AUGUST, traditionally a time for vacations, is a good month to implement an American Family Day. A foundation for the day already exists: In Arizona and Michigan, statutes have been enacted for that purpose, and Kiwanis International has recognized a Family Day each year.
From historic and practical standpoints, a Family Day is appropriate. That's what Anna Jarvis had in mind at the turn of the 20th century, when she successfully sought legislation establishing a Mother's Day. Miss Jarvis envisioned a celebration that was family-centered, low-key, religious and personal. She expected families to attend church on that day and then join in meals and other activities that would highlight each family's special brand of fellowship.
Mother's Day on the second Sunday in May soon became commercialized by florists, greeting card companies and confectioners, against whom Miss Jarvis waged an unsuccessful campaign. "I want to tell you," she said as she crashed the 1923 convention of the Associated Retail Confectioners, "that you are using a beautiful idea as a means of profiteering."
There is a need for a Family Day. As a result of America's continuing democratization, children have rights, fathers have rights, and so do mothers. The family unit, however, appears to have none. But no civilization has fared well without a strong family system or a comprehensive welfare system to take the family's place -- characteristics that the United States does not conspicuously illustrate. And when one considers that the typical American poverty victim in 1993 is a child, the case for strengthening the family unit combines both rational and humane reasons.
The two highest suicide rates today are among youth between the ages of 16 and 24 and the elderly -- trends attributable, in part, to the erosion of family values. Young people are not tethered to the family as in my youth when, at a minimum, father, mother and children satdown to at least two meals together (breakfast and dinner) and discussed the day's events. Today, according to the Wall Street Journal, American eating habits are more akin to "grazing" throughout the day. The extended family, with a grandparent living in the home, has disappeared because of increasing affluence among senior citizens and the rising popularity of the notion that distance and separation are preferred qualities in the relationships of first and third *~ generations. Thus grandparents have been deprived of a critical family role, no matter that expert counsel would suggest a natural one.
In "Grandparents/Grandchildren" (1981), Dr. Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth L. Woodward confirm the unique relationship between the two parties: 'The common view that grandparents have all the fun of being a parent and none of the responsibility is based upon a profound psychological truth that has become evident in our research: Neuroses are passed between consecutive generations but are not transmitted to alternate generations. . . . In short, grandparents and grandchildren do not have to do anything to make each other happy. Their happiness comes from being together."
The authors also note that American society is preoccupied with the development of experts on the rapidly aging sector of the population when "the real experts on the aged are children. Only children understand what elders are for, and only they can meet the real need of the aged: the need to be needed."
Family Day would not be an easy commemorative day to implement in a nation where divorce and separation are common. But its purposes would be as much preventive maintenance as celebration.
The routine nature of family life is too often taken for granted. Pausing to take special note of the family's blessings could infuse renewed appreciation -- perhaps so much that every day might become special for families.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington, D. C.