The Loss of the Extended Family
The Loss of the Extended Family
By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.
We are a restless, independent, mobile people. Not content to remain in our
home towns, many of us scatter across the land in search of better jobs and
more exciting lives. There are advantages to our mobile lifestyle but there
are also disadvantages. For one thing, we usually leave our families behind.
We often leave the familiarity and security of our extended families - our parents,
siblings, grandparents and other relatives - to settle in distant and strange
In their book, Grandparents/Grandchildren: The
Vital Connection (Doubleday, 1981), Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth Woodward provide
impressive evidence for the breakdown of the extended family. In their study
of 300 grandchildren and grandparents, they found only 5% had regular and
frequent contact with their grandchildren.
One reason that grandparents are not involved with
their grandchildren, claim Kornhaber and Woodward, is that many are disconnected
from their own children. Once occupying places of authority and honor in the
extended family, grandparents now tend to feel powerless and helpless. Their
authority and influence has declined dramatically in recent years.
All of this is the result of what Kornhaber and
Woodward call the new social contract. These days it is fashionable to shun
emotional bonding and obligation. Freedom, mobility and, independence are more
important to some people than commitment and family ties. The same social forces
that are driving our divorce rate out of sight appear to be driving grandchildren
and grandparents apart.
According to the new social contract, support is
equated with meddling, advice with control and interest with interference. Grandparents
have allowed their children to determine the kind of relationships they shall
have with their grandchildren. They hesitate to become involved with their
grandchildren for fear of meddling or interfering in the lives of their children.
The development of the new social contract began
years ago, write Kornhaber and Woodward, and was influenced by two fears: of
restrictive dependency and of poverty. Many of the grandparents in this study
recalled growing up in close, emotionally supportive but restrictive families.
As a result of their own strict upbringing, they tended to teach their own children
to be more independent. Its a lesson that has been well learned but at a price:
grandparents have less contact with their children and grandchildren" For
many, a close-knit extended family is no more. In addition, many of the grandparents
in this study grew up in poverty. All their lives, they worked hard to avoid
poverty but it meant less time for their families. Now they are materially well
off but feel emotionally impoverished. They are financially independent but
disconnected from their families
What is ironic about their current situation is
that it is the opposite of their childhood days. Then they were financially
poor but emotionally secure.
The situation is not beyond correction, however.
Grandparents can become involved with their grandchildren. There are many roles
they can play in the extended family.
Most important of all, grandparents can be what
Kornhaber and Woodward call the "Great Parents." They can give their
grandchildren an unconditional love parents may not be able to give fully. They
can have more fun with their grandchildren because they dons have to discipline
them as parents do. They can be more accepting because they don't have the fears,
hopes and dreams invested in their grandchildren to the same degree parents
Alternate generations, separated by more years,
can related with less conflict than can successive generations. Because they
have had more experience, grandparents can be better parents with their grandchildren
than they were with their children. Grandparents car be the family historians,
in the extended family, passing down an oral tradition of the family to their
grandchildren. They can also teach their grandchildren skills nd knowledge that
might disappear with their deaths. And they can set an example of what the aged
are like, so their grandchildren can be more accepting of older people and of
aging in themselves.
About the Author: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with
Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book,
Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available
directly from Selfhelpbooks.com. Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and Selfhelpbooks.com,
all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors
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