The family unit is in crisis


As I read about our country’s problems and reflect on proposed solutions to tackle free education, job shortages and the restoration of the land, I keep asking myself whether people will ever get to the most basic problem.

Certainly these things are very important, but I don’t think they will turn our country around unless we attend to the most basic problem of all — the fact that family life is rapidly disintegrating.

In an unstable family situation, young people are not able to mature and make a positive contribution to society. They need the support of loving parents, or parental figures, to make the transition from child to adult.

So many fathers are like honeybees going from flower to flower and many mothers have abandoned their children to the care of a grandmother. What is going to happen when these strong grandmas have gone and the care of children is left to an unstable generation of parents?

When you have so many young men boasting about how many girlfriends they have and young women whose priority is finding financial support, is it altogether out of order to ask where the love is in all this? Where is the basis for a stable family life?

It is within a loving family that young people learn the value of lasting relationships. The whole enterprise of family life, the stability of which depends on love, commitment and faithfulness, is in jeopardy.

As a result, many young people are growing up in unstable and loveless homes where little or no real communication is taking place.

They may end up with very little understanding of relationships beyond sex. Moreover, they may become incapable of forming stable relationships altogether, leading to separations, depression, suicide, drug abuse and other social problems.

In other words, they are in danger of becoming emotionally crippled. Handicapped in this way, they will have great difficulty in building loving families for themselves. In fact, as this situation continues to grow, family life — the very fibre of society — is in danger of falling apart.

The implications of all this are devastating. Many of our boys and young men seem to be lost; they don’t know who they are. We know from developmental psychology that people who don’t know who they are have huge challenges in establishing faithful relationships.

When the time comes to break away from maternal figures and look for a father figure in order to grow up and develop a solid sense of identity and values, who can young men turn to? With whom can they communicate their feelings and needs?

The gangs become appealing to them and the sad reality is that it is only in such company that many feel truly accepted and welcome.

What all this amounts to is a generation growing up — and a generation that has already grown up — seemingly absorbed by a culture that knows nothing about self-discipline, with little or no impulse control or willingness to delay gratification and without any understanding of the give-and-take involved in establishing genuine, loving relationships.

As for the young parents, we have now reached the stage when many of them also have never experienced fidelity and commitment within the confines of their own family life. And so these young parents are scarcely in a position to teach their children by example.

Correct nurturing of children is therefore a big problem. Another crucial issue is communication. Is there genuine communication taking place within our families?

A common description of a family meal regularly goes something like this: “We all get a plate, then we sit down in front of the television.” There is no communication and, of course, this situation nourishes anger. Anger is everywhere.

The one feeling that apparently most people feel free to express is anger. All those emotionally crippled men who cannot share their normal daily feelings seem to have no inhibitions in letting out their anger on women and children — especially when they have been drinking.

But a number of young people, although damaged because of alcohol abuse, drugs, depression or family violence, do succeed in getting employment. Sadly, after a while, many lose their jobs because they do not have the stability or the maturity to hold on to them.

Providing employment for all will not solve this problem, and neither will land or free education. In fact, more than half of all university students drop out without getting a degree. Think of the self-hatred and rage that such a situation can cause.

How can we turn this situation around?

There are no easy answers. It requires serious attention from leadership in the country. Counsellors are desperately needed in schools. We need trained youth workers who can operate out of centres in local neighbourhoods to support young people who face the challenges of growing up in difficult situations — emotional deserts without the possibility of any real communication.

And family counselling centres must be a priority. Families that are trying to get themselves together must be provided with support and the opportunity to network with one another in a safe environment.

Those of us who are adults have a very heavy responsibility to teach the upcoming generation — not by word only, but by example — that they are hearing false messages.

Young people need to realise that, when love and intimacy are divorced from fidelity and commitment, lasting human happiness is jeopardised.

There is no short-cut to achieving those realities.

The Reverend Joseph A Slattery, PhD, is director of religious education for the Catholic diocese of Port Elizabeth and pastor of the Jeffreys Bay/Humansdorp parish

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