Social scientists warn us the family is disintegrating and may not survive this century.

In the most recent issue of the Futurist, a magazine published by the World Future Society, the lead article discusses the book 1984. Eric Blair—a British author better known by his pen name George Orwell—wrote the book over thirty years ago, describing in gripping detail the horrors of life in a though-controlled totalitarian England of 1984.

The novel has come to haunt the Western World. 1984 has become a code word for the new science of futurism. The article points out that Orwell made 137 specific predictions about the future, over 100 of which have already come true. He predicted three super-powers waging “continuous warfare of limited aims in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, defoliants that would strip the earth barren, think tanks where experts plan the future, helicopter gunships, large TV screens, voice analyzers, data banks containing detailed personal information, rapid retrieval of data. “A number of his predictions relating to medicine have come true—artificial insemination, subcortical surgery, and the state using drugs to control behavior (interesting in light of recent revelations about the FBI’s and the CIA’s expensive research on behavior-altering drugs). But I found most interesting of all Orwell’s prediction of the breakup of the family and the dissolution of emotional ties between men and women and their children.

Most people understand “family” to mean “parents and their children,” but only one U. S. household in three consists of parents and their children. An increasing number of homes have only one parent. One-parent families are growing about twenty times faster than two-parent families.

Early family experience determines our adult character structure, the inner picture we harbor of ourselves, how we see others and feel about them, our concept of right and wrong, our capacity to establish the close, warm, sustained relationships necessary to have a family of our own, our attitude toward authority and toward the Ultimate Authority in our lives, and the way we attempt to make sense out of our existence. No human interaction has greater impact on our lives than our family experience.

For several years now social scientists have warned us the family is disintegrating and will not survive this century. Several writers have criticized the family and stated that this process of disintegration ought to be encouraged. In a book titled The Death of the Family, a British physician suggests doing away with the family because it is a primary conditioning device for a Western, imperialistic world view. In Sexual Politics, Kate Millett writes that the family must go because it oppresses and enslaves women. This idea is reflected in women’s liberation literature.

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Is there danger that the American family will cease to exist? I do not think so. A larger percentage of Americans marry today, have children, and commit themselves to living in a family household than ever before. We do, however, have serious cause for concern—not that the family will disappear, but that certain trends prevalent today will incapacitate the family, destroy its integrity, and cause its members to suffer such crippling emotional conflicts that they will become an intolerable burden to society.

Before mentioning a few of these trends, let me make an observation about the emotional health of a family. If any one factor influences the character development and emotional stability of an individual, it is the quality of the relationship he or she experiences as a child with both parents. Conversely, if people suffering from severe nonorganic emotional illness have one experience in common, it is the absence of a parent through death, divorce, a time-demanding job, or for other reasons. A parent’s inaccessibility, either physically, emotionally, or both, can profoundly influence a child’s emotional health.

These impressions come from a vast body of research that led the World Health Organization over twenty years ago to make this statement: “What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother.…” Then the group presented evidence that many psychoneuroses and character disorders can be attributed to the mother’s absence or to discontinuities in the child’s relationship with his mother. In the years following that statement, research throughout the world has demonstrated that even a brief separation from the mother, and the quality of the mother’s relationship with the child, can profoundly affect both the child’s physical and emotional development. The same is true of the child with a missing or inaccessible father. What has been shown to contribute most to the emotional development of the child is a close, warm, sustained, and continuous relationship with both parents. Yet certain trends in our society make this most difficult today. Let’s look at a few of these.

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The trend toward quick and easy divorce and the ever-increasing divorce rate subjects more and more children to physically and emotionally absent parents. The divorce rate has risen 700 percent in this century and continues to rise. There is now one divorce for every 1.8 marriages. Over a million children a year are involved in divorce cases and 13 million children under eighteen have one or both parents missing.

The increasing numbers of married women who have joined the labor force and work outside of the home—especially mothers with young children—have a profound effect on family life. In 1948, 18 percent of the nation’s mothers worked outside of the home. In 1971 this figure jumped to 43 percent. Today it is over 50 percent. This phenomenon has increased marital stress and contributed to the high rate of divorce. What I find most disturbing is that an increasing percentage of mothers who work have young children. Nearly six million preschool children have working mothers. Only a small fraction of these mothers work because of economic necessity.

Many colleges and universities convey the notion that the role of wife and mother is passé, and to settle for such a role in life is to settle for second-class citizenship. The women’s liberation movement has had an impact here. Though it focuses on many legitimate grievances, it appears eager to deny the responsibility of being a wife and mother. Unless these women can pursue a career while raising a family, they consider their lives a failure. My clinical experience indicates clearly that no woman with young children can do both at the same time without sacrificing either the quality of work or the quality of child care.

Another trend that imposes great stress is the tendency for families to move frequently. Technical advances, especially progress in transportation, have made our society extremely mobile. Parents who work often travel long distances as part of that work. Because of such travel, a father may be absent from home for days or weeks at a time. The job also frequently causes the whole family to move. According to the 1970 census, 50 percent of the population had lived at a different address only five years earlier. We have only begun to understand the enormous psychological uprooting that a move can have on the family.

The obtrusion of television into the home has affected the North American family in ways we have not yet begun to fathom. Parental inaccessibility encourages children to spend enormous amounts of time watching television. The TV set has become a baby sitter in many homes. It acts as a two-edged sword: it both results from and causes parental inaccessibility. When parents are home physically, television often prevents meaningful interaction between family members.

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We are just beginning to experience the first generation brought up completely on television. Some studies have shown that the average viewing time of the American child from six to sixteen years of age is between twenty and twenty-four hours per week. If he lives to be eighty, and continues to watch TV at that rate, he will have spent eight to ten years of his life watching television. Or to put it another way, he lives about 20,000 days. One fifth of his waking life or about 4,000 days will have been spent watching television.

The family is also affected by the lack of impulse control in our culture today. Society seems to have given up on its traditional civilizing task of controlling aggressive and sexual impulses. The deep moral confusion we have observed over the past decade seems to have lifted all restraint. During the past ten years, I have noticed a marked change in the type of problems that bring people to a psychiatrist. Previously, a great many came because of their inability to express impulses and feelings. Today, the majority come because of an inability to control their impulses. (People in my field relate this lack of control to the declining influence of the father in the home.)

The steady rise of violent crime in this country most clearly demonstrates our inability to control aggression. In Boston, where more people pursue higher education than perhaps any place on earth, a murder occurs about every third day. Aggression in the home has been increasing steadily. Since it has been required to report “battered child” cases, we have observed an alarming increase in this phenomenon. Authorities expect between two and four million cases to be reported this year. About 15,000 of these will suffer permanent brain damage; about 2,000 will die. Many more cases go unreported.

Even more prevalent in society is the failure to control sexual impulses. The number of illegitimate births in this country continues to rise and more than one-quarter of a million occur each year. Twenty-one percent of all births in the United States occur in the age group between twelve and nineteen; half of these girls are unmarried. Teen-age pregnancies have increased by 33 percent within the past five years. Statistics for 1974 show more than one-half million teen-age pregnancies, half of which terminated in abortion. That 50 percent of teen-age marriages end in divorce within five years makes these findings no less disturbing. I have also noticed an increased incidence of homosexuality among young people and also much greater freedom in expressing it.

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These trends hurt the family because they contribute to a change in child rearing that has taken place in this country during the past few decades. Child care has shifted from parents to other agencies. A home in which both parents are available to the child emotionally as well as physically has become the exception rather than the rule.

Cross-cultural studies show that U.S. parents spend less time with their children than parents in almost any other country in the world. Although both Russian parents work and Russian children spend a great deal of time in family collectives, emotional ties between children and parents are stronger and the time spent together considerably greater than in the United States. There is relatively little juvenile delinquency in Russia. Some Russian fathers have said they would never let a day go by without spending two hours with their sons. A study in a small U.S. community shows that the average time per day fathers spend with their very young sons is about 37 seconds.

A child experiences an absent or an emotionally inaccessible parent as rejection. Rejection inevitably breeds resentment and hostility. Depending on the age and particular makeup of the child, and the sex of the parent who is missing or inaccessible, the child when he or she becomes an adult may experience various kinds of crippling emotional conflict. And this can occur in a Christian home quite as well as in a non-Christian home. Consider the following case:

A young man in his late twenties suffers bouts of extreme anxiety and inability to establish close relationships with either sex. He feels worthless and fears others will reject him. When people fail continually to give reassurance that they like him, he is hostile and repeatedly incurs the rejection he fears. He breaks an engagement in a panic that confuses him. At work, he diligently avoids his superiors because all authority makes him extremely uncomfortable. He finds little peace in the avid faith he professes. Since a young boy he has been haunted by the conviction that God has ordained he must some day suffer great physical torture. He consults a doctor and begins to recall vivid childhood experiences. His mother, chronically depressed, was inaccessible to him emotionally. She attempted on occasion to compensate for her neglect by being excessively demonstrative physically. This both aroused and frightened the boy. The father, a busy physician, was seldom home and appeared always preoccupied and irritable. At the slightest provocation, the father would terrify the boy by taking him to the bathroom, removing the boy’s trousers, and beating him with a belt until he drew blood. He would then pick the boy up, hug him and tell how much he loved him. The boy feared, hated, and at the same time loved his father; he struggled all of his life to win his father’s attention. The parents sent the boy to a boarding school at an early age, confirming his feelings of being unwanted. When he returned home for his first vacation his mother immediately left for the hospital to deliver a younger sibling—who then became the focus of the limited attention and affection the parents had to give. So the child grew up excessively dependent, and, enraged by his emotional deprivation—terrified at being rejected and abandoned, and feeling totally worthless—the stage was thus set for the suffering and frustration he experienced as an adult.

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This brief example does not do justice to the complex dynamics that are a part of life, but it illustrates how inaccessible or rejecting parents can cause emotional disorder later in life. Families who are deeply committed, evangelical Christian families, may produce children who grow to be adults with emotional conflicts that interfere with their spiritual growth. As these individuals resolve their conflicts, they are freer to grow spiritually and to come to know God, not as their neurotic conflicts tend to distort him, but as revealed through Scripture and personal experience.

From my clinical experience and from my research with college students, I begin to notice: (1) a large number suffer from an incapacitating emotional problem; (2) they seem to have in common a number of traumatic early experiences with a rejecting, inaccessible, or absent parent; and (3) when we look at their histories carefully, their earlier experiences appear to be directly related to the emotional illness they are suffering as adults.

About ten years ago, I began to study several hundred young men who had dropped out of Harvard for psychiatric reasons. Two characteristics were (1) a marked isolation and alienation from their parents, especially their fathers, and (2) an overwhelming apathy and lack of motivation. In addition, among those who had the most serious illness—those hospitalized and diagnosed as schizophrenic—a large number had lost one or both parents through death. This gave me my first clue that there might be a relationship between a missing parent and emotional illness.

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As I began to work with patients clinically, I realized that absence through death was the most severe kind of absence, but a parent could also be emotionally absent or inaccessible. Research studies are still trying to refine our understanding of this and trying to understand why some children are paralyzed by these experiences and others seem to be unaffected (in the same way some people are paralyzed by polio and others not).

More recently, studies on missing fathers have been conducted in various countries. One study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, analyzed the effect the periodic absence of the father had on 200 children aged three to eighteen at a military clinic, where the absence was due to the father’s military occupation. Researchers found that the children’s early reaction to the father’s departure resembled reactions of those who lose a father by death: (1) rageful protest over desertion, (2) denial of the loss and an intense fantasy relationship with the parent, (3) efforts at reunion, (4) irrational guilt and a need for punishment, (5) exaggerated separation anxieties and fears of being abandoned, (6) a decrease in impulse control, and (7) a wide variety of regressive symptoms.

When the father left home, the child was often allowed to do things not otherwise permitted. This made it difficult for the child to internalize a consistent set of standards for controlling his behavior. In several instances, the father’s leaving was followed by disobedience, decline in school performance, and aggressive antisocial behavior. The child seemed unable to control himself. Such loss of control is especially significant in the light of the observation mentioned earlier that more people today come to psychiatrists because of a lack of impulse control.

Several other recent studies point to the same conclusions: Absent fathers contribute to their child’s (1) low motivation for achievement, (2) inability to defer immediate gratification for later rewards, (3) low self-esteem, and (4) susceptibility to group influence and to juvenile delinquency. The absent father tends to have passive, effeminate, dependent sons lacking in achievement, motivation, and independence. These are general findings; of course, there are many exceptions.

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What about the future? What can we expect if these trends continue? First, the quality of family life will continue to deteriorate, producing a society with a higher incidence of mental illness than ever before. Ninety-five percent of our hospital beds may be taken up by mentally ill patients.

This illness will be characterized primarily by a lack of self-control. We can expect the assassination of people in authority to be a frequent occurrence, as well as events like the sixteen-year-old girl who recently began shooting people “for the fun of it.” Crimes of violence will increase, even those within the family. Because battered children (if they survive) tend to become parents who abuse their children, the amount of violence within the family will increase exponentially. The suicide rate will continue to rise—mostly among teen-agers and those in midlife. In the past twenty years, however, the suicide rate in ten- to fourteen-year-olds has tripled. We already are producing an enormous number of angry, depressed, and suicidal kids.

We will also continue to witness changes in the expression of sexual impulses. As sexuality becomes more unlimited, more separated from family and emotional commitment, the deadening effect will cause more bizarre experimenting and widespread perversion. Jean O’Leary has written in the National Organization for Women publication that lesbianism should be taught in our schools and that school counselors should take courses “to teach a positive view of lesbianism.” And a group in Boston called the Boston Boise Committee has been trying to convince the public that there is nothing “inherently wrong with sex between men and boys,” to lower the age of consent to fourteen, and to change the child molestation laws to reduce legal barriers against such relationships.

What can the church do? Let me offer some suggestions.

1. Place greater emphasis on the Christian responsibility of the family. The two great commandments spoken by Jesus make it clear that our lives must focus on relationships—first of all with God, and then with our neighbor—and successful relationships take time and effort and accessibility. Christ’s story of the good Samaritan implies that our neighbor is the first person we come across in need; and since we are all in need, does that not include first and foremost our family, those who share our home and for whom we have primary responsibility?

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Too often, even in Christian homes, we fail to make ourselves accessible; we take others for granted, and treat children with less respect and courtesy than we give visitors. The church needs to teach Christians how to practice agape in their moment-by-moment interactions within the family. Agape involves stepping out of our own needs sufficiently to become aware of the needs of others and then acting to meet those needs. It involves thought, effort, time, accessibility, and at times sacrifice and self-denial, resources that only our vertical relationship can provide. Christian homes ought to be at least a little more free of the tension and strife and resentment of other families. But even the minister is often so busy taking care of others’ needs that he neglects the emotional and spiritual needs of those for whom he is most responsible.

2. Develop a more sophisticated understanding of emotional illness in order to meet the needs of modern society in the future and minister effectively to the needs of the congregation. The evangelical church, it seems to me, is about forty years behind in its understanding of what modern medicine can do for the emotionally ill. Seminarians need considerably more training in this area. They need to observe psychopathology firsthand so they can recognize it when they see it as pastors, and refer people for medical help before it is too late. A person suffering with an obsessive compulsive neurosis who feels he has committed the unpardonable sin needs psychiatric treatment before he will be emotionally free to draw on the spiritual resources available to him. Pastors need to be able to distinguish between emotional and spiritual problems: though they are often interrelated, they are not synonymous.

3. The church needs to realize more fully its enormous potential for healing, especially of emotional problems medicine has not been able to deal with effectively. Jerome Frank, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, commented at a research conference on alcoholism that little was said about the most consistently effective cure for alcoholism: religious conversion. The church has a healing ministry in many other areas that have only recently been explored.

4. Christian moral values need to be spelled out more clearly. As a nation we appear to be more confused morally than at any time in our history, and the church has failed to give leadership. Perhaps we need to hear a little less about self-fulfillment and a little more about self-denial. Could it be that denial is a key to fulfillment?

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We need to hear more about the infinite worth of a human being, that one child or one spouse transcends in time and significance all of our secular institutions put together—even our institutional churches. Parents today often resent children because they interfere with their “fulfillment.” If a woman of twenty-five with two children, two years apart, gives full time to rearing them until they are eighteen, this leaves her with two-thirds of her adult life to follow whatever interest she desires. Is this too great a sacrifice?

5. Sex is one area of confusion within many Christian homes, and the church should spell out clearly the Christian sexual ethic. The church’s reluctance to speak out clearly on this issue has resulted in confusion within many homes. So many voices in our society point in opposite directions, and enormous stress falls upon the young person who has no clear guidance in this area.

6. Take more steps to curtail the negative influence of television in the home. Most damage comes not from programs that directly attack the Christian faith or standards, but from those that make anti-Christian assumptions and whose attack is subtle and indirect. The impact of television on the home is so pervasive and potentially dangerous that the church cannot afford to ignore it.

7. The church should be more aware of legislation that has a negative influence on the family. Oppose bills that are destructive to the family and support other bills that will be helpful.

When a family disintegrates, both children and adults suffer a form of intense loneliness. Loneliness is an extremely painful and frightening human experience—so painful that modern psychiatry has pretty much avoided the study of it. Today’s drug addicts, alcoholics, workaholics, and even psychotics, may in large measure be attempting to avoid the pain of loneliness.

The first terrifying fear we experience as a child is the fear of being abandoned, of being left alone. Also, according to research on dying patients, the fear of being abandoned is one of the last fears we experience in this life. Because of family disintegration, we all struggle with loneliness at some level thoughout our lives, regardless of how closely we work with people. Professional relationships can never give us the emotional sustenance and support that the close, warm, personal relationships within the family ought to provide.

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Social scientists have recently been trying to clarify scientifically through large surveys what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. These studies describe the most significant prediction of fulfillment and happiness to be family relationships and love within those relationships. Yet we have known this for 2,000 years. If the Scriptures are what they claim to be, “inspired by God … useful for teaching the faith and correcting error … the comprehensive equipment for resetting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living …,” then we might expect to find in them guidelines on how to live on this planet with a sense of fulfillment.

I have found that the time necessary to maintain and nurture these family relationships seldom becomes available unless I schedule it into my day—and give it no less priority than a medical emergency. We need to take time for our vertical relationship, and for relationships with members of the family, whether at home or away. Not only do they need us, but whether we realize it or not, we need them.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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