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Why the nuclear family might not be enough

Writing in The Atlantic, David Brooks calls for greater reliance on extended families. Family experts say that’s a beginning.

Family scholars disagree about the future of the nuclear family.
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SALT LAKE CITY — New York Times columnist David Brooks eulogized the nuclear family recently, saying the model of a married couple and their children living alone doesn’t work well for everyone and calling for greater reliance on extended family.

In the article, published on The Atlantic’s website, Brooks said the nuclear family has been good for the economically privileged, but “ravages the working-class and poor” who need the support that a sprawling family network provides. Such support acts as a shock absorber when things go wrong, and children benefit from the guidance of their relatives. “Multiple adults teach children right from wrong, how to behave toward others, how to be kind,” Brooks wrote.

If the bad news is that the nuclear family has become brittle, as Brooks said, the good news is that Americans are inching toward a system that worked well in generations past.

Twenty percent of Americans live in multigenerational homes today, compared to 12 percent in 1980, a change driven by young adults moving back in with their parents and seniors sharing homes with their kids, Brooks wrote.

And young adults are building family-like networks with people who aren’t relatives as “a new and more communal ethos is emerging, one that is consistent with 21st-century reality and 21st-century values,” he wrote. He cited a website where single mothers can connect with other single mothers to share housing, and also mentioned Salt Lake City’s The Other Side Academy, which helps connect felons with a community that acts as an extended family.

While Brooks’ overarching theme was the need for denser networks of familial support, his indictment of the nuclear family as a “catastrophe” that has led to broken families and loneliness was provocative, and on social media and elsewhere, reaction was swift and strong. On Twitter, Dr. Melody McCloud wrote, “It‘s not that the nuclear family is a mistake; it’s the crumbling of the nuclear family that’s a mistake. ... We need intact nuclear families.”

And the Institute for Family Studies, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, responded immediately with a weeklong online symposium to give family scholars a chance to respond to Brooks’ arguments.

Among them was Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who wrote, “The disaster confronting less prosperous Americans is not the nuclear family, but the erosion of socioeconomic conditions that help them sustain lasting pair bonds.”

Here’s a summary of Brooks’ arguments, and how some leading family scholars have responded.

Honey, we shrunk the family

In the 19th century, almost all Americans worked on farms or in family businesses, and these lifestyles supported — even demanded — large, intertwined families, Brooks explained. “People needed a lot of labor to run these enterprises. It was not uncommon for married couples to have seven or eight children. In addition, there might be stray aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as unrelated servants, apprentices and farmhands.”

Industrialization eventually drove young Americans to work at factories in cities, where the nuclear family was born, along with its attendant mythology. By 1960, more than three-quarters of children were living with married parents, away from extended family. The economy was strong; divorce rates were down and fertility rates were up. The nuclear family seemed, for a brief, shining decade and a half, the Camelot of family units, a reputation that stuck even when circumstances changed. Only one-third of Americans currently live in a nuclear family.

In fact, Brooks wrote, “That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.”

In their relative isolation, nuclear families afford individuals mobility and freedom, but deprive children of stability and a rich, important social tapestry. “Extended families have more people to share the unexpected burdens — when a kid gets sick in the middle of the day or when an adult unexpectedly loses a job,” Brooks wrote.

“A detached nuclear family, by contrast, is an intense set of relationships among, say, four people. If one relationship breaks, there are no shock absorbers. In a nuclear family, the end of the marriage means the end of the family as it was previously understood.”

As such, children are the ones who suffer most when the nuclear family disintegrates. Only about half of American children spend their childhood with both biological parents; 1 in 5 young adults have no contact with their fathers. And, Brooks writes, “American children are more likely to live in a single-parent household than children from any other country.”

Affluent families can more easily withstand negative events, he says, by essentially buying extended family with goods and services. The poor can’t. And the negative effects persist even after the children have grown. Brooks says that this broken ideal contributes to the problem of loneliness in the U.S. “Today’s crisis of connection flows from the impoverishment of family life,” he writes.

‘Bring back the big tables’

In interviews with the Deseret News and in responses published by the Institute for Family Studies, scholars said that Brooks’ article started an important conversation, but said there are other issues that deserve consideration.

Regarding The Atlantic’s provocative headline, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said, “It’s a mistake to think you can go it alone as a nuclear family.”

“In the last century, too many Americans have tried to go it alone. It’s certainly the case that many hands of kin and kith make the work of family life lighter.”

But Wilcox said Brooks’ prescription of “chosen” or “forged” families ignores the importance of marriage to a family and to the nation.

“His prescription seems to me fundamentally inadequate because it doesn’t recognize that children and communities are much more likely to thrive when marriage anchors them because marriage gives meaning, direction and purpose to families, and to kids in particular.

“We know, for instance, that kids who are being raised in multigenerational families with a single parent in the middle do about as poorly as kids being raised without a third generation. We know that kids being raised by uncles and aunts do worse than kids being raised by their own parents. His conclusion doesn’t really acknowledge that there’s something fundamental about being loved by, and loving, your parents in your own home, and when you don’t have that, there’s a fundamental sense of loss that a lot of kids experience.”

Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families and a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, wrote about idealized families in her 1992 book “The Way We Never Were.” She said Brooks does a little idealizing of his own in talking about the glories of large families in the 18th and 19th centuries, although he does acknowledge that the structure was no ideal for women for spent most of their days cooking and cleaning for a dozen people, or two dozen, or for the slaves and servants that supported these large households. But, she says, Brooks doesn’t go far enough.

“His solution stresses the need to promote new forms of chosen kin, and I agree those are good. But in our huge country, with its regional disparities and growing segregation by race and class, local initiatives are not enough. We don’t just need a new family paradigm. We need a new social paradigm.”

Coontz said that economic factors weigh heavily on American families, both nuclear and extended, and that business models that bow to shareholder profits do so at the expense of families and communities. “While we’re thinking, let’s think about how we can begin to recognize that we’re all part of an interdependent society,” she said. “We need to rebuild not just the social safety net, but also the psychological sense that we’re all in this together.”

Without economic stability, Coontz said, marriage is not an option for many Americans. “In the midst of this growing inequality, the only people who can take the risk of marrying each other are those who are almost already there in terms of their emotional and economic security. Marriage can be tremendously helpful to those who have the emotional and economic security to make sure it will work, but in today’s society, where we have freedom, for better or for worse, to leave a marriage that does not satisfy us, it’s a risky endeavor for those who are under economic stress.”

Likewise, writing for the Institute for Family Studies symposium, Scott M. Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, noted the correlation between income and education and family stability. “As a group, those with higher education and incomes —those with the most options — are now overrepresented among those with stable marriages and nuclear families.”

And Stanley noted that a major obstacle blocking societal change is the vaunted American love of individualism, privacy and space, which Brooks acknowledges when he writes, “Family bonds are thicker, but individual choice is diminished. You have less space to make your own way in life.”

Moreover, nuclear families tend to perpetuate themselves. “People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mindset than people who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan,” Brooks wrote. “People with an individualistic mindset tend to be less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family, and the result is more family disruption.”

But that’s all the more reason for a movement to enlarge our most important and nurturing network, either biological or forged, according to Brooks. “For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin,” he says. “It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”