Monday, April 11, 2011

For years Americans have been concerned about the breaking down of social institutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/1/2007

To combat that degradation, try some common sense methods as a path to improvement.
By Thomas L. Steiger

TERRE HAUTE — To be an American is to worry that our social institutions are breaking down. Read newspapers from 100 years ago and you’ll find worry about the family, concern about the economy, and politics is always in a shambles. As a sociologist, I am frequently asked, what are the solutions to our broken social institutions? What policies should we follow? Institutions are not just about legislated behavior. Far more important is the behavior that occurs, over and over and over, just because it is “common sense.” In that vein, I offer this series of essays on improving our social institutions. These are not policy recommendations and these behaviors cannot be legislated. But by doing them, just as the drip, drip, drip of enough water drops on rock wears away the rock, it is similar with individual behaviors, they shape the institution.

Every other week for the next 10 weeks, I’ll focus on one institution and offer 10 simple things individuals can do to improve it. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today I begin with marriage and the family.

10 simple things you can do to improve marriage and family

Americans today worry about marriage and the family. Many worry that the institution is breaking down, and with it, our society as well. While politicians and social critics discuss policies to strengthen and preserve the family, what can individuals do to strengthen the institution of marriage and the family? Here are 10 simple steps individuals can do.

1. Get married (but not too young). It should be obvious that if people want a strong institution of marriage that people must get married. If divorce is a threat to the institution of marriage, then wait to get married. People who get married in their teens are more likely to end up in a divorce than people who wait. There is not a magic age, but research shows that the probability of divorce of a first marriage after age 25 is half that of those who marry for the first time under 18. Romantic notions that love will overcome all obstacles are just that, romantic notions. Also, those who grow up in an intact family are less likely to get a divorce themselves after they marry. Statistics indicate that the divorce rate in 2006 is the lowest since 1970 in large part because people are delaying getting married until they are older.

2. Have children. The family’s major function in contemporary society is to tie adult responsibility to children, not population resupply. If you don’t have children, then your family can’t be responsible for any. Make them yourselves, outsource the birth, or adopt one, however you do it, become responsible for children. If it is just impossible to be a parent through birth or adoption, then become an “other” parent, a stand-in, co-parent with the children of friends or relatives.

3. Eat together. Eating is more than just nourishment for the body. It is a social ritual of great importance that our fast food culture has corroded. Eating together as a family is among the most common rituals individual families engage in. And rituals are important to the making of meaning, the creation of lasting bonds. Ideally, eating together should be at home, where the length of the ritual can be extended into the preparation and cleanup, thus creating more opportunities for establishing meaningful bonds among family members through repeated rituals.

4. Develop family traditions. While eating together is an important family ritual, traditions also make social life meaningful. Traditions help us find meaning; they provide comfort, participating in them creates a sense of belonging and acceptance in the social groups in which they occur. Family traditions help to distinguish family life from other social settings. Begin with traditions around major holidays and birthdays and maybe make up one or two specific to your family. Start early and don’t waiver from them; insist on them.

5. Take pictures. Family pictures help to prompt memories of family life. Home movies used to be a popular thing to do. I don’t know if they are as much today, but one tradition, especially when kids are young, should be to show these pictures and videos. With older kids, encourage them to take pictures and make picture histories of family outings. Scrapbooking is popular today; building in this activity with picture taking and family traditions can create emotionally charged artifacts that will create priceless family treasures. Should a family member die, for instance, a grandparent, having many pictures in different settings can help instill “memories” in later generations, which helps to charge just the idea of family with strong emotions.

6. Have family reunions. Families today are generally horizontally smaller (meaning fewer siblings) but due to longer life spans, vertically bigger (multi-generations). Americans are highly mobile and families become geographically separated. Organize family reunions every five years or so. Don’t wait for funerals and weddings to get reacquainted. Families are an important source of social capital, but need tending.

7. Instill the idea of obligation to family by requiring everyone to contribute to household chores. If it can be accomplished, everyone in the family should work together so everyone can see each other’s contribution. Having clean clothes isn’t enough; family members tend to take that for granted, but seeing Dad doing laundry, while Mom vacuums, and older brother cleans a toilet, while sister dusts, can make for a more appreciative family. Cross-training is a good idea too, otherwise everyone else’s job looks easier than one’s own.

8. Extend your family. Family members don’t have to be blood related or legally related. They can be chosen. Embrace close friends as family. Children can even refer to these chosen family members as aunt and uncle, cousins, etc. If possible, extend your family to those who either don’t have or are geographically separated from their families. This is a great way to know your neighbors. The results are more adults who feel some responsibility for more children, which is the major function of family.

9. No violence in the family. This includes spanking as well. In practice, spanking usually results from a frustrated parent, not one in full control of themselves at the time. If family is to be a safe haven, then it must be violence-free. The presence of violence in the family also leads to marital and family disruption.

10. Be parents, not friends, to your kids. Parents must guide children through a difficult maze today. In many ways, parenting “back in the day” was easier than today. Today’s culture emphasizes some things that are bad for children: instant gratification, short attention spans, superficiality over depth, extreme stimulation over calmness and serenity. Parents must recognize that emphasizing the short-term happiness of children can lead to impaired adults. To have functional, mature adults means sometimes having to put up with bouts of unhappy children in order to raise children who grow up to be very productive adults who in turn support their parents on Social Security.

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