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The new nuclear family

T. Denny Sanford School professor says America should rethink and promote a more realistic picture of U.S. households

Man, woman and child
September 24, 2020

As the demography of the United States dramatically shifts, so too should the idea of what it means to be a family, said an Arizona State University professor.

Since the end of World War II, the "ideal" nuclear family consisting of a white father, mother and their two biological kids has been perpetuated in media. But that image is outdated and no longer reflects modern society, said Cassandra Cotton, an assistant professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

“This cultural ideal of the 'Leave it to Beaver' family where the father works, mom stays at home raising their two children is not what family looks like anymore,” said Cotton, who is a family demographer and sociologist. “It’s time to decenter that notion and expand our understanding of what a family looks like.”

Cotton’s words come on the eve of National Family Day on Sept. 26, which has been celebrated annually since 1977. Organizers encourage families to gather at the kitchen table and enjoy a meal together in an attempt to appreciate and engage with the most important people in their lives.

ASU Now spoke to Cotton about her research on family dynamics and how the future of American households will shape and influence our society going forward.

Woman with long brown hair

Cassandra Cotton

Question: Social science research shows that the nuclear family ideal of the post-World War II baby boom is not an accurate reflection of American society. Why have social scientists like yourself come to that conclusion?

Answer: What’s so interesting about the "ideal" of the nuclear family is that it’s actually a relatively new one, and it’s not universal. We’ve conceptualized the "two married, opposite-sex parents and biological kids" family as the model for what is normal and what we should strive for, but in reality families have often been very different from that.

Historically in the U.S., extended families and multigenerational living was the norm for many people, with families made up of parents, children, grandparents and other kin. So for a long time, the norm was these big kinship networks, a safety net of different folks pitching in to raise kids and supporting one another. And that’s still the norm in many parts of the world, where family is a much more communal idea than just two parents taking care of kids. Increasingly now, we’re also starting to recognize that a family doesn’t have to include children, so this idea of parents raising kids isn’t the reality for everyone, nor do all kids live with their parents.

It’s also important for us to realize that the ideal of the nuclear family is quite restrictive and has applied only to certain segments of the American population. Historically we’ve really centered this particular ideal of white, heterosexual nuclear families as the norm, and other family forms as different and sometimes wrong. The heavy focus on marriage — and childbearing within marriage — has been damaging for groups in the U.S. who don’t form families exactly like the ideal due to the historical context of this country. As a society, we’ve often bemoaned the lack of conforming to this ideal of family formation as driving social inequality and poverty, without recognizing the structures, institutions and history that have resulted in those differences. We live in a country where enslaved people did not have the right to marry or raise their children, and as a result, diverse family forms emerged among Black people. The U.S. also has a long history of forcefully removing children of color from their families, like the residential school system that took Indigenous children from kin. So we’re coming from a historical context where families of color weren’t allowed to exist in the same way as white families. Even now, Black, Indigenous and other people of color navigate a world where their family formation patterns and family structures are often viewed as inferior.

There’s always been a lot of dog-whistle language used by researchers and politicians to talk about families that are different from the ideal — "fragile", "problematic," "dysfunctional," "deviant." But some social scientists increasingly recognize the role of white supremacy and patriarchy in guiding our view of the "ideal" family and centering that as the norm. And that’s a big part of why the ideal is outdated — the United States is increasingly moving toward a more racially and ethnically diverse society, among other changes, where a variety of patterns of family formation and family structures need to be recognized as valid and important rather than inferior. We need to think in a much more nuanced way about families and challenge ourselves to consider a broader range of what families can look like.

Q: What’s driving this change and offering up a picture of the new family?

A: We’re definitely seeing changes in the family landscape in the U.S. and elsewhere, partly driven by the changes in our population itself, and partly by legal and social changes that have happened. But there isn’t just one new family — there are many. The U.S. is becoming less white over time, partly because of differences in fertility and migration patterns across different groups. We’ve seen increases in interracial marriage since Loving v. Virginia back in 1967, and alongside that, an increasing number of multiracial or multiethnic children. So transracial families have become more visible. Since the Supreme Court ruled for equal marriage in 2015, we’ve seen growth in the number of married LGBTQ+ partners, some of whom are raising children from previous unions, or children brought into the family through assisted reproduction or adoption. A growing number of kids have come to this country as immigrants through international adoption in the last 20 years.

And we’ve also seen other changes in marriage behaviors, as folks wait longer to get married or choose alternatives to marriage, like cohabitation, with or without kids in the picture. People continue to get divorced, which sometimes means raising children across multiple households, sometimes with new partners and new step- or half-siblings in the mix. Other people are divorcing later in life, repartnering into new family units without kids involved, or taking in grandchildren when parents aren’t able to care for kids. There’s no one dominant family form in the U.S. — certainly not the nuclear ideal. Families are complex — but we should remember that they always have been, everywhere in the world. Plenty of kids have lived with just one parent, or with a stepparent, with a house full of kin, or with no parents at all. Lots of couples choose not to have children as part of their families. These patterns aren’t new, but are gaining prominence as we move away from the outdated ideal.

Q: Given that the nuclear family ideal is outdated, why do we as a society still hold this up as a value?

A: I think there are a lot of reasons we cling to this particular notion of what family means. For some, it’s the family type we grew up with and the one we saw on TV and in the movies. Marriage and childbearing only within marriage have long been pushed as "the right way to do things," and those kind of societal norms often stick with us. And that can mean that different types of families make people uncomfortable, especially when public messaging about family structure has also been so strong.

A lot of people cling to the ideal because of concern — often unfounded — about what different family structures can mean for kids. You know, the “think of the children” kind of rhetoric. For example, for a long time, divorce was heavily stigmatized even after no-fault divorce was introduced in the 1970s and divorce rates increased. There was a great deal of concern about what divorce would mean for kids, though we now know there’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that kids can do just fine with happy, divorced parents. There continues to be suggestions that LGBTQ+ families are problematic, despite evidence to the contrary. And the public messaging on other family types has been harmful too, like the Moynihan Report in 1965 that warned of the dangers of nonmarital childbearing and single motherhood among Black Americans. People continue to use dog-whistle language about "family breakdown" and "cultures of poverty." This kind of rhetoric ignores the history of family formation for Black families and the reality of how inequality and institutional racism have deeply affected family life for Black people and other people of color. So a lot of the idealizing of this particular "nuclear" form of family has to do with broader socialization on race, class and gender roles, and with people’s perspectives of the world around them, which can be a problem because these are hard to shift.

Q: Please offer a glimpse what you feel a family looks like today and what they aspire to be, and how families will look in the future.

A: A broader acceptance and understanding of what family can look like to different people helps us move beyond a very restrictive view to a recognition that family is what you make it. There isn’t just one family to picture when we think about families. A family can be a couple who chooses not to have children. It can be partners who choose to have many children, biologically or through adoption or assisted reproduction. It can be folks coming together in a blended family bringing children from a previous union, or it can be a single adult who chooses to raise a child alone or with the help of friends and kin. It can be married couples or cohabiting couples. Sometimes it’s grown-up children coming back to live with aging parents. It can be a full house with grandparents, parents and children all living together, or it might be a grandfather raising his grandkids or an auntie taking care of nieces and nephews. Or it might be any combination of these different paths to forming relationships that create kinship.

Families come together in all different ways, and they all look different, and that’s OK — being a family should be about celebrating and supporting one another through challenges. What that family looks like or how it came to be shouldn’t be what’s important.

Q: How do family dynamics change society as a whole?

A: Changing family dynamics can bring about broad changes in our population. As a family demographer, I’m constantly reminding my students to think about what changes in families will mean for our population as a whole. These changes in marriage, childbearing and childrearing will reshape and reconfigure what the U.S. looks like five years from now, 10 years from now and even 100 years in the future. The unions that we’re forming now — whether they’re same-sex or opposite-sex, interracial, interreligious and so on — will have an impact on what our population looks like in the future. The children raised in these families will go on to have their own families later in life, whatever those might look like. When we see changes in demographics — who is in the population — and changes in demographic behavior like forming unions and having kids, there’s the potential to see changes in our shared ideals and understandings of the world.

My hope is that we’ll continue to move toward a model of family that takes into account our individual desires to marry or not, to have children or to remain child-free, to raise children with the support of a partner, kin or other loved ones. A model that encompasses all the variety of family formation and family structure that exists — whatever family looks like for you, it’s something to celebrate.

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