Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Family Values: Not Always a Good Thing

Families, like fire, can be either good or bad

Families are the natural habitat for humans, but families, like fire, can be forces for good or destruction. Throughout the world, infants have been thrown in wells, fathers raped daughters and husband beaten wives. Where such practices occur, families are failures and marriages better dissolved—children cared for by others, and spouses divorced.

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As movies, novels, theater, and television show, there is no shortage of sad family stories to tell. Nor are these stories new. Cain murders his brother; in Roman legend Romulus slays his twin brother to take charge of the city the two had founded; the Bhagavad-Gita relates the story of war between brothers. Stories of matricide, patricide and infanticide are commonplace.

Modern times have brought additional problems to family life. As education, social mobility and use of the media became widespread, more people realized the limitations that families impose and developed new configurations of relationships. In other times, Stephen Onsario wouldn’t have moved away; he probably wouldn’t have experienced the problem in the first place.

So while the modern world is liberating in some ways, it also brings loss. There is pulling up of roots and restlessness and physical and emotional distancing between people. Something precious is lost when your days are filled only with strangers, when those that you care about and who care about you are somewhere else, and when the only touch comes from yourself or professionals.

The mercies of the best caretakers are no substitute for the nourishment your soul receives when those who care about you also care for you.

The challenge in families is finding a way to honor the distinctiveness of each person without loosening the social ties that bind. Families that produce happy people find the balance between differentiation (where each person is viewed as unique) and integration (where each is meaningfully part of the larger whole).

Families tend to wobble between the extremes of entanglement and alienation. In happy families, people achieve the balance between being a part and apart, connections and space. Achieving that balance is possible where adults view each other as equals and children are respected as people in their own right.

Double standards and special privileges are antithetical to moral relationships amongst adult family members, as are authoritarian measures to force children into compliance. The key value in family relationships, like in all close relationships, is mutual respect.

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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