448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

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