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RINGOES, NJ. You’ve seen the commercials. A middle-aged couple drops their son off at college. As they drive away, nest now empty, they feign sorrow. Quickly, though, their mournful countenances are replaced by looks of relief and joy as they gleefully contemplate their new life without children. Variations on this theme are repeated on television, in print ads, and at cocktail parties. The message is clear: children are a burden; good parents endure the parenting years but rejoice when the shackles are removed and life can begin where it was set aside when the first screaming child forced its way into that idyllic existence the once childless couple enjoyed.

This seems to be the prevailing attitude of many modern American parents. And it is not just the parents. Children tend to think of themselves as connected to their parents only until they reach the ripe old age of eighteen. Then they leave. Or, as is often the case, some form of dependency, usually economic, remains until the child graduates from college. But once that occurs, there is little expectation that the lives of parents and their children will remain intimately connected on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, often there is an expectation that the child will cut whatever ties he might have with his family or with the place of his youth and seek eagerly to go wherever his education, his job, his girlfriend, or his fancy dictates. The impulse to distance himself from his parents facilitates their newfound (and long anticipated) freedom. Besides, if it is clear to the child that the parents are looking forward to freedom from their children, it should not be surprising that the child will feel little desire to remain in their proximity. No one wants to be a burden.

It has not always been this way. In his book From Cottage to Work Station, Allan C. Carlson shows that the dominant social and economic system at the time of the American founding was characterized by five qualities: 1) The primacy of the family economy. Homes were vibrant centers of activity unified by the need to make a living. All members of the family were integral parts working toward a common goal. 2) The continued power of kinship and ethnic and religious communities. People identified themselves with a particular ethnic or religious group as well as with their extended families. They were members of a community and this membership had economic ramifications, for they intentionally did business with members of their respective communities. 3) The central focus on land. In a society that was predominantly agricultural, it is no surprise that land would be a central concern. While land is obviously needed to grow crops and cows it also represents tangible, improvable property that can be passed on to children who, in turn, can pass it on to their own. Unlike other forms of wealth, land is not mobile, so the centrality of land helped facilitate the kind of stability that kept families connected. 4) The abundance of children. Because work was centered around the home, children could participate in the economy of the family. Children were seen as valuable assets. A family with many children could accomplish more—could produce more—than a family with few or no children. 5) The power of intergenerational bonds. Because the locus of the economy was the home, children, parents, and grandparents lived and worked together. There was an expectation that children would care for their parents even as the parents once cared for the child. Because the economy centered on the ownership of land, there was a tangible and viable form of economic livelihood that could be passed from one generation to the next. Carlson, quoting the historian James Henretta, notes that parents raised children to “succeed them” not merely to “succeed.”

But this, of course, merely begs the question: is the unity of the extended family a good that trumps all others? Surely not. We can all think of examples of righteous people leaving their extended families to serve God in a place not of their birth. A calling from God makes all other considerations moot. It is not clear that a call from IBM should elicit the same response. My concern is that we have forgotten, or at least neglected, the humble goods that accompany proximity to extended family. All things considered, is it preferable for grown children to live near their parents? Their siblings? Is it beneficial for children to know their grandparents well and to interact with them regularly? These are good things that should not be lightly discarded.

Of course, in a pre-industrial world, it is not difficult to imagine extended families remaining intact through successive generations. But even in agrarian communities, this kind of familial stability is today more illusive. As many have noted, higher education, now considered the necessary passport to success, has exerted a tremendous pressure on the family. Children are encouraged to go away to college where the content of study almost invariably induces a cosmopolitan disposition accompanied by a love for the fast, the simple, the modern, and, perhaps most of all, for the big. Places and economies of modest scale will seem hopelessly antiquated to one whose tastes have been formed by an industrialized, centralized, super-sized world. Who would want to go back? After all, progress is the basic assumption of modernity and to resist progress, or to be merely contented with the status quo, is to be backward and, well, un-modern. The indictment sticks.

Centrifugal forces are no less evident in the culture of entertainment that saturates so many of our waking hours. Take, for instance, the news, which often is merely entertainment for those with a taste for the grim. With the advent of cable television, news became a 24/7 barrage. Through this medium, we become intimately familiar with strangers in far flung places. We know the details of the latest earthquake in Indonesia (Richter Scale and all), while the single mom down the street remains unknown to us. Our tastes and concerns are tutored to run toward the abstract and the global rather than the concrete and the local. The obvious tragedy is that we can become numbed by the very magnitude of the need and thereby neglect the wounded, the hungry, and the hurting in our midst. In aspiring to love the world, we end up neglecting our neighbor. In neglecting our neighbor, we neglect our neighborhoods as concrete commitment is replaced by abstract awareness.

The sort of generational attachment to a particular place, which invariably served to forge attachments between members of a family, was once possible because the home was the center of vibrant activity. But consider how much has changed. In the typical household today, the father works away from the home, and often the mother does the same. The children are bussed to various age-segregated schools. During the days, homes are empty. They are not vibrant centers of meaningful activity but merely hotels awaiting occupants who arrive in time to eat a hastily prepared meal and then collapse into easy chairs before the stupefying and isolating television only to repeat the cycle when the alarm jolts them into another day.

In the typical suburban home there is little regular work. To be sure, there is the constant incidental upkeep that any house requires, and dishes must be washed, carpets vacuumed, and the grass needs cut in the summer. But these sporadic jobs, many made inaccessible to children because they are done with machines, means that there is very little steady work for children. Children, because they have been denied the satisfaction of being productive members of the family economy, become simply consumers. Parents find themselves frantically striving to fill their children’s time with activities. They are driven by a fear of that most ubiquitous complaint of the modern child: “I’m bored.”

As a result, children’s lives consist of being transported from one organized activity to another where they learn to cooperate with others, to work as a team, to feel a sense of satisfaction for working hard and performing well. But they do all this with peers and not their families. As a result, families do not learn to work together and thereby come to think of themselves as members of a family team. Neither do children learn the invaluable lesson of working and playing with people who are not their own age. In short, we teach our children to think of themselves as members of organizations and teams that are outside of the family at the expense of cultivating a sense of membership in a vibrant and productive enterprise centered in the home. While, of course, outside activities are not intrinsically bad, and in many ways they are beneficial, when there is no corresponding meaningful activity in the home around which the family is oriented, is it any wonder that children, by their late elementary years, show precious little interest in being with their parents and a restless anxiety to hang out with their peers? They are doing precisely what they have been taught.

It should be no surprise, then, that children, when they are grown, have no desire to return home. Neither should we be surprised when these children readily place their aging parents in nursing homes. The alternative is really quite difficult to imagine, for it requires tremendous sacrifice, and it demands the day-to-day interaction with parents the child sought to escape, the same parents who, ironically, were all too happy to see the child go. The separation is only formalized by the grave.

While some sort of rural agrarian lifestyle might seem like an ideal, if romantic, remedy, this is not realistic for most. And even then, the same forces threaten to fragment rural families. How then can parents inculcate an appreciation for family unity in a way that counters the forces that seem bent on driving families apart? Carlson suggests that the home school movement represents a hopeful step in once again making the home a hub of meaningful activity. To be sure a home school, if done properly, might help to forge a sense of family unity. The content of the curriculum might be intentionally designed to educate young people to know and love their own local communities. But additionally, families can develop and foster joint activities. A family enterprise—whether a business, a ministry, or even a hobby—serves to unite members around a common cause. When families see themselves as pursuing a common good in the context of a particular place, they will be able to imagine themselves embracing a life together. Finally, parents need to make a place to which children can return. In our world of hyper-mobility, we all should reflect on the price of rootlessness. For if the unity of the extended family is a good that should at least be factored into our decisions, we must consider with fresh eyes what constitutes a home and seek to set an example to our children as we practice the art of home-making.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Being fortunate enough to have three kids that actually like coming home, I don’t know what to make of the idea that there is an ongoing abandonment of post-fledge family life in the culture. Actually, in my lunatic brood, we engage more fully now than when they lived with us and fortunately, 2 of the 3 live within a 2 hour drive and the third is moving back to within a 4 hour drive after several years on the other side of the continent. I enjoy their trips home because there is none of the tension caused by either the parent attempting to live through the kid or the kid chaffing at the importunate hovering of the parent. To be frank, there are two primary reasons I look forward to their visits …aside from the noise and energy of their presence or the various wingnuts they bring home with them. First, a visit from the progeny is now the best stocked the pantry ever gets. The Concept feeds her husband quite more than adequately but she lavishes all manner of generally banned substances on the heirs. Whoever suggested that baby carrots are as good a snack as Lorna Doons is an unmitigated scoundrel who should be forced to grow yams in the rocky soils of the 4th ring of hell. Second, when The Concept launches into a well-earned righteous invective aimed squarely at my perfectibility, it rings hollow now that rote familiarity governs the roost. Solos, no matter how energetic are never as wholly gratifying as a resounding full ensemble ridicule. When the Children are home, I am once again raised to the merry fate of being the supreme object of ridicule and the ringing chorus of “you really are an a*#hole” becomes a richer thing altogether. It is no fun inciting a crowd of one but a crowd of four, this incentivizes a level of professionalism that lapses in the quieter house. Alarming the children and spouse is, of course, a high art requiring the paterfamilias to embrace a serious program of lifelong refinement. How else would they learn if not by poor example?

    As to boredom….it is important to instill in the young fidgeteers the knowledge that boredom is self- inflicted. To be bored is to surrender the intellect and digits to the incomplete and insufficient direction of others. It is the wailing refrain of the piteous amateur and deserves nothing so much as a swift kick in the seat of boredom: the over-used arse. There are all kinds of ways to impress the lesson but my parents employed The Alabama Penal Code as a standard for inducing self-actualized entertainment. This consisted of a charming little device we referred to as “Rock Pile”. As soon as one of us were to squawk “I’m Bored”, two words would thunder down from on high and it would chill us to the bone: “ROCK PILE”. This was a low-tech arrangement down next to the dog run and at the outskirts of the homemade track and field venue where every rock collected in the various tasks of the property would be piled on one side of the approach walk. So ordered, we would move the rock pile from the starboard to port side for a period certain…generally calibrated on the basis of how pathetic the originally offending claim was rendered. Obviously, this did not have to happen often because piling rock in the Great Basin sunshine aint for the un-stout. Still, it was amazing how many times that pile moved from north to south but what was even more amazing is all the things we managed to concoct to occupy ourselves once we realized the the recidivist activity of boredom had a proper penalty. More importantly, the rewards of a life free of boredom far outshone the punishments we endured before we discovered that boredom is a figment of self infliction.

  2. My home town is gone. Somebody tore it all down, paved it all over and put up a suburb. My extended family doesn’t seem to remember that there ever was life before the stripmalls. When I take my kids there, I try to point out where things used to be. We might as well be on an archaeological field trip. “That heap over there used to be a temple mound,” sort of thing. My forebears are buried in a beautiful churchyard on a wooded little hill. My grandparents are buried under plaques convienient for the groundskeeper’s tractor mower out behind an industrial park (quite empty of late). My parents moved us in my teens, split up and now the nuclear family of my youth has been ionized–each of us in a different state. I want my mother to come “home” to us, but she stubbornly stays where her second husband left her a widow, a thousand miles away. We don’t live (my wife and I) in our native state because it makes homeschooling so wretchedly difficult. Sometimes one leaves home, sometimes home just disappears.

  3. Thank you, Mark. I think Allan’s point on the glue a home business can give a family is very well taken.

    Thanks too to Mr. Sabin for the rock pile idea. I respond to cries of boredom with chores, but the Alabama Penal Code solution has a poetic and Sisyphean justice to it that I like much better. And goodness knows we grow plenty of rocks around here.

  4. Each August I cringe at the TV ads featuring parents screaming with glee that school is about to open again. They simply cannot stand their own children another day.

  5. My question to you all: Am I expecting too much? Is this even realistic in our modern, mobile, culture? Am I setting myself up to be disappointed? Am I setting my kids up to feel guilty when/if they leave? Are there any parents out there who expressly attempted (or are attempting) to make a place to which the kids can return? Were your successful?

    • Mark, No – it is possible. Not to toot my own horn, but my wife and I are trying to do it. We both went to college got the fancy degree but realized it was not the path we desired. Since then, we have started a home based honey company. Bough 10 acres, moved 60mi out of town and making a living producing honey and selling it around the area with out 3 children. They are still small (5,3,1) but they love it and certainly find meaning and purpose as a family in learning to work together and play together. Its possible today, you just have to know what you want and have a good dose of perseverance.

      Keep up the good thoughts.

  6. In Laslett’s “The World We Have Lost”, he studies available records to determine …confirm…refute our conventional perceptions of what life was like in Great Britain before the machine age. Interestingly enough…the old term “Family Business” had a somewhat different meaning in those days in that a Family Business was the only real kind of business around. Family Compounds hosted both family workers and hired hands and the local Nobility was often obliged to feed both migrant and local workers during the “Crisis of the Harvest” when all hands were on deck. If there was no local nobility, it would then be a communal affair. It would seem that for the bulk of the public, Family Values were the only values and the “Family” was not just blood relations.

    Just the other day, I met a young fellow and business owner who is hiring his father away from IBM.

    With our supplication to the vaunted Service Economy of Corporate Feudalism, home and family business are in a twighlight zone. But, with a more local emphasis, there are many venues, professional, service, trades… that could contribute to family business if one is so inclined. Interestingly enough, until we decided to export our industrial capacity , the Auto Makers were “family” businesses of a sort…from the ownership down to the line. Generations were proud to be part of the tradition of American Auto Manufacturing but then the tragedy of the global commons kicked in with corporate globalism and all bets were off in a zero sum game of racing to the bottom.

    One of my own kids has embarked upon the old man’s trade and while I’ve told him to get out and make his own way for a while, I have told him he has the opportunity to come back in and buy me out when he’s thirty and bring his knowledge with him. This is the same kid who furnished all manner of sporting entertainment , particularly when he and I were in a brawl one fine evening in the Kitchen with the wife screaming and the dog joining the fray. I believe it was over his morning musical line-up which seemed, as best as I can tell, a live recording of the Tate Murder Scene, several car wrecks and the crazed rutting of Barking Apes while someone used a bass guitar to bludgeon a drum set to death. Cheerfully, he gave as good as he got and this was a wistful moment of pride . However, whence presenting this concept to Junior at a restaurant one evening, The Concept, always ready to protect the fledglings chimed in “whaddya mean he has to Buy you out”. After I recovered from the crushing shock that I, the pagan married the world’s only non-capitalist jew… I retorted “fine, you can have the business Junior…including your mother”. Needless to say, it’s still in committee.

  7. Mark,

    The extended family is now more difficult then ever to try and establish for some of us. How can I be with both families if they are from different parts of the country, lets say from Idaho and North Carolina. I can be close to one but not the other. The phone helps keep communication going but most communication is in person.

    I am lucky that I still live in the neighborhood I grew up in and I have a brother that is a 10 minute walk away (our old house is in the middle of where we now live). I almost caused my mother a heart attack the other day as I saw her at Costco and walked up behind her and put my finger in her back and asked for her purse (which led to the biggest hug I have gotten in awhile from her but I think it was mostly relief that I was not really robbing her). But the advantage I have of being close with my family is that my wife is not close to her family and suffers from it. If I lived in the middle ground neither of us would see our parents. If we lived near her parent I would probably give up some of my economic security and surely personal security. How do you keep extended families when people now tend to marry people from a different location? What is going to happen when your children marry at college and move closer to where their spouse parents are?

    I think the thought is wonderful of the extended family but is realistic in a society that is so mobile. I think it only works while the children are young or are single (or re-singled and move into your basement). Marriage to foriegners (people outside the community that you grew up in) has changed America forever.

    And to Mr. Bass I am sorry that your sense of belonging to a community has been ripped from you while you were so young, unfortunately I know you are not alone.

  8. My husband and I (thanks in large part to Dr. Mitchell’s inspiring tutelage while students at Patrick Henry College) are increasingly troubled by the distance between ourselves and our families. But, to echo Mr. Beemer, what are we to do? My husband is two years into building a promising career with a government consulting firm, a career that will certainly enable me to stay home when the time comes to start a family. Meanwhile, his parents are in Texas and mine are in Illinois. Both families are established and unlikely to move to us, and my husband’s need for proximity to D.C. makes a move to the heartland unlikely. It breaks my heart to think that my kids won’t share the same bond with their grandparents that I share with mine. The idea of only seeing family twice or three times a year is devastating, but more and more I’m realizing this is likely the way things are going to be whether I like it or not. Sure, we are building relationships in our church community and have wonderful friends, but these are not substitutes for our families. Where do we plant our roots, I often wonder? Here in DC, where my husband and I met, married, and now work and worship? Should we take a chance and move back “home,” where, besides our families, we have little connection to the places and people we once knew?

    I think Dr. Mitchell is spot on in his observations, but I share his uncertainties about if/how a restoration of these critical institutions is possible in the face of so many practical and perceived challenges.

    • Erica,
      Great to “hear” your voice. Wallace Stegner (an author I highly recommend) writes of the settling of the American West. He says there were two kinds of people: boomers and stickers. Boomers moved from place to place seeking a quick fortune, never committing themselves to a particular community and place. Stickers said “here and no further.” They planted themselves, built homes, raised families, and became an integral part of their communities. Perhaps this is the best many of us can do today. We can be stickers rather than boomers.

  9. I am coming belatedly into this discussion having just been forwarded this article via an architecture grad student who received it from one of her professors. The timing, however, was exceedingly relevant.
    I have been grieving the distance between myself and my now thirty something sons–both geographical distance and growing emotional distance as well. It’s not that anyone is trying to move away emotionally. It just happens if people only see one another face to face on a semi-annual basis. The friends and neighbors one sees and talks with on a daily or weekly basis often seem more connected.

    So many of the observations in the article rang true to me–the distancing forces of higher education, the mobility of Americans, the lure of age peers. But so also did some of the antidotes–the necessity of place, be it land or house or neighborhood, the importance of working together to create something beyond ourselves, the importance of making a real home.

    I also concur with the author’s contention that homeschooling can lead to closer families. Some of the best educated and simultaneously closest families I know homeschooled. Alas, homeschooling was not an option when I was raising my children though I did the next best thing by being a mostly stay-at-home and engaged mother in a wonderful house in a charming, small town. One begins to wonder, do we shoot ourselves in the foot by sending our precious children away to university and even abroad?

    The allure of big cities seems far greater than the slower, less culturally interesting small city in spite of the fact that the small city is less expensive and more family friendly. The option, again it seems, is to get married late, have one or two children or not get married at all in order to stay in the urban nexis. Extended family is a nice idea, I think many agree, but ultimately it requires real decisions and sacrifices in time, money, or ambition–sometimes great sacrifices. If the decisions and the sacrifices are not made regarding extended family, the question becomes, as the author also asks, what is the cost? Speaking for myself, the cost is great.

    Thank you for an excellent, highly thought-provoking article.

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