The structure of family has long been debated. Two parent households, one parent households, grandparent households. Gay parents. Blended families. Step-parenting. Regardless of your position, the fact remains that today’s society contains many forms of families and they continue to evolve.
What is perhaps more important is the theory of family. What does family stand for? What is the purpose of family? We should all be able to agree that family should be the main source of guidance, social and moral education, encouragement, and nurturing for its members. This being said, it is important that at least some of the members of a family be capable of providing such support. However, there is a “new” family structure that has crossed the horizon that lacks in members to provide these qualities.
I am witnessing a large number of youth and teens who are turning to each other for a source of family. This migration is an evolution of what we used to term as “latch-key” kids. However, whereas latch-key kids let themselves into their homes after school, presumably completed homework and spent too much time in front of the television, these kids/teens only stop at home long enough to dump the book bags and then they hit the neighborhood. Even when parents are home, they prefer to be “walking the neighborhood” with their friends.
There are three problems with this situation. The first concerns why parents are not more in-tune with how their youth/teens are spending their time. Indeed, the situation is true more than ever that even in two parent households, most often both parents must work in order to maintain financial stability. However, it should be considered how society slipped from the station of latch-key kids to that of basically “freedom-oriented” kids. Also, even when parents are home, the youth/teens are on the street with friends instead of engaging in family activities. Second, why do our youth/teens prefer the association of friends to that of family? Okay, I well remember being “embarrassed” by family at times in my life and I always wanted to be with my friends. However, I also remember family events with fond memories and actual enjoyment. Regardless of whether or not I was “happy” about it, there were some family functions that were a requirement. There is definitely much positive to be said about the family dinner table. Finally, what message(s) are our youth/teens receiving about family when friends become their source of “family” support and values? Are they receiving the guidance, social and moral education, encouragement and nurturing they require?
Looking at the issue of today’s parents, one word comes to mind: overwhelmed. Job pressures, financial crises, and family obligations leave parents clinging to any opportunity for a moment of rest they can find. The price, however, can be steep, especially for our children. I will honestly state that I have come home from work so tired and with so many problems circling around in my mind that I have completely tuned out my daughters when they requested my time. More than once I have been forced to apologize to them for my mind being elsewhere and re-focus my attention in order to address their needs. A parent’s job is never finished and it is rarely met with praise. No one ever told me that being a parent was a glorified position; how about you? That is because it isn’t – but it is a HUGE responsibility. I hate hearing a child or teen say, “I didn’t ask to be born.” But the truth is, they didn’t. We chose to have children and thus we are responsible for them. Maybe we have to hone down other responsibilities and even “pleasures” in order to take care of those responsibilities. Maybe we simply need to find a way to balance our time with that of our children. If you need time when you get home from work to unwind and begin supper plans, have your children work on homework, color a picture, set the table, or help in the kitchen, depending upon their age. Getting them out of the house does not always have to be the answer. Balance and compromise, however, are very useful parenting tools.
The answer to why our children prefer friends to family is probably the simplest question to answer. Expectations are low so they can “be themselves” even if they don’t really know who that might be. Friends rarely enforce rules upon each other. Friends will listen to what they have to say and there are no parental consequences to voicing thoughts, ideas or perspectives. (Yes, youth/teens do enforce their own brand of acceptance via peer pressure, but it does not result in the loss of cell phone privileges or restriction.) Friends will not discourage them from trying out new concepts that may be risky or not completely thought out. Friends are looking for the same things – acceptance, independence, and the exploration of their social environment. Unfortunately, they also do not impose boundaries on the process so youth/teens who rely upon other youth/teens in these situations often explore situations that are not emotionally or physically safe. Drugs and alcohol use, sex, and many risky behaviors that adults do not even consider are openly explored in environments without parental supervision.
Last, but not least, are the concepts of family that youth/teens adopt when their primary “family” are other youth/teens. Parents have a distinct and essential role in the lives of children/youth/teens. They teach social and moral obligations, the basics of right and wrong, family values, religious principles based on family beliefs, and the dynamics and responsibilities of family and family members. They encourage children, youth, and teens to strive for their best, to make goals that will help them succeed, to strive for education, a sound career, and a healthy, happy, productive life. They nurture through love, understanding, guidance, and discipline. They help a child, youth or teen grow in ways that will benefit them as they become young adults and members of society. If our children are learning these qualities from other children (who cannot possibly have mastered these qualities themselves) then they are not learning very much and will not get very far in their endeavors. All youth and teens make mistakes as they learn these lessons, but when they are relying on other youth and teens for direction, they will make more and greater mistakes, some that may have life-long consequences. They need adults to help them in these aspects of maturation; they NEED their true family.
Over the next few weeks I plan to look at these three areas of concern with the family and the chosen “families” of today’s youth and teens. I look forward to obtaining your feedback.