For the sake of argument

The large family isn’t the best kind now

DR. ROBERT BROCKWAY March 15 1958
For the sake of argument

The large family isn’t the best kind now

DR. ROBERT BROCKWAY March 15 1958

The large family isn’t the best kind now

For the sake of argument

DR. ROBERT BROCKWAY

When my mother was a little girl in Mauve Decade Boston the house was always bathed in reverential silence when Father came home

from the office. The canary sang and that was the signal for the

kettle to be put on for Father's

tea, but no childish voice was to he heard and no female prattle.

Father had his chair and his newspaper and the family kept respectful silence until dinner. Dinner began with grace and afterward there was an evening of family fun. They sang hymns around the organ; they played tiddley winks and checkers (never cards); they embroidered (hoys and girls

alike); and they talked of little everyday things until it was time to go to bed.

What families used to he

It was a large Scots Canadian family, which had come down from Cape Breton Island during the hard times of 1892 and kept many of

the old Scottish traditions Grandmother MaeConncll had brought over from Glasgow long before Confederation. It was a religious family. Father was a deacon in the Baptist church and they all went to services on Sunday and kept the puritan Sabbath holy. It was also a family that did most things together as a family unit. There were family picnics, the family May Day party, great gatherings of the clan at Thanksgiving and Christ-

mas and frequent family visits to

nearby relatives. T he family was

their whole life—a self-contained

socio-economic unit in which all things were provided for.

There is much that is attractive about the old-fashioned family. It was warm and secure and every member had his place around the hearth. It had stability and high moral standards, generally speak-

ing, and good manners as well. These things are all unquestionably desirable and to a greater

degree than now the family of days gone by had them.

Such families, however, are on the wane all over the world.

During the past half century the old-fashioned family has heen disintegrating at an alarming rate, in the view of many commentators.

With the popularization of the

automobile after World War I. the emancipation of women and the growing interest in activities outside the home, the family has

undergone revolutionary changes.

Home life has become casual and non-traditional; family religious observances have almost vanished;

divorce has become alarmingly fre-

quent; juvenile delinquency is

growing; elderly people are reject-

cd and there is an enormous

amount of marital unhappiness.

Because of these things and others like them the modern, loosely knit family is under sharp attack from magistrates, educators

and ministers, some of whom blame it for nearly all our misfortunes, from sex deviation to communism. In some quarters there is a reactionary movement on

foot to turn the clock back to grandmother’s time and make the

family once again the isolated

little socio-economic unit that it used to be before technology

raised our standards of living and caused us to want so much more than the old-fashioned family

could provide. “The family that

prays together stays together,”

they tell us. Everyone, it seems,

wants the family to become a

closely knit. God-fearing community once again, and if that happens, we are assured, adolescents will behave better and there won’t be

so many neurotics and misfits

around making trouble.

Frankly, 1 think it’s a lot of nonsense! We can’t go back to the old-fashioned family because

we do not live in the old-fashioned kind of world. Even if it were possible,

DR. BROCKWAY IS MINISTER AT THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH IN HAMILTON. THIS IS HIS SECOND CONTRIBUTION TO THIS FEATURE.

continued on page 64

continued from page 8

“The old-fashioned family was a good schoolhouse for obedience — but not responsibility”

however, 1 seriously doubt that it would be desirable, and with all its faults I am inclined to think that the contemporary loosely knit family is the best kind of family that we have ever had and I hope that it stays that way.

In many ways the old-fashioned family was a makeshift. In the Victorian mining town that Llewellyn describes in his How Green Was My Valley such a family was necessary for sheer survival. It was a family in which grown men had to ask a few shillings allowance from their father as though they were little boys; but then, there simply wasn't enough money to go around unless it was all contributed to the common purse. To survive they had to cling together and accept the patriarchal rule of a father whom they must address as “sir,” and to make this possible they required the sustenance of authoritarian traditions and an authoritarian religion. It was a warm and secure kind of family, with all the advantages of authoritarianism— security, stability and freedom from the agonies of responsibility. So long as traditions, customs and parental authority were unchallenged life within such families could be exceedingly pleasant. It was a good schoolhouse for obedience whether it be political, religious or moral. It was not, however, the kind of family that could provide for the maximum growth of personality, for the development of mature and responsible citizens or for the exploitation of inner creative resources. To the contrary, it was the kind of family that is the foundation of an autocratic, rigidly stratified and static society—a society without much room for new thoughts, new arts and new sciences.

As for the morality of the old-fashioned family, this too had its limitations. More often than not it was a rigid and repressive kind of morality, excessively punitive, frequently irrational. It was often a negative kind of morality, designed mostly to frighten children and young people away from pleasures incompatible with the enormous amount of self-discipline required for survival. It

was a makeshift morality, albeit sanctioned by religion, a sour-grapes morality for those who could not afford to want what they could not have. To survive meant thrift, early hours, arduous labor, chastity, and sobriety and these were more bearable when they were identified with the holy will of God. It was a morality that accomplished its purpose— it enabled people without economic or social prospects to survive and live usefully, but it took a heavy price in psychic wounds. Also, it did not always provide for other moral values, such as brotherly love and responsibility for others.

“Have such things not always been?’’ say the Chinese peasants in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth when floods come, or drought or war. They shrug their shoulders indifferently at neighbors and strangers who lie sick or injured by the roadside. It is not for lack of moral instruction. Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius all taught them to love their neighbors and to help strangers in distress. It is not for lack of the capacity to love. It is rather that there is only time, energy and sustenance to sustain the kinsmen for whom they are responsible. Like nurses and doctors in a hospital, they are forced to adopt attitudes that are detached and impersonal toward those whom they cannot help. The reverse of the gemuetHchkeit of the oldfashioned family, and the happy picture of parents, children and relatives gathered about the hearth singing and laughing together, is the absence of generosity that these same people display to those who do not happen to be members of their little kinship circle. The closely knit family frequently narrows its concerns for persons around a tight little knot and shrugs its shoulders to the rest of the world. Its morality includes thrift, chastity and industry but not brotherly love undivided by race or creed.

The large old-fashioned family is undesirable from other points of view as well. Dr. James Bossard in his Sociology of Child Development points out that “small families provide a poor kind of

training for adult life in a plant of workers, or in an army of millions of men where the Only will be a single cog in a huge machine.” True, but is a cog-inthe-wheel society in any sense desirable? Is it something to which we should even want to adjust, or wouldn’t it be better to cause such dissatisfaction and conflict that employers, administrators and government officials would be forced to take cognizance of the human factor and the need for personal self-expression?

If it can be said that the large oldfashioned kind of family is the best training school for people destined for cogin-thc-wheel jobs, moreover, it can also be said that the small family is probably the best training ground for those with the potentialities of creative self-expression. Many a person of exceptional ability has undoubtedly been thwarted and frustrated throughout life because of the insensitivity of the old-fashioned family in which he grew up. The large old-fashioned family with its rigid disciplines mingled with the frequently ruthless competition of siblings, is perhaps a poor place for sensitive, reflective and introspective types such as give us most of our art, philosophy and poetry. It’s also quite possibly a poor greenhouse for affection and warmth. And, over against the dangers in a small modern family of children being spoiled, there is the danger in a large old-fashioned family of children being rejected.

No price on love

As a seed bed for sensitivity and selfreliance the small loosely knit family has salient advantages, I think. Its members live together but go separate ways much of the time. Parents and children develop their own friendships among people with whom they share common interests. They are more likely to evolve independent religious and philosophical beliefs, which are stronger and healthier for being expressed from within rather than imposed from without. They do not demand abject submission of one another as the price of acceptance and love. The conversion of a Protestant to Roman Catholicism or vice versa is not treated as an act of treason. The marriage of a young person to someone not of his own faith is not the occasion for turning the culprit's picture to the wall. Parents are able to enjoy warmer and more satisfying mutual companionship, so that when the children are grown they are not suddenly faced with the desolation of a relationship that the years of child rearing have destroyed.

In the loosely knit, modern family where each member retains a generous measure of his own individuality the relationship is recognized from the beginning to be constantly changing and the very absence of binding family traditions is often the means of making family life a constantly maturing and improving relationship. Children who have played more with neighborhood friends than with siblings, who have become closer in some ways to other adults than to parents, and who leave home early for jobs or college are much more apt to be happy and successful persons in this day and age than those who grew up in the hothouse of a traditional family only to be yanked out of it by the circumstances of modern life for which they have received little or no preparation.

Then there is the place of women in the family and the way in which their emancipation is bound up with its being small. It can probably be said that women are chiefly responsible for the disintegration of the old-fashioned family since it accompanied their overthrow

of the ancient and tyrannical dictum that “woman’s place is in the home.” The notion that women are somehow inferior to men in intellect and talent has long since been exploded, but society has throughout history doomed womankind to the career of homemaking and childhearing on the flimsy grounds that a girl’s career is necessarily ready made.

Once the movement for women’s rights was underway, women began seeking education and entrance into careers and professions as fast as they could and those who married became increasingly insistent on having time for activities outside the home. It meant, of course, that women would be having fewer children, spending less time with them and that they would be devoting more time and energy to interests of their own. All of this is now being deplored by reactionaries who try to dress up the menial chores of housework and child care with pompous titles and who try to shame women back to their dust mops and cradles with accusations of selfishness. Yet what better atmosphere can there be for a child than one in which he is constantly being exposed to new interests and experiences of diverse kinds brought into the home by parents who have a variety of hobbies and outside interests?

As with all things new, the loosely knit, modern family has its growing pains. There is undoubtedly more juvenile delinquency than ever before but it would be hard to say whether it is the fault of the modern family or because of the survival of families with oldfashioned views in a world where such things are anachronisms. There is more divorce than ever before but this is possibly because it is becoming increasingly possible to bring unhappy marriages to an end. Still, I would not presume to excuse the modern family from everything or condemn the old-fashioned family unjustly. There is certainly an overabundance of obnoxious and insolent children around nowadays and many a so-called democratic household is in reality a thinly disguised and tyrannical “pediocracy.” There is something to be said for the board of education being occasionally applied to the seat of knowledge, for children to be sometimes seen and not heard (or not even seen) and for parents to “selfishly” engage in activities, demonstrations of affection and interests from which the children are excluded.

I believe that we need the kind of family in which there is room for selfexpression and dissent within a benevolent despotism of parental authority—a benevolent despotism that gradually gives way, as children grow older, to an equitable relationship based on mutual freedom and respect. I believe in the family that has found the compromise between the legitimate responsibilities of parenthood and the legitimate rights of any individual to enjoy privacy and activities that are purely for his own pleasure.

We haven’t found the golden mean of the modern family yet, but we are pioneering and there is a lot of undiscovered land to occupy. In the end I suspect that we shall have a much better kind of family than the old-fashioned, authoritarian one. We shall find, I suspect, ways of having the best of both worlds given time and the maturity of experience. It has only been within the past century that economic and social conditions anywhere in the world have made possible the consideration of ideal family life for almost anyone.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not achieved Utopia. Undoubtedly we never will, but we can perhaps come rather close, ic