For many of us, parenting reminds us of the central importance of families. Social norms and the tyranny of distance mean that few Australians partake of a large extended family. Yet extended families have something to offer us, something that is increasingly precious in our modern world—time.
Extended families allow more flexible use of time. Since resources and skills can be shared (with the attendant efficiencies this brings), a parent supported by an extended family can spend less time earning money away from their children. Child-care and education can be cooperatively undertaken, creating an optimal environment for both parent and child.
The financial and energetic demands of raising children without physical support diminishes the opportunities for our children to be part of the greater social body that they need to achieve their full potential. We may not be able to—or may not want to—rebuild an extended family with our blood relations. However, the need for an equivalent is so pressing that we can look to the people who share our values, live where we do, and are willing and able to make time for family.
We can build our own extended families using the model of an ‘affinity group’ to give back to parents and children the emotional resources that they need. An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together on a common goal. Affinity groups by nature are decentralised and non-hierarchical. The concept was developed in 19th century Spain, and mostly forgotten until the 1970s, when direct action groups picked it up. The model can be applied straightforwardly and with good effect to a group of people who wish to support each other along the journey of parenting.
An affinity group is self-managed and loosely organised. It is a coming together of equals, and decisions that affect the whole group are made by consensus. Each member, including children, contributes to the decision making process. An affinity group will have a code that unites its individuals in a common purpose, and these, for example, could be along the lines of the core values suggested by Robin Grille in ‘How to Create a Parent Support Groups that Works’ (Kindred magazine March 2008)
There are no minutiae of rules and laws—each member remains flexible to respond to the needs of new situations to the best of their ability.
The adult members of an affinity family should each take on skilled roles to promote the community’s durability, self-reliance and independence. When used for direct action, an affinity group has roles like spokesperson and media contact. However, an affinity group that is built as the basis for a new family might have roles that support domestic life such as food grower, tutor, medical officer, midwife, mediator, parents’ counselor, and nutritionist. These roles may be held in common or alone depending on the needs of the family, and be temporary or permanent. Each new affinity family can determine for itself what training is necessary for each role, and how to support members as they acquire the skills of their role.
To take full advantage of an extended family the members should live no more than a few minutes from each other. This facilitates cooperation, such as sharing the cooking, car travel, childcare, education, tools, toys, books, and bills. There is no necessity to pool income—an affinity family might be as simple as a confederation of families who each take responsibility for childcare for one day of the week.
Alternately, the affinity family may choose to live in a large house or a few acres of land owned by one of the family members, or own them in common. This approach has certain economic advantages; it provides a pool of labour with which houses can be built without incurring significant debt, and reduces per-capita fixed expenses (rates, power, phone, etc). As expenses represent time which must be spent working, then to have a rich family life, we must prevent ourselves from becoming time poor. This can simply be a matter of conscious choice of our actions.
An affinity family need not rely on the global market economy to define and reward work. Affinity families can value and reward labour that the market economy does not pay for, such as cooking and cleaning, childcare and elderly care. In this way we can rebuild the infrastructure of caring and trust that holds a family together. One way towards repairing this infrastructure is through a private complementary currency.
Time dollars are the simplest currency system to implement, requiring only a registry—which could be as simple as a central notepad or blackboard—to record account balances. People earn time dollars by using their skills and resources to help others. Usually, one hour of service equals one time dollar. People spend time dollars to purchase help for themselves or their families when they need it.
Time dollars generate and reward the reciprocity and civic engagement that are the essential components of social capital. They were conceived in order to create the functional equivalent of an extended family in an era in which many families are too small, too fragile, or too dispersed to perform the functions we once counted on them to fulfill. (Time Dollars at Work, Blueprint Magazine 1999).
In The Case Against Adolescence, Robert Epstein argues that teens should have the rights and freedoms as adults: to work, marry, own property, start businesses, sign contracts, take care of their health, and live on their own, as soon as they are competent to do so.
In our current society, opportunities for children and teenagers to perform and be valued for meaningful work are strongly curtailed, leaving mindless take-away jobs as their only option. Since an Affinity family can decide for itself who can work, it can return to our children their right of self-determination and enable them to take part in the greater social body. Children earn and spend time dollars in exactly the same way as adults.
Making It Work
If you have a large house, or a few acres that you can share, you already have a core around which a family can form itself. For nuclear families who are isolated and already time-pressed, a significant challenge will be finding a group of like-minded people. There may be parenting or playgroups in your capital city along a particular theme, like natural or attachment parenting. The drawback is that they won’t necessarily live in your area. The key is to keep an open mind, because some inconvenience in the short term might well be rewarded by a lifetime of shared joy and support for yourself and your children. Communicating across the emotional barriers will be hard, but without such communication there is no hope of a better world.
We choose the people with which we will form an affinity family. As in marriage, care must be taken to join with people whom you see yourself happily sitting beside in a rocking chair on the porch in forty years time. We also need to make sure that the roles of parents’ counsellor and mediator are filled with trustworthy people, who will keep the lines of communication open and help to resolve disputes when they occur. Also, drafting a formal dispute resolution process provides a framework for solving difficulties whilst the group is still intact.
The greatest concern in any family is how to keep our children safe, both physically and emotionally. Sadly, no environment or technology provides us with an absolute guarantee. What we can do is choose carefully who is in our new family, and make sure everyone has the appropriate police checks and clearances. We can keep our eye out for anyone taking too intense an interest in a child, and create an atmosphere of open discussion where children know themselves to be equal and talk freely.
Potential members of your new family may be concerned about risk to their possessions. In practice, theft is unlikely to occur. Each day in libraries, video stores, workplaces and schools, people borrow and return valuables belonging to others. Nevertheless, it makes sense to provide provisions for this in your dispute resolution process, so that people know from the beginning that their rights will be respected
The Future is Ours
The nuclear family, compulsory schooling, and wage-slavery are all systems created by human hands—systems we perpetuate by playing our parts. These systems are neither perfect, nor eternal. The global financial crisis, and the personal crises in the lives of everyday families remind us that these institutions are not adapted to our needs now, and may indeed never have been. Now is the time for people of courage and insight to establish a new direction for our society; to create the associations of free men and women in which me may discover our full potential.
Affinity families are a powerful basis for an alternative. They are multigenerational, in that they can include people who have not given birth to children or have already guided them to adulthood. They are likely to be a greater positive force in the lives of parents of young children than a parents support group, as they allow more time and energy to be made available to children. Mature members are available to mentor teens, and to share their skills with those who wish to learn. For the elderly, they represent a source of connection to the modern world.
As we approach the end-game of our isolated, debt-based society, it demands ever more of our time and energy—things which are the birthright of our children. Affinity Families offer a practical way forward in which this birthright will be respected. It is in this sense, formalized by the construct of time dollars that we can make the following assertion: every hour spent on affinity families will be returned to you.
Can you name one other institution that will make you the same offer?