Advantages of Extended Families

18:41 Mon 04 Jun 2007
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It struck me this weekend that there are significant advantages in having large extended families, not merely in standrd labor-sharing terms but also in terms of the likelihood of a greater range of experience.

If you have a large family network, then there’s likely to be a fairly large range of (the easiest example) ages in the set of family members accessible to you. Furthermore, since they’re family, you will probably have some degree of enforced interaction with/responsibility to them, and so will of necessity be exposed to their lives to a significant degree.

Therefore all kinds of important life experiences will be accessible to you as your relatives go through them; the more relatives, the more experiences. I was thinking about this specifically regarding “big events” like weddings and funerals, both of which are a lot more daunting and scary if you haven’t experienced them in any form before. But if you’ve been to plenty, and have been going to them over your entire life, they’re much less like gigantic and forbidding things and much more like large but expected and manageable aspects of existence.

What’s true for those big events is true for other things also. The larger the clan, the larger the likelihood of encountering any range of things, and having those things absorbed as part of clan knowledge. This can have some ill effects (increased pressure to adhere to superstitions, harder to break out of prejudices, etc.) but I’m not sure they would outweight the benefits, especially where you have a semi-clan structure that’s also integrated into a modern Western democratic/capitalist society. I’m not talking about explicit clans, either, just extended families that have strong relationship bonds.

They don’t have to be familial, either—friendship bonds can also be very strong, and a network of friends can seem quite like family, and provide a number of the advantages I’m talking about. But it would need to be a network quite old (10 years or so, I suspect, at a minimum) before it provided the children of the members with the kinds of experience-exposure I’m referring to.

This particular advantage hadn’t struck me before, but it does reinforce the belief that strong communal bonds, family- or friendship-based or both, are rather important indeed, and should be respected and encouraged even more so as we drift towards greater disconnection—mediated, to some degree, by online life… the rise of social networking sites seems a clear sign of attempting to get back some of these advantages.

3 Responses to “Advantages of Extended Families”

  1. monsun Says:

    Friends are better than family as you get to choose them.

  2. Radegund Says:

    I think you’re describing something really important, here. Family can be restrictive in the layers closest to you, but once you get further out there can often (in my experience) be a hugely fruitful interplay between commonality and difference. Diversity of experience when you’re young, falling under the heading of “family, thus available and acceptable”, is very valuable indeed.

    As you know, my extended family on my mother’s side is unusually close. People tend to blanch and swear when they hear about our enormous Easter holiday (numbers, at peak, topped 100 this year for the first time), but it’s genuinely one of the highlights of the year. It’s even better for my siblings, because they have a shared childhood/teen history with our second cousins that I lack because I’m 5+ years older than all of them. I’m delighted that the Oyster enjoyed it so much this year.

  3. Tadhg Says:

    monsun: You do get to choose friends, and they get to choose you as well, but doesn’t the element of choice often make that a less lasting bond? Not always, certainly, but I think one is more likely to simply remain in touch with family than with all of one’s friends throughout a lifetime, and that being-in-touch is quite important to relationship bonds. Also, one is less likely to have friends who span ages the way an extended family does, although it’s certainly possible to get around this—but it takes effort.

    Radegund: That’s a big group gathering! I’ve never experienced something like that, and have no idea whether or not I personally would like it. Incidentally, I’m not sure we’ve talked about it before, but there’s a chance that our families are connected by marriage, as it seems likely that there’s a connection from our branch to the Kevin O’Higgins branch of the family…

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