Is the family you grew up in different from the ones that exist today? Is your family different from the ones you see on television? The answer is probably yes to both of these questions because so much has changed in the American family and so much was always myth about the way family was portrayed vs. the way it really is.
We hear a lot about the influence that violence has on everyone who watches television and movies. What is often neglected is the impact of other messages on the beliefs and attitudes of viewers of all ages. Specifically, I am thinking of the portrait of family life that is communicated to people of all ages who view these programs and movies. An example is the very old television program from the 1950's called Father Knows Best. Another program from that era was Leave It to Beaver.
These were two benign and optimistic programs whose episodes demonstrated the warm, humorous, and well functioning side of family life. Despite some difficult situations that the children got into, the wise and all knowing parents and adults resolved issues in ways that best showed the power of moral thinking and good, religious, American values. At the end of each episode problems were resolved and everyone was happy. Of course, Father "Knew" best, followed by mother and then all of the other members of the community. This was all very heart warming but, was it realistic?
I have known many people who watched, and were influenced by, these programs. Some of these people were friends and family members. Later, after I was a therapist, some of the individuals who reported being influenced by these programs were patients, either in individual or family and marital therapy. Almost all of them expressed distress that their past and present family experiences did not even remotely resemble what they had seen.
Even if attitudes about family life were not influenced by the media, there are many social mores, values, and myths about what healthy family life comprises.
Some of the myths are as follows:
1. Healthy families are made up of parents who do not quarrel.
2. Siblings in healthy families are always cooperative with their parents and willing to help one another.
3. Healthy families are harmonious and without conflict.
4. Parents have total control over their children, including where they go and what they do.
5. In a healthy family, the father goes to work and the mother remains at home to raise the children.
6. Everyone lives in nuclear families. A nuclear family is made up of father, mother, and children.
Many of the myths about the nuclear family were the result of Post World War II American life. The perfect nuclear family was expected to live in the suburbs, in homes with neatly kept lawns and lovely neighbors. The very funny and entertaining Dick Van Dyke Show was an example of this paradigm of family life. On the Dick Van Dyke Show the father worked in Manhattan while the wife and mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, was at home happily tending to the chores of raising her child, shopping, cooking, and keeping the house. Even Lucy of the comedy I Love Lucy fit this same paradigm. Ricky, the husband and professional entertainer, worked and was a responsible member of society, while Lucy was a scattered brained red-headed wife who was always getting into trouble. Ultimately Lucy and Ricky, who began their married life living in Manhattan, moved out of the City to the inevitable suburbs.
While all of these programs were fun and entertaining, they were totally inaccurate about what family life is really like.
Now, let's look at the facts surrounding some of the myths mentioned above:
1. Even couples who are happily married report that they quarrel. Marriage is difficult, bringing with it a period of adjustment soon after marriage, and continued work as the couple's circumstances change. The problem is not that parents argue but how they argue. Those couples who argue and find solutions to their problems move on with their family lives.
2. Family studies and surveys show that most siblings grow up arguing with one another. As long as parents do not get involved and allow the youngsters to work it out themselves resolutions are found. Of course, it is sometimes necessary for parents to step in if the argument is getting loud and out of control. In fact, several studies show that siblings who argued while growing up become friends as adults.
3. It would be difficult to define what is meant by a happy family. Life brings with it constant change and the need to adjust to changing circumstances. Even changes that represent great success for the family are stressful for members to adapt to. The fact is that elderly family members die, many families experience economic problems, and illness, accidents, and tragedy have a way of interrupting all families.
4. Not only do parents not have total control over their children but it is necessary for them to prepare children for greater independence and autonomy as they grow. Once children become adolescents, they place distance between themselves and their families by starting to date the opposite sex, socialize with peers, spend time in sports competitions, and prepare for the final moving away by thinking about college, the military, or work. In addition, with most parents working, there is often no way to completely monitor where their children are after school.
5. In point of fact, the history of the family shows that mothers worked long before the industrial revolution. While fathers farmed the land, women worked at home in cottage industries, sewing clothing for sale, usually regulated by contractors. Even before the age of cottage industries, women collected a lot of food for the winter and did the preservation and storing of food stuffs for the entire family.
6. The nuclear family has had a brief history as will be seen next in this essay. If anything, most people lived in extended families made up of many generations such as grandparents and great grandparents in addition to aunts and uncles.
7. Today, many people are either delaying marriage or are electing not to marry at all.
Family Reality Today:
1. There are single parent families that are headed by a mother or father and this is usually the result of divorce, death or:
2. Because standards of sexual behavior have changed so much over the years, there are now many single parent families that are the result of women deciding to have children outside of marriage.
3. Something that would never have been imagined years ago is the fact that there are gay families. These are families in which gay couples decide to have children in one of two ways: If there are two women, one of them may decide to be artificially inseminated with donated sperm so that the baby will be raised by two mothers. The other way for gay couples to have children is to adopt and raise them together.
4. There are blended families that are the result of two divorced people deciding to marry and raise their sets of children together.
5. Yes, there are nuclear and extended families today and it would be a mistake to believe that they have disappeared.
However, with a more than fifty percent rate of divorce, the nature and type of family life has undergone enormous change.
So, if you have complaints about the way you were raised, try not to feel too bad. There are no ideal families, conflict is an inevitable part of family life, and large numbers of children know what it is like to grow up without seeing one of their parents, especially their fathers.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that if you are having marriage problems or difficulties with the behavior of the children, you are not alone. Partly, it is the job of children to test the limits with their parents as they learn about themselves and begin to assert their individuality with opinions and tastes that parents may not like.
Of course, if either marriage problems or difficulties managing children are becoming too great, then it is time to seek professional help. This can come in the form of psychologists or social workers who specialize in marriage and family problems.
So, remember, there are no perfect families and there are no perfect marriages or relationships.