Now the nuclear family is insufficient?

Does the world you live in strike you as being filled with “bitterness and contradictions?” I would hope that, at least for most of you, it doesn’t. But that seems to be the baseline assumption in a couple of recent op-eds from the Atlantic and the Washington Post. You can take your pick between the original piece by David Brooks or the hearty endorsement it received from Robert J. Samuelson. Both gentlemen seem to agree that the world is in decay and one major contributing factor is our social reliance on the nuclear family which isn’t up to the task in the modern era. Let’s take a peek at Samuelson’s explanation.

When the history of our era is written, scholars will search for larger causes to explain its bitterness and contradictions, despite so much wealth. Was it globalization? Populism? Economic inequality? Polarization? Greed? To this list you can now add an unlikely candidate: the nuclear family.

In a powerful essay for the Atlantic — “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” — New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many…

The great defect of the nuclear family, Brooks asserts, is that if there’s a crisis — a death, divorce, job loss, poor school grades — there’s no backup team. Children are most vulnerable to these disruptions and often are left to fend for themselves. There’s a downward spiral. “In many sectors of society,” Brooks writes, “nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, [and] single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

To clarify the terminology, both authors are referring to the “nuclear family,” as a married mother and father and some kids. What Brooks is suggesting is a different standard model in the form of “the extended family.” This builds on the nuclear family to also include cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents plus friends and neighbors. By this point, you should be getting a familiar feeling of… it takes a village? Okay, boomer.

Look, I’m not saying that the problem Brooks is addressing isn’t a very real one. It certainly is. The breakdown of the traditional family model that’s been going on for at least half a century now has produced awful results, particularly for those in the lower economic strata. Children stand the best chance of thriving in a stable home with both of their own parents, preferably with both female and male role models, though any two parents who are caring and instill positive values is vastly preferable to a single-parent home or an orphanage.

As Brooks points out, the problem has been steadily growing since before many of you reading this were born. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to single mothers. Today the figure is closer to 40 percent. Similarly, in 1960, 11 percent of kids didn’t live with their fathers whereas today they account for 27 percent. There’s just no way to put a positive spin on these developments.

There’s also more than ample evidence to identify the root causes of these changes. The easy availability of quick divorces and the concurrent growing acceptance of that as the “new normal” bred a culture of people who didn’t feel that marriage was worth putting in the hard work required to stick it out through the hard times and make the relationship work. I’m not implying that every marriage can be saved, but some people do seem far too ready to throw in the towel when the going gets rough.

Further, the generation that came up after the Summer of Love absolutely devalued the idea of marriage and the nuclear family. Yes, I realize I once again sound like the old man out on his lawn yelling about the damned hippies. I suppose I am, but there was definitely a cultural shift in that direction.

But is Brooks’ solution really desirable, even assuming it’s possible? It’s all well and good to say “it takes a village,” but what if you happen to live in a village with far more than its fair share of village idiots? And not all extended family members share the same values and goals. If you have siblings, cousins or in-laws that you really feel embody the character and morals you want to be passed down to your children, that’s great. Get them involved in your family life to the extent to which you’re all comfortable.

But the distress created in a broken home affects nearly every aspect of life, taxing everything from finances to the time available to handle all of your responsibilities. Unless you come from a family of considerable wealth (and this entire argument wouldn’t apply to you anyway if you do), there probably won’t be much external salvation available. Everyone has their own bills and responsibilities to deal with. No matter how sympathetic your relatives, friends and neighbors may be, they’re not likely to be able to shoulder the burden.

If we’re looking for a solution to the societal decay Brooks describes, I would say the solution isn’t to extend the nuclear family to the village, but rather to strengthen the nuclear family as we know it. If people commit themselves to raising children who will carry traditional values and make a marriage work, it’s not impossible that the tide could begin to shift the other way. But as long as both our entertainment and news media preach the opposite, it’s going to be an uphill battle at best.

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