Traditionally, families have been groups of related people living together. In such family groups, the able-bodied young to middle-aged adults generally provided a supportive and nurturing environment for the infants, children, and elderly family members. Families often lived in community groups, and the male adults (fathers and teen males) would provide sustenance for the families through hunting, fishing, or farming activities. The younger adult women (mothers and teen females) would care for the youngest family members, clean, cook, tend the livestock, and otherwise “keep house”. The elderly women would often teach the young girls and boys the history of the family and other things that children needed to know as they journeyed into adulthood. Elderly men would usually sit around, discussing matters of great importance among themselves, as well as offering unsolicited advice to the rest of the family.
From this early family paradigm, we can see where much of the stereotypical family elements of a “traditional family” of the 1950s developed.The family shrank to a smaller size of two adults with 2.5 children (a boy, a girl, and a baby). The father was the breadwinner who went forth to into the corporate world, bringing home sustenance in the form of money. The wife, freed from the drudgery of non-electric appliances was able to accomplish most of the tasks that the womenfolk of yore did working together to accomplish. (Of course, the standards to which she was held increased greatly with the advent of “women’s magazines” and motion pictures showing impossibly clean kitchens and never-ruffled mothers with dinners waiting on the table for their hungry husbands after a “grueling” day at work.) The children were now taught in schools, and they were encouraged to train for their eventual roles in adult society through entry-level jobs like paper routes and soda jerking for the boys and babysitting and home economics clubs for the girls. The father was “the man of the house”, and his word was law.
A “picture perfect” world such as Pleasantville cannot last in the face of progress. It’s not because progress is a bad thing, or something ugly. It is simply that society’s ideas of perfection change.
From the 1950s era, a new tradition in families developed. The Cosby Show is a good example of the traditional family of the 1980s. Women were now empowered (or at least permitted) to work outside the home. Their duties within the home continued as before; however the fathers were expected (or at least permitted) to help out around the home, though they really weren’t very good at it (they had no role models and had to learn as they went). The children received allowances and were expected to spend it at malls, arcades, or anywhere where they were outside the home so that the parents did not have to have the children constantly under foot.
By the 1990s, this view of “perfection” had faded, and a new reality set in. The young parents of the 90s were the children of the parents from the late 60s and early 70s. Those parents had been somewhat preoccupied with more important matters, such as free love, Viet Nam, and men landing on the moon. Due in part to the lack of clear parental role models, the structured family unit broke down. Divorce rates climbed as people tried to figure out how marriages were supposed to work. Speaking of work, it was expected that both parents worked, and sometimes they would each work more than one job. Since money was tight, the children were not given allowances as freely as a decade ago. With the parents gone, the children figured out new ways to amuse themselves, and gangs, something that had previously been a much less prominent aspect of life, became substitute families for many of the children. Children growing up in these times learned to care for themselves and be much more self-sufficient than previous generations.
That’s not to say that all families fell apart. In cases where the parents had good communication skills and worked through their problems, divorce was much less common. Instead of giving in, these families fought against new cultural norms and worked to keep the most important aspects of family life intact. The key elements of a successful family are trust, respect, honesty, open communication, discipline, honor, dignity, and remembering to enjoy one another’s company—or simply remembering to love one other fully. Parents who took an active role in their children’s lives generally ended up with kids who had fewer problems. Families that had firm beliefs in their faith also tended to do better than their peers since they had a set of standards by which they could measure themselves. This was in contrast to the families that relied on television and mass media to be their yardstick.
So what caused the changes in the family units? In part, it was just the progress of technology, partly the mass media, partly a change in upbringing from generation to generation, and partly rebellion from the status quo. While I would say that families are generally in worse shape than they were 60 years ago, not all of the cultural standards of 60 years ago were wonderful either. Along the way some trends dropped away, and they were replaced by new ones—some good, some bad.
One of today’s trends that does seem good is that people are realizing that a family can be practically any number of people, of any mix of genders, races, creeds, religions, or cultures (or non-mixed, too), and it can make for a well-adjusted and “normal” family as long as the parents are committed, love is shared freely, and communications are open and honest.
The preceding is another homework assignment from my Contemporary Women’s Health course.