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Treating the Nonhierarchical Family

By Ron Taffel

When I was growing up, dinner was at 6:30 p.m. sharp every night, timed to my father's arrival home from work. The menu was entirely predictable according to the day of the week. There were no substitutions, just one meal for the whole family. And, of course, it wouldn't be considered a real meal without some sort of artery-clogging meat as its centerpiece.

As we sat around the table, I don't remember that a single phone call ever interrupted the stories my mother plied us with about this and that person she'd met at the local butcher's, or at Tasty Pastry, the neighborhood bakery. This wasn't because no one was around to call, but because everyone else was similarly engaged—eating dinner at about the same time, and eating pretty much the same thing.

Afterward, on summer nights, parents would gather in front of their homes to sit on plastic beach chairs and talk with neighbors. Meanwhile, we kids were off in the park playing games on our own, but in clear sight of at least a hundred adults in the neighborhood, no matter how hard we tried to pretend otherwise. There were no curfews, except that every child arrived back home at the same time—just when the circle of adults adjourned.

Compared to that sepia image from a half-century ago, dinnertime these days is a different event altogether. In fact, with so many contending schedules and dietary demands, is there such a thing as a family mealtime anymore? Even when family members are seated at the same table, everyone may be consuming something different—take-out Chinese, microwaved frozen pizza, salad with low-cal dressing—often in separate worlds. Fourteen-year-old Jenny is texting under the table while apparently answering Mom's question about a homework assignment. Ten-year-old Bart casually asks for someone to "pass him the fucking salt." Sixteen-year-old Adelaide warns her siblings and her mom to "stay out of my way, because I'm PMS-ing real bad." Someone is doing a dead-on impression of a TV sitcom episode describing the pros and cons of having sex through the eye-socket of a corpse. Jenny and Mom begin a heated exchange about a midweek concert, with Jenny promising to be back "no later" than 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

Soon, the conversation segues into an argument over climate change. As dinner peters out and each family member drifts off to independent pursuits, Mom wonders if that article she saw on bipolar disorder may be telling her something about the kids—or herself.

What's happening here? Compared to the still-life portrait of family dinners of decades ago, this is everyday life as abstract expressionism—a free-form swirl of crisscrossing currents and tangents. Are families like this one chaotic and out of control? or is this a picture of liberating spontaneity and refreshing openness? Whatever judgment you may make, the question remains: what's happened over the past 20 years that seems to have changed things so completely?

Old-Style Family Disintegration or New Family Togetherness?

Today's kids and their families are light-years removed from the neighborhoods and towns of the "greatest generation" parents and their kids of yore, who butted heads over formalistic ritual and order and struggled intensely over hierarchical control. Like countless therapists, I've seen plenty of kids over the last couple of decades who appear to have been thoroughly hijacked by pop culture. They're disconnected from their parents and lack all bounds or rules—even to rebel against. At increasingly younger ages, they're casually coarse, crude, and, at times, absolutely wild. They show a jaded sophistication about sex that would've left me dumbfounded at their age (it still sometimes does). They spend hours online—
facebooking, texting, twittering—submerged in a vast, constantly morphing, cybernetic network that Mom and Dad can't quite penetrate. It almost goes without saying that they often treat their parents like dimwitted servants, whose only useful function is to provide food, clothing, housing, and money.

But delve beneath the surface and you soon encounter surprising paradoxes. It's true that lots of behavior in kids once considered outrageous by most adults and pathological by therapists has become the norm: it isn't just some kids from some poorly structured families who are like that, but most kids, to one degree or another. Yet these "impossible" kids are often remarkably smart, confident, knowledgeable, competent, more involved with ethical and social issues than my generation ever was, and almost always capable of stunning kindness and generosity.

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