Another newspaper article describing the difficulty of contemporary family life left me irritated and dissatisfied. The unstated assumption was that congeniality and harmony ought to be the norm. Anything less needs to be "fixed." What needs fixing is that assumption.
The family exists--willingly or not--as the training ground for people to learn how to coexist with others who are very different from themselves. The family teaches us tolerance and acceptance of humans who are as vain and stubborn, exasperating and irrational, dogmatic and irritating as we ourselves are. The family is a boot camp for the battles and the people one faces all through life.
In the family we learn not just the easy love of those with similar interests and temperaments but also non-affectionate love--the tough love of persisting in willing the best for those who are unlike ourselves. To glare in anger and with hatred at one's sibling and have a parent say, "You don't have to like each other, but you have to love each other," is a critical part of life's boot-camp training.
Most of us born and reared in multiple-children families find little in common with siblings other than parentage. Later, when parents ourselves, we stand in amazement as we find our offspring, from the same genetic sources, uniquely different and distinct. A reasonable conclusion to draw is that the value of family life is not that it is a haven of harmony but a crucible (from the Latin for "cross") of conflicting temperaments. It is not the blending and harmonizing of varying temperaments but the navigating through and negotiating of differences that makes family life a boot camp.
Parents can feel positive about their role in providing space where a child can say, "I hate you," without killing the other, and where arms are available even in such rage. "Home," wrote Robert Frost in The Death of the Hired Man, "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Home is not where one suppresses feelings for an enforced harmony but the place where people grimace and disagree and fight and love each other. Home is where loving arms restrain even kicking and screaming. Home is life's boot camp.
Parents' hearts go pitter-patter, when their
children at the age of 27 (or thereabouts), actually begin to
like and appreciate each other. That is dessert. But, it comes
only after the bread and butter, meat and potatoes (or whatever
the equivalent is in this diet-conscious age) of family life sustaining
and molding children through the preceding years.
--Robert H. Tucker
15 June 1998