Origin of Everything


Where does the Nuclear Family Come From?

If your family is in the traditional nuclear family formation (2 parents + kids living in a single home) then you’re in a pretty common formation. But if your family ISN’T a traditional nuclear family, then you’re also in a pretty common formation.

AIRED: December 05, 2017 | 0:07:46


we're all pretty familiar with the image

of the American nuclear family with two

parents a couple of kids in a loyal

canine companion but when did we start

thinking of the nuclear family as the

most natural one so with Thanksgiving

coming up we thought it would be fun to

talk about family it's safe to say that

most of us no more than a few families

that don't fit into the typical nuclear

family mold yet despite this diversity

if asked to describe a prototype of the

American family a lot of us will still

recall images more reminiscent of Leave

It to Beaver than anything we've

witnessed in real life but if all of us

can imagine or know families of all

shapes sizes and styles then why does

the expression nuclear families still

get lobbied around to represent some

sort of idealized unit well before we

dive into the in congruous history of

the family structure with the same name

as the center of an atom we should ask

ourselves what is the history of family

structures before the idea of the

nuclear family became the shorthand for

normal so this answer varies based on

time period region and culture kinship

or the recognition of relationships

between people within the same community

or biological family plays a huge role

in how we define our family structure

and yes everyone all over the world has

a biological ancestry but who and what

we call our familiar relations is not

that cut and dry in the Iroquois system

your father's brothers were also your

father and your mother's sisters were

also your mother in the connection

kinship system your mother's brother's

daughter who we would call your cousin

is also called your mother and in the

matrilineal Maggio culture in northern

China women freely chose their partners

and who your biological father is is not

considered very important at all

frequently your biological father

wouldn't even live with you and your

mother's brothers often fill in the role

of the father figure plus all of this is

frequently even more complicated by

language barriers so if you think your

family structure is weird trust me it's

not but in terms of European history

from the 1500s until the dawn of the

Industrial Revolution it was common for

peasant families in northern and central

Europe to live in two generational

households consisting of the parents as

the older generation in charge of the

family and the children as the second

generation that was also because kids

were a big part of the economic

structure of the household

working with their parents to sustain

the family's livelihood at any given

point in time only less than 10% of

these peasant families lived

intergenerationally in part because a

lot of the grandparents didn't live long

enough to make this a reality and by the

end of the Middle Ages most families in

those regions were in the traditional

nuclear format owing in part to the

influence of the Christian Church

sanctioned monogamy by contrast in the

same periods in eastern and southern

Europe intergenerational living was much

more common with several generations of

the family all living within the same

household but not everyone thought the

nuclear family was ideal in the 19th

century researchers who were studying

family structures theorized that nuclear

families they observed in manufacturing

regions of Western Europe and in England

might not be the best since once

children left to form their own families

it left elder parents alone there are

also other structures that were

practiced such as conjugal families or

families that were connected through

marriage and consanguineous families

that are connected by their common

bloodline but another big part of how

families were defined centered on the

question of marriage although there are

more contemporary notions that marriage

are about love fidelity building a life

together and making huge centerpieces

out of mason jars that wasn't always the


marriage is an ancient custom dating

back thousands of years and evidence

shows that marriage customs have buried

as widely as family structures according

to Stephanie Kunz author of marriage a

history a lot of those marriages were

more about family connections than love

what marriage had in common was that it

really wasn't about the relationship

between the man and the woman it was a

way of getting in laws of making

alliances and expanding the family labor

force now romantic and marriage includes

a laundry list of options like arranged

marriages where families choose their

children's spouse or polygamy where

there are multiple marriages within one

defined group that includes both

polygamy or one man with multiple wives

and polyandry are one woman with

multiple husbands and although polygamy

is the more commonly known practice

accounts of polyandry exists in

approximately 53 societies around the

world such as Tibet although religious

marriages have a long history as

centuries have passed the state has

played a larger and larger role in

regulating marriage practices so a

marriage can have a religious

ceremony a civil ceremony or a

combination of both and it wasn't until

the last 250 years or so that the idea

that marriages should be love matches

started gaining traction so we've

established that families have lots of

different shapes sizes and customs so

that brings us to our next question

when did the nuclear family become

shorthand for the American household

well the use of the specific phrase

nuclear family and English can be dated

back to the 1920s but as the evidence

shows the concept or form of the nuclear

family wasn't exactly new but in the

1950s u.s. the Cold War was accompanied

by an economic boom the growth of

suburban developments on the outskirts

of major cities and a growth in the

middle class and a population surge all

of which encouraged the nuclear family

but it wasn't inherently a natural

development PSAs and how-to videos

broadcast across the country were

specifically designed to teach families

how to behave appropriately and what to

do if they were going to achieve this

stylized ideal but these realities were

marked heavily by divisions of class and

race as the civil rights movement of the

1950s and 60s was occurring

simultaneously so even though in the

1960s some historians and sociologists

interested in family structures were

concluding that nuclear families were

the only widely spread version of the

family the contemporary reality for many

American families differ greatly from

the ones presented in popular media but

I mean if even the Brady Bunch was

blended then that leads us to asking our

final question is the nuclear family

really the most popular form in the US

and if not what kind of families are out

there well let's look at the data

according to the US Census Bureau in

2012 sixty-six percent of households

were family households down from 81% in

1970 and in those same years married

couples with children under 18 dropped

from 40 percent to 20 percent black and

Latino children were more likely to live

in single-parent households and

households with only one person jumped

from 17 percent to 27 percent so it

seems that while married couples with

kids still describes a substantial

number of families in the u.s. that

number is shifting every day but in the

last hundred years marriages and

families have continued to evolve at

least in regards to the types of unions

becoming legally recognized and visible

in the popular consciousness the

political and legal system of region can

determine the types of marriages

recognized by law which in turn impacts

the type of families that are

visible in 1967 the Supreme Court case

of Loving v Virginia struck down all

laws prohibiting interracial marriage in

the United States and in 2015

obergefell versus hodges ruled that laws

against same-sex marriage in the US were

unconstitutional but families also exist

outside of legal and state recognition

and that's not a new phenomenon an

ancient Greece alumni was the term for

children who were fostered by another

family and there is legal precedent for

adoption dating back to the Code of

Hammurabi in the 18th century BC and

today there are over a quarter of a

million adoptions worldwide every year

so clearly blood ties marriage and

children aren't the only ways that

family can be defined so how does it all

add up well marriages families and

kinship groups have been going strong

for thousands of years in almost every

configuration that we can think of and

that includes the nuclear family but

while the image of the nuclear family is

often held up as the ideal and only form

a family can take whether or not that's

true seems to vary by social group and

region but as we gear up for the

holidays and think about passing various

side dishes to members of our own family

with both joy and maybe a little bit of

caution it's important to remember

whatever form shape or size it takes we

have the power to define what family

should look like for ourselves so what


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