Family and Culture: Contrasts Between North & South America

During an internship this summer in South America, I took the opportunity to speak with many college students about university life. The most interesting contrast between our experience and theirs lies in the response to the question, “Where are you living?” For them, the answer was nearly always: “At home.” In South America, when you begin college you simply continue living with your family. Most people live in their nation’s capital where the country’s most important corporations and best universities are located, so it makes sense for students to stick around if they’re going to become integral parts of their country’s rising professional network. The fact that most students live at home, however, points less to a pragmatic and professionally oriented mindset than to the fact that a radically different, family-oriented culture exists in Latin American countries.

The central idea behind this culture can be summarized by Pope John Paul II’s assertion that “The family is the first and fundamental school of social living.”[i] Education begins in the family environment. Key aspects of your character, like who you are, how you think and how you interact with others are first formed within the family, and later develop throughout life by formal education, experiences and interactions with other people. Rather than stifling individual development, continuing to live at home complements it. In Venezuela, Chile and Argentina, I lived with families with college-age students. Rather than witnessing tension or confrontation, I observed how many virtues, such as respect, patience, generosity and charity, developed while sons and daughters who were living at home still studied, went out, partied and did everything fitting for a regular young man or woman. It was completely natural and healthy. The fact that “living with your parents” is looked down upon in the U.S. is ridiculous.

It is important to note that our situation as college students in the U.S., often living quite far from home, is equally conducive to the development of a different set of virtues. When I explained that most students in the U.S. live away from their families, everyone I spoke with usually made a comment to the effect of, “Wow, that’s tough, you guys must mature really fast.” This is absolutely correct. We become independent more quickly and if we use our freedom responsibly, we will also mature more quickly. We ought to take joy in the fact that although there is no one stopping us from doing whatever we want, we have the discipline to restrain ourselves in order to remain faithful to our moral principles.

Living away from home comes with its own set of serious challenges, and I discussed this topic with a class of Chilean high school students. Towards the end of a talk I gave about preparing for college, one of the questions that came up was, “There are clear qualitative advantages of being educated at a university in the U.S. But what about the moral environment? Is it really worth going if you’re going to expose yourself to so many bad things we hear about and see in movies?” I told him that the moral depravity to which he was referring–premarital sex, heavy drinking and drugs–can be found among college students anywhere in the world. The difference in the U.S. is that since we live in dorms far from adult regulation, it’s much easier to engage in those behaviors without fear of being caught and reprimanded. That doesn’t mean that well-formed, upstanding young men and women should avoid attending great universities on account of moral laxity. Quite the opposite: it is essential that such people attend to face the challenge and show others how to improve our culture by ceaseless personal example. We can transform our culture as long as we are dedicated to the continual development of our own character and are interested to the utmost in the improvement of those around us.

[i] Apostolic Exhortation: Familiaris Consortio. Pope John Paul II. Point 37.