4 Changes To Improve The Modern American Family

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The modern American family is being severely challenged. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, there are more unmarried couples raising children, more gay/lesbian couples with children, more single women having children alone, more mothers of young children working outside the home, as well as other trends that affect the family. In addition, few people think that these changes are a good thing. In this same study, 69% were either skeptical that these changes were for the better or outright rejected the changes as a negative trend.

Telecommunications is also affecting the American family. The speed of modern telecommunications is exposing children to concepts and facts at earlier and earlier ages. These children need parents to help the children understand what they are seeing and educate them about themselves. Despite the increase in need for parenting, modern parents have less and less time to spend with the children. The need for two incomes for survival saps much of their time and patience. They either have money but no time, or time but no money.

Change#1: Eliminate Family Roles

This modern dilemma calls for a change in the structure of the American family. The old model of the parent-centered family does not work in the new millennium. When challenged by a child about some family rule that doesn't make sense to the child, it no longer works to say, “…because I said so”. The child needs an explanation for what they see, or they will draw their own incorrect conclusions. Children tend to blame themselves for any and all problems, so they often need to be saved from their own ideas.

The old “Father knows best” family can’t accomplish that task. Dad in charge with mom as his surrogate is not good for the father, the mother or the health of the marriage. Treating children like they should be seen and not heard doesn't provide the education necessary to exist in a multi-cultural, multi-national world of the new millennium. Simply put, the parent-centered family based on roles for fathers, mothers and children is outdated and can’t work in the new world.

Change #2: Promote Independence In Children

 As a practicing psychologist for over 35 years, I have witnessed first-hand the clash between the needs of the modern world and the parent-centered family. Modern children have to make decisions that require independence and emotional awareness at earlier and earlier ages. They must know how to challenge the bully, recognize the pedophile and stay away from the drug-dealer in elementary school. They must be able to tell the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher, a good cop and a bad cop or a good priest and a bad priest. Earlier and earlier, they must stand up for themselves to survive.

Change #3: Make A People-Centered Family

Children can’t learn how to be independent in the parent-centered family. They can learn independence in a different type of family structure, a people-centered family based on relationships of emotional exchanges rather than family roles. The family needs to be a learning center for human emotion where parents and children alike take turns teaching and learning how to build trust and be emotionally honest.

In the people-centered family, the parents remain in charge as a couple. Parents form a marital bond based on emotional honesty and equality. Rather than deny their weaknesses, they buffer those weaknesses so the children get maximal exposure to the healthiest sides of each parent. Parents don’t surrender their responsibility to set the rules, but they remain open to the critical reactions of the children and make adjustments if there is some truth in the criticism.

This does not put the patients in charge of the asylum. It merely starts with the assumption that children see the truth as clearly, or sometimes even more clearly than adults. If the parents are willing to learn from the children as well as teach them, the children feel validated for their perceptions and their self-worth grows.  If they are raised in a family of denial or dismissal, they lose faith in what they see, blame themselves, and become raised in a culture of shame and guilt.

These type of interactions interrupt the teaching of independence. Since the family interactions form the blueprint for relationships, they take what they learn out to the world, and apply the same rules with others that they learned at home. If they leave home believing in themselves, they will face their fears and pursue their dreams. If they don’t believe in themselves, they will not be able to enter the world and become susceptible to the distractions of sex, booze, drugs, and money.

Change #4: Build A Family That Lasts

There is one other significant problem with the parent-centered family. It is not built to last. Each family member is attached to the parents for their psychological survival. Siblings are viewed as competitors for the love and support that the parents have to offer. The roles that they play have a downside. The attachment to the parents comes at a cost to the sibling connection. Quite often in the parent-centered family, the family splits apart when the parents die, and the siblings go their own ways.

This weak connection gets challenged when the parents die and the estate is settled. The weak sibling bonds cannot withstand the fight for power, significance and money that occurs when estates are settled.

A people-centered family is built to last. Relations among the siblings is developed through negotiating differences among themselves and with their parents. They are used to sharing and solving problems. Coping with any problems created by wills and inheritances becomes just another problem to be solved like any other.

When a family leads with people-centered values, real change is possible. In addition to better meeting the needs of the millennial children, a people-centered family can have a profound impact on the moral fiber of a nation. America is a nation that prides itself on its values of freedom and equality.

Independence must be experienced and nurtured within the American family to have the children experience first-hand the value and cost of freedom. Independence must be homegrown and nurtured at every step in the growth of the child. If the transition from parent-centered to the people-centered family occurs in every family in America, our marriages will be healthier, our children will be stronger, and the commitment to American core values will be visible to the world.

Stephen van Schoyck is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice in Bucks County since 1984. For more information on emotions and health, go to Dr. Van Schoyck’s website to read the sample chapters of his new book, Looking for Your Self In All The Wrong Places: How To Recognize Your Authentic Self To Live On Your Terms.

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