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The Big Answer


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Families as Nurturing Systems: Support Across the Life Span

a book by Donald G. Unger and Douglas R. Powell

(our site's book review)

This book was written by social theorists for social theorists. Its dry, theoretical tone juggles the interacting theories, systems, attitudes and research in such a way as to present a picture of the current state of families as nurturing systems, how the family’s ability to take care of that function has changed over the years, and how support systems for families are likewise in transition with new ideas, attitudes, perspectives, and approaches. One obvious purpose for such a book, besides giving academicians a way to respond to their “publish or perish” world, where they need to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further their careers, is to aid the transition from obsolete sociological beliefs, ideas, and practices to more up-to-date beliefs, ideas, and practices. This will in turn guide thinking, research, theoreticians, and practices to keep up with modern developments in thought and practice so that there is less wasted effort and money and more efficient application of resources and personnel to the social problems of our times.

What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped
What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped

After summarizing the way families have changed, and pointing out that kin have always been important to each other as sources of nurturance and support, they point out the ramifications of these changes: “In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that families cannot fulfill their nurturing role without assistance. Families require environments which support and strengthen their ability to serve as healthy, caregiving systems. The need for support cuts across a wide spectrum of families, including intact or ‘mainstream’ families, nontraditional families such as adoptive families, and families facing special difficulties because of biological, economic, or structural factors.”

That families cannot fulfill their nurturing role without assistance is increasingly obvious as you peruse the dire dysfunctionality statistics showing that symptoms are now the norm, and look at both the changing demographics of family structure and the current financial, caregiving, and unemployment crises of so many of our citizens. The caregiving crisis is hitting both parents and children to such a degree that one would be hard pressed to find a parent who feels fine about their caregiving arrangements and the quality of care their children receive. Yet with the current partisan gridlock in Congress, which is not expected to abate in the near or even the far term, there is no real way to make policy changes nor is there the will, with so many other “bigger” issues in the way. This would tend to make one assume that all the theorizing and talking about these issues is not only falling on deaf ears, but is accomplishing little but adding to the overall malaise.

A pushmi-pullyu, the metaphor for our useless, grid-locked political circus that has become a talk show joke
A pushmi-pullyu, the metaphor for our useless, grid-locked political circus that has become a talk show joke

This of course raises the question: Well, if flapping their gums about these issues does no good and is a waste of time, since, as everyone knows, there is simply no money to use to enact policy changes much less new policy, then are we stuck with the status quo forever, complete with all its attendant dysfunctionality? No, because the symptoms can only worsen. Bye-bye status quo!

The only hopeful sign is that the authors state that “the premises that underlie family resource programs are values that most people share regardless of political preference. These premises erase the barriers between liberal and conservative approaches and between families and states. By focusing on the promise of self-sufficiency in families, they allay conservative fears that public programs will create dependency. Likewise, by providing support to families to enhance effective functioning, they allay liberal concerns over the lack of public efforts to benefit families.”

States’ economies, like the national economy, are in trouble, therefore those in power look only for ways to cut costs, cut programs, cut benefits (except for themselves), and postpone bills due—foisting them upon the future generations. However, if the new bipartisan policy changes alluded to above that support family resource programs can somehow avoid spending more money but can instead save some money, then perhaps all the theoretical discourse will indeed catch the ears of those in power since they’ll be able to pass any measure that can be called a cutback. Therein lies the hope.

The authors contend that “Today there is non-partisan recognition that families want to retain their childrearing responsibilities in full, and want access to necessary resources and support.” Again, as long as programs can be shown to at least avoid placing new burdens on already overburdened budgets, then—alas—there just may be hope.

Having said all this, let us examine this phrase “necessary resources and support.” Necessary for what? To keep the kids out of reform school or prison? To make sure they get enough food stamps? To get them daycare vouchers so both parents (or one parent if it’s a single parent family) can keep working while the kids get the subpar care that 88% of care arrangements are providing, according to researchers? To get them on the lists of the social workers once it’s demonstrated that keeping the kids out of reform school or prison saves more than enough money to pay for this social work?

Does keeping the kids out of reform school or prison saves enough money to pay for the social work it takes to accomplish it?
Does keeping the kids out of reform school or prison saves enough money to pay for the social work it takes to accomplish it?

Admittedly, all these are improvements. But there’s nothing on the horizon poised to evolve the subpar care that 88% of care arrangements are providing into the good care many upper middle class or upper class families can afford. If anything, it will degenerate rather than evolve benevolently. As more and more people in higher paid jobs either lose them or are forced to trade them for service industry jobs, as businesses downsize or go belly-up and jobs leave the country due to outsourcing, family budgets that coped with daycare costs previously are now overwhelmed by them. So they’ll be faced with utilizing cheaper care options, like an overburdened family care situation where “care” will mean glorified babysitting where there's very little time to devote to any one child. Or like a babysitting teenager who barely notices the child’s existence as she texts and blabs on her omnipresent cell phone. Or a senile relative who either sleeps, watches TV, or reads, barely noticing the child’s existence. Bye-bye 88% subpar care; hello 98%!

So the question then becomes, can our childcare quality stand the strain of less family money being available for childcare at the same time as family members get more jobs and are even less available to do childcare and the need for care goes up as the resources to pay for it goes down? Parents, then, will be faced with having to do like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" In essence, it will not be possible to keep the subpar care figure as “low” as 88%.

Parents are faced with running twice as fast just to stay even
Parents are faced with running twice as fast just to stay even

So the “self-sufficiency in families” that both sides of the aisle in Congress support will bite the children in their collective behinds, as the care they receive in these “self-sufficient” families does the only thing it can do—get worse. There are no wonderful caregivers willing to work for peanuts in home care, daycare, or babysitter care settings. Only squirrels will work for peanuts: beg really cutely, get a peanut. The type of people available to work for spit are the unemployable, the ex-cons, the mentally challenged, young very distracted teenagers, incompetent but well-meaning elderly, and even a few capable people who will do fine until they leave for a better position, since the daycare industry has predictably high turnover. So Congress will again get what it pays for and the recipients of their generosity will learn the true meaning of the phrase “you get what you pay for.”

There are no wonderful caregivers willing to work for peanuts in home care, daycare, or babysitter care settings
There are no wonderful caregivers willing to work for peanuts in home care, daycare, or babysitter care settings

But at least these political wizards will have achieved their goal of “self-sufficiency in families”! Sufficient for what? Keeping the kids off the street? Avoiding the “latchkey children” bogeyman? Keeping the politicians’ constituents from bothering them any more with desperate pleas for help?

One reexamines the book’s title closely and sees that Families as Nurturing Systems may end up as more an oxymoron than a reality.

It stands to reason that everyone cannot start an MC (microcommunity) tomorrow. But for those that do, Families as Nurturing Systems becomes their new reality, not a book, and it will not COST them money—it will SAVE them money. Pay less, get more, at the same time you raise the healthiest, happiest kids you ever met. The question then becomes: Can you spot a bargain when you see it?! Only MCs (microcommunities) can get anywhere near a total solution to the optimal childcare we all want for our kids. See Why Register for an MC?.

Registering for MC search and match
Registering for MC search and match