In today's high tech digital virtual world understanding the family matrix has never been more difficult. On a daily basis family units are continually bombarded by stimuli that can and do affect their educational, moral, and cultural development goals. Gone are the days when children simply learned the three "Rs," did chores at home, obeyed their parents unquestioningly, and did a few minutes of homework. Gone are the days when only the father worked and the mother stayed home to look after the children. Gone are the days when drug usage was not rampant, divorce prevalent, and saving for a rainy day a myth.
Individuality is today's mark of the family unit. Diversity within the family is expressed by those traits that cannot be changed (original gender, race, age) as well as those traits that are acquired and learned through an environmental setting (Tatum, 1997). Although powerful, the secondary trait composition defines and separates individuals and the family unit by education, religion, socioeconomic level, attitude, religion, and personality. The diversity continuum is, therefore, an ongoing process through out life. It is the process of diversity that shapes our identity as to which we are, collectively and individually, and how we function in the world around us. The primary purpose of this paper is to take an identity voyage (Tatum, 1997) with one American family through what Cooley (1902) might have called "The Family Looking Glass Self."
The family under review is typical of an upper middle class intact Caucasian suburban cluster unit wherein there are three children, two parents, dog, cat, and hamster. Religious affiliation is Catholic but practice is sporadic. All children attend a suburban school noted for its rigorous educational curricula and college preparation programming. Both mother and father are professional educators and there exists a strong parental interest in the children's education, both formally and informally. Vacations are important to all family members as they represent not only relaxation but also an opportunity for new learning endeavors. All five family members recognize the need for separateness and connectedness as well. In fact even though two siblings are fraternal twins each has their own bedroom in the family's five-bedroom three-bath home. Encouragement is garnered to ensure, as best possible, that the children differentiate themselves within the family unit rather than independent of the unit. The nurturing model set forth by the parents is representative of controlled flexibility, developmental responsibility, shared trustworthiness, emphasis on individual uniqueness, and freedom for personality development. The Zeitgeist, or the spirit of this family, exists in the unit's expressed need for individual autonomy, moral regulation, learning diversity, and educational freedom.
Broadly defined social class is a representation of an individual or group's social and economic standing within a resident environment. Components of a class strata include, but not limited to, wealth, profession, ethnicity, shared interests, language, experiences, and shared cultural activities. The family on which this report is based the social status is one of profession, financial affluence, educational freedom, and family systems. Support for the social classification is predicated upon family income (150K+), living accommodations (300K), profession (education - doctorate level for both parents), parental family history of affluence, well traveled, academically achieved children, all bilingual, resourceful, and cogent - a static vision of the ideal family and work life (Moen, 2000). Yet, as the river flows it does so with swiftness, vengeance, and darkness of spirit. For this family their nemesis is yet to be told. For this ideal American family a chapter is yet unwritten, a hardship unresolved, and a goal yet attained. For this family, who must now emerge from the corridor of darkness, there is no right wing politicking, no matching brand name t-shirts, no longer a wide screen television, and no longer the affluence once beheld. This family is now amassed with stress related contingencies, role and coping adaptations, a shift in values, and as stated by Ohlson (1998) an appeal to others to "Judge me only by that which I am capable of giving, rather than by that which is not in my power" (p.22). The remainder of this report will now focus on the disruption caused by the father's incarceration in a federal prison for 4.5 years in terms of that which existed before and that which now must be endured by Drake Summers, his wife Emily, eldest son Gavin, and younger twins Garth and Rebecca.
Prior to Drake's federal incarceration on felony charges of banking misconduct (racketeering) the family base was not one wherein harsh decisions were needed financially, educationally, or developmentally. There existed few areas wherein an open voice was not encouraged and expected. Laughter and tears garnered equal attention for all and both were openly felt. Affective or emotional messages were in a perpetual state of flow. Stated more precisely, within the Summers' family unit there existed an almost complete awareness of emotions and, through out early stages of development, the three children, incrementally developed a strong healthy emotional base. Even in conflict situations such as dating, curfew, peer associations, and dress codes there continued to exist a multidimensional approach to resolution. With respect to direct and indirect communication amongst family members there was little evidence to suggest closed communication patterns or subliminal messaging. All three children were encouraged to respect each other's freedom of expression regardless of topic. Even anger outbursts were treated as a human emotion and all messages shared between and amongst family members were rarely perceived as being incongruent in terms of inappropriate body language, mixed instructional signals; and a great deal of "responding" to situations occurred rather than "reacting" to them. One such example is found in the situation when the oldest son, Gavin, was permitted to purchase his first vehicle only to total the automobile a week after the buy. Fortunately no one was injured but, nonetheless, both mother and father displayed a certain amount of anger. The resolution was in keeping with the family's affective parental problem solving milieu and the incident was put into the perspective of a "lesson learned." Other examples depicting the family's open communication are found in matters such as the acceptance of cultural and ethnic diversity, sexual preference ideologies, and religious differences. In fact no member of the family would tolerate any type of ethnic joke in the home regardless of how seemingly harmless the content.
Within the family unit under investigation one particular family situation is rarely discussed as to importance by psychologists, sociologists, or family counselors, namely, mealtime activities and ambiance and the effect upon communication, connectedness, and relationship development. Evening mealtime within the Summers' home was always a candlelight dinner, background music, absolutely no television, and free flowing conversation. Even when it was pizza night, the table was properly set, candles lit, and music softly heard. So accustomed to the relaxed ambiance of the environment were the children, that their friends would ask to come to dinner just to be a part of a quiet reflective evening. What needs to be mentioned as well is that after dinner, one hour was reserved for everyone to read anything that was not required for school or job, including comic books, sports magazines, and even slightly trashy novels.
As reported earlier the once established communication system was shattered when Drake became incarcerated. Compounding the effects of incarceration were other disasters that further impinged upon and shattered the family's stability, namely the complete loss of the home though fire, a constant reminder from strangers where the father was, the mother's loss of employment, and the oldest son's withdrawal from university for lack of tuition. Interesting enough, however, these disasters brought the remaining family members extremely close together in an almost codependent configuration much of which almost completely dissolved the relationship that used to exist amongst the five family members. In other words, with the removal of the father new communication patterns were developed, new single parent family goals established, and a past that was, forever, set aside.
Prior to and after the father's incarceration there was never an issue of control in the decision making process. Decisions were always co-operational with the children at any given developmental stage. Opportunities were always provided wherein the children were given decision making freedom responsibility. The family genre was one on appropriate negotiation rather than parental dictatorial decree. Even vacations and new car purchases were planned with everyone's interest in mind. Those areas wherein an adult decision was to be made, such as medical treatments, curfews, and having a job after school hours, were fully discussed with the three children. During and after Drake's incarceration the children did not return to a shared responsibility with him and opted to discuss most decision-making issues with their mother, Emily. Whether or not the independence the three children now express is a result of that which was embedded prior to the father's incarceration or a result thereof will likely never be assessed. Determination lies in re-establishing positive…