What’s the Purpose of Family?

by Mar 1, 2016

Before you even begin to read this article, I want you to ask yourself the following question, “What is the purpose of Family?” You could spend 10 minutes or 10 days thinking about this question. If you’d like to share your answer to this question I invite you to do so in the comments section. I’ll post my answer as the first comment. Now, on to the article. ?I Googled “what’s the purpose of family” and the first eight results were religious based organizations quoting scripture or original articles from websites in which scripture was cited. While my search results gave many similar versions of the same basic view of the purpose of the family, I’m more interested in how my fellow Americans view the function and purpose of today’s modern family. We are a diverse people with many different traditions, so the answers should be interesting to say the least. Let’s broaden our view.In America in the year 2016, the family is generally considered the social institution that we spend much of our lives being connected to. In a GOP debate in February, Marco Rubio stated, “…the family is the most important institution in society.” We tend to think that, at least traditionally, families are created by marriage, birth, or adoption. And when I say adoption I don’t just mean adopting a child. Families across the U.S. are constantly growing by adopting non-blood relatives as brothers, sisters, adoptive grandparents, fathers and mothers. Many cultures exist that consider deep friendships to be as close as blood relatives.

Family issues

Now I want to be clear on something. This seems like a better time than any to dispel the myth of “the perfect family”, whatever that means. Those of us from a certain generation might think of the Brady Bunch as the prototypical “perfect family”. The truth is, that if each and every one of us were to have honest conversations (and I mean really honest) with our own family members, going up the generational ladder, in addition to all of the “stuff” that we’re proud of and will readily talk about, we will all come across differing levels of dysfunction, abuse, alcoholism, depression, suicide, and the list goes on. None of us are born into the perfect family.

No matter what family we come from, we are given values. Some values we strongly agree and accept, while other values we reject and in many cases live our lives in staunch opposition to. When we create our own families, we choose which of these values to carry on as we co-author the next chapter in our family story. In addition to values, what else do families give us? Whether we came from a “happy” family, or a “dysfunctional” family, or a family that is just “m’eh can’t complain”, we do adopt our own unique family narrative. The one that was written before we even got here. This narrative is only changeable by how we act today and for the rest of our tomorrows. Much of who we are is where we come from. And there are some of us who have looked back deeply to learn about our own family histories, while some others haven’t given it a second thought.

And here is where we get to the meat of this article. What makes a family system strong, resilient, and cohesive is when all of its members “know their family’s narrative”. Each member is an active participant in helping to create, preserve, and co-author their family’s narrative. Each member’s unique perspective is valued and contributes to the narrative. When I say narrative in this context, think of it the same way you would think of a organization’s mission statement or even our government’s constitution. The family narrative is made up of the stories that bind its members together, and, it is also the narrative that the family strives to live by each and every single day.

Few readers may have heard of the “Do You Know” scale developed by Drs. Duke and Fivush. In 2001 they studied 48 families by asking the children a set of 20 questions, such as:

  • Do you know where your parents met?
  • Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?

After comparing the children’s responses to a battery of psychometric assessments the children had taken, Duke and Fivush discovered that the more a child knew about her own family’s history, the stronger her sense of control over her life, the higher her self-esteem, and the more successfully she believed her family functioned. Translation: When a child knows his family’s narrative, he is more likely to be emotionally happier, and healthier. Read more about this study in Bruce Feiler’s New York Times article, The Stories That Bind Us.

Knowing your own family narrative is another opportunity to participate in and belong to something greater than yourself. When we learn about our own family’s successes and failures, we enrich our own lives. We take pride in the positive moments in our family’s history and grow stronger knowing that our family has overcome challenges in its past. We can retell our family story to the next generation, and find our own place within that story. So what do I believe the purpose of family is? See my answer in the comments section. The more important question is: What are you doing to discover, preserve, and add to your own unique family narrative?

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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