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Making our Families Functional

Education 27 Jan, 2021 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

Functional families are vital for the stability and happiness of its members and by extension the well-being of society. Societies need its families to be strong because the family is the primary agent of socialization that inculcates and passes on values and norms to succeeding generations. Yet too many of our families are not functional.

A family that is functional performs its roles and responsibilities adequately. These functions include producing well-adjusted, well-integrated members of society, providing for the material and economic needs of its members as well as offering them emotional security, a sense of safety, nurture, care, and support. It is well established that a child’s initial socialization into the accepted behaviours of the societal culture has a profound effect on that individual's behaviour. These are irreducible functions.

In its ideal form, it includes the physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual presence of two adults who came together to start, nurture, and grow a family for their own happiness and spiritual fulfillment as well as that of their children. Even though one will not find a ‘perfect’ family, some families are closer to this ideal than others.


Conditions Making for Dysfunctionality

Our history, that is that of the Anglophone Caribbean, has bequeathed to us a very disorganized family structure. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of families in the Caribbean are from an African background and came as slaves to the region. Most of them settled in Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands. Almost half of the population in both Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana is of African descent.

Caribbean sociologists have long pointed out the four basic types of family structures that affect childrearing, values, and lifestyles. Hyacinth Evans and Rose Davies (1996) describe these as (1) the marital union; (2) the common-law union (the parents live together but are not legally married); (3) the visiting union (the mother still lives in the parents' home); and (4) the single parent family. Relationships often start as a visiting union, change to a common-law union, and culminate in a marital union. Since their analysis, other family forms have developed consistent with changing societal values and norms both local and global.

The African-Caribbean family has unique mating and childrearing patterns. Some of these patterns include absent fathers, grandmother-dominated households, frequently terminated common-law unions, and child-shifting, where children are sent to live with relatives because the parents have migrated or have begun a union with another spouse. Families tend to have a matrifocal or matricentric structure. Many Caribbean families begin as nuclear but soon usually changes with the ‘taking care’ of some children of relatives, aging parents, etcetera.

There are several historical, socio-economic, and socio-cultural factors making for family dysfunctionality. Rhynie points out the ‘unique’ features of Caribbean family organizations: ‘the dominant role of women in households; the marginality and irresponsibility of men; the high incidence of children born out of wedlock; the prevalence of non-legal childbearing family formation. (Rhynie, 1993). Other factors include: the shrinking economic resource base of the family and its reliance on migration of significant others; inefficiencies of the educational system which bears interconnections with the society; adolescent parenting in the context of globally high levels of teen pregnancies; familiy violence mirroring the broader society and inappropriate societal images/role models.


The Persistent Problem of Absent Fathers

Sociologists like Professor Leo Rhynie, and other researchers in absent fathers and the effect of this fact, especially in the Caribbean, have noted that with the father absent, children usually develop their sense of trust and security through interaction with the mother and depend on her, almost exclusively, to satisfy their needs. Fernando Henriques commented on the psychological dependence of many on their mothers, and attributed this to their complete reliance, as children, on the mother and the deprivation of a father's care. Luckily, Rhynie notes, younger family groups, fathers are increasingly observed taking their children to school, to the hospital, and participating in their care and nurture.

Various analysts have pointed to research done in the United States and here in the Caribbean which indicates that fatherless children are 11 times more likely to display violent behaviour, nine times more likely to run away from home, twice as likely to drop out of school, nine times more likely to become gang members, and more than twice as likely to experience teen pregnancies. For boys 20 times more likely to end up in prison; 32 times more likely to run away; 20 times more likely to have behavioural disorders; 14 times more likely to commit rape; Nine times more likely to drop out of high school; 10 times more likely to abuse drugs; Five times more likely to commit suicide; Nine times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution, 70% of juveniles in state facilities come from fatherless homes; 85% of all incarcerated youths grew up in a fatherless home, etcetera. (Henry, 2013).


Specific Types of Dysfunctions in Homes

Some families suffer from substance abuse, some from conflicts of various sorts, physical, psychological, and emotional violence, while others suffer from authoritarian leadership styles. Some families have difficulty setting proper boundaries while others do not invest enough in care and expression of love for each other.

Yolande Forde’s study ‘Predisposing Factors Towards Criminality in the Cayman Islands’, completed in June 2006, done in the Cayman Islands among inmates in its prison, implicated many family issues- such as poor parenting skills, parental separation and absence, domestic conflict and violence, child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse and criminality of other family members.

Maybe it is time to revisit this study and to explore the extent to which its recommendations were implemented and to what effect, if any.

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