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5 Questions to Awaken Your Functional Family

The path to restoring function to the family in a citizen society, not a consumer society, is quite simple. It begins with five questions.
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Beijing Dancers, photo by Jean-Francois Leblanc1. What functions can we put back into the hands of young people?

Whether they are our kids or a neighbor’s, how do we help them be useful? Can we have them teach the Internet to seniors? Can we hold gatherings where they learn about music, painting, or poetry from artistic neighbors? Which neighbors can help them learn about carpentry, wallpapering, cooking, auto and small engine repair, house painting, making videos, pruning trees, talking to the elderly, sewing?

2. What does each person do to support the household economy?

Reduce or stop certain purchases? Part-time jobs? Could we grow our own food? Support clothing exchanges? Contact merchants and neighbors to find local sources of income? Start a home-based business? What would it take for all members to be financially literate, know what a budget is, comparison shop, monitor income and expenses? How could we reinstitute savings as an economic good and debt as something to be reduced to zero?

3. How does this family care for those who are vulnerable?

Who is good at listening? Are there people in the neighborhood who are lonely and can be introduced to one another? What do people on the margin in the neighborhood like to do? How do we find this out? Who in our family struggles, and what support do they need from all of us?

4. How can we begin to entertain ourselves?

Which black boxes are sucking the life out of the family? How do we spend our evenings? Is there anything we do together on a regular basis? What can we do that could replace the electronic boxes? Anyone for slow food?

5. What do we do to protect the environment and our health?

What is our commitment to eliminating waste? What food can we eat that is local and consciously grown? How do we reduce packaging when we buy things? Can we walk or bike instead of drive? How do we eat healthy food and track our own health? Who around us has traditional wisdom about health? 

These are a few samples of ways to begin developing a new family narrative that offers the satisfaction of usefulness. Taken to heart, these questions build neighborhood competence and give us tools that cannot be purchased from professional service providers. This restoration of the power of citizens living in concert might also be good for the soul and for our democracy, but those are another story.

John McKnight and Peter Block wrote these questions to accompany their article, "The Good Life? It's Close to Home" in the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine, What Happy Families Know. McKnight and Block are the co-authors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

(San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

McKnight is a community organizer and emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and author of The Careless Society.

Block is a citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a partner in Designed Learning, and is on the board of Cincinnati Public Radio and Elementz, a local Hip Hop Center for Youth. He is the author of Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, The Answer to How Is Yes, and Community: The Structure of Belonging.


  • More stories from What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
  • This Is My Family:
    8 personal essays on what family is today.
  • Homemade Prosperity:
    Caught in the consumer trap? Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes discovered that producing what she needs at home lets her live on a fraction of what she thought she needed.


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