What comes to mind when you think of the word family? What is a family anyway?
How would you define a healthy family?
Sometimes we ask this question in our IFP classes and discover it is very difficult to come up with a definition everyone can agree on. And yet most of us live in what we consider a family situation, whether with one other person or many people, whether everyone is under the same roof or family members live in different homes, states or even different countries.
Families are not just about biologically related people living together. Families don’t always share the traditional image of a man and a woman coming together, marrying and having children. In today’s world, so many configurations constitute what we call a family.
Dolores Curran asked and wrote about what she found.
In 1983, her book, Traits of a Healthy Family, published the results of her survey of over 500 people who worked with families to answer the question, “What is a healthy family?”
Curran noted the major functions and purposes of families changed significantly over time. Historically, families existed for the following five reasons:
- To achieve economic survival: the primary structure was father as breadwinner while mother took care of raising the children and caring for the home
- To provide protection: in an often hostile world, families—especially children—were more likely to survive as a group than as individuals
- To pass on the religious faith: the family provided an environment to promote passing on of religious stories, doctrine and traditions
- To educate its young: to provide a place for boys to work alongside their fathers and girls to learn about homemaking and parenting from their mothers
- To confer status: the family’s name and reputation created a built-in, stratified society. People judged one another based on a family’s name and reputation.
The degrees to which a family achieved each of these purposes determined the degrees to which that family was considered healthy or good.
Curran points out these were externally measured behaviors.
The health or goodness of the family was not measured by how happy people were, whether or not there was abuse or anything else occurring internally within a family that might have left one or more people feeling lost, sad, neglected or unhappy. It was about external appearances.
Oh, how the times have changed!
These five functions no longer carry the same weight, and in recent history, starting from [probably] the 1940s and 1950s, the ways people evaluated the quality of their families changed. And because of these changes and how the relative health and goodness of one’s family is evaluated by its family members, expectations changed.
Couples no longer felt they had to stay together for the sake of appearance or because of changes in the functions of the family; the stability of the family also changed. Beginning in the middle of the last century and continuing through today, headlines often lament the breakdown of the family.
Curran reframes this cultural change by sharing what her research determined.
We have gone from evaluating the health of the family on the former external measurements to looking now at the degrees to which families provide an environment that fosters emotional health and genuine intimacy.
The family has new functions that Curran says boils down to one word: relational. “We marry so we can love and be loved, not feed and be fed. We join together in a search for intimacy, not protection. We have children so that we can give and be given to, care and be cared about, and share the joys of connecting with posterity, not for old-age bread and bed.” [p.12]
Of course, the problem with this shift in what constitutes a healthy family is that the new expectations do not come with a training manual.
How many of us have grandparents who don’t understand the current generation wanting their marriage to be a source of emotional satisfaction? Are they are still operating under the previous standards? To them, if father brings in enough money and provides protection and mother does her job as a housewife, there is no reason for discontent.
However, experiencing genuine emotional intimacy and learning how to exchange that with a partner does not come automatically. It is actually much easier and at least more straightforward to measure a family based on whether the parents perform their specific roles.
This shift from quality being measured by external appearances to internal relational dynamics is huge!
So what do you think are some of the traits Curran’s research showed?
Are these traits still what we would consider to be those of a healthy family? We will look into these in more detail in my next post. Stay tuned!
Meanwhile, think about what you believe is the number one trait of a healthy family. And enjoy the recommendation of a 1950s article from a popular magazine that describes what a good wife should do.
Invitation for Reflection
- How do you define a healthy family? To what extent does your family match those standards and expectations? Where did those standards and expectations come from?
- What do you think your children believe makes a family healthy? Where do you think they get their expectations? How resonant are their expectations with yours?
- If you have the opportunity, ask your parents, grandparents and any other extended family members from previous generations what they think constitutes a healthy family. Notice how similar or different their beliefs are versus yours and versus your children’s.
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network