Sex in a Sustainable World Part 9: Expanding Family & Parenting Possibilities

It’s often been said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Some researchers believe that at one time, this was much more common in a very literal sense. Ryan and Jethá talk about the concept of “partible paternity” in sexually open cultures, i.e., those where women may have sex with multiple men and vice-versa within a community. Because there is often uncertainty about who a father is, all men in a given community take some responsibility for each child.

Whoa! Take a minute to absorb all of that.

See all posts in this series.

This resonated with me because I’ve served as a foster parent, and our current foster system is essentially a centralized replacement for supports that communities likely once provided to each other. The foster system has many hard-working, caring people, but it also has its limitations and can be incredibly frustrating.

For example, it’s difficult to avoid the sense that birth and foster families are pitted against one another. The former struggles to create necessary changes so they can have their child back, while the latter becomes increasingly attached to the child and may resent having to give them up. Not an easy situation for anyone involved.

In a society where extended families and communities where partible paternity were the norm, a single parent’s struggles wouldn’t result in a child being bounced back and forth between completely separate families. Many attachment and abandonment concerns could be avoided.

The concerns go well beyond foster care. Child care and education are highly geographically dispersed and professionalized, often under the control of multiple layers of bureaucracy. This has some benefits, like standardization, but what are the implications for localization and mobility?

Many of today’s kids get bussed all over the place, often even when there’s a school just up the street. Attending school-related functions, birthday parties of classmates, and so on, parents often spend significant amounts of time in the car, meeting other parents from all over town. Each family then has less time to connect with families in their immediate neighborhood.

Sometimes we geographically disperse kids for seemingly noble reasons, like socioeconomic and racial integration. Other times, however, we don’t want our kids to be exposed to someone else’s kids, especially when we fear their parents may not have raised them properly. Sometimes, unfortunately, this fear is legitimate. Our kid(s) could very well be subjected to bullying, dangerous habits, and so on. But what are some of the driving forces behind this?

As noted earlier in this series, in our “personal property ownership” system, kids are viewed as a single couple or parent’s personal responsibility. Whether it’s accurate or not, we often view their outcomes as a reflection upon our efforts as a parent.

We want to select the best educational product to give our kids an advantage in the competitive marketplace—a world where they’ll grow up to mate with a single long-term partner. And that had better be a darn good partner we approve of, because they’re going to be the only one truly looking after our child when we’re not, and it’s essentially going to be the two of them versus the rest of the world.

Because of the above, we accept the costs of geographic dispersion, ranging from being bused across town to attending a college on the other side of the continent. It’s great to have such freedom, but what are the implications for cohesiveness of local communities vs. increasing dependence upon large and centralized bureaucracies to assist with child well-being issues?

In many cases, we may feel the need to uproot and move (which takes a lot of energy) so we can be in a neighborhood with desirable schools and “good” kids. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi detail in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, this has major implications for family economics. One reason many modern families require two working parents is that competition to live in the catchment areas of the best schools has rapidly driven up real estate prices. We’re willing to make high mortgage payments when we fear that our children’s very survival may be at stake.

Yes, there are other economic factors at play, such as the multitude of not-really-essential modern gadgets and conveniences that most of us spend money on, but the real estate factor is a significant one. (The book noted above was written in 2004, but current foreclosure issues suggest it’s still a salient topic.)

The other piece with real estate is that our average home size, at least in the US, has increased significantly since the 1970’s–although alongside the shifting economy, it is soon finally expected to decline from its 2007 peak of  2,500 square feet. Competition to show that we’re doing well for our individual family has likely driven some of this growth.

Additionally, I can’t help but wonder if many people feel cramped and claustrophobic around their immediate family, and attempt to resolve this with more space: a larger yard for the kids, along with a basement rec room for them to hang out in; a man cave in the garage to provide an escape.

Sure, we love our immediate families tremendously. But let’s be brutally honest and throw our political correctness out the door. (And read Naked Idealism if you believe you’re overly politically correct.) Could our penchant for larger houses be an indicator that many of us would function better with more relationship variety?

Whatever the case, when a child has only two primary adult caregivers and both of them are working full-time to cover things like the mortgage, that doesn’t leave much time for kids. Additionally, as we know from the high foreclosure rates in the US, many families can no longer even keep up. The stress from this can’t have a good impact upon children either.

How would all of this change if society were open to a broader range of family structures, perhaps embracing some form of partible paternity, where several members of a small community would look out for any given child?

Would the greater sexual openness result in less competitive energy, thus reducing the school and real estate competition?

Would families be a bit larger and share home expenses across more adults?

Would kids get more parental attention, which would also benefit some of those same “problem kids” that we don’t want our kids to be around?

Might adults simultaneously get more free time due to greater division of labor and economic responsibilities?

Related to this last item, most comprehensive marriage and sexuality books I’ve seen emphasize the importance of couples making time for romantic intimacy even once they have children. Some discuss how difficult it can be nowadays, and how failure to do so sets a poor relationship example for the children. Might this also be easier if we distributed family responsibilities across small communities rather than among just one or two parents?

As noted earlier, responsibilities already are distributed, with youngest children often spending much of their time in daycare, and older children spending much of their time in school and summer camps. But in the current setup, a child gets to know each professional caregiver for only a year or so, which is likely a very different relationship than the longer-term bonds formed within a tightly knit community.

These professional caregiving relationships may be even shorter when job turnover is considered. Granted, there will be some turnover within any community as individuals come and go for various reasons, but there will likely be more consistency than within an entirely professional caregiver network.

Yes, it helps to have a single parent or couple who is ultimately responsible for a child, to avoid too much diffusion of responsibility. However, some degree of this would likely still be possible in a system where responsibilities were more shared.

Many policy and legal considerations would need to be worked through, and the world of yesteryear also had its share of downsides for kids and families. But that alone is no reason to discount consideration of new possibilities, or to seek positive elements of our past that may be beneficial.

For many, “traditional nuclear family” arrangements may continue to work great, and could be respected, while others could try alternative arrangements if they wished.

A lot has been written on the lessening popularity of the traditional nuclear family, as though it will inevitably lead to a collapse of society. That, of course, is subject to debate, and remains a favorite hot-button issue during election time.

Attitudes already appear to be shifting in a direction that might support changes. According to a recent Pew Research Center study focused upon 18- to 29-year-olds (Millennials), being a good parent is more important than having a successful marriage. As the study notes, “Millennials are less likely than older generations to link marriage with parenthood.” Additionally, almost half of the respondents in this group believe that the growing variety in family arrangements is a good thing.

*Note: Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to study the topic of parent involvement in schools with a co-founder of Project Head Start, speaking with such inspiring individuals as the late Sargent Shriver. I appreciated their recognition that we were sometimes too dependent upon professionals for childrearing, and the understanding that parents need to be actively involved. This is why Head Start sought to formally incorporate parent involvement in its programs on several levels.

The catch-22 they faced was that many of the low-income families they served were too busy making ends meet to be optimally involved. Today, even middle-class families are often too overwhelmed to be very involved with their kids.

I no longer believe that we can rely upon social programs or institutions to address more than a portion of the issue; nor can parents continue to muscle and martyr their way through the quicksand. We may need to question very fundamental elements of how we currently do things, including family structure.

See all posts in this series.


Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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