On Houghton College’s small campus, where it feels like every peer, faculty, staff, and community member is a part of the family, Dr. Michael Lastoria illustrates the reality of family life through his “Introduction to Family Systems Through Film” course, more commonly known as “Family Systems.” This course’s main purpose is to help students understand their own family dynamics and analyze through thought, theory, and personal assessment.
Lastoria, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a national certified counselor, has taught this class for 24 years. Along with teaching at Houghton College, he has a small private practice where he specializes in marriage and family counseling.
“Family Systems” unites theory and praxis— praxis being an action or an accepted ritual— to help challenge the way a student thinks and views his or her life and world. This combination of thought and action offers “a life-altering experience for some students. Understanding where one comes from is integrally connected to understanding one’s own self,” says Lastoria.
Family Systems theory suggests that a person cannot be understood in isolation from other people, particularly in familial relationships, since much behavior in families is "in reaction to" or contingent upon relationships to other family members. The family is, for better or worse, an emotionally bonded network of individuals connected by unique ties that cannot be reproduced in any other type of relationship, and that cannot by nature be fully broken or forgotten. One is always a part of a family, even if living apart from them, and one's behavior and reactions to the world around them often give testimony to that imprint.
Through readings that include varying levels of dysfunctional to functional and viewing them in play through full length films with family functionality issues – such as Steel Magnolias, The Great Santini, and Pleasantville – students gain an awareness of family dynamics. The course culminates in constructing a family genogram, or a map of family relationships and secrets, which requires students to have in-person interviews with multiple family members.
The 2015 census indicated that families in America have decreased from a 3.3-person unit to a 2.5-person unit, and from a nuclear family – a couple and their dependent children – to an alternative family unit. A class like “Family Systems” offers students from a variety of homes - from broken to undisrupted and everything in between - an opportunity to gain insight about where they come from and a deeper understanding about other people they may interact with.