All families have elements of dysfunction. This may range from homicidal violence to petty gossip and frustrations.

I remember writing an article many years ago when a "moderate" political party preached a return to "family values".

The gist of my article was asking when this idyllic period of family values actually occurred in human history.

It seems to be a universal element of human nature that we believe there existed a past idyllic period of harmony and human virtue. A period where the young had unreserved respect for their elders.


A period where the family unit was sacrosanct and totally functional. Husband and wife lived in marital bliss and instilled in their children eternal human values of love and peace and goodwill to others.

Such an age has never existed. As Thomas Hobbes observed in the 17th century, most of human existence has been "nasty, brutish and short".

Those who hark back to some past utopia are either being disingenuous or have an appalling appreciation of human history. We are likely living in the best of times right now, despite all the mayhem and mischief in the world.

The Victorian age is often held up as an era of temperance and well-mannered self-restraint, in English society at least.

What is seldom acknowledged is that alcoholism, child abuse, worker exploitation and human misery was rife. One of the biggest industries in Victorian London was child prostitution.

Those who have a nostalgia for some golden past of human values are likely referring to more recent television images of happy functional families living idealised lives behind white picket fences.

They have internalised the vacuous images of shows such as Happy Days, The Waltons and The Cosbys. Such shows do not represent human reality. I certainly wouldn't want Mr Cosby as my dad. Anyone preaching a return to family values is preaching an illusion.

This is not a bitter tirade against the family unit. It is a call to recognise that an element of dysfunction in families is the norm. The myth of an idealised family unit has become a powerful belief in our society.

Sadly this leads to some people feeling they are missing out because their family doesn't match this ideal. The reality is this ideal simply doesn't exist.

One of the wonderful things about getting older is the realisation that no one is living the perfect life. No one is totally sorted. Many people seek to promote such a facade. They may seek to prove they are successful in the material sense.

The easy availability of credit these days can allow the maintenance of such a facade, for a time. It is likely easier just to lie about one's wealth.

Others seek to display an idyllic marriage based purely on passionate romantic love. There is widespread shock when such marriages suddenly dissolve in acrimony and betrayal.

The reality is that any lengthy marriage will always have tensions and strains. Those that endure are likely based on deep affection and friendship rather than passion.

We are inundated these days by media figures who preach the mantra of "being a winner". Their version of a winner seems to be a one-dimensional character who has achieved fame and fortune.

Usually someone like themselves. Such winners have often left a trail of familial destruction in their wake. They often have a litany of past spouses and alienated offspring.

The real winners in our society are seldom acknowledged. They have managed to sustain relationships through thick and thin. They have done the best by their children recognising that caring for their own children is the ultimate measure of a responsible adult.

The reality is that all of us struggle through life. We never achieve perfection. None of us are totally and permanently sorted though we often delude ourselves that others are. Such a person would be an omnipotent creature.

The reality is that none of us get through life unscathed. The fact that we continue to perpetuate the myths of the "perfect family" and "the winner" only serves to create disillusionment and frustration among those who believe such myths.

Peter Lyons teaches at St Peter's College in Epsom.
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