“Divorced Families” Excerpt
Is the Sky Really Falling?
FAMILY PROBLEMS IN SOCIAL CONTEXT
Examination of the voluminous literature on the family reveals a long history of concern about the welfare of this institution. Virtually every social problem in society has—by one author or another, at one time or another—been attributed to the breakdown of basic family values. Changes in the family have been analyzed as both cause and consequence of almost every societal ill. Some writers view the family as an institution that has merely reacted to major trends in society. From this viewpoint the family emerges as amazingly flexible and adaptable. Other writers focus on the breakdown of the family as being responsible for major probes of the period. What results from these analyses is a picture of the family in a constant state of crisis—which is threatening the basic foundation of society. The only solid conclusion that can be drawn from a review of the writings on the family is that there is no consensus.
We are strong proponents of the view that the North American family is very much alive and well and that the changes in form and purpose are evidence of the family’s capacity to adjust to societal flux. In addition, we assert that the problems of children and families that are receiving so much attention today have been present in society for a long time. Incest, child abuse and neglect, alcoholism, and delinquency are not new problems, nor can we be certain that they have increased disproportionately to the increase in the population. The fact that society is addressing itself to these problems, rather than keeping them closeted in the family, is rooted in the as societal changes of the 19th and 20th centuries.
There is no question the recorded problem have increased. This is a result of several factors. First, modern society simply keeps better records on such things. Bureaucracy is a modern fact and one of the major features of bureaucracy is the keeping of records. Thus, crime, school records, and all sorts of health information are much more widely available than in the past.
Closely related to this is the increased tendency to treat in an official way many things which were formerly handled by the family or informally in the community. In the 1020s, taking a neighbor’s buggy and putting it on top of another neighbor’s barn was a favorite. And the proverbial overturning of outhouses was more than proverbial! In modern times acts comparable to these might well be reported to the police and recorded as property crimes. If apprehended, the culprits might not receive severe punishment, but their rimes would be entered in the police records. And, if they had a considerable record of such behavior, they might be classified as delinquent. In “the good old days,” however, these acts of vandalism were simply pranks—some more malicious than others.
Finally, we are much more aware of what is going on in the world at large than in former times. Mass communication has allowed us to know of the behavior of young people literally around the world, Tis is a far cry from the range of knowledge about such thins in the not too distant past, when only the most dramatic events outside a very limited geographical area might come to the attention of most people. Also, since people frequently knew not only the individuals involved, but their families a well, the behavior somehow seemed less significant. It was, after all, “just the way those Carmack boys behave.” What else could you expect from that family?
Similar factors make it difficult to evaluate the degree to which family problems have increased. Much of what went on in families in the first half of the century was held tightly within the family and did not come to official attention. While family doctors or religious leaders might be aware of certain situations, such as incest or child abuse, they were not likely to make them a part of their records. Most of their “files” were kept in their heads. There were no health insurance claim forms to complete in order to receive payment for fees. And the counseling carried out by ministers was of a much less formal type that mental health professionals perform today. By contrast, the modern family with its problems may come to the attention of a wide range of official and quasi-official agencies, all with records to be kept. The result is a much greater knowledge of what occurs in family life. Of course, the mass media also provide us with a wealth of information. But in many communities in the United States today, small and large, there are still certain families that are “protected” through the lack of public disclosure of their problems.
Our view is that in some ways there probably are more problems for youth and families today. More importantly, resources in the informal community of family and friends for the solution of these problems are less readily available. While our nostalgic yearning for the “good old days” may lead us to say that the solution to many of today’s problems could be found if only people would use more discipline or work harder at their marriages, that is an oversimplification of the situation. We would suggest that there are some differences in the kind of problems, as well as in the way that they are handled. Many of today’s problems arise from the kind of social structure which has developed; this makes young people and families as much the victims as the perpetrators of the difficulty….
Published by WW Norton, New York, softcover, 260 pages, ISBN 9780393306224
For permission to use or reproduce, please contact
W.W. Norton, Inc, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10110