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Alternative Culture Articles

August 11, 2002

Family of the Future?
By Royce Carlson

A couple of friends of mine are in a difficult situation. They are about to become single parents due to divorce. They will probably each end up with custody of their children. They will not only have to take care of their children by themselves, they will also have to earn money to support them. 

Taking care of a child or two, particularly if they are young, is more than a full time job. In spite of receiving child-support payments, a single parent usually must work another full-time job just to pay for it all. It is not the happiest of situations.

I spent last weekend visiting with a couple who are close friends of mine who have two young boys, four and two years old. Taking care of these beautiful children is very demanding. I am not a parent, myself, so the experience was eye opening. They are happy being parents and they are also often frustrated and exhausted by the experience. It is a tremendous amount of work for a couple, so it must be much harder for a single parent.

My exposure to these two situations got me thinking about the nuclear family as it exists in Western culture. The "one family - one household" idea puts a lot of pressure on parents. There may be a better way.

With a change of structure to the idea of family, raising children could be shared amongst a wider group. There are non-western models that can be used as a basis for change. In many tribal cultures the tribe was the family. Each child had many parents and many siblings. The biological father and mother assume a less central position in the lives of their children. This arrangement allows for sharing of resources as well as sharing child rearing. It seems to me to be a much more efficient way to do it than the nuclear family model.

Even our western heritage contains a model for easing the pressure on parents. This is the extended family model. The extended family consists of relatives by blood and marriage living in the same household. Before the people of the West became so mobile and put such a high value on self-reliance, they often lived with several generations of their families. The grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and children lived together in the same house or set of houses. This provided plenty of help in the raising of children. This still goes on to some extent today but it often involves shuttling between cross-town locations and is not particularly convenient for many.

Here is a proposal for an experimental family model that just might be better than the tribal, extended, or nuclear family. Because of the advances, in the last 50 years, of communication and transportation technologies we are now more capable of finding like-minded people and then physically moving to a location where we can live together in community. Individuals do not have to stay where they were born. They can move. People do not have to live with others they feel they have little in common with. They can find like-minded people to share their lives.

Imagine a new "family group" consisting of five to ten adults and their children. They share similar interests and philosophy of life and then live together or adjacent to one another. They share the jobs of raising children, cooking, property maintenance and all the other activities necessary to manage a household. What a relief this kind of arrangement could be to a single mother, father, or couple with a young family. This arrangement can also be of benefit to society, the individuals involved, and the environment.

It is beneficial to the environment because of shared resources. Instead of three separate nuclear families in three separate households, with multiple redundancies of resources, appliances, etc., many of these resources can be shared. It can also be good for the environment because this kind of arrangement can allow parents to have only one child without the risk of the social problems that an only child supposedly is subject to. Three couples can each have one child and each child will still have two brothers/sisters. This contributes to a reduction of human population, which in my opinion, is best way to reach sustainability on Earth.

It is of benefit to the adults involved because it will allow them more free time and less stress. Sharing the workload should give them time to pursue hobbies and other interests that todayís parents have to mostly put off until their children are older. The stress of finding and paying for childcare and baby sitters can be reduced because there are other adults on hand that can be easily available to supervise the children.

It can be of benefit to the children because they can be better supervised and have more role models to choose from in the adults that surround them. There will be that many more people to love them, teach them, and care for them.

I would think that there are many other benefits that can be realized, too. Iím sure that there will be problems, also, but there is probably no way to escape all problems.

I envision something like a small housing complex with three or four houses or apartments around a central courtyard. Each nuclear family would have their own unit and the ability to participate in the sharing with the other families at the level they want to. It would not be a commune where absolutely everything is shared and it would not be a large community where decision-making can be slow and agonizing.

As with any experiment, there will be a lot to learn. This way of living has, Iím sure, been tried in the past and exists now somewhere. I would be interested in hearing about existing arrangements like this from those who have experimented with alternative family arrangements. What worked? What didnít work? What were the unexpected benefits? What were the unexpected problems? Please send me your comments and ideas. With a little creativity and enthusiasm we can learn from each other and maybe create prototypes for the family of the future.

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Thanks!

Royce Carlson