Q: Throughout your travels, what common threads do you see in families around the world? What differences do you see compared to the US? – Kelly
A: I’m always scared to make generalizations, because I know every time I do I tend to discover a million exceptions to my proposed “rule”. That being said, there are a few observations I can make about the differences of families between cultures.
Many African families, for example, are distinct in their special emphasis on the position of the grandmother. This is especially true in rural areas, where the grandmother may help raise the children while the parents work. Or she may act as a social safety net in the event of a parent’s death.
Much of Southeast Asia is distinct in the authoritarian structure of the family. Family unity is valued above all and loyalty is one of the highest virtues. In practical terms, this often means absolute and unquestioning obedience to the father or senior male of the household.
I believe one thing that makes the US distinct is our concept of childhood as a separate (and sacred) stage of life. In much of the world, children are seen as essentially miniature adults. The concept of childhood being the “best” years, or a “protected time” or even an “age of innocence” is often very foreign globally.
Like many cultural values, this difference is both a strength and a weakness. Our near-obsession with the sacredness of childhood has made the US a leader in children’s rights, but it has also made us a leader in over-parenting and chronic immaturity.
But what about the common threads? The things that tie us all together?
In my experience, the thing all families have in common is that they’re different. Even within the United States, there are good families and bad families, close families and distant families, healthy families and unhealthy families. I found it to be just the same abroad.
I have lived with a Ukrainian family that is among the most generous, welcoming, and healthy families I have ever seen. I have also witnessed families whose children are deeply scarred by abuse or neglect, and whose parents have become distant from addiction or simply the pressures of life.
This only serves to remind me that no matter how long my experience, deep my knowledge, or subtle my understanding I should never meet a family with preconceptions or expectations – I’ll inevitably be mistaken.
Because the one rule common to all families is that there is no rule common to all families.