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.