Nov. 7, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 5

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    Walsh on 'family values': Time to get past 'Ozzie and Harriet' as ideal

    Froma Walsh, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, sighs heavily at the phrase "family values."

    "The media are saturated with images of the family as conflicted, abusive, negligent, broken," said Walsh, who is also Co-Director of the University's Center for Family Health. "Although the virtue of 'family values' is widely touted, little support is given to sustain the vitality of families. At a time of widespread concern about the demise of the family, it is more important than ever to understand processes that can enable families to weather and rebound from their challenges as a stronger family unit."

    The current political rhetoric about families often offers solutions that are too simplistic -- and ultimately unsuccessful at encouraging stronger families, she said.

    "Instead of political slogans, what is needed are programs that really value families and support and strengthen them. Our culture has a myth of rugged individualism -- pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But resilience is best forged through relationships, collaboration, mutual support and encouragement.

    "Think of the song accompanying the civil rights movement: 'We Shall Overcome.' The reason that became a clarion call widely around the world is that it expresses that belief: That together we have the power to overcome adversity," she said. "We have to work together if we're all going to survive and thrive."

    Walsh's research shows that there is a better way to strengthen families than forcing them into a 1950s format: work on ways to increase family resilience so that families are better able to meet the unprecedented challenges of the '90s and become stronger.

    "We can't go back to 'Ozzie and Harriet,' with Dad as breadwinner and Mom as full-time homemaker," she said. "Two-earner families are today's norm, with fathers more active partners in parenting. Families need support in meeting these stressful challenges."

    Walsh said Americans need to shift perspective from seeing families as damaged to viewing them as challenged. "Focusing on family resilience also corrects the tendency to think of a healthy family as a mythologized, problem-free family," she said. "Instead, it seeks to understand how families can survive and regenerate even in the midst of overwhelming stress. A family-resilience perspective affirms the family's capacity for self-repair."

    Walsh said that conventional research and social services focus on building individual strength. While that has its place, counselors and government programs that work to give families the tools to work together to deal with problems strengthen both the individual members and the family as a unit. Such skills also enable them to deal collaboratively with the inevitable future challenges.

    "We must redirect how we look at families, from problems and how families fail to life challenges and how families can succeed in meeting them," Walsh said. "This is particularly important now because our whole world has been changing rapidly. There's tremendous economic insecurity, a sense of fragmentation of our communities, a sense that families are failing and falling apart.

    "More than ever, as families are changing their forms and norms and struggling in basically a brave new world, they need more flexibility and resilience to meet unanticipated challenges."

    That means avoiding trying to force diverse families into a "one-size-fits-all" model. Successful families can be found in a variety of forms and cultural preferences, Walsh said. They do, however, have some common tools and processes: cohesion among family members, including extended-family members; open lines of communication, problem-solving skills and affirming belief systems.

    Social policy and counseling efforts should focus on building those and other skills, she said, instead of stigmatizing so-called "non-traditional" families. Families who differ from the traditional format are presumed to be dysfunctional, even if their interactions are healthy and effective in their particular situation.

    "Processes needed for effective functioning may vary, depending on differing social-cultural context and developmental challenges," she said. "Single-parent and step-families need to organize their resources differently to function well."

    Walsh calls for new research focusing on well-functioning families to determine what enables them to succeed, and clinical changes that "foster a compassionate understanding of parental life challenges, encourages repair and reconciliation in troubled relationships and searches for unrecognized resiliences in the family network."

    "The concept of family resilience focuses on surmounting crises and challenge," Walsh said. "Symptoms are assessed in the context of past, ongoing and threatened crisis events, their meanings and family coping responses. Therapeutic efforts are attuned to each family's particular challenges, and family resources are mobilized to meet them." -- Catherine Behan