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The Traditional Family?

When Jack Scanlan passes away just before telling his son, Johnny what was really important in life, Johnny begins to wonder if he's let life pass him by. With the funeral as backdrop, all the Scanlans appear, each with an interesting situation. One of Johnny's sisters is divorced but hasn't told anyone, the sister who is a nun is now into liberation theology and has an illegal immigrant with her, and Tony is fighting for control of his father's union. Johnny and Terry (the divorced sister) both think that they may have found true love in the chaos (though what Johnny's wife thinks of it is up for grabs) as Johnny tries to make some kind of sense out of the various strains in his family.

Families in colonial and early America certainly do not resemble American families at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. And those families are not like ours today. So how do we describe what a traditional family is, if such a term can apply to so many different kinds of families in different times?

Marriages lasted only ten or twelve years in early America, because human life spans were shorter; Victorian middle-class families would have had a great deal of paid servant help to raise children; antebellum southern families would have been supported by the free labor of slaves; immigrant families living in large cities would have lived in small tenement apartments with lots of relations: siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Which is "traditional"?

What we often think of as "traditional" - and what a lot of politicians, especially but not exclusively those characterized as "conservative," like to talk about as "traditional" - refers to one set moment in history: the postwar fifties. That family was represented on TV by the Cleavers (Leave it to Beaver)and the Andersons (Father Knows Best) , among numerous others. They were suburban, middle-class, white. The father was the head of the household, had a white-collar job in the city (which was hardly ever seen - work was about "the office," whatever that was), and mom stayed at home and worked.

This did not apply to the vast majority of American families in that very era, but it became the image of the fifties family for generations - it may have been the "ideal" American family, but it was not the typical, or traditional. So what does it mean when politicians and other civic leaders talk about family values and traditional families? It means they are clinging to an image of reality that had very little to do with reality itself.

In that time, divorce was common enough not to be a mere statistical irrelevance. Alcoholism and depression were common and destroying families from within. Homosexuals were certainly more closeted then, but it's not like homosexuality was invented in the sixties (any more than drug use). And of course, while Mom, Dad, Wally and the Beav were solving their minor heartaches, Americans were witnessing the hosing and beating of Civil Rights demonstrators in Alabama and Mississippi, showing us an entire race of people whose access to the "good life" that TV Suburbia showed was systematically shut down.

The "traditional" family of Dad-as-breadwinner, Mom-as-Domestic Engineer, 2.5 kids and one dog living in Suburbia, is one small part of the history of American families. It is not the only American family, and we should not talk about it as such. Family life in the United States is constantly changing. Single-parent families, divorced families, and children living with grandparents or other family members are becoming more and more common each year. Although families exist in every society, their organization, cultural role, and responsibilities can vary greatly from place to place.

Six basic social functions

In almost every society, the family has six basic social functions:
  1. Regulating sexual behavior by limiting whom people may marry, when, and under what conditions

  2. Assuming responsibility for reproduction

  3. Nurturing and protecting children and providing emotional support for adults

  4. Teaching children and other new members of a society what they need to know in order to participate in that society

  5. Producing and consuming goods. In some societies, the family is the center of economic production and its members produce most of what they consume. In other societies, including American society, families produce little of what they consume.

  6. Determining an individual's ascribed status in society - that is, his or her status at birth. The status of children in almost every society, and therefore their life chances, are based on their parents' race, ethnicity, wealth, and related social factors

In the 1950s, according to comparison data in the U.S. census report of 2001, about two-thirds of children in the United States lived in families that consisted of a mother, father, and their children. In most of these families, the father was the breadwinner and the mother cared for the home and children. By 2002, only 10 percent of families fit this portrait of the traditional family. The traditional family has become just one of many family forms.

According to family demographer Jay D. Teachman, changing economic patterns was one reason for the shift in family life. The 1950s were a time of economic affluence for many families. Government-backed programs provided inexpensive home loans, support for veterans to attend college, and other benefits. The minimum wage was high enough to support a family of three above the poverty level.

By the 1960s and 1970s, families were finding it harder and harder to survive on the income of one wage earner. To maintain their standard of living, many families needed more than one wage earner. Many wives and mothers returned to the labor force to help their family make ends meet. The women's movement of the 1960s encouraged this trend. By 2003, 70 percent of married women worked outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Teachman and other researchers observed that as women achieved greater economic independence, they were less likely to stay in unhappy marriages. The rate of divorce - the legal ending of a marriage - increased dramatically during the last 40 years of the 20th century. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHA) show that the divorce rate nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970. It continued to climb until 1978, when it reached a high of 23 per 1,000 married women. It dropped slightly to about 20 per 1,000 during the 1980s and leveled off during the 1990s. By 2000, almost half of all marriages ended in divorce, with 20 percent of those marriages ending within three years.

The increasing participation of women in the labor force also affected the way families interacted. For many couples, a more equal division of financial responsibilities led to greater equality in the division of household labor and child care responsibilities.

If Americans are not living in nuclear families headed by two parents, what kind of families are they living in? More people today are choosing to marry later. Census Bureau data show that the percentage of married-couple households dropped from more than three out of every four households in 1950 (78 percent) to slightly more than one-half (52 percent) in 2000. The percentage of households occupied by one person increased from 11 percent in 1950 to almost 26 percent in 2000.

In 1959, nearly half of all women were under the age of 19 when they married. Since the mid-1950s, the median age at first marriage has been rising steadily, with the largest increases occurring since 1980. By 2003, the median age at first marriage had reached 27.1 years for men and 25.3 years for women. In 2002, more than half (54 percent) of men had not married by the time they reached their 30th birthday, while 40 percent of women were single at 30. However, most people do eventually marry. In 2003, according to Census Bureau data, only 12.7 percent of men and 9.5 percent of women had never married by the time they were 45 years old.

Because of the high divorce rate, many children are likely to be reared in a home that does not include their two biological parents. In 1972, 73 percent of children lived with their married biological parents; by 2003, less than half of all children lived in this type of family.

Between 1970 and 1998, the number of single-parent families tripled from 4 million to 12 million. Nearly 60 percent of all children will live in a one-parent household for at least a portion of one year before they are 18 years old, mostly because of divorce.

Blended and reblended families are created when a divorced or widowed parent marries a new spouse. These families are becoming more common as divorced parents remarry, half of them more than once. In 1998, the last year in which the Census Bureau collected data on remarriages, in 46 percent of new marriages, the husband, wife, or both had been previously married.

Census Bureau researchers predict that more than one-third of all children in the United States will live in a blended family before they reach the age of 18. Census 2000 data show that in 2000, an estimated 3.2 million children were living with a stepparent.

Americans are having fewer children. In 1900, married women had, on average, five children. Other data from the NCHS show wide fluctuations in the fertility rate - the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime. In the late 1950s, the average woman gave birth to 3.5 children during her lifetime. The fertility rate dropped to a low of 1.8 births per woman in 1972, then climbed slightly and stayed at between 2.0 and 2.1 births per woman from the early 1990s through 2003.

The declining fertility rate has led to smaller families. In 1960, the average number of persons per family was 3.67; by 1990, that number had dropped to 3.18. The proportion of married couples with children also has declined, according to the Census Bureau. In 2003, only 23 percent of households in the United States included married couples with children, a dramatic decrease from 40 percent in 1970.

The percentage of unmarried women who gave birth to children climbed from 5 percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2002, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Teens accounted for 34 percent of all births to unmarried women in 2002, a decrease from 50 percent in 1970. The decrease was due to the fact that a greater number of older unmarried women were choosing to become mothers.

Many of the women counted as unmarried mothers by the Census Bureau are living with a partner. The practice of living together without marriage is known as cohabitation. According to data from the census, 5.5 million couples were cohabitating in 2000. About 60 percent of those couples were between 25 and 44 years old, and more than one-third (36 percent) had children under the age of 15. According to the 2000 census, more than half of couples who planned to marry lived together before they were wed. In 1965, that figure was 10 percent. Other couples choose cohabitation because they wish to share their lives with a partner and have children even though they do not wish to marry.

Some of these couples are choosing to build families through adoption. About 100,000 children are adopted each year in the United States. In 2000, 1.5 million children under age 18 were living with adoptive parents. In 2002, about 20 percent of all adoptions involved children from countries outside the United States. Open adoption, in which communication occurs between the birth and adoptive parents and child, is becoming more common.

Another important influence on family life has been the increasing number of elderly people in the United States. The 2000 census revealed that 12 percent of the population - 35 million people in all - were age 65 or older. These people are spending a greater percentage of their lives without young children in their households. However, as people age, they are more likely to require health care and assistance with daily living. When an elderly parent is no longer able to care for himself or herself, family members may be called upon to provide support.

As family structures evolve in response to social, economic, and technological influences, the ways in which Americans think about family life are changing. It is likely that the "new" American family will change even more during the 21st century. Learning about the diverse family structures in which families live can help you to find creative and flexible options for raising children, maintaining intimate relationships, and finding fulfillment.

Renee Despres, Lynne Reeves Griffin and Mark J. Kittleson, Ph.D. The Truth About Family Life. Book Builders LLC. 2005.

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