Most sociologists consider the family unit to be a fundamental building block of society. However, it is largely absent as a topic in international development goals. Should this be the case?
"The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish." - Pope John Paul II
A recent report led by Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley universities said vertebrates are disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal. These findings echo those of a similar report published by Duke University last year. One of the new study’s authors said: “We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.” The last such event was 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were wiped out, in all likelihood by a large meteor hitting Earth.
In light of this apocalypse-like news, I would like to take a closer look at yet another endangered, but a bit more tangible element of life on planet Earth, namely, the family. As humankind, along with plants and animals approach what is being called the sixth great mass extinction, I wonder if it will be an event that humans go through en masse as loners, (the atomistic man as the only unit in society), or as people knit together by ties to a nuclear and extended family. I often think that the role of the family is too-often neglected and has been taken for granted in our day. The all-consuming drive and ambitious personal priority of the individual in today’s world makes me worry that families may one day go, and, as the family goes, so will go civilization.
This reflection has been additionally stimulated by the responses of my sociology students to a question I’ve asked in each class over the last three years. My students have represented a variety of cultural backgrounds, including one from China. In each class I have asked exactly the same question: What is the first essential cell of human society? Or, to put it another way, what is the most important fiber of every society? I have asked the question to close to 300 students in last nine semesters from either my Social Problems or my Introduction to Sociology classes. I usually ask the question during the first week of the semester and use it as a warm-up to future class discussions.
For the last three years, no one has given what most sociologists agree to be the correct answer. During the first year of this verbal experiment, I even didn’t pay close attention to the outcomes of my question, but after the second year I started to wonder what was happening. Last year’s results alerted me even more. As I started to analyze their answers, I shared what I was hearing with colleagues and others who are parents. Usually, after some discussion, I ask my students a follow-up question, “So what holds the family together?” Here the situation is slightly better, and a few students have dared to ask in a very timid manner: love?
One of my international students from China, however, brought to my attention yet another very compelling story related to family. On May 12, 2008, in Wenchuan County, China, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake killed 69,000 and left 18,000 still missing. After this tragic event, many Sichuan residents began to think that life was too short and unpredictable. Many, in the wake of such a tragedy, decided to live each day to the fullest and surrounded themselves entirely by loved ones.
It is not my intention to focus on the shape, configuration or type of families that we see, but I do believe we still need to look at the importance and role of family even if it is in a very generalized way. In an attempt to demystify the problem, I looked at the United Nations data, archives, and efforts as the last resort for solutions in our global village. I also read a highly recommended 1947 classic by Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, “Family and Civilization.” As new definitions of family constantly evolve, I also decided to look for a simplified definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the base for my deliberation. Simply stated, family is a group of people who are related to each other.
The results of my inquiries were stunning in both cases. With regards to the United Nations, I decided to check what the contemporary decalogue’s had to say about family. First, I analyzed the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a targeted date of 2015. I also looked at the proposal of the inter-governmental Open Working Group of the General Assembly, on the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are the goals that should be adopted as the post-2015 development agenda at the United Nations Summit in New York City, September 25-27. Interestingly, Pope Francis will speak at the United Nations in New York on September 25th and participate that week in the World Meeting of Families Conference, to be held in Philadelphia.
When I looked at both documents, I could not believe my eyes. In neither of these two guidelines for humankind was I able to find a specific goal focusing on the struggles of the modern family and its present rapid drift toward collapse. In MDGs, Goal #5, “Improve Maternal Health”, family planning is mentioned, but as many suspect, this term is more focused on limiting the size of the family in developing countries than on anything else. In SDG’s, I was able to find three references to families. In Goal #2, “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” a reference is made targeting family farmers as potential contributors to tackle hunger. In Goal #3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” again, family planning is mentioned; and in Goal #5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” it recognizes the value of unpaid care and domestic work by women. No goal, however, made any specific reference to protecting the family unit! You will find calls to protect and/or support girls, boys, adults, children, people, populations, men, women, children, newborn, persons with disabilities, young people, older persons and the poor, but no mention is made and no mercy given for the protection and promotion of the family.
Interestingly enough, when you look at the state of families and relationships of current world leaders, who will be attending the UN Summit in September, the vast majority mention that they enjoy very strong ties to their loved ones. In most cases, they are solid role models. It seems that this is not a typical top down global syndrome. What is it then? Economics?
In 1947, Professor Zimmerman predicted, in his unfairly forgotten work, the decay of today’s family. Zimmerman demonstrates the close and causal connections between the rise and fall of different types of families and the rise and fall of civilizations. Included were ancient Greece and Rome, medieval as well as modern Europe, and the United States. “Why should we read Dr. Zimmerman today? For one thing, the future isn’t fated. We might learn from history and make choices that avert the calamities that overtook Greece and Rome,” concluded James Kurth, the Swarthmore political scientist, who edited the latest version of Family and Civilization.
My wife and I are currently experiencing the “empty nest” syndrome of family life and we have had plenty of time to analyze our young parenting years. In retrospect, we simply can’t imagine how, for the sake of our children, we would have been able raise a family without the mutual support that we gave one another. Children will always need strong, caring and trusted family units and support.
Do we really want a future without strong families? Is it not true that many of the most threatening contemporary social problems we face originate because of family disintegration? If families are neglected and current trends continue, will the children of our children go to look for examples of what family once was in a museum? Let’s not let the family unit fall into the category of a relic. In the both the developed and developing world few institutions are as important to individual health and welfare as the family. It is through the family unit in the home where love, responsibility and a sense of belonging begin. What Dorothy finally realized at the end of The Wizard of Oz is true, There’s no place like home.
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Photograph by sandeepachetan.com travel photography via Flickr