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Boomer Bytes #48: What is a Family?

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

What is a Family? 

By Steve Canipe

Dec. 12, 2014. “Oh no! It’s holiday time and my family is coming to visit.” – Have you ever felt that way? These folks with whom you grew up and shared so many things with are now an annoyance! Is this true for you? Maybe it is true for all of us some of the time.

It is sometimes hard to imagine that even though we had the same parents, grew up in the same town, went to the same schools, were exposed to all, or at least most, of the same things and we have turned out so differently. How does this work? Is the old scientific “nature versus nurture” argument at play; where a lot is genetically controlled and a lot is controlled by what we have been exposed to? Nature is considered to be those genetic traits like hair color, eye color that are not changeable. Nurture is like personality and to some degree things like intelligence that are affected by exposure to various environmental factors. Some factors like height and weight may have a predisposition to be one way but abundance or lack of food may affect how the adult actually looks with regards to height and weight.


Since the Christmas holiday (or winter holiday if you prefer that usage in your tradition) is a time when families tend to get together, this can lead to some interesting conversations around the dinner table or while watching football. There have been lots of articles written about the stress during the holidays and increased number of suicides. Many people falsely believe that there are more suicides during this time of year. While I intellectually know there are not more suicides, I can understand the frustrations that occur and can see some folks taking extreme actions.

A look at the actual data show that there is not an increased incidence of suicide right before or right after the holiday. The Emergency Medicine Journal’s data show that it “…is apparent that there is a general trend for such events to reduce in December and in particular around the days preceding Christmas day.” So not only are there not more suicides there are actually less during this season.

There is no doubt that additional stress is placed on families during the holiday times. Gift giving and receiving can be difficult. Trying to match in value what someone else gives you is an unwritten/perceived rule in some families. Other families will try to minimize by placing a limit in dollar value (<$5.00), operating on the assumption that it is the thought not the amount spent.

I’ve been a member of groups that do gift exchanges but the gift has to be handmade. Obviously this takes more time and thought. One cannot just dial up an online gift service and get something shipped. I have heard of a family where the siblings stopped giving each other gifts altogether – it was caused by wide separation and also by one of the siblings who had less money and was always embarrassed by not being able to match the dollar value of what was being given.

My wife and I have been uncluttering our lives and home and have gotten rid of many of the various Christmas trinkets we’ve been given over the years. Some have tremendous sentimental value and those we keep. But as a boomer family, we have decided that having another doodad or whatnot is not appealing to us.

We find that without the pressure of gifts and the like we actually enjoy the holiday with family more. With our kids, who don’t yet have a lot, we do more. Although often with our kids, we give money or gift certificates rather than “things” that take up space and we are not sure they are really wanted.

Now I love to open presents on Christmas Eve (my family tradition) and although I usually know—or can guess—what is in the package, it is fun. It is not the dollar value of what I am given that is significant but the thoughtfulness of it. It is just fun to be with family.

But what is that elusive concept of family? Is it someone with whom you share some DNA or is it more intangible than that? I feel like my wife is the major part of my family, but we share no DNA that I am aware of and it is unlikely since she was from the eastern part of the state near Raleigh and I was from near Charlotte.

Maybe not just DNA makes a family; what about adopted children? Aren’t they every bit family as much as those carrying some similar genetic material?

Until I started writing this column I had not given much thought to the concept of family. It seems to me that a family is people, who share thoughts, hopes, aspirations, have shared experiences. They love each other and would do things for each other that might not be done for others.

But what about the dear friends with whom we were in college or high school? Certainly we shared very close moments and events. We would do anything for them. We love them. Ah now we are getting into the Greek concept of love – different types. The Greeks recognized at least four types of love and each one had a name agápe means brotherly love;   érōs means sexual love; philia means friendship; and finally storge means love especially like that felt by parents for offspring.

The agápe-type of love is often reserved to describe love of God for us and vice versa. Eros is erotic love like we have for our spouse. So philia love is the friendship love. The root word is used in the word philosophy.

This discourse, while enlightening, does not explain what a family is. Some families have siblings that actively dislike each other, maybe hate each other, and rarely if ever communicate. Some parents have the same active dislike of their children or perhaps one of them. What causes this feeling?

There may be no real answer as to why. It has been observed in various cultures including the opposite characters, tsundere and deredere, in Japanese culture. Catullus introduced the love–hate theme into Western culture with his famous lines: “I hate and yet love. You may wonder how I manage it. I don’t know, but feel it happen, and am in torment.”

Families at holidays are thrust together in often small places (familial homes) with children, grandparents, and maybe aunts and uncles. Small interactions can lead to major hurt feelings. These can come about by one person talking about religion and/or politics where there is disagreement. One member may say that all < “religions like yours”> are interpreting the Bible/Koran/Talmud incorrectly. Or they may say that your political party <insert name> is full of manure. These kinds of taunts/insults can lead to blow ups and hurt feelings or lips from a punch – virtual or literal being thrown.

As we mature we sometimes harden our various positions, when one would think we would be more open to divergent viewpoints. One way to avoid the tiffs that might happen is to steer clear of potentially controversial topics. It is not necessary just to talk about the weather although it might seem to be the safest. But I like snow and you don’t!! Or I hate gray, cloudy weather and you like sunshine. It is not hard to find points of disagreement and conflict if we really want to find them.

Isn’t it better to try to remember that that loud obnoxious person is really your sister/brother and remember the fun times you had together when young? At least you can try to get along without arguments for your parents’ and kids’ sake. The time you have to spend together is going to be relatively short and remember, you may one day be the oldest in your family and be the home where the gatherings take place.

After having moved about, I have not described what a family is; not really. I’ve talked about some characteristics – genetic and otherwise. I’ve talked about friends who are as close as family. I’ve talked about the love we have for those individuals we consider family.

If you have thoughts on what constitutes FAMILY, would you please share your thoughts below or via email to me at boomerbytes@yahoo.com? I and the readers will thank you, since I will repost your ideas in a later column.