It has been my observation for some time that we have a very bizarre disconnect in our culture between the way we treat our children and the adults they become. On one hand, when we run across an adult with emotional, mental or substance abuse problems and they share the traumas of their childhood, we are sympathetic. We can see the line between neglect, humiliation, abuse, a failure to protect, etc and the problems which this person has as an adult.
On the other hand, we somehow seem to think that children will survive all manner of things from being dumped in a crowded daycare for 12 hours a day at 6 weeks, to watching violent and sexual entertainment, to being bullied at school without any serious damage being done. It’s as if we as a society seem to think that as long as our children are not subject to permanent bodily harm and have adequate exposure to education and enrichment activities, we’ve done our job. There’s no serious consideration given to the sort of people we are raising and the effect that masses of people raised without adequate attention, nurturing, values and compassion will have on our society. Even when we claim to be advocating for kids, we have a hard time connecting the children of today with the adults they will become. We speak of children as the future, as if they were magical beings who can set things right by virtue of compelling the adults around them to behave well so as not to upset the children’s cuteness, not out of concern for the sort of adults they will one day be.
We have compassion for damaged people on the back end while refusing to do anything to stop the activities which cause this damage to begin with. Adults rule, the kids will be alright and families are whatever the adults want them to be.
Contrast this with the vision of family which Pope Benedict paints of the primacy of family:
In this year’s World Day of Peace Message I spoke of the essential contribution that healthy family life makes to peace within and between nations. In the family home we experience “some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters, the role of authority expressed by parents, loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age, mutual help in the necessities of life, readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them” (no. 3). The family is also the primary place for evangelization, for passing on the faith, for helping young people to appreciate the importance of religious practice and Sunday observance. How can we not be dismayed as we observe the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society? Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether. To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent. In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and moral focus of the community are to be maintained.”
It is interesting that too often those who are most likely to slap a bumper sticker calling for world peace on their Prius do not appreciate the power of the family to create the sort of human beings who understand peace, love and self-sacrifice as a basis for human interactions. So much damage has been done by those who have worked to denigrate the family as being oppressive, limiting and periphery to the quality of our lives as human beings. In fact the family is a place where we have a chance to model the sort of world we’d all like to live in. When we marginalize that very institution, and try to replace it with other models which are less demanding and better suit our preferences, we are ruining any chance we might have of making the world a better place.
OTOH, in more conservative circles where family and child rearing are still held in high esteem (in theory anyhow), there has been a serious lack of understanding that we are supposed to be doing this as a form of service to the world which we are called to transform. We aren’t supposed to respect traditional values for sex, marriage, family and child rearing just because they are moral – they are moral precisely because they are how we produce people with the character needed to transform the world around us into a more peaceful, loving place. Not only are we missing the larger picture for why it is important to value family, but even when we do finally get around to creating traditional, intact families, we want to do it on the cheap. We want to provide for material comfort, but not time and attention; choose quiet over defending your duty to exert parental authority; we fail to provide protection from negative experiences and influences; we don’t demand good, healthy behavior because of the notion that kids are going to do what they want anyway; we want good behavior today without regard for the long term consequences of the methods we must employ to get it.
It is my opinion that if we do not start seeing our families as just what Pope Benedict is putting forth here: the place where fully realized human beings are formed and a more peaceful, loving world begins, then we are doomed. The world is not some autonomously functioning organism which will continue on its path for good or ill regardless of what we do or who we are. The world is a better or worse place in direct relation to the goodness of the people populating it. The people populating it are better or worse in direct relation to the quality of the families which formed them. There is no break. There is not disconnecting the children from the adults they will become from the world they will create for us all to live in.
We need to keep this in mind as we make choices about government policies, how we run our business and build our communities. If what we do is not supporting intact families where the next generation of fully realized human beings will come from, then it is wrong. If putting the support of families at the center of all we do requires sacrifices from the rest of society, IMO that is worth it if we want to benefit from living in a world populated by human beings who have lived with and know how to create a vision of life that values hard work, compassion, self-sacrifice and peace.
We need to use this understanding of the purpose of family to shape our interactions with our children and spouses and parents. Want to live in a fair world? Be fair to your children and spouse. Want to live in a peaceful world? Seek peace in your interactions with those in your household. Want a world where commitments are kept, relationships are valued and people aren’t thrown away? Then get married, be faithful and stay together – teach your children how to do the same. We cannot live in the world we want if we are not willing to live out that world in our homes. It’s just that simple.