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Decline of traditional family

Twenty years ago, I was requested by the Ġużé Ellul Mercer Foundation to write a report on Education in Cottonera – Initiatives for the Future (GEM, 1993). In my brief analytical study, I emphasised the need to encourage and sustain the traditional Maltese family which was already showing alarming cracks in its sensitive texture. In this regard, I quoted the English guru of socialism, A.H. Halsey, who, in a pamphlet entitled Families Without Fatherhood, repudiated a generation that focused solely on social policy with scant attention to the strengthening of the nuclear family.

The disintegration of the traditional Maltese nuclear family is the principal source of so much social unrest and misery
- Lino Bugeja

In subsequent expositions Halsey spells out the dangers resulting from the growing number of children born into single-parent families “where the father has never participated as a father... and from the missing father flows the missing community ethic”.

It should be noted that single parenthood comes in many guises – widows, middle-aged divorcees, unmarried teen-aged mums – and lumping them all together is surely no guide to social analysis.

In the scenario prevailing here, it is now becoming increasingly evident to all but the most blinkered of social scientists that the disintegration of the traditional Maltese nuclear family in an increasing number of local communities is the principal source of so much social unrest and misery.

Very few realise the tensions, tears and disappointment children living in such an environment are causing to teachers, learning support assistants and the school as a whole.

The difficulties and challenges that educators have to face when adopting new approaches aimed at grappling effectively with love and sensitivity are not to be underestimated.

It is a daunting task because many of the children and youths from such an environment are often uncontrollable by the time they are teenagers.

The overwhelming evidence is that these youngsters begin by running wild and end up by running foul of the law.

Undoubtedly, illegitimacy has increased in all social groups but the biggest increase has been overwhelmingly among the poorer, the unskilled, the unemployed and, as a result, many of them have gone from being poor to becoming an underclass.

And in our land of make-believe many adopt an ostrich mentality and bury their heads in the soft sand of laissez-faire, barely realising the changing dynamics of family life and that the rise of other forms of partnerships – morality and the sanctity of marriage apart – do not necessarily go against the idealised institution of the nuclear family where love and commitment to children have always been paramount.

I have to admit that the real culprits for a marriage breakdown very often are not mothers but fathers, myself included, who have had the advantages of working wives without facing up to the added responsibilities imposed on them. It took me quite some time to realise that I was no longer the sole provider but co-provider but I continued to believe that I was entitled to play tennis or go to the pub and meet friends after a hard day’s work or sit watching television while my kind wife chased about getting the homework started and cooking the meal.

When stress inevitably developed I was fortunate enough to find pastoral and professional attention, resulting in “healing without reproach... firm on principle but compassionate towards individuals”.

Many studies have drawn the clear conclusion that children whose fathers are thoroughly involved in their care do better socially and academically than those whose fathers play a more marginal role.

When the family is struggling, it could well be the input made by the father that determines whether or not a child sets on the road of delinquency.

However, it must be stressed that urging fathers to take more responsibility should not be taken as an attack on men. It is an honest plea for “fathering” to assume the centrality that “mothering” has always enjoyed. And who is better placed to stop the rot than fathers themselves?

Home and school are by now considered as having a fundamentally important relationship with each other and a great deal of attention in recent years has been given to the position of the child whose home background leaves much to be desired.

Particularly in the formative years, the school must be equipped with enough suitable readers that meet the demands of a new society in a multi-cultural environment.

New Zealand, which tops the world reading efficiency list, gives a big chunk of the primary school timetable over to reading. In this regar, in the situation here, the teacher has a truly delicate task in giving children freedom to read by providing books in the vernacular and/or English that promote social and civic values, while not forgetting the multi-culturalism prevailing in our schools.

He or she must put in their way the best of old and new fiction, read excerpts to them and find time to discuss the delicate topic of family life, which sometimes is totally ignored because of its sensitivity.

Only in this way can children be helped to mature and begin to discriminate, to appreciate sincere and sensitive feeling, lively and realistic characterisation, precise and lively language and sound narrative.

Unfortunately, the insidious influence of many of the current local and foreign films and TV serials are sometimes encouraging a social climate and policies which undermine the unity of the family, producing a national culture that goes out of its way to disparage it.

How many local TV serials that laud family values have been aired these last few years?

It should surely be within the wit of public policy to stop the rot from spreading further; and even to rescue some from the despair of underclass life. Raising a family with love and dedication is no easy task; it has to be nurtured and supported before crisis sets in.

As the late, former Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, states in his book To Be A Pilgrim: “If we are concerned exclusively with the care of the sick, we may ignore the needs of the healthy and that is the quickest way to swell the ranks of the sick.”

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