Close families and wandering kids

We have all heard the stories from our elders, or even from our peers. Stories about families eating together, going on vacation together, and sharing their lives. Are these stories merely the result of selective memory, nostalgia, or fantasy? Did the Beaver Cleaver world of the 1950s, where the most serious threat to face a family was the Beaver’s troubles with his paper route, ever really exist?
Certainly not to the extent that some people remember it. Life has never been a trouble-free experience, and the same is true for families. There is no denying, however, that many families today appear to be drifting apart to some extent. Many blame the dominance of technology, and it is difficult to refute their claims. Prior to the widespread adoption of television in the 1950s, families had only themselves, the neighborhood, and the radio to fill their evenings, weekends, and free time. Today, in the much vaunted thousand channel universe, along with burgeoning internet technologies, cell phones, video games, and whatever else may have been invented in the time this article was being written, mom, dad, and little brother must seem a very boring alternative indeed to the cornucopia of electronic options offered to young adults.
And young adults are central to the changes that families are undergoing in the early twenty first century. Unlike the families of 100, 50, or even 25 years ago, families of today are focused on teenagers to an unprecedented degree. Due in large part to financial and advertising pressures, the societal demographic between the ages of 12 and 18 is most definitely being heard as well as seen. Desires, insecurity, and lack of long term planning are all at a peak during these years, facts that have not been lost on profit minded advertisers. A society in which this age group wields more financial and social power is a society in which more money is spent.
The side effect of this phenomenon is based on the fact that many teenagers view the world in tribal rather than familial terms. Their opinions, their priorities, their likes and dislikes, all are developed within the context of their peers. Any despairing mother or father who has watched their growing son or daughter fade from the family portrait into the faceless mass of “youth” is familiar with this fact.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is not so simple. Certainly, more authoritarian eras in which children were seen and not heard, and often not respected, had as many problems as today. Perhaps what is needed is a melding of the two rather divergent views of familial propriety, combining what is best from both of them. Parents who wield authority over their children, but also parents who have earned that authority by the respect and love that they show to their children. Children who are allowed increasing amounts of freedom, but who have earned that freedom through a demonstration of maturity and good judgment.
The “close family” is just one of many societal norms that is perhaps not as normal as we would like to believe. Certainly, a family in which everyone gets along and shares is a pleasant place to be, but that should not blind us to the fact that there are many other ways of being. Some children will feel suffocated within the same environment where their siblings thrive. The ultimate test of a caring and supportive family is whether it can allow its members who need it, the space and freedom to be distant.
Some of these distant family members never really return to the family fold. But, not surprisingly, those who are allowed to wander as they grow older most often maintain relations with their family that might have been permanently damaged if they had been held on too short a rein. It is knowledge and understanding of one another, rather than constant proximity, that are the real test of a healthy family unit.