Is the nuclear family, an icon of the 20th century American dream, a failed human experiment?
Hidden within the seven weeks I spent on Leg 1 of Wisdom Road this fall was a feature of rural America that is becoming as extinct as the buffalo that once roamed the plains: large, extended families. As I interviewed dozens of ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans about the value systems of their cultures, the stories about the importance of extended families were deep and personal. Our elders grew up with lots of siblings and cousins, grandparents and aunties, who were also their closest or only nearby friends. Rural America, which was most of us until World War II, succeeded because large, multi-generational families helped each other. The nuclear family, standing largely alone, would have died within a first winter across much of rural America.
I, like most Americans now, grew up in urban or suburban small families: mom and dad and two or three kids. I was fortunate to be born White, in a zip code of modest privilege. By the time our nuclear family became a casualty of divorce and empty bank accounts, I had the education and skills to put myself through college, find a good job, marry a good friend, and raise a family.
Such is not the case for a huge percentage of Americans. It was serendipitous that, as I interviewed a number of non-nuclear families in the American heartland, I read David Brooks‘ article in the Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”. The values and strengths that people gain by growing up in extended families are present across the rural communities I visited, but endangered where kids are coming home to single-parent, financially stressed homes where there is no extended network to help with keeping the family healthy and functioning.
As Brooks says in this must-read article for educators:
We take it (the nuclear family) as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.
It is not only the fragility of small numbers, of a single parent or double income family, that is failing. Over the last decade, we have all been in airports and restaurants where kids and their parents are glued to phone screens and not to each other. We can empathize with the single mom who just wants some moments of peace in her hectic day and uses the electronic babysitter. Out on the farm, there are always chores to do, or at least a huge open-air playground with what the parents feel are minimal life hazards and opportunities for non-electronic play.
We don’t have a complete remedy. We don’t want women, or men for that matter, shunned from the workplace. And we probably are not going to give up our phones. But we can commit to lifestyle changes that are uncomfortable but necessary if we want to preserve many of our core values.
- Limit screen time. For adults with kids, get off the screen when the kids are around; they model your behavior.
- Share sit-down meals and talk to each other. Listen to kids, even if what they say does not make sense to you.
- Really get to know neighbors; offer to help them with small things in their lives; build mutual support networks of those who live closest to you.
- Play non-electronic games with your kids and get them games to play with each other.
- Send kids outdoors to play WITHOUT their phones.
- Reduce organized, often costly activities for kids; free up everyone’s schedule wherever possible; spending human-to-human time with family is more important than a third club or sport.
- Support teachers and school systems that limit use of phones at school.
For many macro-economic reasons, the American farm and ranch family will largely be extinct within the next generation. That will be a shame. But the loss will be far, far greater if we can’t retrieve and preserve the strengths of that culture. Being human, face to face with each other, frequently, lies at the core of those strengths.
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