September 4, 2003

The Family

Every adult, whether he is a follower or a leader, a member of a mass or of an elite, was once a child. He was once small. A sense of smallness forms a substratum in his mind, ineradicably. His triumphs will be measured against this smallness, his defeats will substantiate it.

Erik Erikson

The basis for all human interaction is the family. This is not just true for people, but it applies to most mammals and birds. If you have watched a cat or dog raise its litter, you have seen the basic process. If you have watched a lot of animal families, you might have seen most of the interactions that also exist in human families. You will also have seen the large amount of variability between different members of the litter. You will have seen love and caring, discipline, name it. While people constitute a unique species, they are not as unique as many would like to believe. All of us warm-blooded animals have many things in common.

There is a considerable difference between a herd of sheep or a pride of lions and a town full of people, although sometimes I think that the similarities far outweigh the differences.

I suspect that most people believe that the way that they were reared is the way that everyone is raised. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Families can be radically different in different parts of the world and in cities and farms. At one end of the spectrum are families where several generations live together in the same house or in adjacent houses. At the other end is the single parent family.

In the extended family, where members all live together, everyone contributes to the rearing of children. A child is rarely without someone he can relate to. If one or both parents die or are killed, the children still have parenting in the form of grandparents or other members of the family group. The prevailing values relate to the family rather than to the parents and their children. Sometimes this is extended to include the whole tribe.

In European nobility, the role of the mother was to bear the children who would inherit the title and the wealth. The rearing of the children was often left to the servants or a nanny. In our mobile society, the children often go out on their own and leave the family group, and often leave the area where the rest of the family lives. Grandparents have little or nothing to do with the rearing of the children, nor do brothers and sisters. The single-parent family carries this one step further, and there may be little contact with the rest of the family. The importance of the family in the rearing of a child is reduced almost to insignificance.

In most cultures, the children remain in the same area and all members of a family continue to interact. If the group gets to be large enough, we redefine it as a tribe. If many tribes function together, we can have a nation.

If you want advice on how to raise children, don't ask me. I really haven't had enough experience, having shared in the rearing of only 8 children. I suspect that the only people who seem to be sure of themselves as parents are those who rear their children in exactly the same way as their parents raised them. Their parents probably did the same, back to when their ancestors were naked and hunted and gathered.

I was raised by two orphans. My mother lost her mother when she was an infant and was mostly reared by an older sister. I know virtually nothing about her father and I doubt that my mother did either. He was a teacher and had a number of wives due to the fact that many died. She had a number of step brothers and sisters. My father lost his father at age 15 and went out into the world on his own. Neither had any illusions about the ways that they were reared and they wanted to raise their children differently. They succeeded; my brother and I were different. However, neither one of us could escape our heritage as human beings. A part of that heritage is the fact that people are, whether we like it or not, dependent on other people.

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