Link and Comments: Challenge to Conventional Wisdom: About the Nuclear Family

That long NYT news story about the religious heartland that I posted a couple days ago included this quote from a Mr. Driesen, a utility company worker:

“Unfortunately, there’s just more divorce than there used to be,” he said. “There’s more cohabitating. I think it is detrimental to the family. I just think kids do better in a two-parent home, with a mom and a dad.”

This is an example not so much of conservative myopia, but of general myopia, thinking that the way things have been, in one’s life, represent the default best way to live. (Aside from the fact that, why do conservatives presume to tell other people how to live? If more people get divorced, so what? What business is it of theirs?)

In fact, I gather, the nuclear family with two parents and their kids in a home isolated from other relatives is a relatively recent social development of the past century or two. Throughout most of human history, people lived in multi-generational, extended families, and so arguably *they* are better for kids than households with a single mom and dad.

(As an aside, the conservative insistence that children are better off with a mother (female) and father (male), as opposed to two females or two males, is bogus. Young children don’t care or understand about sex or gender; much more important to the development of children is to *how many* caregivers they are raised by, how many different adults and role-models they learn from.

On the other hand, *family* connections matter, which is why the Israeli Kibbutzes of the ’60s failed.

And even then, there isn’t actually any evidence that children raised by single parents are in any way socially or intellectually disabled.

This recalls an article in The Atlantic, that I don’t think I’ve linked to before, by David Brooks, an op-ed writer for the New York Times (this piece is longer than a NYT op-ed).

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. Subtitle: “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.”

Now, the subject of the dissolution of social networks, of extended families and communities, is something of a hobby horse of Brooks; he writes about variations on this theme many times. I think he has a limited point, but that point doesn’t account for how people have gotten along, for millennia, in big cities, where such networks are looser than they are in small towns. But let’s just quote a bit from this Atlantic essay.

This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: 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 familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

It’s a long article — about 50 screens. With sections about “The Era of Extended Clans”; “The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family” in the 1950s, presumably the era MAGA cultists revere; “Disintegration”; and then “Redefining Kinship” and “From Nuclear Families to Forged Families”. I’ll quote his final paragraphs.

When we discuss the problems confronting the country, we don’t talk about family enough. It feels too judgmental. Too uncomfortable. Maybe even too religious. But the blunt fact is that the nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades, and many of our other problems—with education, mental health, addiction, the quality of the labor force—stem from that crumbling. We’ve left behind the nuclear-family paradigm of 1955. For most people it’s not coming back. Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time. This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin.

It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.

The bottom line, I think, is that, despite David Brooks, despite the converatives, there is no single, right, best way to live. (Conservatives always default to what they know, thinking it the best.) There are many ways to live; it’s a feature of the resilience of our species. Let it be. Let people live their own lives, as they see fit.

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