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Society needs safety nets, and family is one of them

Properly balancing personal freedom and shared duties is the basis for strong social ‘safety nets.’

SHARE Society needs safety nets, and family is one of them
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Sarah Berger, from Fort Belvoir, Va., pushing a stroller with her daughter Kallie Berger, 4, ducks as she and her husband Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Berger carrying their son Coen Berger, 2, walk around the Tidal Basin, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington. Families serve as important social safety nets, writes contributor Lee Johnson.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Safety nets are critical to our well-being as individuals and in society. Whether it’s in our homes or our halls of political power, when we improve safety nets, it doesn’t harm our freedoms — it actually helps them flourish. 

I remember as a child going to the circus. The otherwise forgettable town parking lot was transformed into a small city full of animals and performers. The smell of popcorn; the large arena. After getting good and sticky from cotton candy, I would turn my attention to my favorite act — the trapeze.

The performance was incredible. One acrobat would swing and tumble through the air while the other would catch them at just the right moment. The performers were so sure of their abilities that part of their act was done blindfolded. I remember thinking, “How brave they have to be to do this.” It was not until the end of the act when they let themselves fall that I noticed the safety net.  

When I was young, I thought the safety net was to make sure they did not get hurt, which is true. But I also now realize that the safety net provides freedom, allowing the performers to take risks in the first place. Can you imagine how unspectacular the act would be if they did not have the freedom to take risks, to learn and to improve?  

I am a marriage and family therapist, and families, at their best, serve as safety nets. In my work, I’ve seen firsthand the way in which safety nets of all kinds help us to grow, to fail (well), and to succeed.

As young children, we learn to walk. If we’re lucky enough to have an attentive mom, dad or other family member, they pick us up when we fell. Their presence and outstretched arms lend the security and encouragement we need to take those first uncertain, and risky, steps. 

The safety net we experience as young children, which scholars call attachment, can have a far-reaching positive influence in our lives. Its absence can have a negative impact. The quality of that early safety net can have a salutatory influence on relationships and our mental and physical health. Poor attachment, however, may lead to greater instances of relationship challenges as well as mental health risks that can even have an effect on the well-being of our children

Safety nets come in many forms and are not only necessary for young children — in addition to family, there are friends, neighbors, colleagues, charitable organizations, churches, clubs, community groups and, yes, even governments that help support us. The better and more secure our safety nets, the more we feel comfortable trying, falling and therefore learning and growing. But the net has to be secure. A trapeze act where the net is full of holes or not attached to the rig is hardly serviceable. I worry that we aren’t doing all we can to build safety nets for our families and communities.  

Freedom unmoored from shared responsibilities is one way we weaken our safety nets, and counterintuitively, diminish our freedom to act, grow and innovate. And better safety nets in one area tend to beget more secure safety nets in another. Research, for example, has consistently shown that when we create societywide safety nets we have more freedom to create better safety nets at home (e.g., helping with food insecurity, access to education, financial security, access to health care).

Another example of this is our current pandemic. Freedom has sometimes been invoked as a way to avoid common responsibilities toward one another that keep us safe and, in the end, freer amid the spread of COVID-19. I look at countries like Taiwan or Australia where the vast majority of people quickly embraced temporary personal inconveniences, such as social distancing and wearing masks. These countries are much closer to normal functioning — people are freer — with much less loss of life and illness. In these countries they are able to practice their religious beliefs more fully, go to sporting events and other activities. It seems that those who choose to exercise freedom without regard to shared responsibilities others can do more to limit our freedoms and harm families.

Certainly, there are circumstances where safety nets can be taken to an extreme, where taxes become too onerous or a government infringes on basic human rights. Certainly, such circumstances are contrary to the common good. Properly balancing personal freedom and shared duties is the basis for the kind of trust and security that leads to sustained growth, long-term freedom, and better families.

This balance is hard to strike perfectly, but it is my hope that as we move forward, we err on the side of improving safety nets to help individuals and families. We may be surprised by the incredible feats our fellow citizens achieve, just like watching the majestic trapeze artists at work so many years ago. 

Lee Johnson is a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. His views are his own.