Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Fifteen: Culprits’ and Their Characteristics (Concluded)
by Richard and Linda Eyre

From schools to “self-help” institutions, courts to recreational clubs, powerful organizations are harming the family.

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).

7. Educational Institutions

Ideally, schools and parents become partners in the intellectual and character education of children. In earlier days, schools were run by communities. They broadened kids’ horizons and their levels of diversity and tolerance. Parents, if not in charge, at least had meaningful input and saw the schools as extensions of themselves and as “helpers” in bringing up their children.

Today, the massive institutions of state school systems, federal education departments, and national teachers’ unions work around parents rather than through them, assuming much of the responsibility that should stay with parents and substituting (inadequately) for the family in many areas.

Filled with well-meaning teachers and administrators, school systems accomplish all kinds of good things and would never identify themselves as being family-destructive in any way. Yet their size and reach weaken families in at least four primary ways:

A. They assume responsibility for things like sex education, character education, behavior monitoring, career counseling, after school care, and other things that parents should be more involved in. Parents feel relieved and absolved of those responsibilities and become more removed and less communicative with their kids.

B. Schools create a school-culture and a peer-culture that often supersedes the family culture. Kids’ time and loyalty and activity and leisure and work are all more involved with school and with various types of sports, music, dance, and other “lessons” than they are with family, and parents begin to think of themselves merely as the taxi service that gets them from one thing to the other or as the “general contractor” who watches the subcontractors of schools, clubs, teachers, scouting and sports teams who do all of the actual work with kids.

C. Schools sometimes teach anti-family or family-irrelevant views of the world. Overriding emphasis on the scientific, the economic, and the political worlds can (in the minds of children) seem to supersede the religious world or the family world.

D. Day care, preschool, and after-school programs, while providing services that many families need, can become substitutes for parents and for family time, creating situations where parents spend less and less time with children and feel less and less responsibility for them.

The challenge for parents, of course, is to value and appreciate all that schools can do for children but never to let the school culture or the peer culture supersede the family culture.

8. Courts and Legal Institutions

There have always been conflicts and needs for facilitators in the resolution of conflict. But large legal institutions, for whatever worthwhile purposes they serve, are inherently interested in their own preservation and growth and thus they tend to foster and even to create the very kinds of conflict that support them and keep them viable. (Illustrated by the old joke about the only lawyer in town who was starving until a second lawyer moved in and they both got rich.)

There are laws designed to enhance the commitment of marriage and the responsibility to children, but lawyers and legal institutions today seem to have more to do with the dissolving or undoing of commitment and the dividing of families.

Most laws are designed for the protection of the individual, not of the family. Therefore, when two individuals try to use the law to protect their personal rights, their individual entitlement, they often proceed by pulling families apart. There are a lot more divorce lawyers than reconciliation attorneys, more custody battles than successful parent-parent-child reconciliations, more probate lawyers than simple wealth transfers, more prenuptial agreements than life-time marriages, more litigators than arbitrators, more win-lose cases than win-win scenarios.

There is no question that we need lawyers and legal institutions. But in families we have to rely more on love and commitment than on individual rights, more than giving what is needed than getting what we need, and more on being there for someone than in having an attorney be there for you.

Our courts and public justice system also undermine families by putting the rights of individuals so far above the needs and nature of family units. Courts and legal interpretations end up supporting kids who sue their parents or child protection agencies who take kids away from parents with hearsay “evidence.”

Let’s look separately at the family-dangers imposed by our courts and by our private legal system.

1. The courts. It’s hard to imagine (and hard to overstate) the power the judicial branch of government wields through its interpretation of laws. When a court or a judge writes an opinion, he is taking a law and telling us not only how to interpret it but how to enforce it. Thus an anti-family or family-weakening idea (or idea proponent) doesn’t have to get elected to implement a destructive policy, doesn’t even have to influence the elective process or the legislature or city hall. All he or it (the person or the idea) has to do is to directly or indirectly influence an opinion written by a judge.

Here’s an example. The United Nations holds a conference on families in Budapest where unbinding, theoretical resolutions are passed which point in the direction of easier divorce laws, less restrictive abortion policies, and overblown concern about population control. The delegates to this conference are not elected or even appointed. They are just self-selected people who have various political agendas. No effort has been made to balance the conference or make it representative.

The resolutions are not laws or even proposals for legislation. But they go out, under a United Nations letterhead, and begin to influence judges and legislators.

2. Our private litigation system. Litigation in general and in most of its forms is harmful to families. Typically the only family one could argue it helps is the family of the lawyer who collects the fees. And when litigation (or custody or any other legal controversy) is between family members, it almost always tears apart and destroys relationships. It is rarely win-win. It is sometimes win-lose. It is usually lose-lose.

The whole adversarial mentality of the divorce court and litigation institution spills over into families where spouses threaten separation rather than communicating with compromise or where family members “fight it out” as prequels to court battles rather than hashing things out in good faith and in private.

This is an area where we can learn much from the Asian mind set. Most Asian countries have less than ten percent of the lawyers (and litigation) per capita than we do. Many have more registered “arbitrators” or “conciliators” than they do litigating or divorce lawyers. We need to move closer to that pattern rather than away from it.

9. Recreational and Social/Cultural Institutions

Recreation and social activities used to happen within and among families. Now it happens more within larger sports, music, cultural, social and leisure institutions independent of and at the expense of families.

A list of the social, cultural, and recreational institutions that have come into being over the last 100 years includes everything from sports leagues to summer camps, from concert and theater guilds to fraternities, from spas and gyms to fast-food restaurants. Great and useful as they all are, they all substitute for family time, and many create competition rather than cooperation among and between family members.

Furthermore, many of these teams, clubs, guilds, camps, and societies become the identity or self-image or pride of individuals more than do their own families and in this sense they become substitutes for family and pull away our allegiance and our attention as well as our time.

So many of these recreational, social, and cultural things happen during hours that traditionally have been family time. Evenings, weekends, summer vacations — the time blocks that families used to spend together — are now increasingly devoted to these other activities and other groups. Instead of rushing from work to home, we rush from work to bowling leagues or to the spa or to the concert or to the bridge club. Instead of a family dinner we re-fuel on the run at McDonald’s. Instead of church and a family gathering on Sunday we do the soccer league and the flute camp and then watch the big game on TV (the big games are always on Sunday).

Many parents consider the games and the camps and the clubs as their family time. They are with their kids, taking them places, watching them. But these are poor substitutes for the old traditional kinds of family time. There is little interaction between and about family members. Attention is focused on competition and comparing rather than on cooperation and communication, and the logistics and expenses of getting to everything, outfitting for everything, paying for everything creates its share of stress and family tensions.

Few of us would like to do away with the recreational and social opportunities that these elements of society give us, but most all parents, when they think about it, recognize the need to limit and govern and think about their families’ involvement and the tradeoffs and sacrifices that are involved.

10. Psychological and Self-Help Institutions (and the decline — and replacement — of religious institutions)

One of the more subtle and yet dangerously powerful transitions of the last century is the substitution of psychological and self-help approaches for religious institutions and approaches of faith.

Most Americans still go to church and profess belief, but they are inclined, more and more, to turn to self-help and psychological help in dealing with their fears and problems as well as their hopes and dreams. Even the word “spiritual” has come to have more connection to self than to God. Words like “spirit,” “soul,” and “faith,” once the domain of the church are trendy and popular now to mean my spirit, my soul, my inner consciousness, my faith in myself. As such, they create a dependence on and reverence for self that can work against a reverence for God and a dependency on His will and power. With the self-orientation and self-help can come a kind of selfishness that detracts from family commitments and family-oriented priorities and solutions.

As mentioned earlier, most of the self-help books that line the large self-help sections of bookstores deal with three themes:

A. Gaining more control.

B. Obtaining more ownership.

C. Becoming more independent.

While all three qualities are important and desirable in certain contexts, each one, carried to extremes or pursued too vigorously or too exclusively, can rob us of joy and faith and can seriously undermine our families because . . .

A. A person with true faith would give control to God and would not place his own importance or control above that of another person. Her or she would be more interested in guidance (seeing and conforming to God’s will) than in control (making things happen according to his own will). A guidance mentality makes parents more nurturing and observant and less overbearing and demanding.

B. A person with true faith would acknowledge God’s ownership of all things and perceive himself as a steward over what God had entrusted to him. Thus he would be less materialistic and less inclined to spend all his time chasing possessions and position. In this stewardship mode, children, spouse, and family become our respected responsibilities rather than our possessions.

C. A person with true faith realizes his dependence on God and is more inclined to be humble and to work with others since he understands that everyone is linked and thus that we all need each other. Such persons make better — and more committed — spouses and parents than those who perceive themselves as independent islands who need no one but themselves.

As the institutions of self-help have grown and as the curses of selfishness have multiplied (teen pregnancy, violence, substance abuse), most religious institutions have been too silent, or too insular, or too cautious in taking strong stands and making a stronger case for family priorities and family-prioritized life styles. There are too many politically correct churches and too many religious leaders and religious teachers who emphasize tolerance at the expense of all other values and teach us that how you live doesn’t matter much so long as you accept how every other person has chosen to live.

The challenge for parents is to realize how dependent they really are, how far their own skills and insights fall short, and how much they need God’s help to raise God’s children.

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.