Aunts, uncles, and cousins

One effect of the shrinking modern family is that people today grow up not only with very few siblings, but also with few aunts, uncles, and cousins. The author of this article, Anthony Esolen, has 39 first cousins, twenty of whom grew up in his hometown of 5,000.  I have a grand total of three first cousins, none of whom I grew up with, and only one whom I see every now and then. Large extended families like Dr. Esolen’s helped an earlier generation survive the Great Depression. If one household was down on its luck, there was an uncle who owned a business, or a cousin with a spare room, or an aunt with time to babysit. Chances were good that a sizeable number of family members lived close enough to be called in an emergency. (It’s easy to see how the decline of the extended family led to the growth of the welfare state.) If a relationship went sour, as they do even in the best of families, there were others who could mediate or fill the void. If a kid wasn’t very popular at school, he at least had cousins who made the experience less isolating than it might have been otherwise. Dr. Esolen explains:

“It should be no surprise to find kinship at the foundation of community life. For cousins, as I’ve said, provide you that straight passport into a community.

A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn’t necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin’s house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy. Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn’t like you, and he comes readymade.

My cousins were quite an assortment: a very pretty girl for me to have a crush on, a fellow Cardinals fan and memorizer of statistics, a shy bully, an inveterate coquette (whom my father didn’t like at all, but I did). Some were sharp and some were dumb; some were good-looking because they looked like our family, and some were homely because they looked like our family; one was adopted, and a couple you’d swear must have been but weren’t. Want diversity? Check out the first cousins of a big family. Nothing is less clannish than a clan.

Those cousins were a regular proving-grounds for flirting, fighting, and teasing: all indispensable for a happy marriage. Even the cooperation among cousins of the same sex — we boys built a fort in the middle of the woods, only to see it wrecked by some other clan — helps in the forging of those friendships which have built every civilization that has ever existed.”

Another unintended effect of small families is, I think, a strange kind of misogyny and misanthropy. Dr. Esolen points out that when families average two children per household, as is approximately the current rate, 45% of children grow up without a sibling of the opposite sex, and 70% grow up without siblings of one sex or the other. In earlier times cousins might have filled the gap, but today the only kind of closeness most young people have with the opposite sex is not the kind of closeness, shall we say, that is good for them. Boys today learn how to be boys, and how to relate to girls, primarily from strangers, without any of the insights derived from a close family life, and without any of the behavioral constraints necessary to family life. This can be compensated for by exceptionally attentive and creative parents, but alas, most parents are not very exceptional, nor should society expect them to be. As a result we should not be surprised that so many young people are confused about their sexual identity, frustrated at the incoherence and unpredictability of social expectations, and otherwise dysfunctional in the face of sex differences that earlier generations considered normal.

After four generations of sharply declining birthrates, the social safety net once known as the extended family no longer exists for most Americans. Today it is the nuclear family against the world, and even the nuclear family is crumbling. The only barrier between a failed or inadequate nuclear family and destitution is … The State. So, we are starting over. Let’s try to salvage what remains and rebuild, so that our grandchildren will be blessed with many aunts, uncles and cousins in the perilous times ahead.

7 thoughts on “Aunts, uncles, and cousins

  1. Jeff,
    That was a wonderful post. I have been blessed with a large extended family and six of my own. I love the feeling of always being loved. I have to admit, I did not appreciate it until I was an adult, but it is cool. I have 23 first cousins,on my father’s side, most of whom live in nearby cities, and have families of their own. It is sad that our society does not see the beauty of family, it is one of life’s greatest blessings. :) Happy New Year!


  2. Jeff, you have an interesting point which I had never thought of before: Having brothers and/or cousins of the opposite sex is good practice for dealing generally with members of the opposite gender in a non-sexual way–getting used to the typical faults and virtues of the opposite gender, just learning to live with them. And I almost wonder if we could extend that point and say that it is especially important for girls whose fathers work a lot outside the home, because they don’t get to spend a lot of time with the one family member of the opposite sex that they do have around, whereas sons are at least raised by mothers.


  3. Below is a ditty I wrote in reaction to a “FATHERS’ DAY” article about my husband and our 10 children, below is one of the many replies about how “awful” it is!!

    Couple scores perfect 10 for Father’s Day

    Name: I wonder… …
    Date: Jun, 20 2004
    I’m wondering if these people know what is causing all these kids. Imagine if everyone had that large of a brood!


    You can have a BIG house.
    You can have a BIG car.
    You can even have a great,
    BIG, unjust war.

    You can have a BIG dog.
    You can have a BIG check.
    You can even have a party
    On a great BIG deck.

    You can have a BIG trip.
    You can have a BIG debt.
    But there’s one big BIG
    That they hate, you bet!

    A great BIG family
    Full of great BIG hearts,
    They’re a silent rebuke
    To the little BIG farts!


  4. +JMJ+

    Something else worth pointing out is that numbers aren’t always everything.

    Jeff, I have three siblings and eleven first cousins. (I have about nine “honourary first cousins”–some other cousins whose exact relationship to myself I don’t know enough geneaological terminology to explain.) It might seem like a goodly number, but our parents pretty much raised us to “think nuclear.” =(

    In fact, until I read your post and Dr. Esolen’s article, I had known that I wanted to start a big nuclear family, but hadn’t thought about how they would fit with my siblings’ families or my sibling-in-laws’ families! What a huge paradigm shift, all of a sudden . . .


  5. +JMJ+

    Jeff, for some reason “Search the Web on” is what showed up on the last post instead of my name! Yet the link will still be to Sancta Sanctis. =S Weird . . .

    Just in case the same thing happens here, I’ll sign this comment.



  6. It astounds me how quickly this problem can be fixed. I know a couple in their 70s, Bill and Ann (please pray for Ann, she is suffering from cancer and will likely not live to see 2010). Bill and Ann both came from broken, dysfunctional families. Yet they embraced their faith, and had 9 children. One died in infancy, one is disabled. The others have had very fruitful marriages of their own, none have left the faith. They have 41 grandchildren. A majority of them live within 50 miles of them. All of these grandchildren know what it is like to have a large extended family full of aunts, uncles and cousins. Bill and Ann, through their sacrifice, and willingness to go it alone, were able to change everything for their grandchildren, who live now in an almost completely different world than the ones their grandparents grew up in.

    Bill and Ann inspire me and fill me with hope. They are who I want to be when I grow up.


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