Finding the centre of home and family life

Finding the centre of home and family life
4th February 2016 Tim Malnick
In Centre Edge

The hearth – the fireplace, was traditionally the centre of the home. It was where a person could warm up (vitally important in the days before central heating), prepare food and gather in the dark for conversation. It was a source of light in the days before a quick flick of a switch would illuminate any part of a house. As the central fireplace, it was the place for eating, warming, conversation and light. It was, therefore, the physical, symbolic and social centre of the home. In Centre Edge terms we’d say it was the, or certainly a, central organising principle of the home. Around the hearth as centre, the family life was organised, its rhythms, routines and patterns flowing.

What is the centre of the home today? For most of us I think that is harder to identify. Now we have electricity, ovens and central heating, the hearth has gradually lost its centralising and cohering influence on the rhythms of domestic life. As our lives and technology have increased in speed and complexity, it is harder today to identify a physical, social or symbolic centre of our home life.


Telly as the centre of home and family life?

Crucially we now have TV. There is an old Gary Larson cartoon entitled ‘in the days before television’ which shows a cartoon  family staring vacantly at an empty corner of a living room. For a period, maybe the 1960s or 1970s, TV did become a new centre of the house. The flickering lights of a fire were replaced by the flicker of the cathode ray tube. Conversation and story no longer passed around the fire, replaced by stories created elsewhere and by someone else, coming at you down the tube. When we recall that TV audiences in the UK at peak times represented over 50% of the population[1] there is an argument that TV had become a central principle of a home life.

Of course there are any number of arguments why TV is not entirely a good thing. However, in terms of a central principle, when there was just one TV in the house, just 3 channels, no video[2], and when watching and talking about TV was something of a social ritual and event, (rather than the 24 hour multiple channel hopping affair it has become), TV did provide some sort of central organisation principle – structuring time, conversation, family and to some extent social patterns.


Home is where the hearth internet is?

Today the idea of TV as centre has become further dispersed. We have moved another step away from the central home fire, and beyond the 20th century fire substitute – the telly. Now we have multiple and individual screens, in different places, with wireless, handheld devices potentially in every room in a house. The flicker of a central fire, replaced by the flicker of a shared, single TV, has transmuted into a mobile, personal screen, accompanying individuals around the house at any time and carrying different individually tailored content.

Centre Edge principles suggest that as the centre becomes less clear, defined and coherent, it operates less effectively as a central organising principle. When that happens the wider system and patterns which gravitate around it becomes similarly dispersed and less coherent. We have moved further away from gathering around a fire, or gathering around anything together at the same time. As we focus more on individual screens, individual meal times and individual patterns within the home, the notion of family is in itself breaking down and being radically disrupted.


What creates coherence and connection in the home?

Curiously on the day I wrote this I read a preview of a new TV show [3] that gets a family to experience a typical lifestyle from each decade since the 1950s and reflect on what they learnt in each decade. The researchers suggest that, “The 1970s was the happiest decade for family life before the advent of technology began to fracture the generations.”

The family featured in the show reflect,

            “The 1970s were very hard to leave,” adding that although they also enjoyed the 1980s part of the experiment, “technology started to fracture  our family life … we really felt the impact”.

            “The 1980s was about individual leisure,” explained Rob. “When TV and music videos and gadgets started to come into our lives, it started to fragment us somewhat. It was quite strange … we could gradually feel ourselves being pulled apart.”

Losing and re-establishing our Centre

It is interesting to notice here how readily this family (as we all do) describe their inner experience and the subtleties of relationship in the language of physical space and movement. They talk about things ‘fracturing’ family life, of feeling ‘pulled apart’. Later they talk about shifts that helped them feel ‘closer’. Centre Edge has much to say about this sort of language. Humans naturally try to make sense of subtle aspects of our experience and relationship in physical or embodied terms: movement, space, closeness, distance etc. The language of being pulled and fragmented does suggest that a central organising principle, the thing around which life coheres, has become weakened. All of us will have had the experience of this sort of thing in relationships, groups and family life.

There are of course many benefits to new technology and the increasingly pluralistic possibilities of family life. But perhaps it is necessary for all of us, from time to time, to ponder what we consider the centre of our home or family life. What is the central organising principle, essential quality or intention around which the elements and activities of our daily lives configure?

As we explore we may find that we increasingly hold individual intentions, but not so much a shared family one. Perhaps, if we are honest and take a good look at our collective behaviour, we will identify central principles that do hold things together – in terms of setting the rhythm and pattern for life – but are not what we really wish for, nor consciously formed intentions. For example: getting everyone where they need to be on time; just making it through the week; avoiding intimate connection; paying the bills – all of these could and do unwittingly become organising principles. None of them are likely to then radiate a life we are truly nourished by.

To the extent that we can’t locate a central organising principle, or we notice ones in operation that don’t reflect (but inevitably create) what we don’t really want, we can try consciously articulating and consciously holding new central principles. As a simple example, some people experiment with no screen days. The family in the show now make sure that in the busy whirl of life they have set days when they sit down and eat together. None of this is rocket science – after all eating and talking together, without looking at a screen, just takes us back to what all but the last few generations of humans would have naturally done – well before we had rocket science!

Centre Edge encourages us to consider what is at the centre of various parts of our lives, and to notice what patterns of activities, routines, rhythms and communication flow from there. In so far as the daily routines don’t serve our deeper wishes, reflecting together our central intentions and how to skilfully support them can be helpful, creative and fun.

We have many more choices now, many more possibilities, distractions and seductions in all areas of life. Many of these are interesting, entertaining and enjoyable. But when we lose touch with a meaningful central principle of family life, something deeper than mere entertainment or efficiency, then for all the technical wizardry at our disposal, we lose something very old, and very precious that gives rise to a richer life. The good news is that with awareness and experimentation we can get it back.



[1] Wikipedia tells me that when Dirty Den filed divorce papers on Angie in Eastenders on 25th December 1986, 30.15million people were watching. The UK population at that time was 56.68 million.

[2] If you are under 30 you may not remember or indeed believe any of these things. But I assure you it was like that not so very long ago!