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The Good Life? It’s Close to Home

Rebuilding families and neighborhoods around the gifts each of us offers.
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When family members do not work or live well together we sometimes call the family dysfunctional. We prescribe professional help for the family or advocate for social policies that would support it—child care, parental leave, extended unemployment insurance, debt forgiveness.

But the real challenge to the family is that it has lost its job. The functions of the family have been outsourced. The problem is not dysfunction—that’s just a side effect. The problem is non-function, and this has much to do with the growth of the consumer society.


The End of the Functional Family

Consumer society has put an end to the functional family. We normally think of consumerism as buying stuff we want but don’t need, but it runs deeper than that. The essential promise of consumerism is that all of what is fulfilling or needed in life can be purchased—from happiness to healing, from love to laughter, from raising a child to caring for someone at the end of life. What was once the task of the family and the neighborhood is now outsourced. Aunt Martha is forgetful? Little Arthur is restless? Get them a diagnosis and a prescription. In this simple act, we stop being citizens—we become consumers.

Creating a more community-based way to live and find satisfaction, even when surrounded by a consumer culture, requires only that we act as if each of us has what we need.

The cost of our transformation into consumers is that the family has lost its capacity to manage the necessities it traditionally provided. We expect the school, coaches, agencies, social workers, probation officers, sitters and day care to raise our children. The family, while romanticized and held as a cultural ideal, has lost its function as the primary place to raise children, sustain health, care for the vulnerable, and ensure economic security.

The Rise of Neighborhood Incompetence

The neighborhood has also lost its function. Our neighborhoods and communities are no longer able to support the family in its efforts. In most cases, we are disconnected from our neighbors and isolated from our communities. The community and neighborhood are no longer competent.

A competent community provides a safety net for the care of a child, attention and care for the vulnerable, the means for economic survival for the household, and many of the social tools that sustain health. The community, particularly the neighborhood, has the potential to provide the extended support system to help the family in all these key functions. The usefulness that used to reside in the neighborhood is now provided by the marketplace.

Outsiders Raising Children

 “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African saying repeated as a matter of faith by American leaders of all persuasions. Yet most of our children are not raised by a village. Instead, they are raised by teachers and counselors in school, youth workers and coaches out of school, juvenile therapists and corrections officials if they are deviant, television and computers and cell phones if they have spare time, and McDonald’s if they are hungry. What this means is that the space that the family and neighborhood once filled has been sold and is now filled with paid professionals, electronic toys, and marketing.

Until the 20th century, the basic idea in rearing children was that they become effective grownups by connecting with productive adults and learning from them the community’s skills, traditions, and customs. Youth learned from the community and had jobs to do: caring for the elderly and young, doing errands for the household, working on machines, helping with food. When they became adults, they were equipped to care both for the next generation and for those who had cared for them.

What we now know is that the most effective local communities are those where neighborhoods and citizens have reclaimed their traditional roles. The research on this point is decisive. Where there are “thick” community connections, there is positive child development. Health improves, the environment is sustained, and people are safer and have a better local economy. The social fabric of neighborhood and family is decisive.

Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

Creating a more community-based way to live and find satisfaction, even when surrounded by a consumer culture, requires only that we act as if each of us has what we need. We have the gifts, structures, and capacities to substitute for our habit of consumption. We can decide to shift our attention toward building the functions of our family and neighborhood.

Adam Smith Family photo by Lane HartwellFreer, Messier, Happier:
These days, moms, dads, kids, grandmas—even neighbors—are sharing the work of family.

Here is a story of how this works, drawn from the real-life experiences of families from neighborhoods around the world that we have worked with.

Naomi Alessio and Jackie Barton were walking through the neighborhood, talking about being overwhelmed with work, meals, lessons, school, and especially the kids. Except, Naomi noted, her son Theron had begun to turn around.

Last summer, when Theron looked through the open door of the metalworking shop Mr. Thompson had set up in his garage, the old man invited him in. Something clicked. Theron began to stop by every day, and he started bringing home metal pieces he’d learned to make.

Naomi could see Theron change. He was proud of what he made—Mr. Thompson even paid him to make a few things. Naomi said she’d finally stopped worrying about what Theron was doing after school. Jackie admitted that her son Alvin was in trouble, and she asked Naomi if there might be someone in the neighborhood whose skills would interest Alvin.

They knew that Gerald Lilly was into fishing, and that Sam Wheatley was a saxophonist, but that was about it. They decided to ask all the men in the neighborhood about their interests and skills. Mr. Thompson agreed to go with them.

Neighborhood photo by Alicia Hansen

Long-time friends relax in a bar on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA.. From the book, Humanity: A Celebration of Friendship, Family, Love & Laughter.

Photo by Alicia Hansen.

Basketball photo by Silvia Morara

A small boy and his grandfather play basketball in a park in Milan, Italy. From the book, Humanity: A Celebration of Friendship, Family, Love & Laughter.

Photo by Sylvia Morara.

Beijing dancers photo by Jean-Francois Leblanc

Prohibited during Mao's political regime, the tango is now popular in China and a couple is free to practice the dance in a Beijing park. From the book, Humanity: A Celebration of Friendship, Family, Love & Laughter.

Photo by Jean-Francois Leblanc.


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