THE BLOG

The Mother's Brother

02/21/2013 11:50 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

We need in today's world, politically in particular, to reinvent the mother's brother idea of more primitive times. It could not hurt anything and it just might help a lot of things.

Margaret Mead, one of America's all-time great anthropologists, was among the first to observe an interesting relationship in families in a primitive society early in the 20th century. She found in many situations that male children often had a closer and more loving relationship with their uncle, who was their mother's brother, than their own father. This was, on its face, a puzzle. If it had been only one or two such examples, it might simply have been idiosyncratic. But, it was so common that it was almost the rule. How come?

She bore in and began to discover that there was an interesting and basic reason. The father in that society was of necessity, a tough guy who had to hunt and fight in dangerous conditions and he had to train his son to be the same way. As a consequence he had to be demanding, a disciplinarian and quite tough on the boy to prepare him for life's requirements. Funnily enough she also found that the uncle, the mother's brother, was frequently just as tough and demanding on his own son as his brother-in-law, but at the same time the uncle was able to be the softer, kinder father figure to his nephew. The puzzle became even more interesting.

As she dug deeper into these stories she clarified the reasons for that puzzle. First, it is widely and well known that all sons badly need a father figure who loves, understands and cares deeply about them. Second, it turns out that kind of relationship is very often incompatible with a father's need to be tough and a demanding disciplinarian. (Something like that exists between the Captain of a navy ship and his second in command.) Third, consequently it became a common practice to split the roles and have the uncle (most commonly the mother's brother) be the loving good guy. The wonderful result is that a lot of those boys grew up very well-trained and also emotionally well-balanced because of the loving and supportive environment of their youth.

Why is this particularly interesting and relevant today, and does it have to always be an uncle? No is the short answer. But, it also is not likely to happen in common modern families' practices and needs to be planned if it is to happen.

There is some of this tradition still at work in a few modern families, in that aunts and uncles in families can be an important relief valve for normal adolescent family tensions. Unfortunately, however, with the dispersion of American modern life, not enough of those relatives are geographically proximate enough to be of much use.

What is far less common is the functional equivalent of a mother's brother for people in positions of significant responsibilities in professions, business and politics. The higher people rise in society with serious responsibilities, their ability to let their hair down becomes more and more limited because of legitimate concerns about gossip, backlash and fear of being misunderstood. The fact is people who rise in those ways still, as the old saying goes, pull on their skirts and trousers one leg at a time and though many observers often come to believe that they are omnipotent, they in most cases do have normal people's doubts, fears and moments of anxiety, which they very often have to cope with pretty much alone.

That is where a relationship with someone who is beyond fear or favor and can be completely trusted to be discrete becomes a valuable aid, not only to the individual in need but to the society at large that individual can importantly protect.

For example, in the past several years a number of major banks have gone through wrenching changes. In one of those banks, which has adjusted better than some of its competitors, by plain good luck the CEO had in his company a friend/colleague, who remained actively involved into his 80's and who became the CEO's main confidant. That man was able to be a sounding board for the many things the CEO had to weigh and consider including the fate of a number of top lieutenants at the bank. Without that equivalent of the mother's brother to provide perspective, solace and advice to the CEO, that bank might have been in deeper trouble.

That example suggests the thought that if more than a few of the 535 members of the House and Senate in Washington had unofficial mother's brothers in their lives, we just might see some more wisdom and cooperation and less political stubbornness which often ignores the national interest in favor of some ideology or petty political short-term goal.

How that could work is a bit hard to predict, but if the idea could be addressed and understood no doubt a way could be found. A good place to start would be to encourage retired members of those bodies (who are presumably still on the government retirement payroll) to be teamed up with active, sitting members, perhaps largely of the opposite party, to try to insure that a balance of views could seep into the considerations. Of course, it would take time for any active member to come to trust his/her uncle to be 100 percent discrete. But over time it could be a step in the right direction.

It is true that no one can ever simply legislate trust or love; but it may be possible to split the roles of mentors/advisers to political leaders, as the primitive society apparently did, to help create a new generation of wiser and better adjusted legislators.