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9 Things You Should Know About Family Structure

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In a new article for The Atlantic, David Brooks argues that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks claims that, “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.” The article has provoked a wide range of responses (see, for example, this symposium at the Institute for Family Studies) about the best arrangement for families.

Here are nine things you should know about family structure.

1. A family is commonly defined as the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of either two parents rearing their children, or various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family. The three primary types of family structure are nuclear families (two parents and their child or children), extended families (a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, consisting of parents like father, mother, and their children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, all living in the same household or in close proximity), and single parent families (a parent or guardian who lives with a child or children and who does not have a spouse or live-in partner).

2. The term “nuclear family” originated in the 1920s, and was originally used in academic fields such as anthropology and sociology The Oxford English Dictionary claims the term was coined by Bronisław Malinowski, considered a founder of social anthropology. At the time, the word nuclear was associated more with the Latin nucleus, meaning “kernel,” than with atomic energy. Thus, when applied to the family, it refers to the core members, usually parents and children.

3. Despite a common assumption, the nuclear family wasn’t created after the Industrial Revolution. Using English parish records and other demographic sources, some historians discovered that the nuclear family was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century. By the time a couple was ready to wed their own parents were often deceased, making multi-generational households a relative rarity. (Because of early childhood death, for most of human history, the average lifespan was considerably less than 50 years.)

4. The rise of the extended family in England and the Americas began after the Industrial Revolution. Between 1750 and 1900, extended families became more common as middle-class workers were able to support extended dependent relatives, and as life expectancy increased and age of marriage began to decline. (In America, from 1890-1900, the median age at first marriage was 26.1 years for men and 22 years for women.) Even as they became more common, extended families were never as prevalent as nuclear families.

5. By the 1920s, the nuclear family with a man earning the main income had replaced the extended family as the dominant family form. By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two parents, who were married, and living apart from their extended family. Today, a majority of adults with children in multi-generational families with kids (65 percent) are either never married (46 percent) or divorced, separated, or widowed (19 percent). About 41 percent of parents who live with extended families are white, compared with 58 percent of parents who do not live with their parents. Minority families with kids are about twice as likely as whites to have grandparents in the house.

6. Family structure in America began to change most significantly when divorce became more common. The divorce rate remained 1 percent or less from 1867 to 1915 and remained less than 2 percent until 1940. The first year the divorce rate exceeded 3 percent was in 1969—the year California became the first state to adopt “no-fault” divorce. (No-fault divorce allows a married couple’s claim of “irreconcilable differences” as sufficient grounds to end a marriage.) The divorce rate peaked between 1979 and 1981 at 5.3 percent. Since then the divorce rate has steadily declined along with the rate of marriage. The current marriage rate is 6.9 per 1,000 total population, and the divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000 population.

7. Children in the United States are more likely than children in other countries to live in single-parent households, and much less likely to live in extended families. According to Pew Research, almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23 percent), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7 percent). Only 8 percent of children live with relatives such as aunts and grandparents, compared with 38 percent of children globally. U.S. children from Christian and religiously unaffiliated families are about equally likely to live in this type of arrangement.

8. Every form of family structure is less common than households without children. The presence of children in America has declined significantly since 1960, as measured by fertility rates and the percentage of households with children. Other indicators suggest that this decline has reduced the child-centeredness of our nation and contributed to the weakening of the institution of marriage. It is estimated that in the mid-1800s more than 75 percent of all households contained children under the age of 18. One hundred years later, in 1960, this number had dropped to slightly less than half of all households. In 2011, just five decades later, only 32 percent of households included children. This obviously means that adults are less likely to be living with children, that neighborhoods are less likely to contain children, and that children are less likely to be a consideration in daily life.

9. Which type of family structure should Christians promote, nuclear or extended? Both appear to be consistent with Scripture, provided a few conditions are met. Genesis 2:24 say that in marriage a “man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In the New Testament, this principle of “leaving and cleaving” is reaffirmed by both Jesus (Matt. 19:5) and Paul (Eph. 5:31-32). As pastor-theologian John Piper says, we can draw out four aspects of a marriage that distances it from former participation in the larger familial household. When a man and woman marry there is now a new allegiance, devotion, affection, intimacy, and priority, as well as a new structure of responsibility for who bears the primary burden of providing materially for the family, protecting the new family, and providing leadership in this new unit of marriage—namely, the husband. “Those four new structures of allegiance and responsibility necessarily lead to a kind of leaving mother and father—leaving old structures of allegiance, old structures of provision, old structures of protection, old structures of leadership,” says Piper. “At least that much is built into the very nature of what the New Testament describes as marriage.”