Is the Nuclear Family a Problem?

Are there other issues at play?
By Julie Baumgardner
February 24, 2020

In the March issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks writes a provocative and compelling article about family. He thinks the nuclear family is a huge problem.

He summarizes the changes in family structure over the past century here: “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. Among those are:

  1. The absence of extended family to function as a safety net during challenges
  2. The socializing force of having extended family close by
  3. Lack of resilience

On the surface, one might say that he is onto something. And he may well be. But is the nuclear family really the problem? Or is there something else at play?

Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, questions whether the nuclear family is the real villain.

“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 and William E. Simon, Manhattan Institute Fellow, examined the past and found that scholars agree that the nuclear family household has been the “dominant form” in Western Europe and the U.S. since 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: Brooks seems to be espousing that for children and adults to really thrive, we need to bring back the extended family – related or not.

Brooks suggests plenty of examples of those who have moved from nuclear families to forged families. He gave Common, a real estate development company, as an example. Common operates more than 25 co-housing communities where young singles can live in separate sleeping spaces with shared communal areas.

But… does this really address the problem Brooks’ narrative highlights – disconnection and isolation?

Nothing legally binding keeps the people in these communities from coming and going. People move for various reasons – job transitions, marriage, divorce, etc., so it doesn’t seem to 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 an intentional community in a society with a strong bent toward isolation?

Regardless of your situation, you can deliberately and persistently build a support system around you to create the safety net extended families might fill. Communities of faith often help to fill this void. Neighbors can also help create a safety net. Still, one has to be willing to establish and maintain relationships with those around them. School and work present opportunities for connection and networking to build your community, too.

Perhaps you’re 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 and help people thrive.

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Image from Unsplash.com

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