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Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 12:46 AM

Investing in families is a safe bet

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

Most of us think about family this time of year, prompted by all the tradition, gatherings, and food.

And sometimes we might wish we had a better family than the one we have or the one we grew up in.

I used to do that. What if I hadn't had so many weird relatives? What if we'd been rich? What if I'd had two parents?

But the more I learned about other people's families, the more I was able to be grateful for mine with all its flaws.

Being part of a rich family could be nice, but last week, Peter Madoff was sentenced to 10 years in prison for helping his brother Bernie defraud people through his notorious Ponzi scheme.

I wouldn't want a brother like Bernie Madoff. My little brother used to filch my candy bars, but that doesn't seem so bad now.

I'm pretty sure that at some point I thought being part of a famous family would be cool, but it can have drawbacks as big as its benefits.

When President Obama was re-elected, my wife and I thought, oh boy, those girls are going to go through adolescence in the White House. Remember Jenna Bush, who at 19 was cited for underage drinking twice, in the weeks after her father's (George W. Bush) 2001 inauguration?

Who wants to have the world nosing into their business?

At some point most of us make peace with the families we have. Sometimes starting a family of one's own is all it takes to move a person's thinking along, because you start fretting about whether you are getting it right.

This will be the first Christmas our son won't be home, which in itself feels odd, but it's a concern because he and his young lady friend saved money from their summer jobs and set off to travel around China. Our son is 20, which seems old enough until we look at him through parental eyes.

I was glad to see an article that suggested we shouldn't worry so much. It's the sort of thing I want to believe whether it's correct or not.

We subscribe to Scientific American Mind, which had a piece in the latest edition about adolescence, written by the research psychologist Robert Epstein, who says the idea of a life stage called adolescence only cropped up after the Industrial Revolution. Before that teens (20 is older than that, but some days ... ) generally went to work as apprentices and were treated like young adults.

Treating them like children in modern society sometimes results in resentment and acting out, which leads to adults seeing all teens as somehow impaired.

They're good kids, and smart, usually. They'll be fine. Anyway, we don't want to stress too much. The same magazine had a story that said stress can be passed on through generations.

If one of your grandparents was stressed enough early in life, anxiety could show up even in you. That would mean three generations of impact, according to the study.

So this is where the impact of family behavior and circumstances gets serious. Sometimes there really is something to worry about, and not just for individual families.

I read elsewhere about a British study finding that rock and pop musicians are more likely to die early than the general population. When researchers dug deeper they found that childhood abuse increased the likelihood a performer would die of alcohol or drug abuse.

What happens to kids really matters later on, for them and for the rest of the communities they'll live in.

That doesn't just apply to musicians. Abuse or mistreatment shapes lives, and so do other circumstances.

In another study, researchers led by Dr. Katie McLaughlin, of Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, examined more than 6,000 teenagers. They found that the ones whose families had a hard time reliably providing enough food over the past year were most likely to experience mental disorders.

That shouldn't be surprising. It does reinforce the notion that helping families is more than charitable. Whether through policies, programs or individual giving, it's a good investment in safe, vital communities.

That's something we think about this time of year, too, but it ought to be with us all year.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.


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