Is the family becoming obsolete?

This post is a bit more philosophical than I usually go in for, but I have been inspired by a friend's extremely interesting blog post (Relationships and Intimacy in the Modern World).  Among other things, the author discusses how the family and household have become less important in our society since the industrial revolution:

"Business has largely migrated away from the context of the home to the workplace. Family businesses and trades are less common nowadays: the child is less likely to be the apprentice of their parents, being trained to work with them and like them. Education has also largely left the home. Not only is the child less likely to learn their trade from their parents, much of the task of their more general education falls on the shoulders of professionals outside of the home environment.

"With both partners in relationships now frequently working in full time jobs outside of the home, the space of the home becomes a place for retreat into private domesticity. Without a partner staying at home, the home also becomes less of a zone where the cycle of daily community and neighbourhood life occurs.

"At the same time, technological developments have profoundly changed the character of daily family life. Where once shared routines of family life were essential for life together, and for the provision of heat, food, and resources, modern technology has freed us from many of these previously shared tasks. Where once the entire family could have different contributing tasks to the keeping of the hearth and the tending and feeding of its fire, for instance, now we just turn up the thermostat. The onerous and skilled character of tasks such as washing also led to the family becoming a place of differentiated roles in community."

Interesting stuff - do feel encouraged to go and read the whole post!  He goes to on talk about how many family homes no longer have a central focus, e.g. the meal table, the open fire in the only heated room, even the TV (now that so many have TVs in every bedroom) so that shared activities become fewer and fewer and family members increasingly live as individuals in the same house.

I've been thinking about this a lot, especially in view of the amount of time I now spend around families in crisis.  One of the children I care for is months and months behind in speech development, simply because he hasn't really been spoken to enough.  The deficiencies in the lives of some families have apparently become so alarming that a think tank has recently published a report stating that parents should begin a new "5-a-Day" routine with their children:

Read to your child for 15 minutes
Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes
Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off
Praise your child
Give your child a nutritious diet

There has been a lot of discussion around whether this is all a bit too patronising but, in reality, it is hard to make a convincing argument that these are bad suggestions.  Who would say that it not important to talk to their child or play with their child?  The exact timings and circumstances might be open to discussion, but the basic principles seem to be good.

My question is this: how have we come to a place in our society where anybody anywhere thinks that we need a think tank to help families with these basic, and seemingly pretty obvious principles?

Has family life in general broken down to such a point that it is really necessary to explain to parents that talking to their children is a good idea?  And if not, why is there a perception that it has?

Because despite all those who will rail against this sort of 'nanny state interference' in our lives, the truth is that we seem to rely more and more on professionals and the state to do things for us that were once considered the sole responsibility of parents and families.  Every town now has Sure Start centres to support parents of pre-schoolers in all kinds of fairly basic activities (e.g. playing, reading, nutrition, etc.) and I've lost count of the number of times some worthy person has suggested that xyz should be put on the school curriculum because parents aren't doing a good enough job at home.

I can't help thinking that there's something in the idea that a pre-industrial society didn't need help with their family lives because the life of the family was the basis of all community living.  When families were forced to work together to survive, parents didn't need to be told to do things with their kids, they did it because it was necessary.  Now, when life is relatively easy and there is comparitively so much leisure time, we see individual family members intent on pursuing their own agendas in separate rooms, and expensive interactive toys take the place of actual personal interaction.

I have noticed that my two little ones like to do whatever I am doing.  NB loves to use the vacuum cleaner, to help me tidy toys, to use the baby wipes to clean his high chair tray (and other things!).  If I involve him in the everyday things I am doing he gets all the interaction that he needs as well as developing his speech, motor skills and other things.  Of course, it takes me much longer to complete the task, thereby cutting down my leisure time, but it is so valuable in promoting those normal everyday interactions that should be part of the fabric of our lives and not carried out on a schedule according to a prescription.

Don't get me wrong.  I do think there is a need for this advice.  I have seen for myself that there are families where these things never happen, to the detriment of the children.  But it makes me sad to think that what should be natural, normal interactions in the family home are now so rare that we have to work hard to make them happen.

Recently there has been some discussion among the powers that be about whether NB should attend nursery for two mornings each week to encourage speech and language development.  I was all for this until someone at a recent meeting put forward a different point of view.  She argued that NB should be able to get everything he needs at home, interacting with the adults and children I introduce him to, and that staying at home or going to activities with me would have the added benefit of encouraging him to form healthy attachments, thus benefitting his emotional development.

If I'm honest, this viewpoint was like a breath of fresh air.  It is so unusual these days to hear someone say that a child is better off at home.  Instead all we hear about is how important it is to get them into nursery for their 'development' and then to get them to school at an age much younger than most of our European counterparts begin formal education.  Once they are in school we find that early-bird and after-school clubs are promoted as wonderful opportunities for 'enrichment', and then there are the holiday clubs and so on.  Once you add in the homework that kids seem to get even at the youngest ages, then there hardly seems to be any time for families any more.

It's almost as though someone, somewhere, thinks that families have nothing to offer children, as though everything of value happens outside the home and the whole concept of family is basically obsolete.

Well, maybe some families leave a lot to be desired, but it seems to me that when people are discouraged from doing things for themselves then they soon lose the ability.  In time they forget they ever had the ability and are forced to rely wholly on others to do things for them that they used to be able to do quite easily for themselves.

Perhaps it is time to focus on and promote the full potential of family life before we as a society forget how it works altogether.


  1. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the concentration of family life into the nuclear family, and the loss of a wider community. Young parents have always had to learn skills of parenthood. However, whereas in the past this skills were taught by the older generation, the extended family, the church, and the wider community, as these bonds are weakened or severed (for instance, as the home is reduced to a zone of domestic consumption after work and ceases to be a site of production, or as there are no longer people at home during the day forming the fabric of communities), the reservoir of communal and generational knowledge once vested in the community and its relations has to be replaced by a culture of experts, and we have to rely upon government agencies to teach us lessons that previous generations would have picked up far more naturally.


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