Every once in a while, revolutionary concepts that lead to major cultural shifts begin to emerge. As these concepts surface, they often tend to baffle us with two seemingly contradictory characteristics. First, they seem to be labeled as “extreme” and are often viewed as an impossible reality to attain. Secondly, as crazy as they may sound, the wisdom in them is equally as apparent. It is a curious blend of blatant lunacy, yet obvious enlightenment.
One of these concepts took root in my mind as I left for the office one morning a couple of years ago. It was a morning like any other. While the sun began to fling it’s color just above the horizon I wrapped up the early morning activities, sped through the shower, dressed and said my goodbyes to the family. With some urgency, I walked out the door. I scrambled from my front porch to my truck, only to turn and see that two of my three children had followed me as far as the screen door.
Suddenly a very odd feeling came over me. I don’t readily remember how to describe it except that it involved a degree of confusion. Nevertheless, I jumped in the seat, started the truck and rolled the window down. By this time my wife had come out to retrieve the kids, so as I backed out of the driveway we all spent the next twenty seconds vigorously waving our hands and yelling a very extended “goodbye” at the top of our lungs. For the kids it had become kind of a game. For me, it was my last chance at some fun interaction with them before nine or so hours of estrangement from my family.
That’s when it hit me. This was all wrong. The whole idea of “leaving for work” should not be. Sure, families might be engaged in individual activities throughout any given week, but there is something wrong with leaving my family for the day – almost every day of my life. Now before you write this off as just the emotional response of a father who misses his family during the day, let me state it this way: There is something wrong with a father spending more waking time absent from his family than present with them over the course of his entire life. Something has gone terribly awry when that is the predominant reality in the life of a Christian family.
Think for a moment about the statistics related to the father of an average family.
One in four (25%) working dads spend less than one hour with their kids each day. 42% spend less than 2 hours a day.[i]
In case you need some encouragement, at least it is going in the right direction.
The amount of time parents spend with their children continues to go up. Fathers have nearly tripled their time with children since 1965. Mothers spend about twice as much time with their children as fathers do (13.5 hours per week for mothers in 2011, compared with 7.3 hours for fathers).[ii]
It’s not just work though. Perhaps fathers could sacrifice some of their leisure time.
Men spend more time than women in leisure activities (such as watching TV, playing games, socializing and exercising)…Among parents with children under age 18, fathers spend, on average, 28 hours per week on leisure activities, while mothers spend 25 hours on leisure.
More time at work and more time at play than with our children. Hmm…
“Well that is the average family”, you say. Perhaps your protest would be much like mine. I see the kids in the morning. I come home and we eat together. We worship together in the evening. I read to them before bed. On the weekends I even spend some quality time with them doing their homeschool or maybe showing them how to work in the yard.
Do the math. We may be able to tout that we are better than the abysmal and profoundly deficient standard that currently exists in our society, but we must still admit that our daily estrangement from our children far exceeds the time spent with them in the years prior to their adulthood. If we transcend our current cultural context for a moment, we may be able to see that during any given day our family units are effectively being drawn and quartered – children without fathers and wives without husbands.
So why are we here? Of course there are many reasons but much of the shifts have merely accompanied the cultural and economic changes of the last couple of centuries. Family farms and “mom and pop” businesses gave way to industrialized society. Television shows that aired midway through the last century gave a picture of the father leaving for work and coming home. It wasn’t long until moms joined the dads in being gone. After all, with all of the new technology and the kids off in public school, a second income was there for the taking.
So am I arguing for a return to the family farm? Absolutely not. That said, food is becoming localized at an incredible rate and the family garden is picking up steam. (A family in my church produces over a thousand pounds of food on their one-acre plot of land.) The return movement I am advocating for is recovering the family as an economic unit inasmuch as it is possible. I am promoting meaningful, productive contribution from all members of the family. Further, I am saying that this contribution can exceed that of household chores. I am describing a division of labor that reaches beyond the household proper and into the breadwinning activities of one or both parents.
Many Christian parents are having more children these days. More are reading scripture and worshiping together. More families are taking responsibility for the education of their children. But these activities are just a start. If we really want to address the issue at its root, we will need to harness an understanding of the covenant household as a genuine economic unit where each family member functions as a unique individual – but together in unity for a productive purpose. In taking this full responsibility we will find it more naturally raises responsible children and more genuinely binds family relationships. Concepts such as “balancing work and family” will fade away. The lines would be erased and fluidity would exist where currently there is stark division.
So what does this look like? For any particular family context I would have to say, “I don’t know.” Perhaps we are too early and the full manifestation of what I am describing may be far away but one can certainly imagine. I imagine a day when there are a vast number of family businesses on the Internet. I imagine fathers as independent contractors where true “office time” is limited and where other family members can be brought along to help.
In the meantime, while we wait for the more ideal to come into view, I imagine children at times coming to work with a parent where it is not viewed as an occupational faux pas. I’m not talking about sitting under the desk with a coloring book either. I mean brainstorming very rote activities or tasks appropriate for a child’s age where they can engage and contribute to productivity. I envision a boy or young man sitting quietly in his father’s business meeting at the office where the father models and the son observes. In every activity there is opportunity to instruct directly or indirectly through a child’s observation.
In July, my youngest son turns seven at which time he will join me at the office two days a week. He will have rote tasks to complete, he will sit quietly in meetings if appropriate and he will also be involved in independent study. If I do things right, I will be more productive than I would be alone, and there will be opportunity for practical instruction that would not be present otherwise.
Will this solve everything? Of course not. The family will still be fractured during the day. That being said, it is better than nothing. I also know these things may not be as practical for others. I have an advantage as an employer. Some may travel extensively for their work. It may very well be impossible for some to involve family at this time in their lives. If that is the case, some can cut out a few of the leisure activities on nights and weekends and engage meaningful endeavors as a family. We need not begin with the premise that our current laws, cultural norms and childrearing issues make things impossible. My focus is not on the current possibility. I am simply saying that in some ways we need recover the family as an economic unit and move it to another level.
How? First, let’s reorient our thinking. We must not accept the current norm as an inevitable reality in society. Second, we have to change the conversation. We can cease using phrases such as “balancing work and home”. We can talk about ideas and process them with other like-minded Christians. Then, we take baby steps where possible. We make small changes or radical changes depending on our specific family and occupational contexts.
We can’t work all day with our children. I am not even arguing for family fusion with every activity during the day. That would be unproductive. I am pressing for a paradigm shift in how we view the family and work. If we learn to do it right, we can produce more together than we can separately. And along the way we can truly instruct our children throughout the day. They can more readily apply their homeschool lessons. They can better discern their own gifts and talents while learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the other family members. They can better understand the division of labor within the home. A sense of accomplishment would be common and an entrepreneurial spirit would be cultivated. In addition, much like the family farm, they would take an active part in bringing bread to the table.
This essay is not intended to be an exegetical defense of the concept of working together as a family. It merely builds on the scriptural nature of the covenant household and takes to heart a familiar command from Deuteronomy chapter 6 and 11.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)