Why are families important, and when are they most effective? ANDY HAMILTON SJ champions the extended family in this blog for UN International Day of Families.

Public celebrations of family life such as the International Day of Families (15 May) should be uncontroversial. But they sometimes focus on the definition of the family, with the claims of the stable nuclear family of father, mother and children set against the claims of other kinds of family groupings – same sex couples, single parents, blended families and serial partners, for example. The discussion can then become acrimonious.

Definitions are important, as is reflection on the challenges facing each kind of family grouping. But these discussions should not distract from such larger questions as: why are families of any description important, and what qualities are needed if they are to be effective?

In any society families are important because in them children are nurtured so that they become connected and contributing members of society. The best environment for this to happen, whatever the shape of the family, is one that is stable, predictable, affectionate and formative. Although children are resilient and can grow into emotionally mature adults even in the face of obstacles caused by sickness, death, poverty, violence or separation, their path will be very demanding.

No family, of course, is ideal. The ideal Christian family in which children grow up with a loving mother and father in a life-long relationship, for example, is admirable but rare in practice, just as are the ideal families of any culture. The varied shapes and the differing quality of relationships that families display are a fact of life.

The family background of many disadvantaged and vulnerable children is far from ideal. They may have experienced and witnessed family violence; the relationship between their father and mother may often be broken or unstable; they may have left home early, become homeless, suffer mental or physical illness, lack education and  have no skills in building and keeping relationships. They long for a home that they have never found.

The effects of such deprivation both on the child and on society can be catastrophic. Left to themselves children may grow into adults who are unable to form deep and non-violent relationships, who lack the social skills and confidence to learn systematically or to find work. They will draw on the costly resources of the health system, the welfare system and the justice system. If they are to overcome the effects of life in a dysfunctional family they will need people from outside their family circle to hang in with them, show them how to form good relationships and to connect with society.

Jesuit Social Services has worked in this space for 40 years. We’ve done so through both direct service delivery and by training and professional development support to other parenting programs. For example:

  • In 1987 we established the Vietnamese Welfare Resources Centre, a community-based multi-service family support agency for Vietnamese people in Richmond.
  • In 1999 we delivered the National Parenting Program, which trained over 300 staff to provide parent education training to over 3,000 parents in schools in 18 locations across Australia.
  • Our Barreng Moorop program provides intensive support to Aboriginal children currently involved with the police and their families, in partnership with VACCA and VALS.
  • In Western Sydney, our Parent Infant Family Australia program supports vulnerable families during pregnancy and in their children’s early years through direct clinical work, as well as by training professionals who work with them.

In Australia, and other cultures too, the welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility. The village is an extension of the family. So when children are disadvantaged, they become everyone’s care. This suggests that our celebration and imagining of family life should reach beyond the nuclear to embrace the extended family. The nuclear family is a network of relationships between parents and children. But it can be understood fully and its resources appreciated only when we attend to the wider network of relationships that govern its flourishing.

The International Day of Families is an occasion for gratitude for the part that families have played in the building of the society and values we have inherited and its values. Public achievement is usually measured by financial and professional success or by celebrity. The contribution made by ordinary families who would not think themselves special to building a peaceful and hopeful society, however, is greater.

The day also invites us to keep in mind people whose memories of family life are a nightmare, and to ask how can help people deprived of good parenting to connect with society and to build the good personal and working relationships that will enable them to form stable families.