Understanding One’s Family Dynamics


It has been very fascinating to watch our new president trying to solve complex issues by building coalition and avoiding polarizations within a blame seeing world. Perhaps he developed some of his skills when he sought to reduce the polarities in his own family. 

Barrack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, is an unusual man who, unlike most, sought out his very distant family all the way back to Kenya. 

Anyone who seeks to contact family members who have cut off or distanced will find they need courage to face the emotional turmoil both within self and within the social system. 

When you read the mindful account of his family reconnection the reader can see how this could have enabled president Obama to clarify his identity and build his character. 

Rebuilding his family roots allowed him to create a compelling story into a well-written book.  Dreams of My Father: A Story of race and Inheritance. http://www.amazon.com/Dreams-My-Father-Story-Inheritance/dp/1400082773

If you want to know more about how he was raised by his mother the New York Times had an article on his mother’s influence on him. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/14/us/politics/14obama.html?pagewanted=1&fta=y

There is a renewed focus on what can we learn from people who are looking to their family as one way to learn more about human behavior.

The continuing significance of the family on its members is in the headlines, despite the difficulty of researchers to agree on what data to collect, how to systematize it and what it means.   

In the past month there have been several articles in the NY Times about those who are willing to study different parts and stages of their own family life.

Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad, (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/science/18kids.html?pagewanted=3&_r=1) describes the efforts of Deb Roy at MIT who has undertaken a language development study.  He embedded 11 video cameras and 14 microphones in ceilings throughout his house.  He recorded 70% of his son’s waking hours for the first three years of his life.  Some object to this kind of familial observation, claiming the data will be biased and may influence the children in unhealthy ways. Yet these scientists intuitively know that looking at their families in a factual way has the possibility of gaining deep knowledge that is unavailable in other types of studies.  


Last week, in the lead article in the New York Times Magazine, Stephen Pinker continues to argue against the influence of the family on individual functioning.  Pinker argues that since identical twins share the same genes, parents, “experiences” and environment, that family dynamics cannot be the driver of the obvious differences in personality.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11Genome-t.html?scp=1&sq=steven%20pinker%20genome&st=nyt


Yet, I would argue that by observing parents of identical twins, you could quickly see differences in the way each twin is dealt with. The challenge is to turn observational data on a small system like the family, into scientific facts showing some predictable effect on individuals. 


We can see that no matter how hard parents try, they cannot treat each child the same way.  Over time the small differences in how parents react to the differences in each child, produce greater differences in the way each child experiences the parents. It is predictable that increasing variation in behaviors will occur over time as each child reacts differently to each parent.


Add in the response to of each twin to his or her identical sibling as, for example, they reach for the dessert to be the first one to get it. These differences in the interactions can create a mathematically different outcome for any individual.  Can genetics account for the differences in each twin in reaction to “desert-orientation”? If so how does the relationships system impact the genes? 


Reactions to and from individual family members are part of what creates unknown behavioral outcomes.  The mother does this, then the father compensates by doing that.  Differences and taking sides emerge.  And yes, triangles arise.  It is a living system after all.  Seemly small changes over time reinforce sensitivities and overvalue or devalue sensitivities and talents.  Who knows, perhaps one small variation in relationship intensity over time could turn various genetic components on and off?   I assume that innumerable relationships dynamics are altering both adults and children’s functioning.  

We need factual information and a scientific way to consider multiple influences on individual development. To sort out the influence of family members on one another requires different tools. The current lack of tools is no reason to stop asking the questions and close the door on evaluating family influence.  To assert that parents and therefore the family treats identical twins, or any children, identically seems far fetched.  The problem is that our common sense observations have no statistical, causal evidence to offer demonstrating how the family does influence a person’s character development, genetic programing or functioning.


In looking for tools beyond first person accounts, I turn to scientists who are interested in modeling complex systems.  Iain Couzin at Princeton University is one person who is doing some very interesting work, creating new tools to measure the impact of relationships on behavior.  He is exploring how large-scale biological patterns result from the actions and interactions of the individual components of a system. We study self-organised pattern formation in a wide range of biological systems, including ants, fish schools, bird flocks, locust / cricket swarms and human crowds.  http://www.princeton.edu/~icouzin/  


Crowds are of course not the same as a small nuclear family. Families are complex and have repeated habitual ways of interacting.  They are influenced both by society and the multigenerational relationship system.   Someday we may be able weigh all these variables and perhaps even see how certain genes are then affected by these repeated and habitual interactions.


While this work may be far removed from the more common observation models of the human family, such work may lead to new understanding of how relationships influence individuals.  I remain hopeful and continue to collect stories from leaders who are observing and reflecting on how their families continue to influence their functioning.  This is one way to build a bridge between a leaders’ ability and the impact of relationships on him or her.  

It just so happened that at the same time our family-oriented president was elected, this current series of interviews of leaders from Mexico comes to an end.

The last interview, about to be posted, is with Sabina Berman, a famous playwright and journalist.  I was struck with her intelligence and kindness.  To me her insights about the conditions in society offer us greater awareness of the foibles of human nature.  We need all the insight we can get to alter the blindness within society.   With greater mindfulness hope overcomes fear. 



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