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Putting family life first


William Doherty is a family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist church. He was raised in a tight-knit, Philadelphia Irish Catholic family and studied at a Paulist seminary during the1960s.

Doherty has translated his childhood formation as well as his professional experience dealing with many a family in crisis into a plan to reclaim family life for today’s stressed-out, hard-working, calendar-clutching families.

Doherty is working toward a vision of community life -- with a prominent role for faith communities -- that embraces and prioritizes family life and family relationships as the basis of a healthy society. Together with a suburban Minneapolis community, he is developing a pilot “Family Life First” Seal of Approval. An organization earning this designation will signal to parents that it honors the importance of family time and refuses to overschedule children’s lives.

Doherty describes his childhood as having “a strong sense of family as the mainstay of your life, just in the warp and woof of living,” though he is reluctant to attribute this solely to his family’s religion. “I’d be hard-pressed to say that it was different from any other childhood,” he cautioned in an interview near his office on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

Yet some of the deep-rooted Catholic values absorbed in his upbringing seem to inform his current views on family life and family dynamics.

Doherty cites as an example the church’s stance against divorce that -- while flawed in some respects, he believes -- promoted the idea that a marriage is forever, and that family life was highly valued. “There was a kind of pride,” he said, “in that sense that when you marry, you don’t look back.”

Doherty’s views on parenting and families are also heavily influenced by the communitarian movement and the “public work” model of activated citizenry promoted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship. The communitarian philosophy holds that citizens have rights and responsibilities that are closely intertwined.

The model of government as provider isn’t quite adequate, and individual citizens must accept their civic responsibilities -- to vote, to exercise their voice on public matters, to be involved in community. Yet citizens should expect to enjoy certain basic rights that government can provide -- education, health care, decent housing and such. Individuals have a responsibility to participate in community life, and they have the right to expect community support.

These ideas, coincidentally or not, are “quite consistent” with Catholic social teaching, “such as the principle of subsidiarity,” Doherty said.

“I have recently reconnected with the power of Catholic social teaching through the influence of Don Browning, a university of Chicago religion professor,” Doherty explained. “He says that Catholic social teaching is the most sophisticated stuff that Christianity has produced, partly because it has a dual language: civil language for a pluralistic society, combined with theological language.”

Doherty said he believes that today’s family needs the community ties and rituals that a faith community can offer, though he decries the idea of worship as a spectator sport or a form of entertainment.

“If family religious participation is important to the parents,” Doherty said, “I support them in requiring their children to attend services. Parents get paralyzed on this when they view the service as a performance that kids should enjoy. If the kids complain they don’t enjoy it, then parents feel impotent to encourage them to go.”

Churches today aren’t facing the reality of ministry to families, Doherty believes, especially given the reality of the changing portrait of the family. “There are not enough resources for two-parent married families, let alone single-parent and stepfamilies,” he said. And churches can do a lot more to involve whole families in intergenerational activities, which are widely cited by youth experts as a factor in helping young people to be well-adjusted, productive citizens.

Traditionally, churches tend to reward people for involvement as individuals, he observed. But creating opportunities for family volunteering and socializing can encourage parents and children to invest in the wider community without draining precious family time.

Creating intentional families by honoring a family’s rituals, he said, is an antidote to entropy, which he defines as “the wolf at the door of all families.” An entropic family need not be a contentious one, but more sadly, it is likely to be a family that fails to engender intimacy and drifts apart.

Families today are influenced by a frenetic culture that tends to prioritize experiences, events and entertainment over intimacy, conversation and family ritual.

Sometimes even churches are part of the problem, stretching families too thin. When a family with kids gets involved in sports, church activities, school functions and other extracurricular commitments, the family may find itself fragmented. Worse yet, sponsoring organizations may pressure families to declare their loyalty. For example, the hockey coach may want a player to prioritize hockey at the expense of being an altar server, performing in the school play or even taking a family vacation -- and penalize the kid for making another choice by denying the child playing time or demoting him or her to the “B” team.

Doherty is facilitating a group of parents, coaches, educators, pastors and other community leaders in Wayzata, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, in a community-wide effort to tame the beast of busyness. Starting this month, the group is accepting applications from community organizations to be approved for the “Family First” seal of approval.

Doherty and his collaborators hope they are starting a nationwide trend to rein in children’s schedules, giving more families in more communities across the country a sense of hope and a starting point for reclaiming the sanctity of family time.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000