Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 3, Issue 46, Tuesday July 5, 2006


of joint families

Commercial Hindi cinema and soap operas have painted a saccharine sweet picture of “joint families” in the minds of the public. The audience is familiar with images of benevolent parents, brothers and sisters and their spouses who display cloying affection towards each other and who are willing to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of the family. Even if there is a black sheep in the fold, at the end of the three hours he has realised the errors of his ways and all is forgiven. But one only has to read the papers for this illusion to be shattered. Dowry deaths, property disputes, domestic violence, sexual and mental abuse are all over the headlines. While many would say this is an extreme view, and not everyone is the same, it does bring home the fact that joint families are definitely not all joy and laughter. It would be unrealistic to expect it to be so.

Soheli, once a child of the joint family system, does not agree with this view. She misses the good old days when all her family (uncles, aunts, grandparents) lived under one roof. “We were not always a happy family,” she says. “But there was always good understanding between us and a congenial atmosphere to grow in. In short we were like any other nuclear family that you see today, but a little better. There were discords but we also had fun. The best thing was that there was always someone to talk to,' recalls the misty eyed mother of two.

Maruf, another such person, speaks of a completely different state of events. “Growing up in a joint family was definitely not a pleasant experience for me. My father's elder brother controlled the finances and my father had to ask his permission before he could buy anything. My aunt completely dominated my mother and treated her like a servant. She would tell my uncle that she was buying toys for my sister and me and then send the toys to her relatives.” A harrowing tale indeed!

We could go on and on to relate stories of people but then this would turn into an empirical study. What is essential to note here is that despite the contrasting points of view on display here, it is visible that the culture of joint families have almost died down.

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 has come of age and appreciates the strengths and weaknesses of both systems. In a sense I, myself, 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 on one's own. The nuclear family gave immense freedom from the traditions and ways of life of the old system. Hence whenever and wherever the parents and the grown up adult children could not get along well, and when the children could afford to have their own homes, nuclear families began to shape. As it happens with most changes in 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 systems and the emergence of individualistic nuclear families. However, gradually when nuclear families became the order of the day, the older generation slowly began to accept the realities and became comfortable with it.

So what are the other reasons for this breaking away from the culture of joint families?

Comparisons and the sharing factor
“Its mine!” “No! Its mine!” “I want that please mom!!” That just about sums up the problems of the joint family! If there are several children in the family, there is a tendency for parents to make comparisons. Also, if one child is given something and the other isn't, it could lead to the development of unhealthy competition and feelings of envy. Most 'unhealthy' children come from joint families because they live together out of compulsion and not choice.

Who is the head of the house?
Another problem is that there are too many authority figures in joint families. Sometimes, grandparents undermine the mother's authority because they feel that they have more experience in raising children. They pass adverse remarks to the mother in front of the children like saying, “You don't know how to handle children…” As a result, the mother feels suppressed, depressed and frustrated. She, in turn, takes her frustration out on her child, which affects his/her overall development. What happens then is that children become very manipulative. They become the master players of the game. They learn how to get exactly what they want by playing the elders off against each other. What is most important is that there should be some kind of agreement between the authority figures on disciplining the child. For instance, even if the grandparents do not agree with the mother on certain issues, they should not discuss these things in front of the children.

The Generation Gap
Generation gap is another important factor to be taken into consideration. The needs and expectations of the younger generation are constantly changing. The fact remains that there are no standards and rules written in stone as far as parenting is concerned. In joint families, members of the older generation, tend to lay down the rules in an autocratic fashion. This tends to increase tension between the grandparents and the grand-kids. So while this relationship should be one to cherish, living in a joint family makes one risk it all.

Not all is doom and gloom however
A harmonious joint family set-up can be a boon. It can provide a wonderful support system emotionally and financially. In the ideal sense, one can share both one's triumphs and failures. The joint family is ideal for the woman who wants to work as well as have a family. They can then have someone to leave their children with when they are away at work, rather than leaving them in a nursery or with servants. They can be assured that their children are being looked after by people who care for them almost as much as they do themselves. After all, as they say, “blood is thicker than water.”

Joint family is perfect for the days in misery. There are lots of people to lend a hand in your days of pain. You can always turn to someone when you need support. When someone is sick or had an accident that someone is sure to find company beside the bed.

Also if one is open and honest and has realistic expectations from other family members making a joint family work is not all that difficult.

However it is seen that these days the benefits of a nuclear family far overrides the benefits derived from a joint one.

The culture of joint families, sad as it may be for many, has all but died down. Family ties have come to become less and less important and as they say individualism is now the way to go, even though it might breed obscurity.

By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam



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