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How Can We Restore the Function to 'Dysfunctional' Families?

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We now use the term "dysfunctional family" for a reason. With the evolution of consumer society, the family has lost much of its use or function. What the family used to do has been outsourced to educators, human services, fast food restaurants, governments and shopping malls. That is what is really meant by the term "dysfunctional family" -- a family with no function.

Take the question of raising a child. If, as we declare, we want our children to grow up to be accountable adults and responsible citizens, we must ask where they will learn this. Too often we think we can purchase these outcomes and give the job to schools, day care centers, youth centers, coaches, probation officers and counselors. The family has become a child management agency responsible for scheduling, funding and transportation.

When a child has no real job in the family, the alternative is mischief: gangs, electronic devices and consumption. "Teenager" is the job title of someone who has nothing to do. The plaintive cry that is a symptom of this joblessness is "I am bored" -- as if it were someone else's problem to solve.

So what might the family function of a child be in this modern world? Susan True is a saleswoman at Kramer's Sew and Vac Center in Cincinnati. She once taught home economics, when we had home economics in our schools. I asked her what she taught the students. Her answer is a clue to how our children might become functional again. She said she taught them to:

  • Balance a checkbook
  • Figure mortgage and debt costs
  • Comparative shop
  • Buy homeowner's insurance
  • Buy a car
  • Prepare a household budget
  • Can food
  • Track the flow of household money
  • Have manners
  • Set a table
  • Buy, wash and cook food
  • Read patterns and sew
  • Clean the stove
  • Listen to elders

We could add to this list some of what youngsters traditionally learned in shop class:

  • Measure
  • Saw
  • Hammer
  • Sand
  • Glue
  • Paint
  • Read a blueprint
  • Design a birdhouse
  • Repair small engines
  • Maintain cars
  • Perform small electrical tasks
  • Fix toilets
  • Clean up from all of the above

Learning these things was part of an applied skills movement that once thrived in our schools. When it disappeared from our schools, it disappeared from our lives. Most home economics and shop classes are now gone -- done in by the hands of cost cutting and the romance of the information and computer age.

Gone with these skills and functions is the experience that each person in the family has a local use and is master of something that is unquestionably of value. Performing these functions means that each person is of unquestionable value. It opens the possibility that a person's value is not left to be measured by performance outside the home, which places valuing in the hands of institutions and soccer coaches.

Value achieved in this useful way means we do not have to wait for something in the future to know we are worth something. We do not have to live for the future or feed off of having good prospects. We can stop declaring that someone is not living up to their potential, which is a condemnation for school children not performing at the top of their class -- which is most of us.

Restoring a function to the child also brings more purpose into the center of family life. Our children can learn to care for an infant so that they will know how to care for their own someday. They can learn to grow food and garden so that they learn that peas do not grow in the grocery store. They can compost waste for the sake of the earth and care for the grandparents so as to keep them out of a warehouse for elders.

A functional family means every member of the family needs every other member. It puts satisfaction into our own collective hands rather than settling for being a satisfied customer. It means we are learning and teaching how to be a citizen in ways that cannot come from civics class. Finally, a functional family will know how to live in hard times and make do with whatever the future holds. It might mean our children will do better than we did with a lot less income, or just one income, which is not a bad prospect at all.

John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of "Building Communities from the Inside Out" and the author of "The Careless Society." He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development. Peter Block is founder of Designed Learning. They are co-authors of "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods" (Berrett-Koehler). For more commentary from McKnight and Block, visit their website.

Photo: Sharona Gott