MicSem Publications

Changes in the Palauan Family

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

January 01, 1989 Family Change

Reflection Weekend
Koror, Palau
January 1-8, 1989

"The Changing Family" was selected as the theme for the Palau reflection weekend this year. Particular attention was paid to what changes have occurred in the Palauan family and what the implications of these changes are on Christian family life today.The facilitators of the reflection weekend recommended that the group begin by describing the "traditional" family as it existed before the recent changes brought by modernization. The period following World War II was suggested as a good baseline for the "traditional" family, which would then be compared with the family as it exists today. After making this comparison, we would then proceed to discuss the implications of these changes –that is, what could be done to retain or restore important values that might be threatened by the changes, and what action might be taken in the future to strengthen the family.

The Traditional Palauan Family

In former days the basic household was the telungalek, a term that has no simple translation in English. Palauans sometimes refer to this as a single "house" of people of the "same blood," while anthropologists often call it a matrilineal descent group. The telungalek was made up of several generations of relatives, but with the married women in the lineage going out to live with the telungalek of their husbands and the married men bringing their wives and their children into their own telungalek. There was considerable variation in the composition of the telungalek, it seems, but a few generalizations can be made. First, the married couple normally went to the telungalek of the man. Second, this was located on his own lineage land in most cases. Third, the telungalek was usually three or four generations deep. Fourth, the chief authority in the telungalek was the senior male in the lineage group. Fifth, even if the married couple and their children lived in a separate dwelling, it was usually located near the seat of the telungalek and the smaller nuclear unit depended economically and socially on the seat of the telungalek.

The father's family, or telungalek, provided the environment and support for the raising of his children. The father himself, and his relatives, had authority over his children, especially when they were young. The father and his family could discipline his children, but not too severely. Children were expected to work for their father and his family so that they could inherit land and receive other entitlements from their father's family. This, however, depended on the cooperation and good behavior they showed towards the family in which they were raised.

But the children also are members of the kebliil, or lineage, of their mother, even if their rights and obligations during their childhood are not as clear as those towards their father's family. A child's tie with his mother's lineage was through the person of his mother's brother, known as okdemelel. The maternal uncle had more responsibility towards his sister's children than towards his own. He was ultimately responsible for the correction of his nephews and nieces, and he could punish them severely, even by beating, as necessary. Be could also call on their labor in certain situations. On the other hand, the maternal uncle also was obligated to look out for the interests of his sister's children. He was expected to help out if they were in serious trouble, even to the extent of bailing them out of jail if necessary. Overall, the task of the maternal uncle was to provide support and guidance for the child on behalf of their mother's lineage so that the child would in time choose to affiliate himself with his other's lineage and perhaps eventually perform a leadership role in the lineage. Young people received their lineage title from their mother's kebliil. They could also use their matrilineage as a fall back in case of trouble with their father's family. If they were expelled from their father's family, they could always return to their own mother's lineage group.

The image of the traditional family that emerged from the discussion was of a rather large unit that included grandparents, aunts and uncles and other relatives. This extended family spent considerable time together, especially at meals when the entire group ate from two pots: one for fish and one for starches. The burden of child rearing was shared by many adults and even older children in the family group, and grandparents took a strong hand in advising and supporting children. Authority in the traditional family was highly structured; there was, as participants said, "only one voice" in the family, with the male head of the telungalek making the decisions. There was also a corresponding clarity in the role expectations of each member of the family and their responsibilities were sharply delineated. Finally, there was a tight linkage between each family and the community, for each family had its assigned status and its obligations towards the village, even in such matters as providing torches for evening meetings in the bai.

Today's Palauan Family

The Palauan family has undergone radical changes in the past 30 or 40 years. Today the basic family, at least in Koror, is essentially the nuclear family, composed of parents and their children with an occasional relative living with the family. In Babeldaob and other non-urban areas there are larger family units, but in those households the grandparents often assume care of the children since most of the parents are living and working in Koror. The quest for wage employment, everyone agreed, has been the primary cause of this change in the shape of the family today.

The older kinsman who would have had authority over the extended family some years ago no longer holds the purse for the family. Instead, the father of the nuclear family now has authority over his own small family since he provides the resources for his own family! The relationship between the new nuclear family and the extended family of which it was a part is problematic and ambivalent, the participants suggested. On the one hand, a young married couple manages their own finances and seems to want to be independent. They pay their own way and make their own decisions. On the other hand, however, they have not entirely relinquished their blood ties and economic bonds with the extended families. They still call on support from relatives in building a house through the traditional custom of ocheraol, and they expect help for funerals, first births, and other significant events. In fact, their financial demands on the extended family at such times are much heavier than formerly, as was noted in this and in an earlier workshop on Palauan custom. Moreover, many of the nuclear families still rely on their distant relatives to care for the children they have left with them in the village. The extended family clearly has not vanished from the scene; it is still a force in Palauan society even though its role has been much reduced in recent years.

These changes have probably had more of an impact on how children are raised than on any other element of family life. The older relatives who once shared child-rearing responsibilities are no longer on hand to assume these responsibilities, and even when they are present in the household they are not as free to exercise authority over the children as they once were. The mother and father, therefore, are required to assume a much larger role in rearing their children than ever before. Yet they are far less free than ever to exercise this responsibility, particularly in those cases where both parents have full-time jobs. This is even more true of single-parents families –whose number seems to be significant –in which the one parent is obliged to hold down a job. Care for the children in such cases is increasingly entrusted to domestic help — the Filipina maids who care for the house during the day –although in some houses an older relative is brought in to baby-sit for the children.

The maternal uncle still has, at least in theory, an important role over his sister's children, but his actual responsibilities seem to have diminished. This is in part due to the greater reluctance of the nuclear family today to call on his help than formerly. The result is that nuclear families are hard-pressed to handle properly the increased responsibility they bear for the care and education of their children. They can provide for their children's material needs well enough because of their cash income, but there are other more important needs that are not as easily satisfied. In an age and environment in which children are subject to a greater variety of outside influences –schooling, media, peer group influence, to mention just a few –the family must more than ever instill the fundamental vision and values needed to carry the young through life and help the find their way through a sea of conflicting attitudes. This is a considerable challenge for any Palauans today.

Coping with the Changes Although there was a tendency to glorify the past and bemoan the present, participant were aware of the fact that the older family structures had certain limitations. There was less room for creativity, initiative and individual freedom in the old system; this partially offset the advantages of discipline, clear authority and respect that the older system offered. In any case, the group recognized that it was impossible to turn back the clock and restore a family structure that had clearly changed for good. In the final segment of the workshop, then, the group considered what problems the new structure of the Palauan family might present and how they might be met.

Five main concerns emerged from the discussion:

1) How could the nuclearized family that appears so frequently today keep its contacts with the extended family so that the value of extended family ties might not be lost?

2) Bow can communication be maintained between husband and wife?

3) How can parents maintain good communication with their children?

4) How can discipline in the family be effectively handled without the many supports that once existed for child rearing?

5) How can parents exercise their important role in the education of their children, particularly in those cases where both parents are working full-time?

Contact with the extended family. This need might be met by showing the ordinary signs of friendship and concern –by paying visits to relatives and taking time with them when one meets them in passing. This should be done without expecting gifts from them each time they meet, it was suggested. The nuclear family should also continue to assist the extended family on those occasions when custom demands this, but this should be done within reasonable bounds. The nuclear family must have a prudent regard for its own financial needs as well, and so it should provide only what is expected and nothing more. In other words, it must resist the temptation to give in abundance merely to enhance its own prestige in the eyes of others, regardless of the consequences on the family itself. Controls are needed in the measure of assistance that is provided for the larger family in customary events. Irai, for instance, legislated that a woman may bring in no more than one basket of food for family funerals. This might be a useful model for other communities.

Communication between spouses. The most common problems here are these: the natural reticence of women to speak out in the presence of their husbands, and the likelihood that one of the spouses may dominate the other in conversation and decision-making due to temperament or culture. The strategies suggested are ample time for private conversation between the couple and even common prayer. A healthy and balanced relationship between spouses, of course, demands patience and a willingness to compromise. In the event of difficulty, the couple should not be hesitant to seek outside help from pastors, friends, or marriage counselors.

Communication with children. The question, as rephrased by one group, was how parents might successfully impart their wisdom to their children. After all, parents presumably have much by virtue of their age and experience to share with their children. First of all, the group suggested, parents must discipline their children so that the latter are responsive to their authority and receptive to what they know. To discipline their children effectively, both parents should truly share in this task and support one another in carrying it out. Parents should establish clear rules for their children's behavior. They should be prepared to tell them why they are imposing these rules so that ethical principles can be interiorized. They should offer children what the textbooks call positive reinforcement -that is, reward the good that they do. Finally, they should show compassion towards their children as well as a respect that is exemplified by the use of such terms as "please" and "thank you," for children always learn by seeing behavior modeled rather than simply hearing sermons about its importance.

Education of children. In those cases where both parents are working, the family must decide how to provide what their children need–through older relatives, domestics, or a child- care center. Even when the parents are not on hand during the day to care for the children, they must make a commitment to spend time with them in the evenings and on weekends. In general, parents should have clear and consistent expectations that they make known to their children. They should assign responsibilities to their children, even in their absence, and check on whether these have been fulfilled. They should take advantage of their free time to work and play with their children, to show their concern for the as their work schedule allows, and share their feelings and ideals with them. Finally, they should make an effort to check on their children's homework at least once or twice a week.