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The importance of the family as a whole in child-rearing and the negative consequences of family breakdown.
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Author affiliation: South Australian Department for Family and Community Services

Requisites for Family Unity:
The Role of the Father in the Family

by Safoura Chittleborough

published in The Family: Our Hopes and Challenges
Roseberry: Association for Bahá'í Studies Australia, 1995
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 composition.

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 health professionals."

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 child aggression."

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
    Sexual abuse
    Drug related offences

There were certain characteristics prevalent and recurring in the cases, although their family circumstances were unique in each situation. They generally had:

    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 disorganisation."

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

"what 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 imbalance.

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 role."

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 consequences.

`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 balanced."

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 1986).

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 Justice).

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 Justice).

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 delineated.

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, 1983 p.29.

`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, pp.9-10.

Huddleston, J., Achieving Peace by the year 2000, p.22

ibid, p.44.

ibid, p.132.

ibid, p.31

ibid, p.29

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 Family", in Fine, M. J. (Ed.) Handbook On Parent Education, 1980, p.37, Academic Press, Inc.

Kazdin, A., (1992), "Child and Adolescent Dysfunction and Paths Toward Maladjustment: Targets For Intervention", Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 12 pp.795-817.

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.

Research Bulletin; Juvenile Justice I; Office of Crime Statistics, 1992.

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.

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