Today’s American Family isn’t what it used to be. The days of “Leave It to Beaver” have been replaced with “Modern Family,” a more accurate representation of home life. The nuclear family, the blended family, and the family with same sex-parents are equally visible, loving, funny, and messy.
The notion that the traditional two-parent family is not only the best, but the only way to raise healthy children is a notion perpetuated by those fearful of losing their privileged status upheld by their virulent defense of so-called family values.
The simple truth is, children who are generously loved, esteemed, and respected do better in life than those who are not. It’s not the family structure that matters, but how we treat our children. Do two wonderful parental figures provide a child with more of this than one? Sure. Do three provide more than two? Yes. And how about four? Why not? In most of the world, childrearing happens within the context of a large extended family with many members influencing a child’s development and helping out in different ways.
From infancy, social institutions seduce us into a belief structure that privileges traditional marriage and family rather than encouraging us to seek out our own individual truths. These values become embedded in our consciousness in a way that shapes our vision as to what our futures should be. Not only do they influence our urgency to marry, alternatives such as single-by-choice parenting, blended families, same-sex families, multigenerational and chosen families, donor families, multiple-parent or group families, and families without children, are cast in an unfavorable and discriminatory light.
Research that promotes a traditional agenda by focusing on the perceived negative after-effects of divorce is both biased and deeply flawed. Failure to include pre-existing childhood conditions, such as the adaptability to change, the family’s prior level of dysfunction and the way the final separation is presented to and processed with the child, undermines such studies’ veracity. Crucially, such studies also tend to ignore potential benefits of the dissolution of an unhappy marriage. If divorce is “done well” with care and respect paid to all involved, a child can learn a lot about boundaries, self-care and flexibility. What cannot be separated from a child’s ability to cope with divorce is the profound psychological effect on parents and children when they are faced with moral disapproval for failing to sustain the sanctity of the traditional nuclear family. Children will unfortunately suffer when their families are judged invalid.
Despite the attempts of public policy and other forms of psychological coercion to hold back challenges on accepted family values, alternative families, for good reason, are becoming the societal norm. The traditional structure has not produced the security or fulfillment promised, nor does it always have the flexibility to remain relevant in satisfying our deepest needs at a time when we are able to enact a host of meaningful alternatives. Consciousness has evolved to where many people no longer will settle for an anachronistic model when functional alternatives exist.
A new definition of family has now emerged: a group of people held together by bonds of love and affection. This definition encompasses a variety of family norms: a man and a woman, married and unmarried, with or without children, gay and lesbian couples, singles with and without children, and even larger groups of individuals in various living arrangements. According to this view, what is important is not the actual family structure, but the quality of the relationships.
There are many ways to create a healthy family. Healthy children come from self-actualized parents who live their lives authentically and intentionally whatever their sexuality or relationship preferences. Veering away from traditional models, we must become pioneers, customizing our families based on values that are authentic to who we truly are rather than what we have been convinced is the way to be.
THE FIVE FACTORS OF NEW FAMILY VALUES
Humans are social creatures with a deep desire for interconnectedness. Even though we interact daily with communities of people at school, churches and work, the nuclear family, with its strict boundaries, all too often limits our care taking to one spouse and our own children. We depend primarily, if not exclusively, on its members for love and support when we are separated from community.
Alternative families make fewer distinctions between “we” and “them.” With permeable boundaries, they embrace the natural inclination for connection and are open to giving and receiving help and support from others. The perspective is global in its acceptance of the idea that “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Many create families of choice, sometimes as a replacement for families of origin that include non-biologically related members based on mutual trust and freedom and less on traded vows and enforced exclusivity. Families grow out of their experiences with ever-expanding circles of friends, acquaintances and lovers. When the arrangement begins to change or fail to serve the needs of all parties, loyalties remain with the participants rather than with the institution. Unlike many nuclear families, we choose members with whom we are bound with by shared interests and values and who cherish us for who we are rather than because of blood ties.
More democratically-based, alternative families strive for honesty and direct communication. Self-knowledge is valued over blind obedience as children are taught to understand their feelings and needs and feel safe to express them.
A strong, guiding, non-authoritarian parental influence encourages children to make decisions based on their own truths. The aim is to raise thoughtful, confident children. Compassion, acceptance, respect and generosity are held in high regard as opposed to competitiveness and self-centeredness. Along with happiness, these qualities are considered choices children can be taught to make rather than a result of how life treats them.
Parenting isn’t random. From an early age, rules and consequences are a collaborative process that engages all members, parents, children, grandparents and other significant people regardless of blood ties. All siblings have issues of envy and rivalry, but in alternative families, children are given the opportunity to openly discuss and process them together. Parents and other family members spend quality time with children, hopefully from a place of calm contentment because they feel satisfied in their own lives because their own needs are not denied or sacrificed. Parents participate in the surrounding community, including friendships and social activities. Children have the responsibility to use their talents for the benefit of the community. The family is an open, flexible system, ever changing with the needs and desires of its members.
Despite evolving roles in our culture, for most women, marriage not only continues to involve the primary responsibility for keeping the home and raising children, but also husband-keeping.
In non-traditional families, responsibilities have shifted as men strive towards becoming more nurturing than their predecessors, including towards their female partners. They value care-taking, including openly expressing affection towards their children and their female partners. Much has been learned from same-sex families where responsibilities cannot be divided up by gender and instead are negotiated based on the interests and competence of members. Women feel equally entitled to pursue their professions and other interests with the same vigor as men do.
The goal is to raise gender-neutral children, who can perform in the world based on who they are rather than enacting gender-typed roles and activities. Boys, for instance, are encouraged to play with dolls and girls to play with fire engines. Nothing is limited, no judgment or shame given to cross-gender activities.
Sex is a life-affirming force and conversation about it is exchanged as freely and openly, without judgment or shame, as any other aspect of life. Children are taught from an early age that an individual’s sexuality should be viewed as neither good nor bad but as part of a human dialogue we have with ourselves and with others.
Children are taught which parts of their body are for sharing and which are private. Questions about such fundamental topics as puberty, masturbation, sex and pregnancy are not shied away from. Images and messages that children experience through the media related to sex are discussed and processed. All sexually is viewed as an exploration of our personalities. Sexual expression is considered part of the human experience and all its forms, including homosexuality, bi-sexuality, polyamory, asexuality and heterosexuality are valued. Monogamy is a choice negotiated by partners, not an expectation dictated by society. The right age for beginning a sex life is not predetermined by parents, but instead based on what a self-respecting, confident, young person feels he or she is able to handle.
Affection both between parents and from parent to child is given generously. One of the most powerful ways to influence a child’s healthy sexual development is to show that loving touch—hugs, kisses, holding hands and snuggling—is an important part of being human.
Self-Actualization and Authenticity
By taking an alternative path, non-traditional families have already placed authenticity along with honesty, directness, and self-respect high on their list of values. There is also a great deal of respect for the needs of others and when a conflict occurs, differences are respected and choices are jointly made. Children are involved in decision-making processes and their input is sought and considered. Loyalty to the family, group and community is more to its individual constituents than to any institutions.
What keep these families together is abiding friendship, an ability to communicate and the willingness to give and take. Rifts are acknowledged as a natural part of living in community and is understood that disagreement does not constitute a withdrawal of love. Self-exploration is also valued. Children are taught not to depend on the validation of others. As a result, they develop a sense of understanding of the world and people around them and their place in it, including that they do have control and influence over and what they don’t. This encourages their growth into confident adults with high self-esteem and compassion.
We cannot underestimate the power that a healthy, happy, and loving family of any size and composition can have on our children. We also cannot ignore the fact that children should never be judged or belittled based on their family of origin. These five factors have the potential to influence a generation of children to be informed, confident and compassionate people.
To have both self-respect and respect for the choices of others, to feel the deep sense of connectedness that comes from being in a community are the new family values that have the potential to change the world for the better.