Home Economics Redux

by Peter Block on November 15, 2010

Tagged as: Gifts / Raising Children

We now use the term “dysfunctional family” for a reason. In the evolution of the consumer society, the family has lost much of its use or function. What the family used to do has been outsourced to educators, human services, fast food restaurants, governments and shopping malls. That is what is really meant by the term “dysfunctional family”: a family with no function.

Take the question of raising a child. If, as we declare, we want our children to grow up to be accountable adults and responsible citizens, we must ask where they will learn this. Too often we think we can purchase these outcomes and give the job to schools, day care centers, youth centers, coaches, probation officers and counselors. The family has become a child management agency responsible for scheduling, funding and transportation.  

When a child has no real job in the family the alternative is mischief: gangs, electronic devices and consumption. The job title of someone who has nothing to do is called “teenager.” The plaintive cry that is a symptom of this is “I am bored” — as if it were someone else’s problem to solve.  

So what might the family function of a child be in this modern world? Susan True is a saleswoman at Kramer’s Sew and Vac Center in Cincinnati. She once taught home economics, when we had home economics in our schools. I asked her what she taught the students. Her answer is a clue to how our children might become functional again. She said she taught them to:

Balance a checkbook

Figure mortgage and debt costs

Comparative shop

Buy homeowner’s insurance

Buy a car

Prepare a household budget

Can food

Track the flow of household money

Have manners

Set a table

Buy, wash and cook food

Read patterns and sew

Clean the stove

Listen to elders

We could add to this list some of what youngsters traditionally learned in shop class:

Measure

Saw

Hammer

Sand

Glue

Paint

Read a blueprint

Design a birdhouse

Repair small engines

Maintain cars

Perform small electrical tasks

Fix toilets

Clean up from all of the above

Learning these things was part of an applied skills movement that once thrived in our schools. When it disappeared from our schools, it disappeared from our lives. Most home economics and shop classes are now gone, done in by the hands of cost cutting and the romance of the information and computer age.  

Gone with these skills and functions is the experience that each person in the family has a local use and is master of something that is unquestionably of value. Performing these functions means that each person is of unquestionable value. It opens the possibility that a person’s value is not left to be measured by performance outside the home, which places valuing in the hands of institutions and soccer coaches.

Value achieved in this use-full way means we do not have to wait for something in the future to know we are worth something. We don’t have to live for the future or feed off of having good prospects. We can stop declaring that someone is not living up to their potential, which is a condemnation for school children not performing at the top of their class. Which is most of us.        

Restoring a function to the child also brings more purpose into the center of family life. Our children can learn to care for an infant so they will know how to care for their own someday. They can learn to grow food and garden so they learn that peas do not grow in the grocery store. They can compost waste for the sake of the earth and care for the grandparents so as to keep them out of a warehouse for elders.

A functional family means every member of the family needs every other member. It puts satisfaction into our own collective hands rather than settling for being a satisfied customer. It means we are learning and teaching how to be a citizen in ways that cannot come from civics class. Finally, a functional family will know how to live in hard times and make do with whatever the future holds. It might mean our children will do better than we did with a lot less income, or just one income, which is not a bad prospect at all.    

~ Peter ~