Why the Traditional Family Is the Only Choice for a Thriving Civilization
A new decade is upon us now—and, as several sources have pointed out, a new age for the American family has dawned.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted some major shifts in an essay headlined, "How the Definition of an American Family Has Changed," which appeared in the last weeks of December 2019. "The transformation of the American family deepened over the past decade," Ellen Byron writes, "as an increasingly diverse array of arrangements replaced the married-with-children paradigm."1 Byron points out that in the 1960s, two-thirds of children in America were raised in dad-breadwinner/mom-homemaker families. Today, that model is on the decline. But in its place has arisen not one new family form, but "a plethora of different arrangements," according to University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen.
Some of the shifts the WSJ story highlights are at least arguably positive. Multigenerational families are on the rise, for example. This seems at least a mixed positive: whatever the cause (shifting cultural demographics, aging parents moving in with children, adult children moving back in with parents), this trend demonstrates that real people are still taking care of their own flesh and blood. Also interesting is that homebuilders are beginning to respond—more two-story homes are now designed with an extra bedroom and bathroom on the main floor to accommodate an aging parent.
The Rise of Single-Parent Homes
But the story also highlights quite a few negative trends, the most astounding of which is that our single-parent problem has become pretty epic. According to the story, "In 2017, one in four parents who lived with a child was unmarried, up from one in 10 in 1968." A recent Pew Research Center FactTank piece says it more dramatically. The United States, according to the piece, now has the world's highest rate of children living with single parents.2 The study found that "almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7%)."
Furthermore, while American children are more likely than other children around the world to be living in single-parent households, they are less likely to be living in extended-family households. So even though multigenerational families may be on the rise in the U.S., they still don't match the rates found in other countries.
Single-parent households are thus a significant part of the "plethora of different arrangements" highlighted in the WSJ story, and this is deeply worrying. Children raised in single-parent households tend to fare less well with respect to their health, academics, financial and emotional well-being, acting-out behaviors, and in just about every other way imaginable.3 And some of these problems tend to persist long into adulthood. One recent study found that children of divorce, for example, still manifest the negative impact of that event 40 years later in the form of more chronic health problems.4 Such findings have been repeatedly documented over decades of research.
Our media and even our politicians like to pretend that "diverse family arrangements" are simply a new sociological trend, something on par with how many people skip breakfast daily, or how many millennial Americans own dogs. Marriage is on the decline, people marry later if at all, more children are being raised in single-parent households—no big deal! Times are changing! Yesterday's nuclear family is today's single-parent household, or blended family, or gay family, or polyamorous household, or . . . you name it.
The Indispensable Institution
But the nuclear family is more than just another developmental blip in the course of history. New York Times bestselling author Stephen Covey put it this way: "family is the most important, fundamental organization in the world, the literal building block of society. No civilization has ever survived its breakup."5
No civilization has ever survived its breakup. Ancient Rome is an example. Before it fell to barbarians, it came unglued from within. The nobility in particular stopped getting married and having children, so much so that Caesar Augustus resorted to imposing extra taxes on the unmarried and childless as a way of encouraging marriage and childbearing.6 He recognized that unless it was founded on families, his empire could not survive.
The nuclear family is crucial because it is there that children are born, nurtured, and taught to be responsible and productive members of society. No other arrangement in human history has ever proven as effective as married mothers and fathers raising their own biological children. The state is certainly no match. When God put Adam and Eve in the garden, he gave them some simple commands: Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. In other words, be a family! This was the first command from our Lord.
So the next time you see something in the media about alternative family forms and how they've taken the place of that old, stale institution called the nuclear family, remember: No civilization has ever survived its breakup.
The nuclear family is not an outdated institution. It is not one choice among many equally good options. It is the lifeblood of a functioning society, and the first building block of the world.
1. Ellen Byron, "How the Definition of an American Family Has Changed," Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15, 2019): wsj.com/articles/how-the-definition-of-an-american-family-has-changed-11576418401.
2. Stephanie Kramer, "U.S. has world's highest rate of children living in single-parent households," Pew Research Center FactTank (Dec. 12, 2019): pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/12/u-s-children-more-likely-than-children-in-other-countries-to-live-with-just-one-parent.
3. See Thomson and Sara S. McLanahan, "Reflections on Family Structure and Child Well-Being: Economic Resources vs. Parental Socialization," Social Forces 91.1 (2012), 45–53; Jane Anderson, "The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children: Effects of Divorce," Linacre Quarterly 81.4 (2014), 378–387.
4. Amy L. Non et al., "Childhood Social Disadvantage, Cardiometabolic Risk, and Chronic Disease in Adulthood," American Journal of Epidemiology 180.3 (2014), 263–271.
5. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (St. Martin's Griffin, 1997), 76.
6. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 102.
is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #52, Spring 2020 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo52/the-nuclear-option