Caring for Our Generations

by John Patton

Dr. Patton is past president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and vice-president of the International Committee on Pastoral Care and Counseling. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is the author of U>Christian Marriage and Family: Caring for Our Generations (Abingdon).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 2, 1988. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christian family living does not refer to the form of the family in which one lives but to caring for the generations — the generation before, one’s own generation, and the generations that follow.

As a specialist in pastoral counseling, I am concerned that the family often celebrated by the church is different from the family I see in my clinical practice. I see many single persons, persons separated and divorced, persons in second marriages, and families with children from two different marriages. In contrast, much of what is said in sermons and written in Christian literature seems designed to maintain a particular structure of the family rather than strengthen people’s ability to function in the families they have. This emphasis tends to venerate something in the past rather than help people deal with what is happening now.

Within most Christian communions, for example -- even those which do not view marriage as a sacrament -- there remains an idealism about marriage and a feeling that second marriages are never quite as good as first ones. Thus the church is far better at grieving over the failure of first marriages, and at trying to locate the reasons for their failure, than in caring for persons preparing for or struggling with second marriages.

Regardless of why the picture of the ideal family -- father, mother and two perfectly behaved children sitting quietly at worship in the second pew -- has been so important to the church, it is important now to develop a positive or normative way of talking about the family life of Christians whose families are different from that model. We need a theological norm for family living that emphasizes family function rather than family form. For those who have never married, who are separated, divorced or widowed can also have a family life.

I suggest we understand Christian family living to mean relating seriously and caringly to persons in the generation of one’s parents, to those in one’s own generation and to the generations of children and grandchildren which carry the family into the future. The quality of care for family members in one’s own generation and in the generations before and after is more important than the form or structure of one’s household. In fact, this norm of caring for the generations can apply to persons who are single, divorced, in single-parent or blended families and, to paraphrase one of the historic prayers, "to all sorts and conditions of human beings."

The primary biblical foundation for understanding family living as caring for the generations is in God’s call to human beings in the first chapter of Genesis "to exercise care over the earth and hold it in its proper place." That is the way Joseph Sittler, in his last published book, Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986) , insisted that Genesis 1:28 should be translated -- although the Hebrew word Sittler translates as ‘care" has usually been rendered "have dominion over." The recurrent biblical phrase "these are the generations of. . ." emphasizes humankind’s place and responsibility within the sequence of history. It is a powerAil expression of what it means to be God’s creature. Isaac honors Abraham and Sarah; he blesses Jacob and Esau. To be human is to affirm one’s likeness with one’s parents, one’s brothers and sisters and one’s children.

As generational beings we recognize that our own generation is not the only one. Because our time is limited, we will not see all of our generations, only those nearest to us, and most of us can have significant influence only upon those generations immediately before and after us. As human beings we should be appropriately anxious to take advantage of the opportunities for care that are offered us, and the limitation of our time greatly enhances the importance of how we use it.

Perhaps the most important feature of caring for the generations is to make sure that we emphasize all three of our generations -- the one before us, our own and the one that comes after us. Attending to one generation to the exclusion of the others distorts our ability to care for any of them. For example, the husband and wife who cut themselves off from, or who overinvolve themselves in, the prior generation (i.e., their own parents) , suffer in their ability to care for and to commit themselves to each other.

Appropriate care for the previous generation involves, among other things, what family therapist Murray Bowen has called "differentiation of the self from the family of origin" (see Family Therapy and Clinical Practice [Aronson, 19781) Those who work professionally with families have found that people experiencing marital or other family pain frequently have an unfinished agenda with the prior generation. Jeannette R. Kramer in Family Interfaces: Transgenerarional Patterns (Bruner/Mazel, 1985) offers some useful ways to address these agendas. She suggests, first, that one become an astute observer of one’s own family, learning about its traumas, myths, patterns and rules, and about their effect on one.

She suggests, further, making a plan to contact family members individually to try to break the negative pattern of the "way you relate to that person when you are together in the family group." One of the most useful ways of doing this is by what psychotherapists call taking an "I" position -- "making clear statements about your own thoughts, feelings, and actions without using others to explain the way you are." It is important to be in as much control of your emotional reactions as possible, using matter-of-factness or humor to defuse tense situations.

Maintaining one-to-one communication even when with more than one person is important. Taking sides or listening to one person blaming another for family circumstances is not helpful, but finding ways to communicate clearly and openly about matters which are barely or never referred to is helpful. In doing this, one should use one’s own feelings of anxiety, hurt or anger as signals that one is getting sucked into old patterns, and that something must be done to maintain the new way of relating. The point in all of this is that expressing one’s separateness as another adult is an important part of what honoring one’s father and mother may mean today.

The most important caring that takes place within one’s own generation usually involves the significant other with whom one lives intimately -- usually a marriage partner. Lyman and Adele Wynne define intimacy as a relation in which the core components are trusting self-disclosure and communicated empathy ("The Quest for Intimacy," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol. 12, no. 4) Following Martin Buber, they point to the limits of intimacy as a norm for personal relationships, emphasizing that it "cannot be willfully induced or long sustained."

Intimacy, the Wynnes say, involves four subprocesses which unfold sequentially. First, there is the process of attachment/caregiving or complementary affectional bonding, the prototype for which is the parent-child relationship. Then arises a communicating process in which there is a common focus of attention and the exchange of meanings and messages. Joint problem-solving and the sharing of everyday tasks is the next relational process. And, finally, comes mutuality, understood as the integration of the preceding processes in an enduring pattern of relatedness. Although these processes unfold sequentially, they are also circular and reoccurring. Even after mutuality has been attained, "relatedness usefully returns to focus upon earlier processes for various periods of time." And, most important, "until attachment/ care-giving is incorporated into a relationship system, the relationship is not likely to become enduring and reliable." Thus, in spite of the centrality Western culture gives to "being intimate," the Wynnes view intimacy as a supplementary, not an essential, process "for strengthening the bonding that has been crucial for the survival of the human species throughout the ages." It is the expression of care which is essential in one’s relationship to significant others within one’s own generation.

People need not give birth to children to be in touch with them. When they decide they are not going to have children, or when their children are grown, they ought not to cut themselves off from children altogether" ("Caring for Children. Caring for the Earth," Christianity and Crisis, March 31, 1980).

It is not old-fashioned to think about parenting and concern for children as among the central ethical issues of life, says Bateson. "If we do not remain related somehow with the fundamental biological orientation to the future brought reproduction, we run the risk that our other choices will become more concerned with gratification and exploitation and comfort than with responsibility." It is not enough, she says, to be brothers and sisters in his world. That only acknowledges our common origin. We must also say that we will be parents, offering guidance and care to the generations that come after us.

Caring for our generations is an important part of our ‘ailing to care for the earth, but it is only a part. The Christian tradition itself guards against idolizing family structure or family function. A pointed reminder of this is the incident recorded in Matthew 12:46-50:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

Jesus’ response is not a clear-cut choice of religious duty over family obligation but an expression of the tension of human living in covenant with God. Some of the more important of these tensions and choices are those between the love relationships of the family and the work relationships of one’s more public vocation: between kinship and friendship relations; and between care for oneself and care for others.

In any case, more important than preserving a particular type of family structure is the realistic expression of care for persons of all generations. Christian family living does not refer to the form of the family in which one lives but to caring for the generations: the generation before, one’s own generation, and the generations that follow. This norm applies to all sorts and conditions of human beings who seek to care for others in response to God’s care for them.