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The hidden costs of the modern family

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If you’re a parent, then maybe this sounds familiar:

The alarm bleats. You swat it quiet then wash, brush, and dress in a flurry. While breakfast cooks and coffee percolates, you make up the day’s lunches and shout up the stairs for your kids to get ready. You feed the cat, run the dishwasher, check a few emails you don’t have time to answer, and run upstairs to prep your not-in-the-least-ready kids for school.

Parenting is a tough job. Balance it atop the already daunting pile of tasks that encompass our work and home lives, and the whole thing feels liable to come crashing down on top of us. Many parents are overworked, overstressed, and overwhelmed. And what’s worse, it doesn’t seem like there’s much we can do about it. With long hours, stagnating wages, and a turbulent economic future, looking forward can sometimes offer more questions than answers.

So maybe it’s worth looking back. Way back.

The family unit as we know it might seem natural, but it’s actually a fairly new phenomenon. Historically, our ancestors lived much more communally, in bands of 20 to 30 individuals. The whole group functioned as something like a cohesive family unit, and children were raised by many adults, not just their parents.

As society modernized, the communal approach to parenting began to change. Large clans fragmented into smaller groups, families spread out over greater distances, and parents had fewer children. The "nuclear family" became the de facto makeup of most households. And with this change, emphasis shifted from the clan to the individual — from "us" to "me."

We can’t help but wonder if this is truly the best way to structure our lives. After all, humans are social beings. Forming close bonds with others has always been critical for our survival, and not simply because newborns are unable to fend for themselves.

Parents give children far more than just food and shelter. They provide them with the interactive stimulation their brains need to properly develop. The drive to seek this stimulation as children — and to provide it as parents — is hardwired into us. It’s why children love to play, and why we as adults can naturally and unselfconsciously play with them. It may seem trivial, but that game of I spy or peekaboo is doing far more than eliciting a few satisfied giggles. It’s strengthening the neural connections essential for emotional maturity and higher thought.

Large clans provide a lot more opportunity for this sort of growth than do small, isolated groups. Though school and work provide us with important social outlets, the most nourishing interactions are derived from frequent contact with a core group of caring individuals — in short, a family.

We need to shift back to an earlier, more communal notion of family. There are a number of ways to do this. Policy is one avenue — tax incentives for grandparents providing short- or long-term childcare or employers that allow flexibility for family time, for instance.

Ultimately, though, the change we need is not procedural, but cultural. We need to understand and embrace the fact that families matter, just as we need to expand our concept of what a family is. There is room in the definition for friends and neighbours alongside grandparents, aunts and uncles. By broadening our network of support, we not only make life a lot easier for ourselves, we also furnish our children with more opportunities for neural development, and make our communities kinder, more supportive places to live.

Imagine the scene at the start of this article occurring in a household with just a bit of extra family support. Suddenly, not everything needs to happen at once. Maybe mom or dad tends to the kids while grandpa cooks breakfast. Or maybe the neighbourhood parents take turns shepherding the local kids to the bus stop, allowing off-duty moms and dads the chance to check — and actually answer — those emails.

If our culture as a whole placed more value on family ties, be they with blood relations or simply a supportive community, many of the stresses of daily life could be alleviated. Children would form more vital neural connections, get more brain-nourishing interaction, and grow into secure, happy, family-oriented individuals. The result is better for us, and it’s better for our kids.


Nicole Letourneau is a professor in the faculties of nursing and medicine at the University of Calgary. Justin Joschko is a freelance writer currently residing in Ottawa. Their co-authored book, Scientific Parenting, has just been released with Dundurn Press.


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