In Defence of Joint Family System

 One of the recent cartoons by cartoonist Ashok Dongre was a tragic satire on the hard and cold realities of today. The cartoon was followed by a question that Ashok raised relating to the problem of ill affordability of owning a place in the cities today. This problem is very real for many living in Indian cities where the price of owning a house as well as rental apartments and flats are sky rocketing. Even when in a family the husband and wife both are working and earning, acquiring a house of one's own remains a distant and an almost impossible dream.

So what is the solution to this growing problem ? I believe that 'Joint Family System' could well be the answer.

Here are some of my thoughts on why, despite the fact that in this age nuclear family is the order of the day, a 'joint family system' needs to be revisited and revived and most importantly how could we possibly make the system work.

Joint family system � A useful model for families in future

It is my personal belief that in the big picture of things and from the perspective of sustainable use of nature's resources, human endeavors and activities that promote and make use of inter-dependence, co-operation at the level of family, neighborhood, community, sate, nation and global is in conforming with nature and results in more gains (economic, social and environmental) than losses in the long run. Knowing that human life span is on the increase and we are going to be inhabiting this planet for longer than we used to, it makes sense in trying to do things that are beneficial over the long run. And of course, that will also ensure that future generations are able to lead a life of prosperity.

The 'joint family system' is one such thing that has the potential to ensure sustainability of life and natural resources on this planet. I believe the joint family system has several benefits and hence needs to be re-visited. We must consider it as a possible model for future families.

In countries like India, with increase in population and resources like land and space becoming scarce, the families and individuals are leading a life filled with stress and worry. On the other hand the situation in developed countries is similar for different reason. In developed countries like USA and Australia. the individuals are stressed out for different reasons. Some of the major problems that people living in developed countries face are - job insecurity due to unstable economy, difficulty in raising children while pursuing career ambitions, young adults having difficulty starting out on their own. Therefore whether living in developing countries or in developed part of the world, the model of 'joint family' has potential benefits that can lead to secure, healthy, stress free and affluent individuals.

I also believe that having experimented with 'nuclear families' and having experienced its drawbacks, we are capable of developing a model that draws on the benefits of 'nuclear family' and 'joint family'. We might even be forced to do so when resources become more and more scarce with passage of time. We will certainly do it when our survival is at stake.

Joint family system vs. Nuclear family system

Today we have a generation of people who after having lived in a joint family system have taken the initiative to break out and start a nuclear family. This generation today has come of age and very well appreciates the strengths and weaknesses of both the system. In a sense I represent such a generation and therefore wish to present my personal thoughts on why and how we could revive and make a 'the joint family system' work.

The generation that broke out of the old joint family system did so when individualistic thinking began to gain predominance in the society. It was exciting to explore, experiment and establish a living set up on one's own. The nuclear family gave immense freedom from the traditions and ways of life that the old system was ridden with. Hence whenever and wherever the parents and the grown up adult children could not get along well and when the adult children could afford to build a house to call their own, nuclear families began to be formed. As it happens with most changes in the society, initially the people from the old system did not take this change very well. They were saddened to see the disintegration of family values and system and emergence of individualistic nuclear families. However, gradually when nuclear families became the order of the day, the old generation slowly began to accept the realities and became comfortable with it.

The other factor that gave rise to nuclear families was industrialization. Industrial revolution brought with it increase in job opportunities in and around major industrialized and commercial cities and towns. This forced men and women to move out of their family home and away from the parents. In this case, often the parents who remained emotionally attached to the place where they spent most of their life preferred to continue staying in their family home and accepted with some sadness their children starting out new life away from them.

Today, as a person from the generation that broke out of the system in the hope of immense freedom, I look behind and ask myself 'what has my generation really and truly gained from the quest for freedom and what has it lost'.

The one and only major gain that I see from the 'nuclear family' system is the opportunity it provides us to create an identity of our own - something we as human beings crave for and are born for. On the loss side there are several �

being physically far removed from the family members and as a result inadvertently getting disconnected from their hearts and minds,

stresses in bringing up our children only relying on child care centers. In Indian cities and towns, it can be even more difficult where there are not enough facilities available for care of children.

coping with all problems - big and small on our own as we are unable to afford the privilege of sharing and downloading worries on someone (other than spouse) whom we feel close and connected to. This has led to increase in several problems in the society like depression, suicides and heart disorders due to highly stressed lives.

missing out on celebrations and festivities that binds us to our culture and gives us a sense of being at home. This is more relevant to those living out of the country.

having difficulty in passing on the cultural values to our children. Cultural values are learnt and taught by seeing them in action.

facing great difficulty in even passing on our own language to the next generation. (this is more applicable for those who have moved out of the country.)

Through this article I wish to propose that based on our experiences of two fundamentally different models of family, we create a new family model based on the 'joint family system'. In this new model the basic and underlying concept of the joint family would remain the same however it will incorporate changes in the ways members in the family interact with one another. The basic concept of the joint family system is that more than one family come together under one roof and lead a life of mutual co-operation and inter-dependence. In the revived model, the families coming together may or may not belong to the same parent family. A joint family system could be created by a family of friends.

Tips for a successful joint family system

If we were to revive and revamp the 'joint family system' model to create a new one we need to think how can we learn from the mistakes that we made in old joint family system and create a new system with the insight gained from the experiences of nuclear and joint family system.

Here are some things that can be done differently from the old system to make the 'joint family system' a success �

1. Mutual Love and Respect

One of the major reasons why my generation was desperate to break out of the joint family was the attitude of the older generation to impose their views and thoughts on us. In some families the father's word would be the final word and nobody could dare say or do anything against it. Such an autocratic style of leading a family leads to repression and suppression giving rise to feelings of discontentment and unhappiness.

If the joint family system is laid on the founding stone of mutual and genuine love and respect for each and every member (including children) then the system is guaranteed to be a success. It helps to keep in mind that love, respect and affection are things that can be only commanded and not demanded. We command these precious things by GIVING them first. For example - you cannot expect your son or your daughter to have respect for your advice and suggestions if you cannot demonstrate understanding, love and respect to them through your actions and words and by being sensitive to their individual aspirations and ways of thinking.

2. Open and Honest Communication.

Family members need to communicate openly and honestly with one another. The elders in the family must encourage and create an environment conducive to open communication. In the absence of such an environment, family members can feel repressed and suppressed that can lead to discontentment. Non-judgmental listening and demonstrating mutual trust are necessary to help family members open up to one another.

One of the things that disintegrated the old joint family system was the constant interference and meddling by elders in the matters of youngsters. Learning from the past mistake, another important aspect of communication is knowing when NOT to communicate. In other words, it is important to give one another space and respect the boundaries of each other. Living under one roof does not have to be about transgressing the personal space of the members. Personal space is more mental than physical. If a joint family system has to succeed, recognizing and respecting this space is crucial.

3. Realistic Expectations of Members.

It is important that members in a joint family system feel accepted for who they are and as they are. The crucial part of acceptance of one another is acceptance of our own weaknesses and limitations and that of others. By doing this, expectations of members of one another become more realistic. Realistic expectations help us to be more tolerant of weaknesses of one another. Having unrealistic expectations of others is often the root cause of disappointments and discontentment with others.

4. Acknowledgement of and Being Grateful for What IS.

When more than one family live together, it brings together members of different strengths. One of the great advantages of this (when compared to a nuclear family) is that different strengths of different members can be potentially enriching to the family and in turn provide a sense of fulfillment to the members. For a joint family system to be a place where the members feel valued and nurtured, acknowledgement of the strengths and different positive aspects that each member brings to the family and being grateful for the same is useful and even necessary.

These are some of the essential ingredients for a successful joint family system.

Come to think of it, a joint family system can become a training ground for the future generation to learn and develop attributes and skills of living in harmony with fellow citizens in a society. If our current family model is reflective of a lifestyle that is based on selfish existence and intolerance to others views then how can we expect the society (of which such a family is a unit) to be any different. A joint family system can help build a society that is more tolerant of personal differences in views and thoughts and where people appreciate and carry forward the value of mutual respect, love and co-operation. Yet another reason why the 'joint family system' model is the model for a sustainable living in the future.

� Meenakshi Jha
September 9, 2001

See also :

Viability of a Joint Family!

 I was reading the article "In Defence of Joint Family System" by Meenakshi Jha and I couldn't agree with her more that most youngsters have to live with their parents not by their choice but by their limitations. True the cost of living and especially rent of apartments in all big cities is growing beyond the reach of many. As such young people are left with no other alternative but to live with the parents � sometimes adjusting in a small one or two bedroom apartment. On the other hand, some times it is otherwise � the aged parents need to be taken care of especially so in our Indian society.

Is it viable to live happily sharing home with parents or vice-versa? Provided both the parties are willing to adjust and of course be able to consider what we are getting in return. As I always believe nothing is free in this world.

The foremost cause of young adults breaking away from their families is a yearning for freedom. Very appreciable! We all need freedom � freedom to live our lives in our own way. Freedom to discover Life per se with our choice of lifestyle. The problem arises, when there is interference of family members and uninvited opinion as to how one should live or react in situations. Most parents tend to ignore when their children come of age and are in a position to take charge of their lives. I personally believe that there comes a time when parents have to really "let go" and let the grown up children face realities of life and make decisions for themselves. As my husband always says on issues like this, "Nothing grows under a Banyan Tree" and he having built a life of his own all by himself inspite of all odds, repeats this quote often to not only our children but to others as well.

There are times we as parents could get disturbed at our child's unhappiness but that does not in any way give us the right to dictate our terms to his/her spouse. As parents what in a situation like this is to become a guide and explain the phenomenon of social norms rather than simply condemn. Children invariably look up to their parents as role models and this the parents should not ever forget. Unless the situation is grave like a spouse is emotionally or physically abusing your child, I think we, as parents have no business to jump in the middle. We have to learn to ignore judiciously. Where necessary, we could send our point through directly to the concerned parties with clear communication and direct talk. More important, we should accept the person totally who joins the family as one of the family and before reacting to any of his/her actions, we should always ponder how would we react if the action were coming from our own child?

We can take care of small details. For example, the couple should have the freedom to invite friends, have the freedom to throw parties or visit their spouse's family as freely as they mutually like. They should also have the freedom to have difference of opinion among themselves as only by differing they recognize the individuality of each other and this acceptance of individuality leads to a better understanding. These are small things but their disruption could causes big problems.

It takes a lot to adjust and accommodate within the family. Once we grow up and become distinct individuals, it is difficult to adjust not only with the person you marry but also the in-law family. It is still conventional in most societies for the boys to stay with the parents after marriage rather than the girls. Glumly the person who joins the family is expected to do all the adjustments with very little consideration for her personality, upbringing and basic character. She has to adjust to the whims and fancies of the family she joins under all odds.

In any kind of relationship, we all know it is much easier to adjust to the behavior of the other person if we are compassionate and understanding and we accept the person as is. It would be easier for the girl who is leaving all her loved ones behind to adjust and be accepted in an alien family if the family is more rational and accepting.

It is a small example but goes a long way in understanding relationships. The daughter in-law may be very possessive or selfish or argumentative or so forth. Why is she like that? May be she is the only child and has been spoilt by the parents. There can be many other reasons. However, the logical reason is that she who joins the family enters a new world and it is the responsibility of all in the family to help her adjust in the new environment by being more compassionate and understanding.  Does not love beget love? One should give a leeway. The problem comes when we just see the bad side of the girl and keep complaining. If we could be more compassionate, we could definitely contribute in helping her adjust more amicably and lovingly.

The bottom line is the parents need to draw a line as where it is there place to make a comment.

On the other hand the person who moves into the family has a greater responsibility to make all efforts to fit into the norms of the family. Till next time..

� Meera Chowdhry
October 21, 2001