Extended Families

Warwick Rowell

Our families are a key component of our culture; we spend more time and invest more of our true selves in our family than in agriculture, housing, or a village, so this article outlines how some of Permaculture’skey design strategies might relate to families.

Our first major exposure to Permaculture concepts was at the University of W.A. Summer School in January 1988, when we also heard David Bellamy, David Suzuki and Germaine Greer. Particularly relevant were Greer’s comments based on her book Sex and Destiny. Like her previous work, The Female Eunuch, the title does not do the book justice; its scope is far wider than just the politics of human fertility, its subtitle. It reaffirms her comments in the previous book on the power, presence and importance of the extended family.

This reaffirmation provides a link to Permaculture design concepts. The nuclear family in which most of us live can be likened to a monoculture – it is fragile and short of human resources. The extended family is a much more resilient and versatile system. Permaculture systems aim for resilience by making sure that each function is provided by many elements within the system. Versatility is increased when each element serves many purposes within the system.

Alongside her provocative view of the reasons for the rise of the nuclear family over the last couple of centuries, Greer also provides lively cameos of the joys and difficulties of living in an extended family. If we pick the bones from her descriptions we have a statement of the Permaculture design principle of resilience: meet each need in many ways.

Children need nurturing, and this need is best met by many individuals. Raising a child to four years old is a job that to be well done requires many people. If there are many adults or larger children around, after a couple of hours we can pass the young family member on to them, so we can do other things, or recover from our exhaustion! Many get to practice their parenting skills in short bursts, and to discover whether they are good at the role, without learning at the child’s expense, which can often happen when all of the child’s caring is being provided predominantly by one over-loaded person.

The family needs some income, and multiple sources of income within an extended family can share the financial load, so particular members don’t have to spend so much time away at work, which limits their time together. Work at home is needed to maintain the family and its productive and protective systems. Many can be involved in different aspects of this work, from very young to very old.

Having many people providing each of a wide range of functions within the extended family has huge implications for the individuals of that family. Individuals’ developing ideas about the world and how it works need support and testing, and nuclear families can be desperately poor at doing this. Actually testing their ideas is necessary too. Talk and no action will quickly result in direct feedback from another family member. Tradition keeping – a key factor in preserving culture – is less likely to be overwhelmed in an extended family, where the oldest generation influence family members well beyond their own children. The relationship with one’s own children or parents in a nuclear family is often problematic, due to the stages of dependency, independence, and mutual dependence, and then, a reversal, when children support parents, in many ways as they age and become infirm.

Most importantly, individuals who are raised in an extended family will be able to learn from many role models. This will enable them to take up a wider range of social roles than would be possible if their role models were only their own biological parents. The continual presence of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandchildren and grandparents will also provide many relationships that are both intimate and long standing. Provided the atmosphere is not a despotic one, a child from an extended family will probably be much more tolerant, more understanding and patient and have keener observation skills. Not the least of the impacts of an extended family on individuals is the demand and opportunity for versatility. In taking on a wide range of different responsibilities we will build and test different competencies and so build our own sense of identity. The many and varied rewards of a rich social and material family life can be contrasted with the hollowness of over-specialisation that so many members of nuclear families find such a trap.

One of the characteristics of an extended family is its ability to meet a huge proportion of its needs from within, and in so doing to minimise its dependency on the outside world. Similarly, a Permaculture system only imports where necessary, we use resources internally and then export only what is truly surplus. Who needs huge incomes when there is meat on the table, and vegetables, salad and fruit from the garden? Who needs counsellors, therapists, and their ilk when there is a sympathetic aunt or uncle around? Who needs electronic media to entertain when there are two or three members of the family of around the same age?