In the March issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks writes a provocative and compelling article about the nuclear family and how he thinks it was a huge mistake.
He summarizes the changes in family structure over the past century, saying: “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life to smaller detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familiar system that liberates the rich and ravages the working class and the poor.”
Brooks lists many cons of the nuclear family, including the absence of extended family to function as a safety net when challenges arise, the socializing force of having extended family close by and lack of resilience.
On the surface, one might conclude that he is onto something, which he may well be, but is the nuclear family really the problem or is there something else at play?
Scott Stanley, research professor at the University of Denver, questions whether the nuclear family is the real villain in Brooks’ article.
“Disconnection and isolation are his real targets,” writes Stanley. “To me, the nuclear family seems like a passenger along for the ride in a car leaving the scene of the crimes Brooks describes - when the car is driven by us. By us, I mean most of us, motivated for our desires for autonomy and freedom.” He continues, “A lot of the problems we see may be caused by what most people want - even if those things also have downsides for individuals and society."
In another response, Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, examines the past and finds that scholars basically agree that the nuclear family household has been the “dominant form” in Western Europe and the United States since the dawn of the industrial era… the anomaly was the extended family, not the nuclear family.
“As demographics changed, the dominant family form did not,” writes Hymowitz. “Rising life expectancy and falling fertility starting in the latter half of the 19th century meant more surviving grandparents available for smaller numbers of couple households. But the share of households with extended families stayed more or less the same. It seems that people preferred the privacy and independence of the nuclear form - despite all its disadvantages.”
Bottom line, what Brooks seems to be espousing is that in order for children and adults to really thrive, we need to bring back the extended family - whether people are related or not.
Brooks suggests there are plenty of examples of those who have moved from nuclear families to forged families. He gave Common as an example, which is a real estate development company that operates more than 25 co-housing communities where young singles can live in separate sleeping spaces with shared communal areas.
The big question is, does this really address the problem Brooks’ narrative highlights - disconnection and isolation? There is nothing legally binding that keeps the people in these communities from coming and going. People move for various reasons - job transitions, marriage, divorce, etc., so it still doesn’t address the root problem.
In general, human beings are relational by nature and thrive on connectedness. Whatever our family form looks like, how do we create intentional community in a society that seems to have a strong bent toward isolation?
Regardless of your situation, you can deliberately and persistently build a tribe around you that will create the safety net extended families might fill. In the past, communities of faith often helped to fill this void and it is still true today for those who choose to be active in a community. Neighbors can also help create a safety net, but one has to be willing to establish and maintain relationships with those around them. School and work present opportunities as well for connection and networking to build your community.
Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have vast social capital, but chances are pretty great that others around you don’t. As a part of a larger community, we all have some responsibility to help others connect if we really are about helping people thrive.
This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 22, 2020.