Isolation of Parents is Hurting Families

Given all that was placed before us, Shirley did a pretty good job of preserving our family life and getting into the world of our children. But as I reflect, I can't help but ask, "Could we have found a compromise that would have permitted Shirley and me to have done even better?" I wonder.

We are not the only family with reason to ask that question. Robert D. Putnam, political-science professor at Harvard University, addresses the growing trend toward overcommitment and isolation in his important book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He interviewed nearly five hundred thousand people over the past twenty-five years and concluded that we are increasingly distancing ourselves from each other. The very fabric of our social connections has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. We know our neighbors less, socialize with friends less often, and even grow distant from our families. We belong to fewer organizations that actually meet, such as the Jaycees, Shriners, Elks, and other service clubs. Only mailing-list membership has continued to expand. The same number of people are bowling now as in the past (hence the title of Putnam's book), although more of them are doing it alone. Participation in bowling leagues has declined 40 percent since 1980. In politics, we remain reasonably well-informed spectators of public affairs, but many fewer of us actually partake in the game. (During the national election in 2000 which pitted presidential candidates with dramatically different views of America and its future, only 31 percent of potential voters in the state of Arizona bothered to go to the polls, 39 percent in California, 40 percent in Hawaii.) In religious life, "Americans are going to church less often than we did three or four decades ago, and the churches we go to are less engaged with the wider community."

At the same time, the so-called "electronic church," referring to services broadcast on television, radio, or the Internet, is gaining popularity. While it reaches some viewers and listeners who would never attend a church, watching from afar is no substitute for the fellowship of believers that involves the church body. The apostle Paul wrote, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another." (Hebrews 10:25). How can we encourage one another when we're worshiping in our family rooms on the Sabbath?

Putnam says that the most significant factor behind the growing isolation is the increase in the number of two-career families, thus distancing men and women from their traditional social networks. Bingo! There is simply no time for much of anything but work and maintaining a household. Television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic communication have also weakened the linkage between generations and interfered with the transmission of family traditions. When considered together, they take much of the meaning and enjoyment out of life. In short, Putnam says that the "social capital" of America is shrinking, resulting in more divisiveness and a general breakdown of mutual trust.

Other studies confirm the same trends and conclusions. Overcommitment and isolation are pandemic. Oxford Health Plans of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut found that one in six employees in the United States is so overworked that he or she can't even take the vacation time earned because of job demands. "Americans," the pollsters said, "are already the most vacation-starved people in the industrialized world, with an average of thirteen vacation days per year, compared with twenty-five or more in Japan, Canada, Britain, Germany, and Italy. The study revealed that 32 percent of those surveyed said they work and eat lunch at the same time, and another 32 percent said they never leave the building once they arrive at work. Some 34 percent said they have such pressing jobs that they have no breaks or downtime while on the job. Nineteen percent say their job makes them feel older than they are, and 17 percent say work causes them to lose sleep at night. Seventeen percent said it is difficult to take time off or leave work even in an emergency, and 8 percent said they believe if they were to become seriously ill, they would be fired or demoted.6 We are working ourselves to death.

I can't overstate how important these findings by Putnam and others are from my perspective. The harried lifestyle that characterizes most Westerners leads not only to the isolation of people from each other in the wider community, it is also the primary reason for the breakdown of the family. Husbands and wives have no time for each other and many of them hardly know their children. They don't get together with relatives, friends, or neighbors because they are tyrannized by a never-ending "to do" list. Repeatedly during my research in writing this book, which took longer than anything I have ever written, I came face-to-face with the same sad phenomenon. Parents were simply too distracted and exhausted to protect and care for their children.

Pollster George Barna saw evidence of this trend too. He wrote, "It is becoming less common these days for a teenager to have time isolated for focused interaction with family members. Most of the time they spend with their family is what you might call 'family and time': family and TV, family and dinner, family and homework, etc. The lives of each family member are usually so jam-packed that the opportunity to spend time together doing unique activities—talking about life, visiting special places, playing games, and sharing spiritual explorations—has to be scheduled in advance. Few do so."7

I find that children and young people are starved today for family life as it used to be—but almost never is. My in-laws, Joe and Alma Kubishta, are eighty-nine and ninety years of age, and yet my daughter and her friends love to visit their home. Why? Because everything there is so much fun. They have time to play table games, laugh, eat, and talk about whatever interests the young people. Nobody is in a hurry. If they are ever called on the phone, they are always available to talk. One of their frequent visitors is an unmarried man named Charlie who loves the Kubishtas. When he had to move away, he drove sixty miles to their house with a rosebush that he planted in their backyard. He just wanted to make sure Joe and Alma didn't forget him. This elderly man and woman, whom I also love, provide something to those who are younger that is simply not available elsewhere. How sad.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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