Perspective: The Family and Development

Throughout recorded history, in every culture, the family has been the fundamental building block of society. And throughout history, the main factor in the cohesion of the family has been religion.

Today, by many yardsticks, the family is in crisis.

In industrialized countries, changing economic conditions and new patterns of consumption have increased the number of families where both parents work, leaving less time for children and family life. High divorce rates have created a culture of marital insecurity. Other social forces have served to decrease support for families from extended kin, the workplace, neighbors, and society at large.

In the developing world, such trends are compounded by overarching problems of poverty, environmental degradation, inequalities between women and men, and the rise of global pandemics, in particular HIV/AIDS.

During 2004, the United Nations will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 1994 International Year of the Family (IYF). The UN, its specialized agencies, governments, and non-governmental organizations will hold conferences, promote activities, and undertake studies in an effort to strengthen planning and policies in support of strong families.

During the great global conferences of the 1990s, the family emerged as a major theme — even though it was not central to any one of those conferences in particular. While each conference had a distinct focus, such as sustainable development, human rights, women, social development, or habitable cities, all emphasized the importance of the human person as the agent and beneficiary of development, stressing the importance of empowerment, participation, and inclusiveness.

Central to this new concept of development is an understanding that the family is the basic unit of society — and that its strength is integral to development.

All of these conferences, for example, stressed the need for intra-familial as well as public family support systems. They also made specific references to family-sensitive policies and family support systems, such as flexible working hours, part-time employment, work sharing, public or publicly subsidized child care, parental leave, social security, disability benefits and assistance to families to care for dependents, and family welfare.

Strong families are indeed central to the overall effort to improve social and economic development, create sustainable communities, and increase global prosperity.

For the individual, of course, strong families have many benefits. The family is a bulwark against hard times, the most basic of support systems for its members. People in strong families are healthier, happier, and better adjusted.

In terms of social development in general and the overall advancement of civilization, the family is likewise of primary importance. For it is in the family that basic values and morality are formed. It is in the family that the essential capacities for learning, self-confidence, and positive social interaction are acquired. And it is from the base of a strong family that individuals are best able to contribute to society as a whole.

As noted, religion has historically been among the most important factors in family cohesion. Laws about marriage, divorce, the rearing of children, the values to be transmitted — all have traditionally come from religion.

Today, however, the connection between religion and the family is under assault. First and foremost, the male-dominated, authoritarian model for the family structure has become widely discredited — and rightly so. Associated with the oppression of women, inflexible child-rearing practices, and the preservation of masculine power, this model of family life is now seen as unhealthy and unjust.

Yet many religious traditionalists believe that the male-dominated, authoritarian family model is mandated by their sacred scripture. And, indeed, some feminists see religion as against the family, inasmuch as men in many cultures and places have used religious arguments to maintain a status quo that is based on the subordination of women.

The failure of the male-dominated, authoritarian model has given rise to an alternative in many Western countries. More liberal — and secular — in its orientation, it wisely gives women a more equal role in family decisions. At the same time, however, this model has largely discarded the firm sense of morality offered by religious teachings, opening the door to a kind of permissiveness in child-rearing that all too often leaves children with no firm sense of values or ethical construct — other than self-gratification.

Psychiatrist Hossain Danesh has described the consequences in a book entitled The Violence-Free Family: Building Block of a Peaceful Civilization. Such permissive families "give primacy to gratification of personal needs and desires over all other issues," he writes. "In such families pursuit of knowledge and truth do not have relevance except for personal gain. Love in indulgence-based families is viewed as identical to gratification; the powers of human will are expressed in promiscuous and anarchic ways. Children in these families grow up to be immensely self-centered, intolerant, and undisciplined. They demand instant gratification of their desires from their parents and society, and when their demands are not met, they often resort to violence and crime. These individuals are highly prone to develop addictions and to relate to others as though they have automatic and unlimited privileges."

It is hard to imagine building a successful world civilization on such values.

So what is the alternative? There is a new model for family relationships, one that has emerged from the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith.

That model, says Dr. Danesh, is built around the principle of unity and human oneness. It seeks to establish equality and mutuality in the relationships between husband and wife, while at the same time outlining a well-defined understanding of the rights and responsibilities between parents and children.

"In these families, the power- and indulgence-based practices of control, competition, and excessive individualism and independence give way to those of equality, cooperation, universality, and interdependence," writes Dr. Danesh.

At the same time, the unity-based family has a firm grounding in ethics and values. It combines a progressive social outlook with a strong sense of individual morality. The Bahá'í teachings, for example, stress the equality of all races and ethnic groups and the importance of justice in the distribution of wealth. They also firmly uphold the need for absolute honesty, complete trustworthiness, and the highest standards of personal conduct.

Of overwhelming importance in this discussion is the principle of equality between women and men. Alone among the independent world religions, the Bahá'í Faith explicitly calls for the equality of women and men in its sacred scripture — a fact that negates any claim to exclusive or superior power for men within the family structure (and society at large).

"And among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is the equality of women and men," wrote 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be."

More significantly in terms of the connection between the family and development, the unity-based family paradigm offers a matrix from which can emerge human beings who are truly empowered as potential contributors to the advancement of society as a whole.

In the unity-based family, writes Dr. Danesh, children become aware of their essential unity with all other people and attain the courage to be truthful and truth seeking. They also learn that the highest level of human freedom is obtained when one engages in acts of service to others.

"Humanity is now in the final stages of its collective adolescence," continues Dr. Danesh. "As we mature, we leave behind the mindsets based on power and pleasure because evolution and transition from one stage of development to another is an inevitable aspect of life. The most important dimension of this transition is the development of a new mindset. The nature of this new mindset is directly related to the oneness of humanity, which attains its highest expression in the all-important state of unity. It will be impossible for humanity to advance on its path of growth unless humankind establishes a life of unity — inner, interpersonal, and international unity."