Several months ago, I was at a Cub Scout den meeting, talking to another mother and her 9-year-old son. We were discussing requirements for the next Cub Scout rank, and the mother explained that her son needed to complete the “Family Fun Night Requirement.” Her son looked at me, and said, “Well, I guess I won’t get my Bear Badge, I don’t have a family.” I’ve known this family for 5 years, and watched the parents struggle with their marriage, and their subsequent divorce. Overall, the parents did a great job working as a coparenting team, and I was impressed at how successful they were at working towards the best interests of their son. The dad moved into a house that was only 5 houses down the street from the mom, and the son seemed to be handling everything as well as could be hoped. Of course, it can be challenging to keep the delicate two-household equilibrium for a long period of time. About eighteen months ago, this child’s father was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months. Upon returning to the US, he was stationed another state, and is now about 7 hours away from his son. When I asked this child what he meant about not having a family, he said, “It’s just me and mom. Dad lives so far away now. I don’t have a real family.”
Around that time, the Big One was thinking a lot about what makes up a family too. In a school essay, he wrote, “My family includes my mom, my dad, my stepdad, two dogs, and four cats. I am going to be a big brother soon.” Needless to say, we don’t all live together! (I only have 2 dogs and 2 cats in my house.) I was pleased that my son was able to see all of us as part of his family, even if we aren’t all part of his household. I think that historically society has seen “household” and “family” as being synonymous.
There are some advantages to having a broad definition of family. Usually, the Big One has more “fans” at school and sporting events than most children: his dad, stepdad, me and his grandparents. However, the birth of the Monkey has challenged my son’s definition of family the most. The Big One asked if he was going to be a “brother” or a “half-brother,” and if that would change how he felt about the Little Monkey. Could he love a half-brother as much as he would love a brother? The Big One also asked if his dad would be a part of his little brother’s family, and what the Little Monkey would call his dad. The Big One’s stepdad (Mellow Man) buys Christmas presents for him, and they go bowling together, so would my son’s dad get to hang out with the Little Monkey? Is his dad a “stepdad” to the baby, or did we use some other word. I told him that we’d have to figure things out, but we would all still be his family, and unfortunately we don’t have words to capture all of these new relationships.
Given that more than half of all children will spend some portion of their time in a single-parent home, and most children will experience several familial transitions in their life, it is important to remind ourselves (and our children) that when we think of what a family is, we don’t simply think about the people living in our homes, or that the people in a child’s family include only their siblings and biological parents. A family member might even include a person for whom we haven’t even come up with a traditional label to describe! A mentor of mine living in a stepfamily had her youngest daughter coin the term “Sib-Dad” to refer to her eldest daughter’s father.
After a moment of pause at the Cub Scout meeting, I told my son’s friend what I believe about the meaning of the word “family,” and what I’m teaching the Big One. A family is not a certain number of people living in one house, a family is any number of people who love and care about each other, spend time together, celebrate together and support each other. Then I asked him if he used my definition what could he do to fulfill his “Family Fun Night Requirement.” He picked a special activity that he and his mother would do on a Saturday night, just the two of them.