Jun 29, 2007

On Concepts of "Family"

One of my all-time favorite jobs has been my work as a tutor. I help university students develop their writing and language skills, which fills my desire to give back to other people. In a more selfish way, though, I enjoy meeting people with a wide variety of experiences, and I get the opportunity to learn from people who have traveled to Toledo from around the entire planet; I have worked with students from countries ranging from Vietnam to Ghana to Chile, and all points in between.

This afternoon I was in a session with a student from rel="no follow">Kuwait, who described for me as much as he could remember from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of his country, and he mentioned that he came to the United States in 1992 as a child.

"Did you emigrate here with your family?" I asked.

"Oh, no," he replied. "Only my mom, my dad, and my brothers and sisters came. Most of my family stayed in Kuwait."

This was a moment of sudden awareness for me, as I asked the question with the mental concept of the American nuclear family in mind. For this student, "family" meant cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extending outward for several levels of connections, and just a small segment of his "family" came with him to the United States.

And as I later think back and ponder this exchange, I begin to recognize just how atypical is the American nuclear family within the context of world civilizations. For most of human history and in most current societies outside of the United States, "family" has meant something much larger and more important than it does in much of America.

In much of the world - and not just in developing countries - it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under the same roof. Moreover, in many cultures it is typical that newlyweds move in with the parents of one of the spouses.

In the United States, we tend to think poorly of a new couple who lives with one of their parents, as though they are somehow dysfunctional or unsuccessful. This is a land of people obsessed with individual home ownership, and a husband who took his bride to live with his parents would be seen as a failure.

And yet, think for a moment of the benefits of living together in larger extended family networks. More people per home means a decided economy of scale in the cost of living; take your average monthly residence expenses and divide by four, and then compare the results if you divide by, say, ten or more.

Consider also the pooling of experience and wisdom in a larger household, especially that possessed by the oldest members of a family. I love my grandparents and parents, but I see each of them on average less than once a month, and my children even less so. Would they not benefit from more frequent exposure to those in the family who have lived so many more decades?

As I look around the current state of affairs in the United States, I have a difficult time believing that this culture we have created based upon the nuclear family is necessarily "better" than other filial structures around the world. Are we really living more fulfilling lives by creating these atomized and isolated families, or can we learn from the success of other cultures?

Or will we as Americans - as we so often do - just assume that larger families are merely evidence of the "backwardness" of people in other cultures?


Stephanie said...

I admire the larger family -- to a certain extent. It seems like an ideal worth pursuing; but, at the same time, I broke free of much of family for very specific reasons. For the most part, my childhood nuclear family is okay, but when you radiate out to my uncles, grandparents, ect. you'll find that those people are scary!!!

I'd really rather not have my children exposed to drug abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse and God only knows what else.

I admire those extended families that know cousins and second cousins and aunt's uncle's grandfather stories. Those relationships can be beautiful and uplifting, supportive and enlightening. For myself and my children, I'm very, very grateful that we were so completely able to break that cycle of destructive so much of my extended family "enjoys."

Anonymous said...

When my daughter was very young, she was asked to draw her family tree. It was interesting to see the result. Few of those she included were related to her.

historymike said...


Sure, every family has its misfits and troublemakers, and cultures with larger family networks develop methods of coping with ne'er-do-wells, up to and including shunning and exile.

But I wonder - how much of the dysfunctionalism can we trace to Western notions of the "modern" family, and how many social problems we now face are part of the price to pay for such "modernity?"

I'm not talking about useful innovations, like antibiotics and airplanes, but rather about this cult of individualism many Americans buy into.

Many people spend more time, energy, and money on self-improvement instead of family improvement.

And, on a related note, it seems that our fascination with isolating gadgets like iPods and Walkmen also cause us to become disconnected from our families and the larger communities.

LTLOP said...

The perfect examples of this breakdown of the nuclear family exist right here in Toledo. I am reminded of the Ch. 30 special the Polish in Toledo, one of the interviewees admits that the breakdown of the communities was a result of the successful education that the children received. The kids saw what was out in the big world and they left. Up until about the 1970's the kids stayed in the same general neighborhood as the parents.

My father lives about a 15 walk from his boyhood home and the same distance from my mothers childhood home as well as a 5 minut walk from what use to be his grandparents house.

I on the other hand have moved away to west Toledo and one of the main reasons I have not moved farther is I want my girls to know their grandfather/dzia dzia

historymike said...


You raise a good point about the externally-constructed notions of family, and how children learn what family is by the way in which they are raised.

As foster and adoptive parents, my wife and I have a bit different notion of "family" than most American couples. At the basic level "family," to us, is anyone who lives under our roof, and really any kid who has lived with us for a significant amount of time.

We have fostered over three dozen kids in twelve years, and I can remember almost every name. Quite a few stay in touch, and we are getting to the point where some of the kids we fostered are adults now.

We still consider quite a few kids as "family," and there are some with whom the family bond is as strong as with our "forever" kids (birth and adoptive).

historymike said...


You sadly describe one of what I consider to be the worst effects of our hyper-capitalist society: the destruction of communities.

I grew up in a similar neighborhood in Detroit, known either as Warrendale or "Little Warsaw."

I knew a ton of Polish families whose parents and grandparents lived within blocks of each other near Sts. Peter and Paul Church, where there used to be as many masses in Polish as in English.

Nowadays the neighborhood has changed, and not always in good ways. There never used to be hookers on Warren Avenue in my old 'hood, but now they are more numerous than regular pedestrians. There also never used to be gates and barred windows on the businesses (let alone the homes), but these days the neighborhood looks like a militarized zone with all the security bars.

LTLOP said...

But where did the Hyper-Capitalism come from? If you think about it that's what America is the promise to be more, have more, have your kids do better than you did. That is what attracted early western European settlers here, why the Poles, Italians, Jews came, and now Mexicans are coming here. This is why we still have immigrants, both legal and illegal. These immigrants emigrated from somwhere and that tore that neighborhood apart, how many devastated relatives were left behind when somone's ancestor decided to pack his knapsack for that country where the streets were paved with gold and everyone could make it if you wanted to work hard enough. I guess it just depends on how you look at it, its all cyclical.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

I'm in Pittsburgh right now, a place where people do live in the same neighborhood as their parents, and boy is this place stagnant. There are advantages to this sort of insularity, but the quest for a better life isn't one of them. Immigrants flow to where the jobs are...and there are no immigrants here. Toledo looks fairly cosmopolitan from here. :)

historymike said...


A couple of thoughts on my introduction of the concept of hyper-capitalism:

1. The flight of financial and production capital from American cities has forced many people to follow the employment opportunities to the suburbs, exurbs, and growth areas like the Sun Belt.

2. Part and parcel with hyper-capitalism is the commodity fetishism ( I prefer to call it "herd insanity") known as American consumerism. We are trained to purchase, consume, and purchase again vast quantites of products with limited utility beyond immediate gratification, and we are a relentless quest for "bigger" and "better."

3. I am not sure the parallel is accurate in equating European immigrants with American yuppies moving to $500K mansions in the 'burbs. The first sought better living conditions, while the second - in my opinion - are engaged in a consumerist obsession with material excess.

Admittedly, in reading the above I sound like a Birkenstock-wearing, Mao-bag carrying radical. While I think some of Marx's criticisms of capitlaism were deadly accurate, his "replacement" of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a communist utopia were, at best, sketchy dreams.

I am more interested in what lies beyond capitalism than I am in promoting some happy-but-deluded Marxist dogman.

In one sense, I agree with the argument that capitalism is just a more advanced form of feudalism, replacing nobles with CEOs and noble privilege with investment portfolios.

Ah... must run a kid to work and feed the Leviathan.


historymike said...

Screaming Nutcase:

Agreed that immigrants follow the jobs, and that is the core of the current immigration debate.

Until economic conditions improve and stabilize south of the border, people will still arrive en masse to find work in the U.S.

Stephanie said...


"Sure, every family has its misfits and troublemakers..."

On my dad's side, I don't think "misfits and troublemakers" is sufficiently descriptive (though, it does describe a significant percentage of those on my mom's side). The example my grandfather set for his children was one of constant abuse that culminated in the murder of my grandmother when she tried to leave him. While all of his children took that "lesson" to heart to some degree, some are worse than others. One is in jail, never to be free (hopefully). My father, arguably the best of the bunch, "survived" his father's example by not physically abusing my brother and myself and letting my mother go relatively peacefully after abusing her for twenty years. He has also been remarkably accepting of our emphasis on behaving appropriately around our children.

Whereas, I refused to take my children with me -- even though they had never met their great-grandfather -- when I went to say goodbye to him at his passing. Not so much because I didn't want them to meet my grandfather -- who had come to repent his past behavior -- but because my uncle was going to be there and there was absolutely no way I was going let him anywhere near my children.

The type of dysfunctionalism they represent has more to do with misogyny than "modernity."

"...this cult of individualism many Americans buy into."

I agree with you completely about that. There are many problems that directly relate to this (Not to mention that "individualism" seems most represented by pop culture's obsession with following different modes, which doesn't seem like it has anything to do with being truly unique.). Mark and I endeavor to have a functional and traditional family; it didn't quite work out that way, but we still try to put the interests of our (nuclear) family above ourselves.

"Many people spend more time, energy, and money on self-improvement instead of family improvement."

To a certain extent, there is sense in that. One can change oneself, but one cannot change anyone else (though, we can influence others). However, if that "self-improvement" does not attempt to improve one's relationships with others, then that person is missing a whole dimension of his/her self. While I wouldn't consider myself a self-improvement junky, it is something I work on, read about and study. I prefer a holistic approach that includes all of the person, which includes that person's relationships. The Power of Full Engagement is an excellent example of that type of approach, and one I'm hoping to put into action. I haven't posted anything about it yet, but I'll be marking my progress on my blog if you're interested.

"...it seems that our fascination with isolating gadgets like iPods and Walkmen also cause us to become disconnected from our families and the larger communities."

Then, it's a good thing I don't own anything like that. The closest thing I come to that is wedging a doorstub into the sliding door that leads to my den when I want to concentrate.
Sometimes isolation is necessary; especially when you're doing homework.

microdot said...

Interesting thread as I have just spent a week hosting my friend Sylvie and her three grandchildren.
I come from a fairly dysfunctional family background...losing parents at a very early age and really losing touch with a lot of my relatives. My siblings and I moved all over the world. I am fairly close to them. I have always told my friends with aged parents how lucky they are.
My friend Sylvie is in her late 70's and lived all over France as her children grew up but she always had her and her husbands mothers in tow. They are basically Parisian, but the families come from differsnt areas. Now Sylvie is the all puurpose mother still to the brood. There are other grandchildren and she is actively involved in their lives.
It is interesting here in the country to see the families, traditionally everyone gets together on Sunday for an afternoon
meal, you see houses with 8 cars on the lawn! The biggest holiday in France traditionally is All Saints Day, Nov. 1st where is is the tradition to go back to the place your family is from. It's also the big day for florists as you MUST buy chysanthemums for the amily graves. When I meet someone new here, it isn't long before I discover the web of relation that links them to the rest of the community.

Hooda Thunkit said...

And remember Mike that the nuclear family brought us such "wonderful" things as:

Assisted Living
Nursing Homes
Senior Centers

All designed to take the place of family taking care of family.

Of course, once women went to work during WWII, the Genie was out of the bottle never to return.

Hyper-Capitalism was there too to make sure that the interests of family took a back seat to business, profits and the money gods.

To my thinking, we lost WWII, as it had broken our families. . .