It doesn’t take a genius to see that the family is, and has been for many years, under attack.

The current alarming trend is, accept social disasters as the norm and, on the assumption that there is going to be an increase in the number of disasters, set up a superstructure of professionals and government bureaucracy to sort out the mess.

One of the longest-enduring human traits has been a dependence on and a fascination with people and their relationships. The kind of gossip which years ago was disseminated over the backyard fence, in the pub or around the quilting frame has now taken on the guise of pop-sociology, and is disseminated through the “Family”, “Lifestyle” or ” City Living” sections of our daily newspapers.

Superficial Band-aid Solutions

But journalists are not concerned with relationships, families or societies that work (however imperfectly at times). They look for the irritations to daily life. If the irritation is big enough, it can be the latest social problem. This is not to deny that there are very grave problems which affect everybody in Canada. The point is, we tend to work from a focus on the unhealthy aspects of society, offering superficial Band-aid solutions. Instead, we could begin with the healthy and the strong and offer, from this perspective, real assistance to those in need.

The stable family that cares for its old people, and for its handicapped members, and that rears healthy sane children, is now reduced to an oddity – if the media are to be believed. Now, there really are quite a few such families (60% of Canadian marriages last), yet the spotlight is focused on those families which break down (40% of Canadian marriages fail).

As a sidelight, 80% of those who undergo divorce eventually remarry (with varying success), all of which suggests that the institution is not so much at fault as are the expectations or the maturity of those entering it.

As a society, we are undermining marriage. A family is a long-term commitment. We insist on instant gratification – whether for sex, the latest kitchen gadget or the newest car, fast food, or “no-fault” divorce: we have lost our staying power, our stamina.

Once problems were worked on before a crisis was reached. Now we are deluged by books, magazines, self-help groups and courses designed to help with any problem, whether it is how to toilet-train your child in a day or tips on how to successfully conduct an extra-marital affair. (Such problems are our latest cultural art form.) Instant experts and professionals now take the place of the extended family and its base of community support.

A Rewarding Challenge

It seems that the 80s and 90s will be seen as the decades of rediscovery of the family, just as the 70s saw a renewed interest in “roots”. While most professionals and government policy-makers are still taking the “bad news” approach, and adopt stop-gap policies to solve pressing problems (e.g., free birth control for teens that bypasses parental authority; “no-fault” divorces, etc.), others are saying that the approach should be to study the families and marriages that are strong.

To observe those families that work well and the reasons for this, will help to increase our sensitivity to the kind of values in our own relationships. Nobody with any common sense at all has ever asserted that a permanent marriage and raising children is easy. But almost everyone will agree that it is the kind of challenge which offers the greatest rewards.

Traits of a Healthy Family by Dolores Curran (Winston Press Inc., Minneapolis, 1983) is an important resource-tool which should be studied carefully not only by those who work with families in trouble, but also by those who are developing policies that affect the family.

Dolores Curran is an educator, lecturer, family specialist, wife and mother. Her syndicated column, “Talks with Parents,” reaches over 3 million readers weekly in the U.S. In the introduction to her book, Curran challenges her readers to “focus upon their own family’s health by becoming aware of the traits commonly found in the healthy family and studying the hallmarks of these traits.”

As the framework to her book, Curran developed a questionnaire to discover what traits healthy families had in common. The list of 46 questions was sent to 500 family professionals – teachers, pastors, pediatricians, social workers, counselors and leaders of voluntary organizations. Such surveys do not normally achieve an overwhelming response from those approached, Curran was therefore surprised and delighted when she ultimately received 551 responses. Many individuals had xeroxed and passed on the questionnaire to others, Curran sees this as confirmation of her belief that there is a genuine interest in the topic of healthy families.

The Perfect Family

The experts were asked to check off the 15 most significant traits of the healthy family. Curran advises that she has never met a family (even her own) which exhibits all 15 of the traits. She suspects that the perfect family does not exist; however, she feels that in-family discussion and evaluation of the nature and condition of the family’s environment will be a positive move to strengthen that environment.

The top 15 traits of the healthy family, listed in order of the number of times each trait was chosen, are these.

1. Communicates and listens

2. affirms and supports one another

3. teaches respect for others

4. develops a sense of trust

5. has a sense of play and humor

6. exhibits a sense of shared responsibility

7. teaches a sense of right and wrong

8. has a strong sense of family in which rituals and traditions abound

9. has a balance of interaction among members

10. has a shared religious core

11. respects the privacy of one another

12. values service to others

13.  fosters family table time and conversation

14. shares leisure time

15. admits to and seeks help with problems.

One item, “has two parents living at home,” did not receive enough response to included in the top 15, yet it was checked often enough for Curran to note that it appears to be a significant trait for family health. She states:

Because single parents already seem to have so much working against them, and because many single-parent families, with whom I work seem as healthy as many             two-parent families, I admit I was hoping to discover that the number of parents in the home didn’t matter. But the professionals who answered my survey mirror the research in this area.

Curran counsels single parents not to be discouraged at this finding. She says that single-parent families have many strengths and should encourage the development of these, rather than dwell on weaknesses. As an example, Curran says, “children in single-parent families are noticeably more responsible, often stepping in to do chores and help solve family problems.”

No Informal Support Systems Now

Twenty years ago, people with personal problems would usually consult informally with a parent or grandparent, a clergyman or a family physician who knew several generations of the family. There were dozens of ways to let off steam, places to go until tempers cooled, people to buffer or help with any crisis. That kind of support has all but disappeared and minor day-to-day irritations fester until they become major insoluble conflicts. Our high mobility has robbed us of this communal ground.

Over the past few decades, many who have discussed these social trends and fads with less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm have been caricatured as repressive puritans or as religious fanatics. It often takes great courage to speak out: to say abortion is wrong; to suggest censorship of pornography; to promote Natural Family Planning as a dignified and responsible way to space children, to represent women’s issues from a moderate platform; or to affirm that there is still a place in our society for permanent marriage, embodying traditional family values.

There is growing evidence, however, that the trend towards permissiveness has run its course. Men and women now in there 30s have found that the sexual revolution of the 60s has had many long-lasting ill effects. Last year, someone came up with the catch-phrase “secondary virginity”. It applied to anyone who had become disenchanted with the sexual liberty to flit from one bed-partners to another, and who was or is consciously becoming chaste and waiting for the right person to come along.

Fascinating but not important

As telling as the “top 15 traits” are, those that were not considered important to the overall health of the family are equally fascinating. In the total of 551 responses, the following were mentioned less than 5 times (less than 1%) as being significant.

● is consumer-oriented; finds gratification in goods

● values rural or small-town mores

● values metropolitan mores

● is mobile, living in many communities

● values going along and keeping peace

● feels problems are private responsibility of family

● treasures privacy over community involvement

● fosters individual dining habits

● is not religion-oriented

● values high income

Other traits rarely chosen included those of educational levels, home ownership and the size of the family (“has three or fewer children”).

Next month, we will explore in greater detail the “top 15” traits of the healthy family. We will then go on to discuss the kind of government policies which will support the family, rather than further erode its responsibilities.

Many readers will be able to say that this is simply common sense and recognize the values (“traits” seem to be merely the uncontentious way of talking about values) operating well within their own family circles. As Curran notes, however, she has never met a family which exhibits all 15 healthy traits, so all of us can benefit from the stimulation such an exercise provokes.