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The post-modern family

Over 30 years ago, C. Wright Mills (1959) described the post-modern period as one in which the economy would shift employment from heavy industry to non-unionized clerical, service, and new industrial sectors. He foresaw the rise of multinational corporations, trouble in the social welfare system, and decline in human freedom and choice. At that time he wondered how the human family would respond to and adjust to this new period in world history.

Post-modernism, by no means simple to define, is characterized by a "close reading" of small units rather than general theorizing about big ideas. The postmodern tends towards elaboration, eclecticism, ornamentation, and inclusiveness; it dismisses the existence of an absolute reality and is deeply suspicious of the concept of human progress (Doherty 1991). If we define the current ongoing effort to remake contemporary family life as the post-modern family, such a definition carries with it overtones from the definition of postmodern art and literature. In these fields the term post-modern signals the end of a familiar pattern of activity and emergence of new areas of endeavour whose activities are unclear and whose meanings and implications are not yet well understood. Thus, the post-modern is characterized by uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt (Stacey 1990).

Full consensus on the definition of the emerging post-modern family structure has not been reached, despite recognition of the need for better understanding of the variety of human families in the post-modern period and insight into how large-scale social patterns affect personal and domestic relationships (Hossfeld 1991).

The post-modern world is shaped by pluralism, democracy, religious freedom, consumerism, mobility, and increasing access to news and entertainment. Residents of this post-modern world are able to see that there are many beliefs, multiple realities, and an exhilarating but daunting profusion of world views - a society that has lost its faith in absolute truth and in which people have to choose what to believe (O'Hare and Anderson 1991).

In the 1970s, Shorter (1975) may have been the first to describe the emerging post-modern family. He noted three important characteristics: adolescent indifference to the family's identity; instability in the lives of couples, accompanied by rapidly increasing divorce rates; and destruction of the "nest" notion of nuclear family life with the liberation of women. At that time, Shorter noted little change in patterns of child socialization. The dramatic shift from mothers caring for young children in the home to the use of paid providers occurred soon after in the developed world, reflecting mothers' increasing workplace participation.

While single-parent, surrogate-mother, and gay and lesbian families, and other variants of the post-modern family may be viewed as the negative results of the trends described above, or as breakdown products, they also reflect the following:

1. Disillusionment with the optimistic assumptions of human progress and with the universality and the regularity of the laws of science; hence, lack of faith in the previously established order.

2. The uncoupling of economic forces underlying social conformity, such as the need for women to marry advantageously to survive financially and to transmit their class status to the next generation, or the need to bear children in wedlock for them to inherit family land or other property that would be their source of livelihood.

3. The influence of the electronic media, which both reflect and legitimize family diversity.

In addition to reducing the separations that can be imposed between people by physical distance, physical barriers, and social barriers, electronic communications and other media also foster anonymous intimacy through radio talk shows, advice columns, electronic mail, computer bulletin boards, and commercially provided advisory/counselling and other personal services available in the United States through area code 900. This relatively anonymous and instant intimacy in turn becomes a new basis for anonymous face-to-face social support, in which no names are mentioned, through 12-step programmes and similar self-help movements.

On-site day care, personal computers, electronic communications that permit work at home, and the lack of a defined working day for the higher occupational classes progressively blur the boundaries between the workplace and the home. This interpenetration of home, work, and global media coverage creates the permeability of the post-modern family. The media gather the post-modern family around the campfire of the global village, bringing the outside world into the living room and the bedroom.

Gergen (1991) has described the emerging family form as "the saturated family," whose members feel their lives scattering in intensified busyness. In addition to absorbing exposure to myriad values, attitudes, opinions, lifestyles, and personalities, family members have become embedded in a multiplicity of relationships. The technologies of social saturation (e.g. the car, telephone, television, and jet plane) have created family turmoil and a sense of fragmentation, chaos, and discontinuity.

The home, no longer a refuge of harmony, serenity, and understanding, may become the site of confrontation between people of different ages and genders, who have personal ideologies and social affiliations that are as diversely suspended as exotic species in a tropical rain forest. Human potential organizations, such as Landmark Education, ease this jangling overload by holding workshops in which participants learn to perceive their personal past history to be as mechanical and meaningless as television images. The human potential movements redefine personal identity in terms of the individual's choice of commitment to future goals.

The post-modern child

Children growing up in the post-modern family have been called post-modern children. Parents in the post-modern family may relinquish their roles as educators (Shorter 1975). For many post-modern children there is dual socialization by family and day-care provider. For example, in the Nordic welfare states, the family has been described as an intimacy sanctuary and a zone of stability while daycare centres develop the child's capacity to exercise self-control with respect to affective behaviour. The post-modern child is required to make continuous flexible adjustments between these spheres (Denick 1989).

With child care shared between family and day care, new problems have arisen. While some children thrive on dual socialization, others languish, unable to adjust to either environment or to the demands of daily transition from one environment to the other. The young child may be unable to form the necessary communication link between the two environments. Responsibilities may not be divided clearly between home and day-care centre; as a result, neither may provide some crucial aspects of child-rearing. For example, in the United States, neither the day-care centre nor working parents may perceive themselves in charge of helping the child to develop the capacity to exercise self-control nor of teaching the child basic social comportment, such as table manners, greeting rituals, narration of daily events, and interview skills required for social orientation and reconnaissance.

In the United States, concerns have been expressed about children raised in impoverished single-parent households by young mothers who are still children themselves. According to Elkind (1981), there also are problems with post-modern children of middle-class families as permeable families "hurry" their children to take on the physical, social, and psychological trappings of adulthood before they are prepared to deal with them. Permeable families tend to thrust children and teenagers forward to deal with realities of the outside world at ever-earlier ages, perceiving them as competent to deal with the steady diet of overt violence, sexuality, substance abuse, and environmental degradation that they view on television. Such abuses in the United States and Europe often translate into worse abuses in poor neighbourhoods of large third world cities, where unsupervised children of all ages are lured, together with adults, into watching sexually explicit "adult videos" for the equivalent of a few pennies (Dr. Tade Akin Aina 1992, personal communication). Countries such as the United States, as well as places in the developing world that have departed most widely from institutional family values, appear to be particularly vulnerable to such abuses in the post-modern era. Both Elkind (1981) and Spock and Rothenberg (1992) deplore the tendency of parents to rush children into adult roles.

Although parents remain very concerned about their children in the postmodern world, perceptions of parenting have changed. In the modern era, parenting was intuitive and child-health professionals guided parents by teaching them the general norms of development. The focus of parent education was development of the whole child. In contrast, parenting in the post-modern world is perceived as a learned technique with specific strategies for dealing with particular issues. The target has shifted from the whole child to developing the child's positive sense of self-esteem. In the modern era, parents made the effort to fit advice to the particular needs of the child; Elkind (1992) points out that the directive post-modern techniques may be easier for parents but the child may be deprived of customized treatment. Moreover, he strongly believes that the focus on the whole child should not be lost.

Certainly, the nuclear family was not perfect. In its attempts to explain the turbulence of the 1960s, the recent PBS documentary "Making Sense of the Sixties" powerfully indicted the stifling, conventional, and rigid nature of the nuclear family of the 1950s. The revolution that led to post-modern life corrected old imbalances in society through de-differentiation of parental and gender roles. Yet these radical social changes may have created new imbalances by increasing demands on children and adolescents.

Post-modern de-differentiation

Post-modern life appears to reverse, or de-differentiate, many characteristics of the modern family back to pre-modern lifestyles and values, as shown in table 2.1, re-creating at the level of electronic images and on a global scale certain aspects of the undifferentiated life of the pre-modern village. Nevertheless, there remain quantum differences between pre- and post-modern lifestyles (table 2.2).

Table 2.1 Similarities between post-modern and pre-modern families
Modern Pre- and post-modern
Sharp distinction between home and workplace Workplace and home are often the same
Romantic love Contractual/consensual love
Idealization of mother as only legitimate caretaker Shared parenting, working mother
Protected late-maturing child Early social maturation in full view of adult activities
Child-centred parent focused on the needs of the child Parent-centred parent looks to child lifestyle goals, social gratification
Individual identity uniquely defined by personal narrative and value judgments Identity fluidly defined by social context
Stormy adolescence to establish autonomy and separate identity from parents More peaceful adolescence with less need to establish separate residence

Table 2.2 Differences between post-modern and pre-modern families
Pre-modern Post-modern
Largest and most dependent on kinship ties Smallest, least dependent on kin
Most of life enacted on the immediate physical plane Most of life enacted on the electronically removed, or symbolic plane
As illustrated by:
Manual labour Brain work
Direct social encounters Electronically mediated or symbolic encounters
Physical conflicts Symbolic conflicts
Small number of stable physical and social contexts Very large number of shifting physical, symbolic and social contexts
Low requirements for information storage processing skills Very high requirements for abstract information storage and abstract processing
Compulsory participation in all aspects of communal life, lack of privacy and personal choice Optional participation in most aspects of communal life, high levels of privacy and choice
Functional identity limited to small number of predetermined social roles Identity shifts with many discontinuous obligatory and optional social roles
Authority figures and set rules determining what is right and wrong; literal, fundamental beliefs Pluralistic, relativistic values, non-literal symbolic interpretations of most claims to truth

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