The definition of ‘family’ has changed

He is a local, born and raised in a nearby town. After attending college, traveling abroad and studying cello with the best, he returned to perform for former friends and neighbors. His talent was obvious. The audience could not get enough of his music.

According to the program notes it was his family who instilled in him his love of music. In rural Wisconsin, as in most rural areas, the opportunities to be exposed to great music and talent are far more limited than in New York or Chicago. Though our schools provide many educational opportunities, the family’s support for a child interests and talents is what gives that child what he or she needs to excel. This young man’s family supported his love for music and the cello.

No matter how we approach it, the biggest influence in a child’s life is the family. But the make up and even the definition of family has changed radically in the past 60 years. When I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, a family was a mother, a father and the children. Occasionally one might meet up with a family where one parent had died, but for the most part, the families I was exposed to consisted of mom, dad and the kids.

As the divorce rate grew to about 50 percent, single parent homes became quite common and redefined family. As women decided to have children on their own through adoption and/or artificial insemination, we saw yet another definition of family. Gay and lesbian couples having children created yet another. In the ’50s, marriage was considered an essential ingredient in a family. Now many would argue that. Let’s face it; there are many definitions of a family.

So what is the bottom line here? I contend that it is the connections and bonding that takes place within the family that makes the difference. After leading therapy for many years, I have noted that most clients who felt connected to someone as a child bring something to the process that others do not. No surprise. Those who lived in what could be seen as the perfect family, but one that really lacked intimacy and deep connections, missed out on something essential. Adults with whom I have worked who experienced unconditional love as a child even if it was the next door neighbor or a teacher or a grandparent, seem to solve their problems more quickly than those who lacked any kind of bonding in their childhood. I know I can’t make a great generalization here. There are several reasons for a person to enter therapy; many of them having nothing or little to do with their childhood situations, but I believe there is some basis of truth in my conclusion.

Witnessing this over the years leads me to think with an open mind about what defines a family and about the influence the family really has.

A child who feels loved and accepted by a teacher might actually feel safer with and closer to that teacher than to his or her own parent if the parent is unavailable emotionally.

Children are very adaptable. As long as they feel safe and loved they can thrive in many types of environments. I know it is not that simple, but the idea deserves much thought. If kids are coming home to a house that lacks intimacy, connections, bonding, listening, mutual respect, acceptance and unconditional love … what do they really have in life? Certainly not a family.

Mary Friedel-Hunt, freelance writer, can be contacted at P.O. Box 189, Lone Rock, WI 53556.