Friends of the Family

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:30

The Guardian

4th January 1997

Friends of the Family

My friend Lou has a talent for friendship. If you are her friend you are indeed blessed. Everything she says and does makes you feel valued and important. I tease her about how she is always taking bowls of hot soup to her ailing friends, but I know that if I became ill everything she did for me would not be motivated by guilt or the need to appear virtuous but by friendship.

The Christmas before last I spent at Lou's home. Of those in our party only two were related, Lou and her niece to whom Lou is not an aunt or a surrogate mother but a best friend. For the rest of us no family Christmas was possible as our families were scattered across the globe. So our Christmas was a friendship Christmas.

And very pleasant it was. No one was pointedly not talking to someone else. No one shouted insults. No one was sobbing in a darkened room. No one was martyring herself in the kitchen, and no one was sloping off to the pub to avoid his in-laws. We made paper hats, told stories, ate marvellous food, drank excellent wine and laughed a lot.

But the question has to be asked, How could this diverse group of people have a happy Christmas when there wasn't a family value in sight?

Over the past few years politicians, religious leaders and moral pundits have been preaching the Gospel of Family Values. However, the upholders of family values never say what they actually are. It is assumed that everyone knows. I didn't, so I gave the matter a great deal of thought.

My years of working as a clinical psychologist have made me privy to the secrets of hundreds of families. Among clients, relatives, friends and acquaintances there are families whom I have known for going on five decades. As I reviewed all the families I knew I looked for the operation of values which are peculiar only to families. These values are not found in other groups, say, of friends or colleagues or sporting teams. I managed to isolate four such values.

The first value is one held by the parent in relation to his or her child and expressed as, "You are my possession and I can do with you what I want."

The operation of this value can be clearly seen in the millions of poor families around the world where the children are sent out to work as soon as they are old enough to be useful. It is this family value which supplies the children whose tiny fingers weave carpets or whose small bodies are abused in prostitution and pornography.

This particular family value enjoys world wide support. If it did not, if we all regarded children as persons in their own right and not as objects to be used to meet the adults' needs, we would organize our economies so that no child grew up in poverty. To deprive a child of food, shelter, good health and education would be unthinkable.

This value can operate in much more subtle ways than that of sending a child out to work. In many families in developed countries the child is given the task of meeting the parents' unfulfilled desires.

Recently I had dinner with a very successful woman engineer. I admired her achievements enormously, but she told me that they brought her little joy. She said, "All I ever wanted was to marry and have six children."

She went on to tell me how she had been the eldest of six and how her mother's interest an approval of her diminished with the birth of each successive child. Like most children deprived of a parent's love she searched for ways to gain her mother's attention and regard. Her mother often made clear her regret that she had never had an education and a career, so her daughter determined to do this for her.

Perhaps her mother now boasts of her daughter's achievements and feels fulfilled. Unhappily, many other children assume a lifelong task imposed by parents who want to be seen by society as being a Good Parent. The child scavenging on a rubbish tip to help feed his family can have some respite but being a Credit to Your Parents is a task for which your best is never enough.

The second family value is one which operates between siblings and can be expressed as, "Your task in life is to make up to me for what your existence has deprived me of."

This is the value which I have felt most keenly, born as I was on my sister's sixth birthday. My parents gave my sister no help in dealing with the shock of losing her position as the only child and so she decided to look for me for recompense. The only way I could recompense her and restore her to her former state would be to die, so whatever I might do for her can never be enough.

I might bemoan my fate, but no sibling position is safe from the imposition of this value. Eldest siblings can suffer as their younger siblings demand recompense for the way the parents gave the eldest privileges denied the younger. Sisters denied the privileges of being a boy demand recompense from their brothers, and brothers denied the privilege of being born a girl demand recompense from their sisters. Out of the jealousies of siblings arises that special family value, "You owe me!"

If as they enter adulthood siblings do not together seek to make themselves aware of the functioning of this value in their lives, all the anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy and envy aroused in childhood can never be resolved, thus preventing the siblings from ever becoming friends. Some such siblings break off all contact with their family while others, feeling bound by the family rule that relatives must keep in touch, continue the battles of childhood, fought now on the battlegrounds of Christmas dinners, weddings, funerals, christenings and the reading of the parents' will.

The third family value is applied to all family members and is, "You have been given a role in the family which is your for life. You cannot escape it."

The greatest praise my mother could ever give to anyone was, "He is always the same." This is a very popular way of valuing people because people who stay the same make us feel safe. We can predict what they will do. If people change we have to change how we think about them and this is unsettling. So we like people to stay the same, and in many families the third value ensures that they do.

If, when you're small, the family decide that you are the Stupid One, little is expected of you when you go to school and when you fail everyone feels reassured. If, in later life, you decide to make up for your inadequate education your family's jokes about your lack of intelligence and their amazement that you can even contemplate getting an education can ensure that you lack the confidence to try.

Or you might have been designated the Fat One and fed accordingly. Once away from you might decide to slim, but each time you visit home your mother produces a large chocolate cake and says, "I've made it just for you."

Perhaps worst of all is to be designated the Competent One. Many able children accept this role in the hope of gaining their family's love, but once you have accepted it you begin a life of servitude. You are expected to be always strong, helpful and available. Never disclose to your family that sometimes you feel weak, vulnerable and distressed, for if you do they will either ignore you or bully you until you shut up and go back to looking after them.

The fourth family value applies to all the family and is the basis on which every family member must assess other people. It is, "Anyone who isn't family isn't important."

Of recent years the media have taken to bestowing with approval the term "close-knit" to families and communities who have suffered a disaster. It certainly seems safer to belong to a family or community where the people are independent and self-reliant. However, "close-knit" families can be those who divided the human race into two groups, family members who matter and the rest who don't.

Children born into families like this are likely to find it very difficult to mix with people who are not family. Even worse, if there are family members who cause them distress, and in close families the knives can go in deep, the children, even when adult, may be unable to envisage the possibility of living outside the family. Their mental map of their world is that life is possible only within the family space. Beyond that lie dragons and the terrors of the deep.

It is this family value, when "family" is extended to include those of the same religion or nationality, that makes war, conflict, terrorism, torture and persecution possible.

Of the families I knew who adhered to some or all of these four values none could be described as happy. Many these families would say they loved one another, but love alone does not promote happiness, especially when "I love you" has the corollary "Therefore you must do what I want". The only love which promotes happiness is that which says, "I love you and wish you well, even if that ·well' does not include me."

The happy families I know see that loving someone includes always treating that person with respect and dignity. The parents do not see their children as possessions but as persons in their own right towards whom the parents have a responsibility, not to mould into some pre-determined pattern, but to make possible the unfolding of the child's talents and potentialities.

Children learn most, not from what parents tell them, but from what they see their parents do. When parents treat each child with the generosity, respect and dignity that a person requires in order to feel valued and wanted the children learn to treat one another in the same way. They will still squabble, but they will lay the basis of a life long friendship.

When parents see each child as an individual they know that the child is not some fixed type but someone who has his or her own way of seeing things and who is always in the process of change. Such parents know that they need to be flexible, patient, tolerant, truthful, loyal and always prepared to co-operate with the child in order to find suitable compromises. There will, of course, be times when the parents' view of things must prevail, but allowing your child sometimes to win enables the child to lose without feeling vanquished.

Happy families are not closed in upon themselves, with few friends and fearful of the world outside. They are hospitable, kind, and interested in people and all that the world has to offer.

Loving, wishing the other person well, treating people as people, not objects, treating people with generosity, respect and dignity, valuing friendship, accepting the other person's point of view, being flexible, patient, tolerant, truthful, loyal, co-operative, hospitable, kind, interested in people and events are all wonderful values but they are not values specific only to happy families. Indeed, these are the values of friendship. If only we all aspired not to family values but to the values of friendship, how much happier our world would be!

Dorothy Rowe is an Australian psychologist and writer living London. Her books on how we make sense of our lives and our world have brought comfort and enlightenment to a great many people. They include The Successful Self, Beyond Fear, Wanting Everything, Time on Our Side and Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life (HarperCollins).