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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 places.

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 do.

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 copyright and website hyperlinks.

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