What do we mean by family? Traditionally we have thought of the family
as being composed of husband, wife and child/children i.e. the nuclear family. However, one
of the features of the Australian society is the changing of the family both in size and
The changing family context includes an increase in divorce which
tripled in the decade 1972 - 1982 and in the late 1980's 38% of the marriages ended
in divorce. For this and other reasons one-parent families have increased and in 1982 made
up 12.6% of all families in Australia. This group, and the proportion of the people who
remain single through death or separation form approximately 1/3 of Australia's adult
population. Thus one out of every adult Australians does not fit into the nuclear family
model. Other family structures include step-families and foster families.
What are the implications of changes in family constellations? Kazdin
(1992) writes that "changes in the family constellations have important implications
for child and adolescent mental health. Divorce rates within the last two decades have
increased the number of youth living in arrangements other than two-parent families.
Approximately 1/3 of the children born in the 1980's are likely to live with a step
parent during part of their childhood". Kazdin goes on to say that "changes in
family life increase a burden on everyday functioning and serve as a condition that places
youth at risk for adjustment problems. Children of separated and divorced families are
more likely to have behavioural and academic problems at school and to be seen by mental
He further writes that "births to unmarried women have increased
thus increasing the number of youth raised by single parents." He then points out
that "the children born to teen mothers are also at risk for untoward consequences."
The offspring are likely to show lower academic achievement, greater cognitive deficits,
to be victims of physical abuse, to exhibit behavioural problems in school and to be
adolescent parents themselves, relative to children born to mothers who are older.
Sweet Jr (1991) writes that "the likelihood that the biological
parents of a particular child will marry and stay together throughout the period of child
rearing is lower today than at any time in the past. Other children may never live with,
or even know their fathers".
My current work in the Department for Family and Community Services
involves the assessment of children who have been abused either sexually, emotionally or
physically. It is not unusual for all the children in the family to have different
fathers. For example a mother with four children, each child can have a different father.
Invariably some of these children have never seen their fathers or have minimal contact
with them. This practice is not just limited to parents in low socio-economic strata. This
is found in all strata of society. Hollywood is no exception. This was portrayed in an
article in the Advertiser. The Magazine section ran a story on the actress Jessica Lange
who was quoted to have said "You're with somebody, want to sleep with somebody
else or have some kind of minor dalliance, or whatever... that's acceptable as long
as you know where your home is, who your partner is".
Also a story in the Sunday Mail on movie and pop star Madonna
read that "she is seriously considering life as a single mother". "I
definitely see having a child," she said. "I don't think you have to be in
a long-term relationship with a man to have one, though it would be nice". These
attitudes and practices have led to a breakdown of the family unit.
Sweet Jr (1991) states that "many of the men who have fathered
children in the so called single-parent families are among the most influential persons in
their childrens' lives... The absent parent... who is neither attempting to
financially support his children nor supporting their mother's efforts to rear
them... is still having a tremendous negative influence." This is not surprising as
Brian (1992) points out that "the patterns of interaction, coping and identity
formation acquired through experience in the family environment are fundamental to
interactions with other socialising influences, and serve to prepare the child effectively
or ineffectively to meet the challenges of development and social life."
Thus the child's experience of family life will have a profound
effect on his attitude to relationships, authority, society and, indeed, life in general.
In this sense the family can be considered as the natural and fundamental unit of society
which plays an important role in the stability or the instability of society. This is very
poignantly elucidated by `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh the
19th century prophetic figure whose growing influence is the most remarkable development
of contemporary religious history. `Abdu'l-Bahá spent many months in Europe and
America expounding and interpreting his father's writings. He states that
"compare the nations of the world to the members
of a family. A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household
and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations and you have all humanity. The
conditions surrounding the family surround the nation. The happenings in the family are
the happenings in the life of the nation. Would it add to the progress and advancement of
a family if dissensions should arise among its members, fighting, pillaging each other,
jealous and revengeful of injury, seeking selfish advantage? Nay, this would be the cause
of the effacement of progress and advancement. So it is in the great family of nations,
for nations are but an aggregate of families." (`Abdu'l-Bahá, 1983)
The repercussions of conflict within a family is readily highlighted by
Amato (1993) who wrote
"when children are exposed to interparental hostility, they
tend to react with negative emotions, such as fear or anger. In addition, children are
often drawn into the conflict between parents and are forced to take sides, which is not
only stressful but results in deteriorations in parent-child relationships. Furthermore,
through modelling verbal or physical aggression, parents convey the idea that fighting is
an appropriate method for dealing with disagreements which may lead to an increase in
Donald Stewart in his address on violence and family in 1982 at the
institute of Family Studies stated that "one of the paradoxes of our society is that
the group to which most of us looks for love and gentleness is also the most violent
civilian group or institution in our society." Koss (1990) reported that 31% of
married women experience violence in their relationship.
Donald Stewart further writes that "apart from physical violence,
there is also emotional stress and conflict caused by verbal abuse, neglect of partner,
and children and what comes under the catch-all term of 'mental cruelty'".
In my initial work with the Department for Family and Community
Services, in South Australia most of my time was taken with the assessment of juvenile
offenders. As a member of an assessment panel this entailed furnishing the Court with
recommendations specifying future courses of action to mitigate against further
infringement of the law and most importantly to help rehabilitate the offender.
The range of offences and charges were varied, viz.:
Robbery with violence
Larceny (Petty stealing)
Arson (setting fires)
School truancy / behavioural acting out problems
Drug related offences
There were certain characteristics prevalent and recurring in the
cases, although their family circumstances were unique in each situation. They generally
A low self-esteem
Had experienced rejection not only overtly but covertly, i.e. most of
their actions were unacceptable by their parents
Majority had experienced learning difficulties
They had accomplished very little successfully and had no goals or
directions - preferred to drift - or had unrealistic goals
Had difficulties in interpersonal relationships and often were loners
The only fear was the fear of getting caught
Had little regard for authority
The salient features of their families were:
Relationship difficulties between their parents
Parent's uncertainty and lack of convictions in management of
their children - lack of parenting skills
Almost all had, at some stage, used physical punishment as a last
resort when all else had failed. However, with minimum success
Other compounding factors were:
When one parent-figure was absent figuratively i.e. delegated the total
responsibility of the children to the other partner
Unresolved issues following separation/divorce - children became the
pawn between feuding parents
Excess consumption of alcohol and drug abuse
Double standards - where parents taught one thing and did another
Also what was significant was that the parents had themselves negative
experiences in their childhood. Convincingly, it reaffirmed a snowball effect whereby each
generation transmitted their own uncertainty, misgivings and lack of direction to the next
generation. Sadly, many of these children became the scapegoats of society.
This personal observation is further affirmed by Donald Stewart in his
address on violence and family in 1982 at the Institute of Family Studies where he stated
that "many families in Australia today are undergoing extensive and rapid changes
which have left many floundering and perplexed. Many people have found themselves in
circumstances in which social norms have collapsed inducing a state of personal
Statistics about offenders show that "one in five South Australian
children appeared before a children's Court or aid panel during their
adolescence" as reported in the Juvenile Justice Research Bulletin 1992. What about
the cost to society? Kazdin (1992) points out that "the consequences of delinquent
acts for others and for society at large includes disability, suffering, and death of
victims; costs of treatment, rehabilitation and incarceration; and the costs of property
damage and theft".
Therefore it is easy to see that the kind of values and practices that
family members adopt has important ramifications for society at large. In other words,
values have social consequences. Bergin (1980) wrote that "if one considers the 50
billion dollars a year we spend on social disorders like venereal disease, alcoholism,
drug abuse and so on, these are major symptoms of social problems. Their roots I assume
lie in values, personal conduct and social philosophy."
Thus it is our attitudes, values, principles and beliefs that modulate
our actions and have a profound effect on our behaviour. The immediate question is,
"who sets the standard?" In the Bahá'í Faith it is acknowledged that the source
of man's guidance has been from God through his manifestations, prophets or
messengers. It is people's adherence to the teachings of these messengers that
essentially forms the basis of their value system. In one sense the spiritual teachings of
all the major religions are similar insofar as they emphasise that the basis of humanity
is the acquisition of virtues, eg. love, honesty, trustworthiness, consideration, respect,
honour, justice, humility and truthfulness.
These virtues are most effectively inculcated in children within the
context of family life. In the Bahá'í Faith the acquisition of virtues is
fundamental to the development of one's spiritual life. `Abdu'l-Bahá
writes that "according to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh the family being
a human unit must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be
taught the family." Let us look at what happens when we neglect to do so.
In the Public Service Review 1988 was written that "there has
recently been a spate of unsubstantiated allegations about corruption in public
administration. The response of the government has been for specific details so that these
can be investigated. The best protection the South Australian community has against the
growth of corruption in the public administration is the fostering of high ethical
standards amongst public servants." A further example on a global level is indicated.
In the 1985 International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling. The introduction
opened with the following statement: "People live in all latitudes of a world in
total crisis: social, economical and political. There is a nationwide and individual
crisis of moral values."
The decline in moral/ethical values is costly both in terms of time and
money where much energy is needed to combat and there is a clear direction, that if we are
to rise above this moral crisis we have to pursue the fostering of high ethical values. It
is in the family that ethical values and habits are formed and carried to the work place.
David Johnson in his book Reaching Out writes that
makes us human in the way we interact with other people. To the extent that our
relationships reflect kindness, mercy, consideration, tenderness, love concern,
compassion, cooperation, responsiveness and caring, we are becoming more human. In
humanising relationships, individuals are sympathetic and responsive to human needs. In
de-humanising relationships, people are divested of those qualities that are uniquely
human and are turned into machines, in the sense that they are treated in impersonal ways
that reflect unconcern with human values. To be inhuman is to be unmoved by the suffering
of others, to be unkind, even cruel and brutal. In a deep sense, the way we relate to
others and the nature of the relationship we build and maintain determine what kind of
people we become".
In context of the family the acquisition of virtues will have a marked
effect on marital and parent-child relationships. It promotes the development of love and
unity and strengthens the bonds in the relationships and provide the much-needed strength
at times of stress and difficulties.
On this point `Abdu'l-Bahá- writes that "If love and
agreement are manifest in a single family, that family will advance, become illumined and
spiritual; but if enmity and hatred exist within it, destruction and dispersion are
inevitable". The ramification of this statement is borne out when we consider the
diverse and varied programmes and courses, available to families with a view of marital
enrichment and enhanced family interaction, having failed to avert one of the social
problems that of marriage breakdowns and child abuse and neglect.
Techniques provided in the courses are only tools. Without a set of
sound values and morals, techniques alone cannot fully equip us to strengthen the social
fabric of society, the family. The acquisition of positive qualities and attributes viz.
honesty, truthfulness, kindness is the foundation, on which other social transactions in
the community, government organisations, political forums are modelled. It is indeed the
acquisition of virtues that will help to foster what `Abdu'l-Bahá asserted in
this quote: "According to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh the family, being
a human unit, must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be
taught to the family."
`Abdu'l-Bahá further writes that "the integrity of the
family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of the individual members must
not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother, none of these must be
transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary." This statement is most pertinent when
we consider the rights of men, women, and children in the family.
Consider men and women's rights. Historically women have usually
been held in a subordinate position to men. It was in the 17th century when a world wide
restlessness, a protest against a long history of subjugation, became evident. Just before
the turn of the 19th century women's plight seemed to obtain a hearing. In 1870, Mary
Wolstonecraft's book Vindication of the Right's of Women was published.
However it was sometime later that the long cry for freedom was heard. Gathering momentum,
the 19th century became brighter with the names of many women who through sheer
determination, courage and hardship, obtained not only education but also entered into
many facets of the social services and public affairs. (Conrader 1972)
Referring to women's achievements, John Huddleston points out that
"most notably they now have equal voting rights in just about every country in the
world where executive and legislative branches of government are elected by the people.
Women have also won high office: they have been elected to legislative Assemblies and have
become ministers and in several instances prime ministers during the last two decades.
However, it should be noted that the number of women reaching high office has been very
small compared with the number of men." Why is this so? Especially when we consider
that attempts by Governments particularly in the Western World have been to redress this
When we consider, as pointed out by Caton, (1987) that "we live in
societies where male standards not only dominate and define the social system, but also
have long accepted as the psychological and social standard of behaviour", it is
understandable that many women are still victims of their own socialisation.
This was brought home poignantly when, as a teenager residing in Sri
Lanka I had my first real feeling of outrage witnessing a wedding ceremony. Amongst all
the pomp, glory and regalia was the demonstration in which the bride knelt down on her
knees and kissed the floor at the bridegroom's feet and fed him the sweets provided,
symbolic of her pledge to a life of devotion and service. His presentation to her of goods
was symbolic of his pledge to provide for her materially. My intense feeling of
indignation was triggered by the social milieu which defined the limiting role of the
women as the nurturer and the man as the provider.
The constraints of sex-role socialisation are powerfully depicted by
Sundal-Hansen, (1985) who wrote
"the sex-role socialisation literature presents
forceful evidence that social roles are learned and that both women and men are limited by
the social and cultural constraints that keep them from developing their full potential.
There can be little doubt that women have been limited most, both economically and
psychologically, by their socialization and the stereotypes associated with the female
When we consider that throughout history it has been within the family
that knowledge, wisdom, prejudice and fears of men have been passed down from generation
to generation, it is also within the family that pervasiveness of sex-role stereotyping
and its limiting effects are passed down. What do we mean by sex-role stereotyping?
Chetwynd and Harnett (1978) give their definition of the male and
female stereotypes. "The male stereotype is one of dominance, aggressiveness,
objectivity, and problem solver; the female stereotype is one of passivity, tenderness,
subjectivity and dependence."
So long as the family perpetuates these stereotypes, will the battle of
the sexes ensue. The equality between men and women implies changes in and for both men
and women each acquiring traits formerly assigned to the other. It calls for co-operation
and sharing for both men and women in reducing the dichotomy of power, roles and behaviour
styles that have been prevalent in society.
An example of behavioural style where physical force has been an
entrenched pattern used to resolve conflict by males is brought home by the debate on
television. I am sure most of you would have seen or read the fiery dialogue that took
place between Ron Casey, 2KY radio broadcaster and Jana Wendt, Channel 9 ex-current
affairs hostess. I would like to quote from The Advertiser what Ron Casey was
reported to have said to Jana. "She wants to bully every one from the Prime Minister
down, he said. But she is not going to get away with it with me. If she were a man you
would jump over the table and hit her. But she hasn't got balls so you
can't." This just highlights the prevalent thinking in some men on reliance on
violence as a quick solution to resolving conflict with little thought to its destructive
`Abdu'l-Bahá foretold of the future balance of masculinity
and femininity in society.
"The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man
has dominated over women by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of
the body and mind. But the balance is already shifting - force is losing its weight and
mental alertness, intuition and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which
woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine
and more permeated with the feminine ideals - or, to speak more exactly, will be
an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilisation will be more evenly
The call is for transformation of society and women's and
men's place in it, one sex cannot redefine its role without having a powerful effect
on the other. Caton (1987) points out that "the issue of inequality cannot be
resolved merely by keeping men and women apart. Both must confront the attitudes and
behaviours that have kept men in the position of power and control over women."
Equally both need to address "the tremendous loss in human resources from the lack
of women's full participation in social, economic and political
life." (Sundal-Hansen 1985).
There has to be an acknowledgment that equality is the responsibility
of all. "Men need to learn the tremendous obstacles that women are up against in
their daily lives and then to encourage and support women to make advances" (Tavana
As `Abdu'l-Bahá asserts, "as long as women are
prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to
achieve the greatness which might be theirs." This can be a great incentive for men
where through their genuine support of women they can maximise their own achievement.
However, women also need to demonstrate their commitment to arise and
acquire what is rightfully theirs. `Abdu'l-Bahá points out that, "women
must endeavour then to attain greater perfection to be men's equal in every respect,
to make progress in all which she has been backward, so that man will be compelled to
acknowledge her equality of capacity and attainment."
So it is vital that women make a concerted effort to develop their
capacities and participate in full partnership with men in all fields.
The principal of equality between men and women is an essential tenet
of the Bahá'í Faith. Patricia Wilcox in her book Bahá'í Families
writes about the equality of men and women:
"This new paradigm in human relationships
is of special significance to the family because it is here that we experience the most
sustained and intimate interface of male/female relationships from our earliest, most
impressionable years. It requires husbands and wives to revolutionise ancient roles and
attitudes, to tear down traditional patterns of dominance and submission and yet to
achieve this in such a way that, rather than setting the stage for a battle of wills, the
foundation is laid for such unity and harmony. Developing from infancy in such an
atmosphere of unity and harmony, sisters and brothers will view one another as equals and
will learn the lessons of mutual co-operation, support and respect, taking as an enduring
example the relationships portrayed daily by their parents."
With regards to parenting roles and responsibilities the Bahá'í
writings affirm that "That the first teacher of the child is the mother should not be
startling, for the primary orientation of the infant is to its mother. This provision of
nature in no way minimises the role of the father in the Bahá'í family. Again, the
equality of status does not mean identity of function." (Universal House of
And again from the Bahá'í writings: "although the mother is
the first educator of the child and the most formative influence in his development, the
father also has the responsibility of educating his children." (Universal House of
There are many studies which attest to the important role parents play
in the education of their children. Karpowitz (1980) writes that Lamb (1976), in his
excellent review of the role of the father in child development, concludes that the
effects of maternal and paternal child rearing are different and that both are needed for
maximum child growth and development. He summarises, "all the evidence we have
suggests that child rearing is most enjoyable, most enriching, and most successful when it
is performed jointly by two parents in the contexts of a secure marital relationship." He
goes on to say that "unfortunately much of the stress on women's rights has
focused on adult male and female rights and need of children or the family as a whole.
Failure to examine these consequences may have undesirable effects on the family and all
its members, effects that are unforeseen and unwarranted by all family members. One cannot
look at family members in isolation."
This point made by Lamb is brought home in the last part of the quote
of `Abdu'l-Bahá where he states "all these rights and prerogatives must
be conserved, yet the unity of the family must be sustained. The injury of one shall be
considered the injury of all, the comfort of each, the comfort of all, the honour of one
the honour of all." Support for this proposition of `Abdu'l-Bahá has
recently come from Dr. Glen Cuppit who in his opening address to a National Early
Intervention conference held in Adelaide said that "it is important not to treat the
family as a collection of individuals, but we need to treat the family as a corporate
entity. That which impact on one family member affect all the family members."
Many of the current trends in family therapy address this very issue,
namely that the problem member or the scapegoat in the family is alerting to the pain and
the suffering of the family. Much of the work of the therapist is aimed at restructuring
and redressing the family coalitions and alliances so that individual needs can be met and
not sacrificed and in which the marital boundary and parent-child boundaries are clearly
In conclusion it is sufficient to reiterate that whatever vision we may
hold or have for a future society characterised by peace and harmony, it is in the family
that we can realise these goals. As the family is the most significant influence on the
development of the individual, values, attitudes and perceptions of life are readily
shaped by the quality of the marital and parent-child relationships.
In conclusion I quote from `Abdu'l-Bahá who writes that
"according to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, the family being a human unit
must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be taught the
family. The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of
the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the
mother, none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son
has certain obligations to his father, the father likewise has certain obligations to his
son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have certain prerogatives.
All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved, yet the unity of the family must be
sustained. The injury of one shall be considered the injury of all; the comfort of each
the comfort of all; the honour of one the honour of all." (The Promulgation of
Universal Peace, p. 163)
`Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in Women Equality and
Development, compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice,
Bahá'í World Centre, 1986 p. 14, ibid, p.34.
`Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in Bahá'í Marriage and Family
Life, compiled by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada,
`Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in Bahá'í Education,
compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Bahá'í World
Centre, August 1976, p.20.
`Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talk, 1961, U.K. Edition, p.133.
Amato, P.R. (1993), "Contact with Non-custodial Fathers and
Children's Wellbeing", Family Matters, No.36, December.
Barber, B., (1992). "Family, Personality, and Adolescent Problem
Behaviours", Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54: 69-79.
Bergin, A.E.,(1980), "Psychotherapy and Religious Values", Journal
of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol.48, No.1, 95-105.
Caton, P., (1987), Equal Circles, p.XVIII-XIX.
Chatwynd and Hartnett, D., (Eds) (1978), The Sex Role System,
London: Routledge and Kegan, P., As quoted in Sundal-Hansen ibid.
Conrader, C., (1972), Women: Attaining their Birthright,
Huddleston, J., Achieving Peace by the year 2000, p.22
Johnson, D.W., (1981), Reaching Out, p.5. (Second Edition),
Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 07632.
Karpowitz, D.H., "A Conceptualisation of the American
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Kazdin, A., (1992), "Child and Adolescent Dysfunction and Paths
Toward Maladjustment: Targets For Intervention", Clinical Psychology Review,
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Koss, (1990), Quoted by Harway, M., "Training Issues in Working
with Violent Families", Family Violence and Sexual Assault Bulletin, Vol.8
No.2, Summer 1992.
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Sundal-Hansen, S., (1985), "New Age Roles",. International
Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 8:5-15.
Sunday Mail, January 17, 1993.
Sweet, R.W. Jr., (1991), "Strengthening Our Families, Fortifying
Our Nation", Juvenile and Family Court Journal, vol.42 no.3.
Tavana, S., Dialogue, Summer/Fall, 1986, p.20.
The Advertiser, Saturday March 18, 1989, p.12.
Universal House of Justice, Women Equality and Development,
compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Bahá'í World
Centre, 1986, p.28.
Wilcox, P., Bahá'í Families, 1991, p.36. George Ronald Publisher.