The Traditional Family
The family was numerous, patriarchal, and hierarchical. It also encompassed collateral branches and frequently included three generations. Here the child felt secure. "Grandfather's birthday", F.G. Waldmuller. Historischen Museum, Vienna
Let us first look at some of the characteristics of a traditional family unit.
In former times, when a rural tone of life prevailed, many conditions existed that favoured the harmonic development of the child until it reached adulthood. The crisis of adolescence was almost non-existent. In those days, society was guided by stable and coherent principles. The family was numerous, patriarchal, and hierarchical. It also encompassed collateral branches and frequently included three generations. Here the child felt secure. He could resolve any problem arising between him and his parents without necessarily confronting them directly, since he had recourse to the intercession of many relatives such as older siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, etc. These could act as intermediaries in any conflict. In this way, problems could fade away, rarely reaching acute emotional stages.
According to Hans Sebald, in his book Adolescence: A Social Psychological Analysis, in this type of family the child can also more easily find its role models and companions:
The traditional family was able to provide a number of adults who could serve as significant models. This was possible not only because there were more individuals in the family but also because their work performance was more visible…. In the large, traditional family the child usually grew up with peers who were of his or her family group. They were playmates with whom they shared the same sentiments.10
Problems were resolved within the family itself amidst an ambience of comprehension and respect. In his book The Guidance of the Adolescent and the Guidance of North American Youth, José Llopis says:
When a family is united, understanding, loving, self-sacrificing, sharing, where one’s needs are looked after, etc., this family has the strength of an institution that is welcoming and helpful. There is no need to try to find a solution outside the home. Any conflicts that may arise are discussed within the bosom of the family. Until the adolescent reaches an age when he can intervene in every family matter, he tries to resolve his personal problems himself under the watchful eye of the father who, from family tradition, knows how to prohibit what is not convenient.… The influence of a family thus constituted has a great strength and creates an ambience of respect that, as a moderator, avoids many pitfalls.11
Institutional Seriousness of Marriage
One of the most powerful factors that gave solidity and stability to the traditional family was its public and institutional character. Mariano Yela states in his Prologue to José Gonzalez’s book Family Guidance and Therapy:
It used to be that, at least in the West and from Roman times, the family was above all an institution. It was constituted publicly and formally upon marriage. This was regulated by religious, ethical, legal and widespread customary norms that transcended … the criteria, sentiments, preferences and private decisions of the betrothed, although it did not necessarily exclude them. The institutional character afforded a great solidity and stability to the family. Divorce was, by and large, legally unviable or difficult and almost always the object of social disapproval. The members of a broken-up family used to consider this a failure, a stigma and a tragedy.12
The idea that marriage should not be left only to the sentimental and affective whims of the betrothed prevailed until the end of the 18th century. This concept is foreign to us today. However, this contributed powerfully to the stability of families and to the common social good.
In an article of his entitled “Safeguard of Childhood”, which was published in The Family of Today, the Family of Tomorrow, Louis Roussel, scientific advisor to the National Institute of Demographic Studies in France, states:
The future spouses were not asked their opinion. Marriage was something too important for that. It was an essential strategy for the survival of the family. The decision that Joan would not marry Harry was not taken out of cruelty. Whether they loved one another or not was unimportant in relation to the primary aspect which was the continuity of the family.13
Frank Musgrove, professor of History at Manchester University, in his book The Family, Education and Society, adds:
Our modern-day system in the West of a romantic marriage is a recent curious anomaly. It is an eccentric prerequisite of the so-called advanced societies. In the past … marriage was a first class ingredient for social cohesion and for uniting the interests of conflicting social groups.… Generally speaking, when looking at marriage over a period of time, we observe that it is typically and normally a diplomatic agreement. And it is always, in a certain sense, a “marriage of state”. Its essential purpose is to establish an alliance between different social groups that are frequently opposed to one another.”14
Normal Development of the Child without the Phenomenon of “Adolescence”
The phenomenon “adolescence”, with its crises and problems, is typical of modern society and practically did not exist before. Paul Landis, in his book Adolescence and Youth: The Process of Maturing, says that in a traditional system:
The child grows up in the tradition of the family, taking over the family occupation, maintaining throughout his lifetime the family occupational status. A youth knows what he is born to and makes the adjustment more or less naturally and unconsciously. But in our kind of society no youth knows what he is born to.15
Philippe Aries, an important 20th century French medievalist and historian of the family and childhood, further elucidates this matter in Social History of the Child and of the Family:
This phenomenon was born of Wagnerian Germany and later spread to France around the 1900s. The young people, then adolescents, were to become a topic for the literature of the day and a concern to moralists and politicians.… From then on, adolescence would expand by pushing childhood backwards and maturity forwards.… In this way we passed from an epoch without adolescence to one where adolescence is the favoured period. One desires to attain that age quickly and to remain there a long time.16
Thus, the appearance of the “adolescence” phenomenon coincided with the emergence of romanticism and all of the distorted realities and myths that it created. The preromantic, pre-industrialised societies were not acquainted with these myths and distortions regarding the normal development of the child within the family. Philippe Aries continues:
In the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Modern Era and even later, the working class children mixed with adults as soon as they were considered able to dispense with their mother’s or nanny’s help.… From that moment they took part in the great community of people.… Our world is obsessed by the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. This concern was unknown to medieval civilisation because they did not have these problems. As soon as the child was able, he would become the natural companion of the adult.17
The Opinion of the Catholic Church
The old and rural society, with its patriarchal families, merited the following words from Pope Pius XII in his speech to the Men of Italian Catholic Action:
Especially in some regions a magnificent example is given by those families, rightly called patriarchal, in which the spirit of the deceased grandfather still survives. It is a spirit that communicates and transmits itself from generation to generation as the best and most sacred patrimony— even better safeguarded than gold or silver. It is upon such patriarchs and families that society places its hopes and realities. These homes, blessed and fruitful through religion, are those that give civil society and the nation its most serene physiognomy, its firmest cohesion, its strongest vigour. In these homes, paternal authority is respected and strong because it is venerated with a religious spirit. In them the child sees the father as a reflection of the paternity of God because faith in Christ is foremost in reverence, union, submission and concord.18
10) Hans Sebald, Adolescence: A Social Psychological Analysis, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1992, pp. 159-160.
11) José Llopis, The guidance of the adolescent and the Guidance of North American Youth, Editora Herder, Barcelona, 1965, p. 34.
12) Mariano Yela, Prologue to José Gonzalez’s book Family Guidance and Therapy, Editora Instituto de Ciencias del Hombre, Madrid, 1984, p.10.
13) Louis Roussel “Safeguard of Childhood” published in The Family of Today, the Family of Tomorrow No. 1-2, 1985, Paris, p. 118.
14) Frank Musgrove, The Family, Education and Society, Editora Verbo Divino, Estella (Navar- ra), 1975, p. 92
15) Paul H. Landis, Adolescence and Youth: The Process of Maturing, McGraw-Hill. New York. 1945. p. 70
16) Philippe Aries, História Social da Criança e da Família, Zahar Eds., Rio de Janeiro, 1978, pp. 46-47
17) Ibid., pp. 275-276.
18) Pius XII, Allocution to the men of Italian Catholic Action on 20 September 1942, “Colección de Enciclicas y Documentos Pontificios”, Publicaciones de la Junta Tecnica Nacional, Madrid, 1955, p. 1177.