Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Twelve: The Culprits-Who We Blame for How Hard It Is to Be a Functional Family Today
by Richard and Linda Eyre

Part 12 begins our discussion of the “culprits” . . . the forces that, often unintentionally, are destroying our families and making it almost impossibly hard to be a parent in today’s world.

Note: In this twenty-six 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 I); 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, 9, 10, 11 — the reasons our families are failing); F. The “culprits” (parts 12, 13, 14, and 15– how our new, large institutions are destroying the small, most basic institution of family); G. The “cure” (parts 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 — what you as a parent can do about it); H. The “case” (parts 23, 24, and 25 — a case for government and big corporations to pay more positive attention), and I. Finding or forming a family support group (part 26).

Culprit (kl’prt) n. one guilty of a fault or deserving blame for an unhappy condition

They were all established to support, sustain, and supplement the family. But in their instinct for self-preservation and growth, they now supplant and substitute for the family while (wittingly and unwittingly) attacking its roots.

Mixed Blessings
In our family, what we try to do with our vacations is to get away from society as we know it. One summer where we had a particularly long vacation coming, we went for five weeks with all the children, high into the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon and attempted to better understand our pioneer roots by building a log cabin. We were an hour’s jeep drive away from electricity and a world away from the kids’ peer groups and from life as usual. We started in a tepee and moved into the one-room log cabin when the walls were part way up.

The whole experience was the perfect illustration of the friend/foe nature of modern society and of the love/hate relationship most parents develop with technology and with large institutions. On the one hand, there were so many things we missed from “regular life.” We missed the convenience, the entertainment, the information, the communication, the readily-available goods and services. But we loved the simplicity, the togetherness, and the unity we felt as a family. We worked together, we talked together without being interrupted by the phone, we ate together, we played simple board and card games together, we hiked and swam in a mountain lake together. We were each other’s best friends and best helpers. Our family was the only institutions there. It was both the hardest and the greatest five weeks of our lives.

In pointing a finger at “large institutions,” in blaming them for the undermining and sometimes willful destruction of the smallest institution, we should be aware that we are making culprits out of our biggest beneficiaries.

So let’s think first about who and what these larger institutions are — and about what we owe them. Let’s consider what they have done for us as well as what they have done to us.

Our financial and industrial and business institutions have made a quantity and quality of goods and services available could not have even been comprehended a century ago. Our legal institutions have protected us, our medical institutions have lengthened and improved the quality of our lives, our media/entertainment, informational and educational institutions have opened the world to us and delivered enjoyment as well as enlightenment. Our governmental institutions have preserved our freedom and provided a safety net for people unable to care for themselves. All combined, the emergence in the twentieth century of stable, sustained larger institutions have dramatically increased our wealth, our access, our freedom, our awareness, our health, and have enhanced our tolerance and our capacities to understand each other. They have changed the world, made daily living less harsh and less punishing, and given us convenience and opportunity that our great grandparents could not have imagined.

So why call them culprits — these large and recent institutions? Simply because, despite all the good they may provide, they are endangering and undermining families. They do this by expanding and enriching themselves at the expense of families and by ignoring the values that are necessary to preserve families. They are thus the classic, macro example of a mixed blessing.

The question then, is not how we can set the clock back or how we can eliminate these large institutions. Who would want to? The question is how can families successfully coexist with them. How can families take and benefit from what larger institutions offer them and yet not be swallowed up, or made redundant, or lose their sanctity or their priority in our minds?

Since these larger institutions did not even exist until the twentieth century, these are relatively new questions. How can we, as individuals, revalue our families, accepting all the good that can come to us from larger institutions, while sidestepping or skirting or shielding ourselves from the bullets of family irrelevance or abdication that they shoot in our direction? And how can these larger institutions themselves be persuaded to re-examine their policies and practices in light of their effects on families. How can they be reminded that they were created to serve families and that they themselves can only survive over the long term if families survive?

A Closer Look at the Larger Institutions that Threaten Families
I was flying home from a trip to a rural, backwood part of Mexico, traveling with my six-year-old daughter. We’d become acquainted with a very poor family there and had been in their tiny, dirt-floored home. I turned to my daughter in the next seat and said, “Saydi, they sure live in a different world, don’t they?” She gave me a blank look.

As we talked, I realized she hadn’t really noticed the differences as much as the similarities. She knew that they were a family like us — that they loved each other and did things together. She was too young to focus on the materialistic.

Some things never change: the innate, intuitive, inherent love of children and family and the natural emotional tendency to prioritize spouse and children, to consider family the most important element of life. These feelings, these priorities have not changed from the beginning of time. And they are the same within all families, regardless of where they live and where they are on the socio-economic scale.

But while the essence of families doesn’t change, other things change completely: the emergence of larger institutions — economic, social, governmental and informational — that are so driven toward self-preservation and growth that they sweep aside and swallow up the very families (or smaller institutions) they were intended to serve.

Historically, the only societal units larger than families or clans were churches and governments. Until the twentieth century, and particularly the last half of the twentieth century, there was nothing else big enough or powerful enough to threaten the family on a widespread, macro basis. Not that the success or functionality of families was assured. Marriage, and parenting have never been easy and relationships and commitment have always been subject to failure, but never before had there been other bigger units of society that were strong enough (and self-serving enough) to actually undermine and substitute for the family and to create pervasive anti-family attitudes and paradigms.

For the most part these larger institutions are not philosophically anti-family. On the contrary, they reach out to families, they frequently cater to families and sell themselves or their services or their goods to families, they often pose themselves as the servers, the suppliers, even the slaves of families. But there are ways in which they are practically and in practice anti-family. What they are and much of what they do and big parts of the paradigms they create work against the cohesiveness, the commitment and the continuity of families.

There are ten broad categories or types of larger institutions that must be put on the culprit list. Although some overlap, five are basically from the private sector, three from the public, and two from the community or voluntary.

1. Work and professional institutions

2. Financial institutions

3. Merchandising institutions

4. Entertainment and media institutions

5. Information and communication institutions

6. Political and governmental institutions

7. Educational institutions

8. Courts and legal institutions

9. Community recreation and social/cultural institutions

10. Religious, psychological and self-help institutions


Next week: A closer look at the “big institution” culprits — at their characteristics, and at what they do for and against families.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.