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Changes in Family Structure Leading to Alcoholism, Suicide, and Child Abuse

By Donald H. Rubinstein

June 1994 (MC #15) Cultural Family change Suicide

Little information exists on the problem of child abuse and neglect in the Pacific Islands. Nearly all of the available data comes from child abuse and neglect casework by child protection services and other social work and legal agencies. Consequently, health workers in American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands probably have a much better picture of the child abuse and neglect problems in their areas, than do their counterparts in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, which do not yet have organized systems for case-finding and followup of child abuse and neglect victims. There have been almost no systematic research surveys to learn about the incidence and epidemiological characteristics of child abuse in the island populations. Also, there has been hardly any analysis of the existing case data in order to better understand the social dynamics contributing to child abuse and neglect in the islands.

Although the information at present is patchy, I don't think anyone seriously doubts that cases of severe child abuse and neglect are increasing in many Pacific Island communities. Guam, the CNMI, and American Samoa have all documented a more-than-doubling of child abuse and neglect cases between about 1982 and 1988, and it is very unlikely that this increase is entirely a result of better case-finding or professional upgrading by community health and legal services.

Child abuse and neglect cases in the Pacific Islands have significance far beyond their actual numbers, however. In comparison with most world cultures, and with much of recorded human history, Pacific Island cultures hold a special place in relation to child treatment. Traditional child-rearing in Micronesia and Polynesia is unusually indulgent, protective, and supportive. Therefore, to find even a single case of an abandoned or badly battered or acutely neglected child is a"sentinel" event: it signals a serious breach of normal cultural values and social relations for childcaring in Pacific communities. Child abuse and neglect, in terms of the social environment, is perhaps comparable to global warming and the "Greenhouse Effect" in the natural environment: both provide an early warning that the larger system is out of balance.

Child abuse and neglect are outcomes of a very complex interaction among many forces and factors in the wider social environment. This is an assertion that I'm sure is well appreciated by everyone, yet it deserves to be repeated nevertheless. The potential for child abuse is embedded in social situations, rather than in the psychology of individual parents or caretakers. In this paper, I want to discuss several aspects of the changing social ecology of families and children in Micronesia that are increasing the vulnerability of children to abuse and neglect, and are contributing to increasing rates of adolescent suicide and related social problems. There are three general trends I want to discuss. First is a shift from collective, shared authority over children, to a much more narrowly focussed parental authority over children. Second is a shift from the social inclusion and incorporation of children and adolescents, towards the social isolation and differentiation of children and adolescents from adults. And third is the introduction of major new stresses on Micronesian families.

The first area concerns the authority patterns of traditional Micronesian child-rearing. Perhaps "traditional" is a misleading term, since all Micronesian communities today, even in the most remote outer islands, have acquired non-traditional cultural imports such as salaried jobs and Christian churches and American-style classroom schools that have changed families and children's lives. It's probably more accurate to speak of "intact" communities than "traditional" communities. "Intact" implies that the cultural values and life-ways of the people are still functional and important, despite some outside influences and cultural changes. Let me give a couple of examples.

For two years in the 1970s 1 lived with a family in one of the outer islands of Yap, where I studied Micronesian family structure and child socialization. That island represents, for me, the epitome of gentle, affectionate, and respectful relations between children and parents. Anthropologists are often guilty, of course, of romanticizing their fieldwork communities, and especially in Polynesia and Micronesia we've probably contributed in our writings to the popular image of a Pacific paradise. For instance, Margaret Mead's early portrayal of the serenity of Samoan childhood and adolescence has been sharply challenged by more recent writers, among whom are Samoans. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if an international committee of child welfare experts went about designing an ideal of humane, rational child-rearing, they couldn't do any better than the Yap outer island communities.

For one year in the 1980s I again lived in a Micronesian family, that time in a rural community in one of the Chuuk Lagoon islands, where I studied adolescent suicide. During the first two weeks in Chuuk, I probably witnessed more incidents of children being slapped in the face, dragged by their ears, belted, left to cry unattended, and angrily shouted at by parents, than I had seen during the full two years in the Yap outer islands. It was apparent that Chuuk parents and Yap outer island parents have very different socialization goals, and consequently they use very different forms of discipline. This is a matter of cultural style, and I cite these two examples to emphasize the distinctive differences among Micronesian societies in terms of family structure, treatment of children, and related cultural patterns. Both of these communities, however, I would consider as largely "intact," and in neither community while I was there did I ever turn up a case of a seriously abused or neglected child.

Let me return to the issue of authority and responsibility over children. A prominent general feature throughout Micronesian and many other Pacific Island societies is the wide sharing of childcare responsibilities among relatives. There is a vertical as well as horizontal dimension to the collective care of children. Children themselves, at an early age, become caretakers for their own younger brothers and sisters. It is not unusual to see a five-year old girl carrying her two-year sibling, who is nearly half her size and weight. There is a sort of age-graded progression of supervision and play, with the teenagers giving orders to the pre-teens, who look after the five and six-year olds, who in turn keep an eye on the two-year old toddlers. This means that the parental authority is rather remote and indirect, at the top of the chain of command, and parents get a great deal of help in the moment-to-moment supervision of children.

Anyone who has lived in a Micronesian family has observed the "echo chamber" effect of this vertical pecking order, in incidents such as this: an eighteen-month old child starts crawling dangerously close to the cooking fire, and her mother barks an order to her fifteen-year old daughter to "Watch the child!" The teenaged daughter than snaps to her twelve-year old sister to "Watch the child," and then the twelve-year old screams to her eight-year old brother playing outside to get in and "Watch the child." Of course everyone is really watching the child, but eventually it is usually another, slightly older child, who comes along and gently distracts or physically removes the infant from danger.

The community I lived with in the Yap outer islands had just recently begun sending their school children to the "district center" high school. This had an interesting and unforeseen effect on the vertical sharing of childcare duties. Suddenly the whole middle cohort of the pecking order was missing for most of the year. Parents remarked that their young children, those aged about six to twelve, were becoming unusually rambunctious and difficult. Yet parents still retained an indirect and deferred style of disciplining young children. I often heard adults warn an especially unmanageable child, "You just wait until your older brother gets home next summer!" The absence of a middle group of children and adolescents who were away at boarding school was perceived as causing disruption in the vertical structure of discipline and lines of authority in the families.

Collective authority over children is also distributed horizontally, among many relatives and even non-relatives who may provide temporary foster care. Adoption is a very widespread institution for child sharing throughout Micronesia and Polynesia, although the term "adoption" is rather misleading. In most instances the adoptive parents act as an additional set of parents, rather than a replacement set as in the US. In the Yap outer island where I lived in the 1970s, virtually all the children had adoptive parents, and many had multiple sets of adoptive parents. Nearly a third of the children were living with their adoptive parents while I was there. Residence for children on that island is highly flexible, and most of the children had already lived with three or four different households, for periods from as short as a few months to as long as several years.

This collective sharing of childcare responsibilities gives children a sense that kinship support is inexhaustible, and it gives parents a wide network of support and assistance. It provides a form of quality control on parenting, because so many individuals have a hand in rearing and guiding the child. After a child is born in the Yap outer islands, the mother and child immediately are taken to the village women's lodge, where the new mother enjoys a sort of "maternity leave" from housework and gardening for two months, while the father, the adoptive father, and other male relatives lead work groups to provide the mother and her attendants with special fish and garden food.

Cross-culturally, parents who get little assistance or relief in childcare tasks are more likely to be harsh and rejecting. Throughout the more traditional communities of Micronesia, however, childcare assistance is readily available, and each culture has its own particular emphasis. In the Marshall Islands, grandparents have a special bond of affection and support for grandchildren. In the small atolls of the central and western Carolines, adoption is especially widespread. Yet everywhere this collective aspect of childcare appears to be weakening, due to a variety of factors, such as the impact of district boarding schools I mentioned earlier. In the Yap outer islands, when women began going to Yap Hospital to deliver their children, the traditional adoption practice changed. Giving birth in Yap Hospital requires much less kinship assistance than giving birth in the outer islands. During their absence from their home island, the new parents do not formally ratify co-parental authority with an adopting set of parents. Land is not exchanged, and therefore the child never has the same claim to reside on his adoptive land. An extra dimension of kinship and child support is thus gradually lost.

The enormous increase in birthrates has also undermined the collective features of Micronesian childcare. Children are the main form of social security for parents in their old age, and this is an important motivation for parents to have many children or adopt children if they can't have their own. In the community I studied in the Yap outer islands, I found that historically, the rate of adoption increased during the first half of this century, as the birth rate declined. When the birth rate recovered and increased after the turn of the century, the adoption rate fell off. Today birthrates in Micronesia are at extraordinarily high levels, and there are more children per adult than ever before. This puts an unaccustomed demand upon parents as child caretakers, and restricts the availability of alternative support figures.

The collective care of children in Micronesia is part of a larger social and economic pattern of collective ownership of land, and collective sharing of resources among members of the clan and lineage. As Micronesian families over the past twenty years have come to rely more and more on individual salaried jobs and wage labor, the collective basis of social relations has sharply eroded. More than anything else, the introduction of cash economy and the change from subsistence collective gardening and fishing have transformed Micronesian families from extended to nuclear, with all the associated consequences for parent-child relations and support networks.

I would like to turn now to a second general area of change, a trend towards the increasing social isolation and differentiation of children and adolescents from adults. In traditional Micronesian communities, childhood is a gradual process of becoming an adult. Unlike the societies of Papua New Guinea, Africa, and many other tribal peoples around the world, Micronesians have no elaborate rituals to formally initiate children into adulthood. From a very early age, children are incorporated into the economic life of the village, and this is one of the reasons for the high value put on children. Girls cook and clean house and assist with childcare responsibilities from an early age. Boys similarly assist in household work, gardening, and in many of the Micronesian islands boys at the age of fourteen are already competent fishermen, and are helping to support the family. Children learn by participating in and doing adult activities, initially as playful imitation, but before too long as successful acquisition of skills. The subsistence economics of Micronesian islands is fairly elastic and labor intensive; additional labor can always be put to use, and the land and the sea yield food resources in proportion to the labor that is invested.

In earlier times, one or two generations ago, Micronesian families were part of ever widening circles of social relations -- the lineage, clan, and village federations -- and adolescents were incorporated into the work of these wider social units. Village men's houses were especially important for adolescent males, and often provided the primary residence of the young bachelors, as well as a focus of their work role and social identity in the village. It is reasonable to assume that young men's self-esteem and sense of belongingness to their family and village came from the importance of their economic role and their social place in the men's club and the lineage activities.

The impact of cash economy and salaried work has greatly undermined the importance of the lineage lodges and village clubs, in the same way that it has led to the narrowing of kin networks for childcare. Club houses for young men's residence no longer exist in Micronesia. The disappearance of these structures, and the social networks associated with them, represents a collapse of socialization supports for adolescents, especially for the young men. I believe that the extraordinarily high rates of suicide among young men in Micronesia is closely related to the disintegration of their social supports and economic role.

Like child abuse, suicides reveal something about the imbalance caused by change in the social system. The primary emotional message conveyed by the suicides is a sense of hurt anger, and rejection by parents or other close relatives. The suicide patterns that have appeared during the past twenty years in Micronesia are quite different from earlier times, both in the enormous magnitude of the rates, and in the very tight focus on young males, particularly those from the urbanizing areas. Now, I would like to go on to consider a few other areas of concern that contribute to the social isolation of adolescents and families.

Today more than ever before, Micronesians live in two worlds -- on the one hand, the still intact communities of the rural and outer islands, and on the other hand the increasingly Americanized urban centers. These two worlds represent very different economies, value systems, and social relationships. It is not surprising that the highest rates of youth suicide appear in those communities poised between the two worlds -- the islands and villages within close commuting distance to the urban centers. There are interesting parallels with the geographic distribution of suicides in Western Samoa and Fiji, where the "peri-urban" areas also show the highest suicide rates.

The "two-worlds" dilemma of Micronesia not only differentiates the outer villages from the urban towns, but to some extent it also separates the younger generation from the older one. Micronesian societies traditionally honor and provide for elders, to a much greater extent than, for example, modern American society does. It is significant that suicides among older Micronesians are extremely rare, while in the US and many modern European and Asian countries the highest suicides rates are among people over 65. The respect and authority given to elder family members in Micronesia serves to link children and parents to a social hierarchy based on age. Cross-culturally, the presence of respected grandparents within families acts as a buffer against the likelihood of child abuse by the parents, and in many Micronesian families this undoubtedly is the case. The grandparents serve as an important source of cultural knowledge, and as a counterpoint to the authority of parents.

Yet perhaps this is changing. One minor example might illustrate the nature of this change. In a recent study of television viewing in Palau, researchers found that the TV tends to reverse the flow of information in families. Rather than the grandparents telling stories to the children, the children are translating from the TV and telling stories to the grandparents. One young girl, when told to mind her grandmother, answered scornfully, "That old woman is stupid, she doesn't even speak English." New skills and information, whether learned from American-styled schools or American TV programs, will increasingly call into question the traditional skills and information, and hence the authority, of senior family members. This also leaves children and parents increasingly isolated from traditional family authority.

Another way that Micronesian families are incorporated into wider social structures is through the central authority of the village or island chief. A chief whose authority is seen as strong and legitimate is important in maintaining the order of the village, ensuring the respectful public behavior of village members, and in quieting or preventing disruptive interpersonal or family conflicts. In the Yap outer islands, for example, the more forceful individual chiefs have been more successful in controlling alcohol import into their islands. Families that are under this sort of external authority are likely to experience less conflict and abuse. Yet for a variety of reasons having to do with social and political change in Micronesia, traditional chiefs are losing influence and authority. Part of the reason is that their authority derives from the land they hold, and land itself is losing its traditional significance. Traditional chiefs are also losing ground to a whole set of new political structures, which do not have the same moral force as the traditional leaders held.

So far, I have been discussing general social trends that may be contributing to the failure of families to adequately provide for the needs and welfare of their members. These trends include a breakdown in social support networks and collective authority over children, and the increasing social isolation of children and families. I would like to conclude by briefly discussing several new stresses that are weighing on Micronesian families.

One stress is that associated with urbanization and especially migration. During the past twenty years there has been a gradual, steady exodus of individuals from the outer islands and rural communities of Micronesia, into the town centers. Over half the Micronesian population is now living in or near an urbanizing area.

During the past few years since the Compacts of Free Association were signed, a sudden flood of people has left the FSM and the Marshall Islands to settle in Guam, Saipan, Hawaii or the US West Coast. There are already as many as 5,000 FSM Micronesians in Guam. At the current rate of increase, there are likely to be 20,000 FSM Micronesians living in Guam by the end of the decade. Today nine out of every ten FSM citizens in Guam have come since the Compact was signed.

These are very recent migrants, attempting to reestablish family structures and social networks and community relations in a very different and difficult social environment. The problems of family authority and social isolation I discussed earlier are being experienced in much more acute form by the migrants -- both the internal migrants in places like Majuro or Kolonia, and the international migrants in places like Guam.

Among the FSM citizens in Guam, men outnumber women by two to one, and there are only a few dozen individuals over the age of 40. Some of the households would not even be considered families by their Micronesian members -- the households are more like dormitories for male, unmarried laborers, with perhaps a few live-in girlfriends. Illegitimacy is high, and there are increasing reports from the Guam shelter homes and public schools and the police, about the occurrence of wife beating and child battering.

In other households, family structures are taking shape, but Micronesian concepts of kinship are getting stretched widely to provide a rational for a group of very distantly related people to set up house together. The households look more like fragments of several families living together under one roof. The employment rates among the FSM citizens in Guam is high, nearly 90% among the men, but the wages are at a minimum, and most of these households are economically very marginal.

These households are also very transient, as people shift from place to place or job to job, and households often dissolve and reform several times a year. These households represent an unusual extreme along the spectrum of change and social stress in Micronesia. On a more positive note, it appears that many of these households are evolving into well-formed and stable, extended, multi-generation families after a transitional three or four years in Guam.

Lastly, I want to mention alcohol use as a source of stress. Alcohol is a complex factor in the changing social ecology of Micronesian families; it is both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of authority patterns and the social isolation of families. The cost is immeasurably heavy in the social and economic and health consequences of excessive alcohol use in Micronesia. Virtually all of the wife-beating and child battering in some Micronesian communities is associated with alcohol use. Nearly half of all suicide victims were drunk at the time of the act, or had a history of heavy alcohol or drug use. Ninety percent of arrests are alcohol related. In some areas, nearly one-third of all revenue goes for import of beer and alcohol. Half of all hospital admissions are alcohol related. And the list goes on, with depressingly similar statistics.

There is an extensive literature on alcohol abuse and control in Micronesia, which I won't attempt to summarize here. I'd only like to note that Micronesian communities appear to be developing new movements and effective social responses for public education and legal control of alcohol. And this is a theme on which I would like to end. The social changes in Micronesian family structure that have contributed to alcoholism, suicide, child abuse and neglect are complex and irreversible. There is no going back to past ideals of intact village life. The challenge rather is to draw from the past, and from the strengths of traditional culture, in designing new forms of effective authority lines and collective supports for families, and safeguards for children. I've tried to indicate some of the complexity and interrelations in the social ecology of change in Micronesian families.

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