Tuesday, 9 January 2007

3:1 Why are our families often such a pain?

You will not have found the last five years easy. You will have argued with your parents, quarrelled with your sister, felt despair, anger, self-loathing, insecurity. You will have felt both intense love and possibly hate for those who brought you up. You may well be beginning to see the point of Oscar Wilde’s remark that ‘Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.’ On the other hand, your parents may have sympathy with Lillian Carter, the mother of the American President Jimmy Carter, who commented ‘I love all my children, but some of them I don’t like.’ Why is there this ambivalence on both sides?

There are particular strains in our family system. As soon as a baby is born it is implicitly being encouraged to be a separate and self-sufficient individual. It is usually put in a separate bed or cot away from its parents, fed regularly but not always on demand, left to cry unless it is a serious matter. It is encouraged to stand, in more ways than one, on its own two feet. The final outcome is known to be a day when he or she will leave home. In the past people went early on as a servant or apprentice, today to school, university, a job in another town.

From that time, and in anticipation well before, he or she will become a separate economic, religious, political and social entity. He or she will emerge finally as a fully ‘grown up’ person who will make all the major decisions over their own life; get a job, marry, travel, buy things on their own.

This is unusual. In almost all societies, as soon as children are born they are encouraged to be part of a group. They will be expected to be deferential and obedient to their parents and older relatives for life. Important decisions will be taken by relatives. An individual is not a separate entity.

Each way of imagining the family has advantages and disadvantages. The western system gives individual freedom. Yet this freedom can be a great weight. It often leads to a potentially damaging struggle between the generations as the child grows up.

A child has to grow separate from his or her parents and other relatives including siblings, but this must be done neither too fast nor too slowly. Parents (alongside schools) must nurture, protect, advise, teach and discipline their children. However, without too much pressure and in the knowledge that the aim of all this is ultimately to turn out a free and separate being. Parents must not smother, spoil or swamp their children with a love that makes them over-dependent. Yet they must also give them security and support. It’s a hard balancing act.

Likewise the child needs to learn to operate freely, but also to accept that in any structured group, including the small family, there are ultimately situations where a decision cannot be shared. If it comes to a final battle of wills, either the child has to accept the authority of the parents, or leave. It is a painful process in which both sides are likely to feel hurt and at times let down. The novelist Anthony Powell caught the sadness by inverting the usual comment when he wrote ‘Parents are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfil the promise of their early years.’

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