Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

The vital family

The vital family is a family unit in which equal attention is given to the priorities of adults and of children, with emphasis on continuous development of both in the course of their lives [25]. The social context in which this occurs and the human satisfactions in play have yet to be fully defined. In the newly conscious use of language to create realities, satisfaction may lie in interweaving narratives, with a "new age" return to the creativity of dream-time and of childhood (analogous to the role-playing games that obsess our children and young teens). As unlimited distance visual communications become available with persons and institutions, the need for physical travel will be reduced. One might feel a stronger distinction between the immediate tangible physical environment and the people in it and the non-immediate virtual world beyond. A strong sense of stewardship might crystallize toward the palpable inner circle, reinforced by the see-but-not-touch relationship with the world through digital windows. The environmental movement and the search by spiritually forward thinking movements to define community [26] may presage a shift towards caring for all things near, and foremost our children.

Implications of changes for nutritional care

The vital family seeks a new haven in time and space. More employment relationships are temporary, on contract, or part-time. Social networks overload, shift, and may terminate through physical dislocation or through changes in the bonding narrative that network members have created in common. Parent, child, sibling, and long-term friend narratives are most enduring. Yet even parent-child bonding narratives are at risk. Adult children can become permanently alienated from their parents in the wake of conversations with them that reinterpret their experience as having been abusive. The search for time-enduring bonds and sustainable physical closeness in a saturated environment replaces autonomy training of children. Overloaded parents seek closeness with their children in some or all of the following ways: on-demand breastfeeding into toddler hood and beyond, a return to sleeping in the family bed, a shift in sleep so that children are awake at night when parents are home, and shift-work by parents so one is always home with the child. Most preferred is for at least one parent to be able to do part or most of his or her work from home so that he or she remains not far from the young child.

Vital family parents develop an inquiring interest into children's preferences and a strong concern for their well-being. They prefiguratively learn and search with their children through schools, churches, temples, and mosques. Members of the inner narrative circle may once again travel together like the hunter-gatherer band. Care at this level again benefits nutrition.

Increasing inequalities and disintegration of the social fabric

Except in the case of the grab bag of families we call postmodern, only those family types with sufficient economic surplus to make the transition have succeeded. Hunter-gatherers and nomads who fail in the transition to agrarian or urban life tend to be marooned on marginal lands and to become subservient labourers, beggars, and street people or gypsies as their resource bases are absorbed.

The successful nuclear family, with two parents and two to three children, and the vital family are mainly middle- and upper-middle-class phenomena in both industrialized and developing countries. Among the urban and rural poor, the forces of industrialization often have been sufficient to destroy the livelihoods and social safeguards of institutional families. The poorest classes tend to have high rates of unstable consensual unions, low formal marriage rates, and high divorce rates. Less successful urbanizing families devolve toward transient, male-headed or small, women-headed units, or extended family clusters in which women and their children are subunits [27].

Poor women may bear children by different fathers, in a manner that optimizes the probability that at least one man will be able to provide money for child care or social connections that help the woman to find work [28, 29]. Often in Brazil, women live in unstable consensual unions only because their partners will not agree to formal marriage or cannot afford it (V. Rao and M.E. Green, personal communication, 1991). By modern family standards, these irregular units are failed families. Viewed as postmodern families in the era of individual choice, their members are forced to choose among unsatisfactory options.

Care ideals based on the golden age of the modem family

Widespread agreement remains today that the modern middle-class family, with its two parents, two or three children, child-centred social values, and healthful child-care practices, is the ideal end result of progress in the evolution of family forms [25].

Both the quality of social services and the ways in which parents train and stimulate their children change systematically as families change from institutional to modern. These changes produce children who are more cognitively advanced by modern performance standards and better nourished, and hence better prepared to participate in the modern work force. Werner [30] documented such differences in parenting styles between modernizing and traditional parents in the United States, Mexico, Lebanon, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Ghana. Similar differences have been reported in Indonesia and Nigeria [2]. These differences were associated with better child growth and cognitive test performance [15, 31]. These transformations can be summarized as follows:

-a change in parental discipline away from immediate physical punishment to tolerance of slower obedience, but expectation of greater internalization of the reasons for rules, in preparation for greater decision-making responsibility;
-acceptance of the child's physical dependency up to an older age and protection of her health, growth, and innocence;
-more affection, a more personal relationship with the father, and more nuclear family togetherness and recreations shared by parents and children;
-increased verbal responsiveness of the parents to the child and use of explanation as well as physical demonstration in teaching, paced to match the child's developmental needs.

In transition from agrarian to modern societies, the first parents to alter their behaviours tend to be members of the elite and middle classes, who have the earliest contact with modernization. The same changes later occur among less privileged families. Our research demonstrated that the modernizing changes found in elite families in Ibadan in the 1960s are now also seen among intact low-income families in Lagos State, while postmodern problems have emerged among the elite and among poor disrupted families [15].

Dangers of a modern care movement in a postmodern world

It is no longer safe to assume that modern trends will continue or that their ideology remains adaptive to the world situation. Postmodernism reverses the focus of attention from children's to adults' developmental needs [25]. Adult priorities create an imbalance in which children are neglected. Assumptions that children are prematurely competent and able to take care of themselves lead to increasing child morbidity in terms of obesity, other growth disorders, physical and mental ill health, and delinquency. The emergence of the vital family still is hardly more than optimistic speculation.

These negative trends make the focus on nutritional care all the more important. Yet undiscriminating attempts to extend the golden age of child-centered modern care may fail to address postmodern negatives. An undiscerning focus on care as part of a waning social ideology would sweep the care movement out with the tide. Another danger is that nutritional care, separated from the other functions of care in the family, could encourage the belief that children can take care of themselves in areas other than nutrition.

In the presence of a disintegrating family and community and decreasing adult commitment to care, expenditures on public familism in the forms of health, education, day care, and other social services also are diminishing the world over. As socialist economic supports break down and the wage gap between working class and middle class widens, mothers of infants increasingly enter the workforce in out-of-home jobs. As families dissolve, the man more often retains his income and status, whereas the woman and her children enter the category of poor, female-headed households with inadequate child-care resources.

In capitalist societies, preparing children to be autonomous consumers has made them self-centred. Altruism in children's behaviour was studied in six cultures (Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, India, and the United States), and the investigators found that the most altruistic children (spontaneously helpful to others) were from the most traditional society in rural Kenya and the most egoistic from the most complex modern society of the United States [32]. Socialist societies, on the other hand, assume that children are so malleable that they can be taught to support the public good without inherent personal material incentives. The inaccuracy of this belief system produces societies in shock, which expect to be cared for without engaging in adequate levels of material production.

Concurrent with these problems, world population is growing at a rate of 90 million per year, world fishery stocks decline, species extinction is rapid, and agricultural technologies that can be applied to create a new green revolution are not on the near horizon.

Strategies for nutritional care

This paper calls attention to Richard Rorty's demand not to "argue well, but to speak differently" [1]. He continues, "The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in different ways until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior that will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior such as new scientific equipment or new social institutions."

UNICEF, in fact, leads the way in "speaking differently" in promoting the new paradigm that views all children of the world as part of one human family. The new one-family concept refers not to children's souls, but to their physical conditions of life and their entitlement to equal opportunities. In our goal of caring for (or preventing the arrival of) the 90 million born annually, we need to speed this process of speaking as one people, one human family, no longer "us" and "them," no longer strangers.

Creating monitoring indicators for the rights of the child

UNICEF leads in the emerging language of the rights of the child and of global ethics. These new vocabularies and new lenses require the definition of performance standards. Nutritional care should be added to the definition of children's rights. Performance standards for care should be spelled out in human rights phraseology: "Every child has a right to ." Performance standards also should be defined as functional indicators and built into the systems that monitor children's well-being both at the surveillance level and in the institutions through which care is provided. Nutritional care should be integrated with other monitoring systems. Like the sound system of a theater, care should be one architectural concern in the context of the whole.

De-differentiating services

Another approach to speaking differently is to return the delivery of care services to the whole child in the whole family, served by a multipurpose network of agencies and activities [2]. This approach may be viewed as a pan of the de-differentiation characteristic of the postmodern era. According to Myers [33], "Academic and bureaucratic divisions of labor cut the child and family into small pieces. The 'whole single child,' so often present in the rhetoric of child development, is dissected in a series of unconnected, narrowly conceived analyses. Doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, sociologists, educators, anthropologists, economists, and others, each approach the topic from a distinct point of view." Myers writes of the need to combine the "piecemeal thinking" of the various disciplines into approaches that foster development of the whole child.

Consistent with the above approach, the Positive Deviance in Nutrition Research Project in Nigeria found that parents and professionals were relatively uninterested in improving nutrition in isolation from the overall development of the child. Based on this finding, the project team conducted research on nutrition and child development together and presented the results as part of a single textbook for educators and for health and social welfare professionals [34].

Fostering vital family care

The need to be prefigurative and engage in lifetime learning in the presence of runaway technological change could create a situation in which child care drives evolutionary change, as was claimed for our chimp-like ancestors. Successful family units may be those in which parents and children learn and develop together, protected by enduring biological and linguistic bonds that nurture both generations through time. Sustained breastfeeding, the foundation for nutritional care, fosters such bonds. Best suited to fostering prefigurative care are child and family development programmes that teach parents how to enhance their children's cognitive and physical development at home. These programmes engage parents and children in learning together to prepare for the future.


1. Rorty R. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989:7-9.

2. Zeitlin ME, Megawangi R. Kramer EM, Colletta ND, Babatunde ED, Garman D. Strengthening the family: implications for international development. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1995.

3. Levine RA. Human parental care: universal goals, cultural strategies, individual behaviour. In: Levine RA, Miller PM, West MM, eds. Parental behavior in diverse societies. New Directions for Child Development no. 40. San Francisco, Calif, USA: Jossey-Bass, 1988:312.

4. Scheper-Hughes N. The cultural politics of child survival. Introduction. In: Scheper-Hughes N. ed. Child survival: anthropological perspectives on the treatment and maltreatment of children. Boston, Mass, USA: Reidel, 1987:129.

5. Mattessich P. Hill R. Life cycle and family develop meet. In: Sussman MB, Steinmetz SK, eds. Handbook of marriage and the family. New York: Plenum Press, 1987:43770.

6. Begley S. Out of Africa, a missing link. Newsweek 1994;0ctober 3:56-7.

7. Schneider DM, Gough K, eds. Matrilineal kinship. Berkeley, Calif, USA: University of California Press, 1961.

8. Maccoby EE. The development of sex differences. Stanford, Calif, USA: Stanford University Press, 1966.

9. Quale GR. A history of marriage systems. Contributions in Family Studies no.13. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

10. Boyd Eaton S. Nelson DA. Calcium in evolutionary perspective. Am l Clin Nutr 1991;54:2815-75.

11. Caldwell JC, Caldwell P. High fertility in sub-saharan Africa. Sci Am 1990; May:118-25.

12. Doherty WJ. Family therapy goes postmodern. Family Therapy Networker 1991;15(5):36-46.

13. Doherty WJ. Private lives, public values. Psychology Today 1992;May/June:32-37.

14. Mead M. Culture and commitment. Garden City, NY, USA: Natural History Press, 1970.

15. Aina TA, Agiabu-Kemmer 1, Etta FE, Zeitlin MF, Setiloane L. Early childhood care, development and nutrition in Lagos state, Nigeria. Phase I survey results from the positive deviance in nutrition research. Project of the Social Sciences Faculty, University of Lagos, and the Tufts University School of Nutrition. New York: UNICEF, 1993.

16. Ahmed NU, Zeitlin MF. Bhat-dhara-catching rice: a folk milestone in the development of Bangladeshi children. An investigation of parental beliefs and decision-making in introducing young children to family meals. Ecol Food Nutr 1994;32:227-38.

17. Dizard JE, Gadlin H. The minimal family. Amherst, Mass, USA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

18. Lasch C. Haven in a heartless world. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

19. Caldwell JC, Caldwell P. The economic rationale of high fertility: an investigation illustrated with Nigerian survey data. Pop Stud 1977;31:5-27.

20. Hirsch F. Social limits to growth. Cambridge, Mass, USA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

21. Smelser NJ. Toward a theory of modernization. In: Dalton G. ed. Tribal and peasant economies. Garden City, NY, USA: Natural History Press, 1967:2948.

22. Lash S. Sociology of post-modernism. London: Routledge, 1990:130-3.

23. O'Hara M, Anderson WT. Welcome to the postmodern world. Family Therapy Networker 1991;15(5): 18-25.

24. Gergen KJ. The saturated family. Family Therapy Net-worker 1991;15(5):26-35.

25. Elkind D. The post-modern family: a new imbalance New York: Knopf, 1994.

26. Scott MS. A world waiting to be born. Civility rediscovered. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

27. Buvinic M. Social variables in poverty research: example from a case study on the intergenerational transmission of poverty in Santiago, Chile. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 1992.

28. Gussler JD. Adaptive strategies and social networks of women in St. Kitts. In: Bourguigno, ed. A world of women. New York: Praeger, 1975:185-209.

29. Guyer JI. Changing nuptuality in a Nigerian community: observations from the field. Working Papers in African Studies no. 146. Boston, Mass, USA: African Studies Center, 1990.

30. Werner EE. Cross-cultural child development: a view from the planet earth. Monterey, Calif, USA: Brooks Cole, 1979.

31. Zeitlin MF, Satoto. Indonesian positive deviance in nutrition research project. New York: UNICEF, 1991.

32. Whiting BB, Whiting JWM. Children of six cultures: a psychocultural analysis. Cambridge, Mass, USA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

33. Myers R. The twelve who survive: strengthening programmes of early childhood development in the third world. London: Routledge, 1992.

34. Aina TE, Etta FE, Zeitlin MF, eds. Child development and nutrition in Nigeria: a textbook for education, health and social service professionals. 1st ed. Lagos: Federal Government of Nigeria, Nigerian Education Research and Development Council, and UNICEF, 1992.

Contents - Previous - Next