We should realize that the Korean extended family is a unique and precious cultural heritage that has shaped and sustained our Korean identity over millennia.Dr. Hyun Jin P. Moon, Korean Dream: A Vision for a Unified Korea
A report in 2014 by the Pew Research center reported an increase of nearly 2 million people a year living with multiple generations in the United States during the 2007-2010 recession. More interestingly, the study revealed that the recession caused only a minor spike in an already steady growth of multigenerational living.
The nuclear family model, where a household consists of parents and their unwed children is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only largely after WWII that it became the norm in the United States, and it is one that is currently experiencing a reversal as many are opting for multi-generational living configurations. What is more, while the nuclear family model appears to be prevalent in some developed nations, the norm in much of the world continues to be multigenerational, extended family type units.
There are many benefits to the extended family model. In his book, Korean Dream: A Vision for a Unified Korea, Dr. Moon points out some of these in his exploration of the traditional Korean extended family model. Here are four:
1. A Rich Web of Meaningful Relationships
An extended family includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, parents and siblings, a rich web that includes a range of generations, genders and personalities. This model has multiple benefits for everyone involved. It is an ideal place for a person to learn good values and to cultivate virtues such as respect, cooperation, self-sacrifice, sincerity, hard work, pursuit of excellence and responsibility. Passing down these values from one generation to the next happens primarily in the family and is key to successfully raising responsible, engaged citizens who strengthen the communities and societies that encircle them. What’s more, teaching respect for diversity first within the family enables each person to extend out respect and care for others in spite any and all differences.
2. Interconnected Generations
In the extended family, generations and families remain connected to each other. This connection through time provides multiple benefits. The relationships between grandparents, parents and children form the thread that connects a person to their heritage and offers a foundation for personal identity, providing a sense of pride and purpose tied to the larger whole. This sense of history and connection has also been shown to make children more resilient, able to overcome hardships in ways that hold valuable lessons for what we now call “fragile families” or “vulnerable populations.” This intergenerational connection allows families to make progress with every generation, not just economically, but in wisdom and tradition, gleaning from the mistakes and successes of previous generations to build for the happiness of succeeding generations.
3. Physical, Psychological and Emotional Well-Being
There have been a number of scientific studies that show that connectedness and relationships have a direct impact on the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of a person. The extended family and all its varied relationships are lasting. Trusted adults in an extended family are willing to remain connected and even when tested, such relationships can provide a strong sense of connectedness and belonging. A family can also provide the care and intervention sometimes needed to manage or cure illness and disorders.
4. Social Safety Net
The family is the most natural place to meet the needs of each of its members through the continuum of life in a loving and caring environment. From housing to childcare, chauffeuring, cooking and cleaning, physical and mental health care, education, loans, investing, and passing on important wisdom, the extended family can provide a social safety net that considers the entire person: their spiritual, emotional and physical needs, and various special circumstances. The extended family is a natural hub that can seek out the necessary professional expertise needed to care for each person in a way that government policy can only try to emulate.
It has been a little more than 70 years since the United States began its experiment with the nuclear family model; and one expert is calling for a re-evaluation of its applicability in today’s demographic landscape. It might be a good time to circle back to the extended family model and explore all it has to offer, both to the family unit and society as a whole. It may require rethinking things as mundane as zoning laws or housing programs and educational policies with a commitment to strengthening the (extended) family as a unit.
Even beyond all the benefits that the extended family has to offer to its constituent members, it is in the constantly expanding, multi-generational, dynamic extended family that we might also learn the practical lessons of how to then bring even strangers in to our definition of family. The extended family draws together through marriage and birth people who were once separate into a new, larger, ever-changing configuration of family. The realization that even strangers can become part of your family can sow the seeds of peace and inspire exciting new pathways to create shared prosperity.
The extended family becomes a stepping stone that can bridge our current realities with the vision of “One Family Under God.” In an incredibly practical way, our families can become the place where we actually imagine and bring to life a society that lives, works and loves as One Family Under God, one family at a time.