “culprits” (parts 10 and 11 — how our new, large institutions are destroying the small, most basic institution of family); G. The “cure” (parts 12, 13, and 14 — what you as a parent can do about it); and H. The “case” (parts 15 and 16 — a case for government and big corporations to pay more positive attention).

cause (koz) n. 1. The producer of an effect, result, or consequence. A condition that is responsible for a result.

The Second “Why”

We can learn a lot about the question, “Why?” from children.

The first “why?” kids ask usually isn’t so hard. It’s the second why they ask (to the answer of the first why) that is tough.

“Why do I have to go to school?”

Easy answer: It’s the law.

“Why is it the law?” (Tougher question)

It’s the same with the two “whys” we’ve been dealing with here.

“Why are America’s social problems so profound (and so escalating)?”

Easy answer: Because of the breakdown of families.

“Why are families breaking down?” (Tougher question)

The second “why” gets us to the cause.

The solution sequence goes: Symptoms . . . illness . . . cause.

Symptoms: social problems.

Illness: Breakdown of family.

Cause: . . . ?

The cure can’t come until we know, really know, the cause. Diagnosis of the illness is important — but that gets easy after a while. Years ago every doctor could diagnose polio or yellow fever. But until the microbe cause was determined, real cures could not be developed.

Virtually every sociologist, statistician, spiritual or secular observer answers our first “why,” similarly. Most everyone sees the connections between family decline and escalating social problems. But the germs that cause the illness of family decline are harder to define and harder to find. But in this case, it’s not the smallness of the germ causes that make them hard to isolate — it’s their bigness. They surround us — so big we can’t see the whole thing — too wide for our field of vision.

But before we go there, let’s back up — let’s look at what the causes are not. Let’s eliminate some of the obvious possibilities. Are families breaking and deteriorating because we don’t care about them anymore? A resounding no. Polls continue to tell us, as they always have, that we value our families above all else. Are families declining because we think them unnecessary? Again, a resounding no. Polls show over 90 percent of us think they are the most important and needed thing in the world.

Well, if families are that strong, that valued, that important — if they truly are the most basic institution of society, what can break them? Only one thing: Bigger institutions. The huge private institutions that have grown up over the last 80 to 100 years, from media systems to merchandising giants and from public education to ever-expanding government, have had a profound effect on families. They have changed our life styles and priorities, created anti-family perspectives and paradigms, and in many cases have built or perpetrated themselves either by substituting for families or by undermining families for their own preservation and growth.

None of these larger institutions originated or were created to destroy families. In fact, all originally came about to serve families. But, like a robot that grows able to serve itself and turns to threaten its master, many of the large institutions we have created over the last century now threaten the very small institution they were intended to serve. And the basic, and ancient institution of family, instead of asserting itself and reminding itself of its primacy and priority, has let the massive new adolescent institutions crowd it out and con it into servitude.

While the family has been society’s smallest, most basic, and most essential institution since the beginning of time, our present larger institutions are a much more recent phenomenon, having been with us only during the last 100 years or so. Until the industrial age the principal larger institutions were churches, tribes, kingdoms, countries, and other political entities which, outside of war, had little effect on basic family life. With the industrial age came urbanization and a whole host of larger institutions — financial, industrial, educational, social, informational, wholesale and retail — which changed the very patterns of society and created a separation between people’s work lives and family lives. In agrarian society, work was usually with family and was always perceived as for family. Now work competes with family and we often have to choose between the needs and demands of larger institutions and the needs and demands of family.

Besides that, our public and private institutions, while serving us well in so many ways, have gained frightening lives of their own and, motivated by self preservation and growth, they have begun to squeeze and to supplant and substitute for the very entity that they were intended to strengthen, support and supplement. They have taken over some of the functions that should belong to families and fostered the impression that families are losing relevance –even becoming redundant.

At the same time, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, these larger institutions have created and fostered some false paradigms that have duped families into incorrect priorities and weakened their internal commitments. (The paradigm of work as our main identity, material possessions as our credibility, corporate or political allegiance as our first loyalty, etc.)

In short, our larger institutions have become preoccupied with the preservation and nourishment of themselves rather than the preservation and nourishment of families. This kind of phenomenon is not hard to understand if we use some parallel examples and comparisons:

. . . A business situation where a large company, bent on its own growth, begins to view small companies as competitors and so seeks either to undermine or destroy them, or to swallow them up by acquisition and taking over their functions.

. . . A political situation in which the federal and state governments take over functions of local government and pass laws that supersede those of towns and cities.

. . . A war situation in which a big country overwhelms a smaller one — using psychological warfare to weaken and then using its size to take over.

. . . A medical situation in which an immune system is destroyed, allowing the larger force of bacteria to take over a small organism.

The family is the little company, the basic local government, the tiny country, the small organism. Big private and public institutions are the dominators, the destroyers, the underminers. Declining values and false paradigms are the psychological warfare or broken immune systems.

Speaking to a large audience of parents at a national convention, we walked them through the curse of social problems and the crisis of family breakup and asked them what they thought the cause or the culprits were.

They all tended to blame themselves. “Not spending enough time with my kids.” “Working too much.” “Not knowing their friends well enough or their care givers, or what they watch on TV.”

We probed further. “Do you really blame yourselves?” “How many of you think of your family as your highest priority?” Ninety-five percent of the audience raised their hands. “Then why do you let these things happen?

Then the tone changed. Hands went up all over the auditorium. “We don’t let them happen!” “We don’t choose how long we work . . . or what they see on the Internet . . . or the attitudes they pick up from their friends or their school.” “We’re the victims of it – – it happens to us.”

“Well then,” we rephrased the earlier question, “who do we blame — who are the culprits?” Now the audience was releasing themselves from parental guilt, realizing there were relatively new, larger forces causing many of their family problems and undermining their efforts to be good parents to their children. We got answers from the personal to the sweeping, “It’s my employer.” “It’s greedy corporate America.” “It’s advertising and instant gratification.” “It’s all the easy credit and debt.” “It’s the schools — what they’re teaching and what they’re not teaching.” “It’s the movies and the rap music.”

We made a long list of “culprits” on the overhead projector (it matched pretty closely the list of “larger institutions” coming up in the next chapter of this book), and we asked the next question. “What do we do about it?”

“Boycott them.” “Write our Congressman!” “Sue them!” But the answers were a little hollow. All of us were feeling our smallness and inadequacy as parents to fight “culprits” so big and so powerful.

Then came the key answer from a young mother at the back of the hall. “It seems to me that we can blame a lot of these bigger forces but I doubt we’re going to change them. Maybe if we just see and understand what all these things in our society are doing to our families we can talk to our kids about them and work out how to use more of the good and avoid more of the bad.”

Next week in part nine: The “cause” continues — the four sectors of society and how the “outer three” are squeezing the family.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.