A look at family dynamics reveals something very wrong with how even “conservatives” are doing things.
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My wife and I see a lot of each other. We both work from home, so we share an office during the day (which doubles as the art studio). Even though we’re both introverts, we can often be found in community activities together—church, volunteering, the symphony on a Saturday night. And, when evening rolls around, reading Harry Potter aloud together is often our idea of relaxation.
And, apparently, we’re weirdos.
See, there’s a norm in America. You’re supposed to want to get away from your family. Christina informed me that a number of her acquaintances have expressed horror upon learning of our routine. Apparently, the idea of spending an entire day in their spouse’s company makes many people feel claustrophobic. And sure enough, since 1980, married couples have been less and less likely to be engaged in shared activities outside the home.
If this sounds sad, consider the context. Modern life involves mostly individual activities (like work or school or soccer practice), and our values are built around becoming our own person. Once you have kids, this objective transitions largely to the kids—parents who are “focused on the family” preside over a “family” that seems to exist primarily as a rearing or college-launch platform for individual children (Pamela Druckerman did a fantastic job illustrating the anthropological oddity of this in Bringing Up Bebe). In such a dynamic, it’s hardly surprising everybody feels claustrophobic when they find themselves locked in the same house at the end of a day.
No wonder the idea of everybody volunteering together elicits groans from the kids. No wonder Dad’s lame efforts to start a “family fun night” with his teenagers fizzle and die after a few weeks. No wonder, at the end of a week shaped by these realities, the parents just want to go to a bar with the guys/gals, or at best, save a precious evening for a date night. (“Conservative” or homeschooling families start the family fun night dynamic sooner, but they tend to be introverted entities focused on themselves, and even they usually fall prey to the individualism dynamic when their eldest become teens.)
By contrast, Christina and I are weirdos because we spend lots of time together alone and lots of time together with other people—a lot of it working towards goals we as a family can keep supporting with our kids.
I think this is the crucial point. Based on my work in the social sciences, I’m inclined to think that the “coincidence” of close-knit couples/families that are actively involved as such outside the home…well, it isn’t a coincidence at all.
People don’t bond just because they sleep in the same area (just ask anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment complex). People bond over shared commitments—a cause, a team, an activity, a belief. And in my experience, those commitments absolutely must involve shared effort; a concrete thing you see and touch and experience together. Otherwise your revolution, your movement, your wannabe community go the same way as Dad’s family fun night. Actually, cognitive scientists have figured out our brains can’t disentangle concepts of things that matter more than the self (like God or country) from social relationships. That’s why religions have nearly always been communal.
I think back to the Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer books I read as a kid (that’s what nerds do when they’re trying to imagine it might have been like “in the olden days”). Sure, Laura’s family had economic significance our families don’t have—they all pulled their weight or they all starved to death. But whenever they lived around other people, the family as a whole also had social significance. They were all working on building a community together. It wasn’t just “Laura’s thing,” or Pa’s. If there was a barn raising, or a town meeting, or a dance, they all went. If there was a danger like a blizzard to prepare for or recover from, they all helped. A big part of the effort that went into raising an individual child was geared toward preparing her to be a part of that community—not to escape from it.
Laura’s time and place had their own problems, naturally. And she didn’t have as many opportunities as kids today have. But she was tremendously fortunate to live in a time when both the family and the community mattered. Just as a kid with no family is a recipe for disaster, so is a family with no community. A family doesn’t exist merely to exist, or to keep the peace, or to “raise” itself into extinction by getting the kids off to college. It has to have a purpose as a family.
In the modern world, with the way our lives and our cities are designed, this is almost prohibitively difficult. It requires rejecting a lot of things that are considered normal, like signing everybody up for 47 individual activities and shuttling them there. But I think it’s worth a try.
Brian Brownis a social fundraising consultant and cultural critic based in Colorado. He is the senior editor of Humane Pursuits. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianBrownSF.