Is the nuclear family finished? Given the decline of marriage over the past five decades and the rise of cohabiting and single parenthood, as well as childlessness, it might seem so. The demise of the traditional family might even be welcomed by a few progressives. But we should not easily kiss goodbye to an institution that, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the natural and fundamental social unit. It is also one that has proved the safest and most nurturing for children.
Yet “goodbye” is the gist of an essay by American journalist David Brooks that appeared in The Atlantic recently. In “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake“, Brooks denies that the type of family the great majority of baby boomers and their parents (and grandparents) grew up in is even traditional.
Writing primarily about the American context, he says the family consisting of a married couple and their children living independently, first became the norm around 1920, and flourished only between 1950 and 1965, owing to a unique set of social circumstances.
During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.
The way most humans lived during all the previous thousands of years, says Brooks, was in some kind of extended family, and that is what we need to aim for again now. People are “hungering” for it. The nuclear family – where it still exists – has become too isolated and detached, and viable only for those who can afford to buy supplementary services like daycare and domestic help.
That leaves about 70 percent of society – older people, unmarried adults, single parents, divorced individuals and others – or much of it, without the close relationships and support that every human being needs, especially for successfully raising children. Around a quarter of children live apart from their father, and more than a third of Americans over 45 say they are chronically lonely.
Brooks argues that we need to break out of the mindset that the nuclear family is best, and “thicken and broaden” family relationships by incorporating extended families and “families of choice” formed with friends, co-religionists or other associates. These “forged families” would be a better way to raise children than in isolated nuclear family units.
One thing he is certain about: we cannot go back to the 1950s or salvage the nuclear family as a general norm. Everything has changed, above all the culture, which has become more individualistic and self-oriented. Women have been liberated from the kitchen, love has become a matter of self-expression, and marriage is no longer about childbearing and childrearing but about adult fulfilment.
“This cultural shift was very good for some adults, but it was not so good for families generally,” says Brooks. But does he regret it? One gets the impression, rather, that he welcomes the opportunity to do something new – or something old with a new twist – as he has in his own life.
The upper class: still living in the 1950s
Yet in his keenness to move on he fails to give due weight even to some of his own data.
For example, he notes that since 2012 (2014 according to another source) the share of children living with married parents has been inching up. He links this, like the trend of young adults living with their parents, to the 2008 recession. However, he also cites research by family sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox showing that the nuclear family headed by married parents remains a personal ideal even among men and women who have a liberal attitude to alternative family structures.
This cultural ideal is a concrete reality among college-educated Americans, as Brooks records: “Among the highly educated, family patterns are almost as stable as they were in the 1950s…” The poor and working class cannot afford the nuclear family, he says; but research among Black women has shown that they too still aspire to marriage – despite their extended family supports.
“You can infer the most about what people truly desire when they have more options and fewer constraints,” says Scott Stanley, another family scholar, and those with most options – with higher education and incomes – are choosing the nuclear family.
It is not only material poverty that is keeping others from following suit.
Harvard researchers cited by Wilcox and Hal Boyd in a response to Brooks found that black boys are more likely to achieve upward economic mobility if there are more black fathers in a neighbourhood – and married couples as well. And for poor children of all races, “the fraction of children with single parents in a given community is the strongest and most robust predictor of economic mobility – or its absence. … In other words, it takes a village – but of married people – to raise the odds that a child will have a shot at the American dream.”
Children, after all, are the heart of the matter. If there were no next generation to raise why should we care how adults live? As it is, a huge body of social research confirms that the children are most likely to flourish when raised by their own biological parents. The alternatives are not, in fact, promising.
Wilcox and Boyd point out that most multi-generational living at present involves a single mother living with her own parent, and research shows that the average child raised in such a household is “doing about the same as one raised by a single mother” – that is, not so well. And children raised by aunts or uncles tend to report feelings of loneliness and sadness.
As for living in a community with non-related people: “Over the years study after study has detailed the many possible downsides to introducing unrelated adults, especially men, into children’s lives without the presence of those children’s married parents.”
As Kay Hymowitz put it, “Yes … the nuclear family is the worst family form, except for all the rest.”
Can atomising forces be reversed?
In addition to – in its classic form – depending on women full-time in the home, Brooks’ main problems with the nuclear family is that it is small (“say four people”) detached and isolated. The first objection – about women’s role – has largely been addressed by today’s married parents. The others are real deficits but they can be reversed. They were, after all, driven by active policies as well as economic trends and personal choice.
Remember the population bomb of the mid-1960s? The pill? Legalised abortion? That was largely about the powers that were wanting to delay family formation and make families small. Second wave feminism assured women this was the best thing for them. Hollywood and pop culture fostered the idea of marriage as the culmination of a quest for a romantic soulmate. What happened in between could be taken care of by the family planning clinic, and if families did not form at all, by the state.
Traditional supports became redundant for those swept up in this individualistic culture. Christian author Rod Dreher agrees with Brooks that the nuclear family is not viable today and blames the churches for caving in to the culture of individualism and sentiment. His book, The Benedict Option, urges Christians to try to form “intentional communities” somewhat segregated from mainstream society that will support a rigorous religious culture – the only hope for the family.
Perhaps Dreher is right – not so much about his community option but about the religious culture necessary to support the married family. Marriage is about a love that is committed and self-sacrificing, and to that extent counter-cultural today. That kind of family life is certainly harder to sustain without strong networks of friends, family and community. Above all, it seems to need the faith and hope that a religious community can nurture if it keeps its backbone.
It remains to be seen whether churches and other faith communities can rise to the challenge that David Brooks has issued in the form of an RIP for the nuclear family.
* The Institute for Family Studies has a symposium on David Brooks’ essay here.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.