Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Nine: The Four Sectors of Society and How the “Outer Three” are Squeezing the Family

by Richard and Linda Eyre

The family, and its basic purposes and functions, is being swallowed up, undermined, and rendered irrelevant by our larger institutions. The family is the victim and the larger institutions, whether purposefully or innocently, are the culprits.

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).

Changes in the “norms” of families (and who is causing the changes)
Changes happen gradually, and it’s sometimes hard to realize how different families are today and how different the world is in which they exist.

Prior to the twentieth century, most households were farm and rural families. Work/family conflicts didn’t exist because farm families worked together, and family communication happened in connection with that work time spend together. The specialized roles of husband and wife, mother and father were accepted and recognized, so expectations were more clear and results more manageable. Children learned responsibility by necessity and learned to work by having to work. When chores didn’t get done on a farm, the penalties or negative results were immediate and obvious. Delayed gratification was a way of life because no other way existed.

I remember reading my grand father’s journal. As a young father he faced unbelievable hardships, working twelve hours a day as a farmer and carpenter, trying to make ends meet. Yet the further I read, the less sorry for him I felt. In fact, I began to envy his life. He worked with his wife and children. They had fun as they worked together — and they communicated and trusted each other. Their life had a simplicity and a quality almost impossible to find today.

During the first half of the twentieth century, as families urbanized and suburbanized, most households took on a something of an adjusted and updated urbanized version of the rural lifestyle. Parents still had fairly clear roles according to gender, kids were expected to do household chores instead of farm chores, and both divorce and living together before marriage were shunned to the point of social stigma. And families were still expected, both by themselves and by society, to perform the five essential functions, and to contain the four basic elements.

All these “norms” began to change in the sixties, and the acceleration of these changes increased at the last decades of the century played out, finally reaching the stages of crisis and “curse” as the new millennium arrived.

The engines of change . . . the huge, seemingly irresistible forces that pulled the changes into effect were the new, large institutions of the public and private sectors. Their growth, their instinct for self-preservation and their agenda for profit have simply overwhelmed the family.

Going back to our diagram:

The public sector, comprised of all our levels and branches of government and all of their agencies, bureaus, and systems has expanded and mutated so drastically during the twentieth century that its effect on and relationship to the family is completely different than it was 100 or even 50 years ago.

Every element of the public sector from our courts and our welfare systems to our public education and our tax structure was originally conceived and set up to protect and serve our families. But as we start a new century this “outer ring” looks less and less like a protective shield and more and more like a swelling, squeezing vice that makes it ever harder to raise, support, and have control over our own families. Government tax policy puts economic penalties on being married and having kids, legal precedent and court policy makes it easier to abandon and run from family responsibility and commitment than to face it and resolve it. Public schools often seem to undermine family values and parental authority. Welfare regulations reward families when the father leaves. And government as a whole seems determined to take over every traditional function of the family until parents essentially become redundant.

The business or private sector grew up to meet and serve the needs of families — from employment to the providing of the goods and services that households needed and wanted. But the emergence of massive corporations, fueled by executive greed and stockholders’ demands, have forgotten any loyalty or responsibility they once felt for families. They demand more time and loyalty from workers than ever before, and pay less for it. They want our loyalty and wish to be our prime identity — often at the expense of our families.

Within the corporate world certain sectors pose more specific threats to families. Media entities undermine values and portray traditional families as outdated and irrelevant. Financial institutions encourage instant gratification and over-extended credit. Merchandising companies use advertising to promote materialism and con us into measuring ourselves by what we own within the economy rather than by who we are within our families.

Sometimes a half hour is long enough to make a parent realize what he’s up against from the private sector. I sat down to watch a sitcom with two of my children, but it was filled with sexual innuendo and profanity and it portrayed promiscuity and disrespect as appealing and as the norm. During the program there were three car ads and two clothing ads prompting one of the kids to say, “Dad, we really need a new car,” and the other to say, “My clothes are so dumb, when can we go to the mall?” I got one phone call during the show (a welcome excuse to miss part of it) from our college student who mentioned she’d received two pre-approved credit cards that week at her dorm.

Even the nonprofit voluntary and community sector — traditionally an extension of family, the “village” that it takes to raise a child — has become in many ways more an enemy than a friend. Our recreational and cultural complexes, from sports to the arts, have become so big and institutionalized that they divide families — some family members go here, some there, each with different loyalties and time-drains. Evenings and weekends and other traditional family times are sucked away. Churches, community centers, and clubs, instead of being the family’s strongest advocates and supports, seem to be trying to substitute for the family. And a whole new institution of pop psychology and “self-help” puts such emphasis on individual fulfillment and personal freedom that it undermines family commitment and responsibility.

Essentially all three of our “outer” sectors, which in previous eras (and in an ideal world) have acted almost as a uterus — protecting, supporting, nourishing, and supplying the family — have now mutated into surrounding forces which imprison, choke, and suck the essential elements out of families.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the three outer sectors do damage to families in four particular ways. 1. By substituting for families — taking over too many of their functions and replacing too many of their roles. 2. By “sins of omission” — failing to do some of the things they should do for families. 3. By “sins of commission” — doing certain things that undermine families and tear down the values that hold families up. 4. By creating negative perspective and false paradigms — which make families think they’re okay when they really are not.

Substitution for Family (a transfer of responsibility and relevance)

Back in the early 1980s I went to China — it was a period when not too many Americans were getting in, and I spent time in the countryside as well as the cities. What I observed was a country deliberately and consciously trying to make the large institutions of the state more important and more functional than the small institution of the family . . . to render the family redundant in the social scheme of things. While both parents worked in commune industry or agriculture ,children lived in the commune care facility where they were fed, educated, and collectively cared for. Some of the children still slept in their parent’s apartment, but it was the larger commune that had the responsibility, the authority, the loyalty, the identity, the resources and the vitality.

Today, in America and the rest of the Western World, responsibility and priority is also transferring from smaller institutions to larger ones, but here it’s not by design or conscious intent. Most of our larger institutions are the creation of private enterprise rather than public control and they were established to serve families rather than substitute for them, but the results — in terms of what is actually happening to families — are as dangerous and as chilling as what I observed in China. The family, and its basic purposes and functions, is being swallowed up, undermined, and rendered irrelevant by our larger institutions. The family is the victim and the larger institutions, whether purposefully or innocently, are the culprits.

In our private sector, company identity and corporate loyalty have too often replaced family identity and loyalty. We’re more likely to tell new acquaintances “what we do” or where we work before we tell them about our family. We’ll relocate for a raise or a promotion without enough thought on how the move will affect our family. We’re so worried about the positive possibilities of meeting a quota or the negative possibilities that we don’t have the time or energy to worry as constructively as we should about our kids. Some companies, often motivated by their self-interests more than by altruism, hold out “solutions” like maternity and child-care leave, job sharing, flex time, work-at-home, and “mommy tracks”, but these are usually aimed more at the goal of not letting families hurt the job rather than at not letting the job hurt families.

So they (the companies we work for) try to provide day care, and other private entities (a whole, huge new industry) — offer child care in all of its varieties. But these efforts substitute for families rather than supporting them, and as in sports, the substitute is never as good.

As parent loyalty and identity shifts to career and company, other parts of the private sector are hard at work winning the loyalty of kids to various brands, or styles, or sports teams, or TV and music personalities and life styles. The media as a whole substitutes for families in the entertainment and social/cultural education of our children, and it cons parents into thinking they can make up for the time they don’t give to their children by giving them more things.

The outer ring — the public sector — substitutes for and replaces families in even more obvious ways. Public schools take ever-increasing responsibility not only for the intellectual education of children but for their character and values education, for their social behavior and for their after-school care. While it is, in many ways admirable that teachers and schools accept more responsibility, it is a poor substitute for the full responsibility and involvement of parents.

The courts, the legal systems, the legislatures, and every conceivable kind of agency or bureau also increasingly substitute themselves into the traditional roles and functions of families. Courts are so preoccupied with individual rights that they ignore and undervalue family rights and responsibility. Children can sue their parents. Child protective services can take kids from their parents on the hearsay of neighbors. Custody rulings seem designed to pull families apart. Legislatures keep trying to fix things with new laws. Government social services and welfare, filled with well-intentioned policies and well-meaning people, too often circumvent and disregard the basic purpose and position of families in their attempts to assist children. While there are family situations where the greatest need is to protect a child from a parents, there are far more families where the real need (and the real solution) is to help parents to take care of their parental responsibilities and stewardships.

When I was named by President Reagan to direct the ’80s White House Conference on Children, my first move was to try to change the name of the conference to the White house Conference on Children and Parents — so the emphasis would shift from social agency solutions to parental and family solutions. The name change met with substantial resistance from many welfare social service entities who seemed to view parents as the main problem rather than the main answer.

Even the community and voluntary sector, the churches an clubs and other neighborhood entities that should be closest and most nourishing to families often seem bent on making the family redundant. Plenty of activities and involvements are offered for kids, but precious few for whole families. Kids are encouraged to do things individually and with their peers far more than to do things with their parents and families.

Parents, particularly suburban parents in middle class neighborhoods, seem to be following the “general contractor” model for parenting. As long as they get their kids to school, to scouts, to music and dance lessons, to sports and summer camps, to after-school programs, to etiquette classes and tutors and college test prep coaches, everything will be fine. These “subcontractors” will do al the work while general contractor parents just pay the bills (and work the hours necessary to pay those bills). Just get the kids to where they need to go and let the institutions of the public, private, and community sector raise them.

The biggest problem with this general contractor approach is that it doesn’t work. What children need is the unconditional, even irrational love that only a parent can provide. They need the time and attention that is only fully meaningful when it comes from a parent.

The bottom line is that no other element or agency or institution can provide the unconditional, even irrational love that children need to grow up emotionally healthy and happy. Other entities can give huge help and support in the raising of children, but none are adequate substitutes for parents and families in the five essential functions or the four essential elements (see pgs. 12-15).

I think of our two oldest daughters who each spent over a year in the early ’90s doing humanitarian service and missionary work — and assisting in orphanages — in Romania and Bulgaria. From their letters and from the two visits we made while they were there, we realized that the basic physical care these orphans received was adequate. They were fed, kept warm and dry, and even played with occasionally in groups. Yet their dark hollow eyes and empty emotions spoke volumes about what they didn’t get — personal, individual, unconditional love.

We were reminded of the studies done with baby monkeys who were offered a wire-mesh “mother” or a soft furry stuffed animal “mother” in place of the real thing. Even though they were given plenty of nourishment and a “fake” mother (all chose the soft furry one), none of the infant monkeys lived to maturity. They died from a lack of parental love.

The starting point in looking for real solutions is the acknowledgment that nothing can adequately substitute for real family.

Next week in part ten: The “cause” continues — Sins of Omission and Sins of Commission and How Each “Sin” of the Outer Sectors Destroys Families.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.