Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book "The Turning: Why the State of the Family Matters, and What the World Can Do About It," by Linda and Richard Eyre.
We are all born into family. And we hope that family will surround us when we exit this world. In between, family provides us with our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Family has always been our main reference point and the basis for much of our terminology and metaphor.
In theology, God is father and we are children.
In history, the past is best understood and connected through extended families.
In economics, markets and enterprise are driven by family needs, attitudes and perceptions.
In education, parents are the most influential teachers, and home environment is the most powerful factor in school success.
In sociology and anthropology, we conclude that society doesn’t form families; families form society.
In politics, all issues reduce down to how public policy affects private family.
In public opinion polls, we reveal that family commitments exceed all other commitments.
In ethics or morality, family relationships teach the highest forms of selfless and empathetic values. Lack of those committed relationships promotes selfish and antisocial behavior.
In media, the things that touch us most deeply or offend us most dramatically generally involve family.
In nature, everything that grows is in a family, and some cultures living closest to nature speak of “mother earth” and “father sky.”
Our similes, our semantics and our symbols all use family as our frame of reference. Yet less than two decades into the third millennium, the family is our most threatened institution, and the fear, which we should all feel, is that if the family goes down, it will take everything else with it.
We were sitting in a small café in San Salvador, having lunch with a father of three who had introduced us the night before when we spoke to a group of parents and teachers about teaching values to children. “You know,” he said, “I try so hard to be a good parent, but it almost seems like there is a sinister conspiracy working against me. How do I compete with the peer group, the Internet, the media? What is happening to families today, and can they even survive?”
Before we can look objectively and constructively at what is happening to the family and where the family is going, we must have a clear understanding of what a family is.
Trying to define “family” can be a tricky proposition. It’s a widely — and politically — used word and can mean different things to different people. We feel that the most useful approach, at least for our purposes in this book, is to define the family in terms of its essential and indispensable functions within society. Indeed, families have historically played at least seven critical societal roles that no other group or institution can fully or adequately perform.
1. The role of procreation (replenishing the population).
2. The role of modeling commitment and cooperation (children need to feel prioritized and, if they have two parents, to see partnership and teamwork).
3. The role of nurturing (facilitating children’s emotional growth and helping them develop into responsible adults).
4. The role of providing a lasting identity, something permanent in our lives as everything else (employment, residences and so on) changes.
5. The role of instilling values. (Other institutions may help, but the buck stops with the family wherein values are applied as well as taught.)
6. The role of offering love and fulfillment to individuals at a level beyond what is obtainable elsewhere. (Children should receive unconditional love within families, and parents are refined and completed as persons through the selfless love they give to their children.)
7. The role of caring for the elderly (ideally in a personal or direct manner, but if not, at least in connection with institutional care).
Two things are absolutely clear. First, society cannot survive, let alone prosper, without these seven functions. Second, no entity other than family can perform the full list of roles as well or as efficiently.
These seven roles or functions can also be thought of as the core purposes of family and, to some degree, as the measurements of a family’s success. Parents who accomplish these seven things derive a satisfaction that is available nowhere else. By fostering and supporting these aspects of family life, they make an incomparable contribution to society.
In order to meet the last six of the above functions (and in an ideal world, the first one would not happen without the other six) families need, within them, four essential elements:
It is difficult to imagine a family succeeding over time (or even staying together very long) without at least a basic level of each of these four elements. When families lack any of the four essential elements, or when they fail to provide any of the seven critical roles or purposes, we always lose — both individually and societally. When larger institutions — from schools to businesses to government — try to assume these seven functions or provide these four elements, it alters the way we experience one another, diminishes relationships and undermines human happiness.
Larger institutions simply do not work like families. Love, commitment, time and communication are all defined differently in the corporate or government culture than they are in the family culture. As these larger entities grow, and as they increasingly dominate our lives, our families suffer.
As former Secretary of Education William Bennett put it, the family is "the original and best Department of Health, Education and Welfare.”
Some see the world geographically — continents and countries, latitude and locations. Others see it politically — groups and governments, ideas and ideologies. Still others see it economically — haves and have-nots, producers and consumers.
We see the world concentrically: At the center is the most personal and important aspect of life (the bull’s-eye of family), and the concentric rings around the family represent the voluntary, private and public sectors.
The family is the nucleus, like the center of an atom or the core of a tree, making everything else possible, providing the building blocks of procreation and nurturing from which all else is formed. In reality, the individual household is the basic unit, not only of society, but also of our markets and all of our larger institutions. The present and future well-being of all institutions — from corporations to schools and from communities to governments — relies on the strength of our families. All macro entities and institutions in the private, public and voluntary sectors ultimately depend on the basic unit of families and thus should strongly support, financially and otherwise, well-conceived efforts to preserve and strengthen families and micro solutions.
The voluntary or community sector or “second ring” includes neighborhoods, churches, clubs and all other elective elements that encompass and link families. The private or business sector or “third ring” is the economy — the goods and services and enterprises that both sustain us and employ us. The public “fourth ring” is government on all levels — all that our taxes pay for.
In an ideal society, the outer three rings protect, support and supplement the core of families. Unfortunately, in our current society, they squeeze it, supplant and substitute for it, and sometimes undermine and destroy it.
Despite the pressures on families, we believe that if parents truly prioritize their children and their homes, families will be saved. And if every public policy, every business decision and every community direction is set with parents and children in mind, families will improve and strengthen, and with them, the world.
To learn more about the book and the cause it represents, please go to www.The-Turning.com.
Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at EyresFreeBooks.com or at valuesparenting.com, and follow Linda’s blog at eyrealm.blogspot.com.