It has been distressing in recent times to witness the debates in the press about access to children for separating partners. We hear of children murdered by one partner merely to deprive the other. We hear of children pushed and pulled between households without seemingly any concern for their welfare. We despair for such children.
My experience as a young person was so different to this. We were a tight-knit family. Both my father and mother had only basic primary school eduction.
Yet my father was proficient at many things. He extended and renovated the house. One of his hobbies was making gunstocks. People used to bring their clocks to him to fix. He helped us repair our first motorcycles and cars. He loved the outdoors and was never happier than when in the bush. He used to rob wild bee hives. There was often in the outside laundry a muslin bag full of honeycomb dripping into a bucket. And despite his lack of formal education he read a lot. When I got to university studying engineering he used to ask me questions about fluid dynamics and how the various types of governors worked.
My mother played the piano. She had had a few lessons when she was young, but was largely self-taught. Whilst she could read music she played readily by ear. She held in her head a huge range of popular songs from the 1930’s and 1940’s. We had frequent gatherings of the extended family which usually ended up with mum playing the piano while the rest of us sang. But she also had more than a smattering of knowledge of classical music. When I heard something nice on the radio I’d ask her what the music was and she’d say, “Oh, that’s Bach’s Air on the G String” or “That’s Liszt’s Liebestraume”. I can remember when quite young mum and dad taking me to a travelling production of Rigoletto. Once we went to a performance by a travelling Polish Concert Pianist whose name I have forgotten. At this stage we didn’t own a car, so the outing normally required us to walk a couple of miles to the venue. Music has been a large part of my life ever since.
My mother was a great cook and managed the household economy very well. Whilst my father earned only a labourer’s wage, we wanted for nothing. She sewed a bit and made my school uniform shirts. When she had a few shillings to spare she would buy some little luxury item and store it in the cupboard. “That’s for Christmas,” she would say.
Being an old-fashioned (and undervalued) housewife, she was always there when I got home from school and invariably asked how the day had gone. There was always the opportunity if I wanted to avail myself of it, to talk through the issues of the day.
My sister married early and left home when I was quite young. My three brothers, however, were all at home until I left for University. We did a lot of things together. Most weekends would find us on the Burdekin River camping and fishing. My brothers were keen and very competent shooters and we ate lots of wild ducks in the season. What we caught and shot were a welcome supplement to the family larder.
But more than anything else the family was a place of belonging. My father and mother didn’t always see eye to eye but they didn’t argue in front of us and anger and aggression were seldom seen. (Except for when my parents played cribbage as they regularly did and when my mother would beat my father he would throw down his cards and in mock anger call her an ‘old witch’!) I, and I am sure my siblings as well, knew whatever happened they would be there to support us. They seemed never happier than when we all came together for some occasion or other. I felt it was somehow a privilege to belong to the “Scott family”.
It is comforting to feel supported and wanted. You knew you could take a few risks in life when you had this substantial support platform behind you.
It is pleasing that my children and those of my sister and married brothers all seem to have maintained this sense of family. But it is concerning to see that so many young people don’t have the benefit of this stabilising and supportive influence.
Now, as a father, I realise the joy of family realises as much benefit to the parents of a close-knit family as it does to the children. The Buddha is reputed to have said that if you carried your parents around on your shoulders for the rest of their lives you could not repay your debt to them. This is not a sentiment I could agree with. I am sure I have gained as much from my relationship with my children as ever they have. Indeed having my children by me has helped me weather some of the tougher times in my life. My expectation, rather than for gratitude, is that we should have a close, adult relationship. Sure, I like to help them when they can – but they help me in many ways too.
I am certain being a member of such a family facilitated my own personal growth particularly as a teenager and into early adulthood. It is harder to maintain such relationships now. One of the factors acting against families is our mobility – we are far more mobile than we used to be. (This of course brings benefits as well.) In pursuit of employment, a mate or adventure, our children move away from us. When remote from us and they encounter problems they don’t have parents or an older brother or sister to turn to. More than likely they will turn to their peer group for advice, members of which are unlikely to have the life experience of senior family members. (Mind you there is always a danger also that in some areas of knowledge family members might also be inexperienced and ill-advised!)
Because a family provides its members with some social support, young people can be more careful about what other groups they choose to belong to. Our social needs can be strong drivers and when a young person is isolated they will often align with inappropriate groups just to assuage their need to belong.
No doubt we are predisposed genetically to love our children. Those parents who are well-adjusted, will indeed love their children unconditionally. Such love is a hugely beneficial gift that nurtures more than anything the process of our becoming. A good family environment provides not only this but a mostly pleasant social experience and a resilient support mechanism. That is why I find the decline of the family such a cause of concern.