Don’t Nuke the Nuclear Family

A reply to David Brooks.
February 18, 2020
Featured Image
Vintage illustration of an American nuclear family being protected by oversized cupped hands, 1944. Screen print. (Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

As someone who has focused, perhaps to the point of obsession, on the decline of family life in America, I cherish David Brooks’s contributions. His New York Times columns have taught me a great deal over the years and I admire him as a thinker and as a writer. I am not as persuaded as usual, though, by this entry in The Atlantic, starting with the title: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”

Brooks takes the usual conservative view that the fraying of family bonds has led to a whole skein of social ills and flips it. Yes, he notes, the decline of family life has created great wells of human misery in the midst of plenty, from rising inequality to childhood poverty to loneliness and diseases of despair.

It’s led to broken families or no families; to merry-go-round families that leave children traumatized and isolated; to senior citizens dying alone in a room. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart.

But here’s the twist: It isn’t the decline of the family unit that is at fault, it’s the belief in nuclear families in the first place. The sentence that precedes the quotation above is “For those who are not privileged, the era of the isolated nuclear family has been a catastrophe.”

That’s an odd way to put it. It’s a little like saying “For those who didn’t get the vaccine, the era of small pox eradication has been a catastrophe.” Brooks has taken the copious evidence of social decay that followed the retreat from family life and blamed the nuclear family itself for the consequences of its own fall. It was too fragile, he says, and that, in turn, is because the institution was never really the norm we think it was.

We are beguiled, Brooks writes, by the “freakish” period from 1950-1965, when nuclear families were the dominant form. When we think of family, we imagine a mom and dad in a detached suburban home with 2.5 children. That organization of society, Brooks argues, was made possible only by women’s confinement to the home, mass unionization, social trust, church attendance, and mass prosperity. Leaving aside the matter of women’s roles for now, isn’t it possible that the causation runs the other way? Isn’t it possible that stable families contributed to the social trust, church attendance, and mass prosperity of those years (if not the unionization)?

Many of the data Brooks marshals are solid. But some are debatable. In making the case that the 1950s and 1960s were uniquely suited to the nuclear family, Brooks notes that in 1961, the median American man between the ages of 25 and 29 was earning 400 times what his father had earned at about the same age. This is less surprising than it seems, considering that the fathers of those men would have been seeking jobs during the Great Depression.

Brooks devotes several paragraphs to the supposed artificiality of the nuclear family, arguing that while we see it as natural, it is not the historical norm. For most of human history, he claims, the extended family was the usual organization of social life. Multiple generations lived under one roof. This structure was generated by poverty (people could not afford their own homes), and the agricultural economy (in America, the majority earned their livings by agriculture until the late 19th century). “Until 1850,” Brooks writes, “roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families existed, but they were surrounded by extended or corporate families.”

Perhaps, but in 1850, only 4.4 percent of whites and 3.5 percent of blacks were over the age of 60. There may not have been very many grandmas and grandpas helping out or offering wisdom.

Brooks cites history and other civilizations for the proposition that extended families have been the norm and have notable advantages over the “isolated” nuclear family. The tour through the New Guineans of the Nebilyer Valley and the Chuukese people in Micronesia is interesting, but not convincing. As anthropologists Ryan Schact and Karen Kramer write in their summary of human mating patterns across time, “Marriage is common to all human societies and publicly acknowledges who has sexual access to whom.”

Besides, the historical/anthropological argument seems misplaced in light of Brooks’s dismissal of more recent history: “We’ve left behind the nuclear-family paradigm of 1955. For most people it’s not coming back.” So 1955 America is no guide, but the kinship patterns of the Chuukese people are relevant and cutting edge?

In what seems an inversion, Brooks lays at the feet of the nuclear family the awful consequences of its collapse. Citing the rise of loneliness among the elderly, for example, Brooks chalks this up to the lack of “extended families.” He neglects to cite the decline of marriage and the rise of divorce. In other words, more elderly Americans are lonely because they are divorced or never-married (leaving aside the irreducible percentage who are widows or widowers). It is the unmarriage that has contributed to this problem more than the loss of extended families.

While it’s true that the 1950s are not coming back, we don’t need to consult history to find nuclear families that are thriving. As Brooks acknowledges, among the college educated upper third in America today, marriage remains nearly as universal as it was among all Americans decades ago. Even in our era that is not characterized by mass unionization, women confined to a housewife role, or men earning 400 times what their fathers did, Americans with a college degree or more are managing to make the nuclear family model work. Not just work, thrive. Interestingly, as Charles Murray highlighted in Coming Apart, the college-educated are actually more likely to be religiously observant than the less-educated today. That was not the case 50 years ago.

Brooks argues that the educated have the advantage of greater wealth and that they use this to purchase some of the goods that extended families once supplied – nannies, tutors, therapists, and so forth. That’s doubtless true to some extent, though wealthier families are also often choosing to have one parent work part-time or not at all. But it isn’t just wealthy families that are clinging to the nuclear model. Among the religiously observant, like Orthodox Jews and Mormons, the nuclear family remains strong. Sixty-seven percent of adult Mormons, and 69 percent of adult Orthodox Jews are married, compared with 48 percent of the general population. Even among the poor, some are making marriage and the nuclear family a priority. Among immigrants, 76 percent of children live with two parents compared with 62 percent of native born families — this, despite the fact that a quarter of immigrant parents do not have high school diplomas.

The two parent nuclear family is not a relic of a never-to-be-recovered past. It does not depend upon the conditions that prevailed during the post-war boom. In fact, some of the stability that we attribute to that era may have been the consequence, not the cause, of communities that were composed of mostly intact families. Raj Chetty and colleagues found that just growing up in a neighborhood with large numbers of married parents has a beneficial effect on children’s outcomes. Intact families are the building blocks of the strong communities that are currently in short supply. As we see with those who marry and stay married today, the institution itself seems to confer greater happiness. Marriage spurs men to steady employment and higher earnings. It offers women economic security and better sex lives (you can look it up). And it confers a thousand benefits on children, who tend to have radically fewer of the traumas that too often (if by no means always) accompany being raised in chaotic single-parent homes.

Brooks uses the word “detached” a lot when describing the nuclear family. He urges that we’ve become too isolated in our island suburban homes:

Over the past two generations, the physical space separating nuclear families has widened. Before, sisters-in-law shouted greetings across the street at each other from their porches. Kids would dash from home to home and eat out of whoever’s fridge was closest by. But lawns have grown more expansive and porch life has declined, creating a buffer of space that separates the house and family from anyone else.

It’s evocative and feels true. But while the space between homes may contribute to lonelier suburbs, it seems more likely that “porch life” has declined because no one is home during the day now. Most of the moms who shouted those greetings are bundling the kids off to school and rushing to the office. The children don’t have free run of the neighbor’s refrigerator after school because the parents don’t get home till evening.

Perhaps we’ve lost something precious. But the kids who live in those prosperous neighborhoods with the sloping lawns are not the ones who are suffering. They are mostly being raised in nuclear families. They may have lost some of the free-range liberty that previous generations of children enjoyed, but they have their dad’s help with their fastball and their mom’s supervision of their extra-curriculars. It’s the kids from other families, the single parent and blended families, who are bearing the brunt.

Brooks is well aware of this and describes it eloquently ­– “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.”

Rather than seeking ways to revive the ethic of marriage and family so that those not born into the top third can nonetheless enjoy its benefits, Brooks argues for new “forged families” – that is, creating new family structures that do not depend upon marriage or even kinship. He describes a number of inspiring groups that have formed bonds very like families.

I’m skeptical. The strength of families relies upon the trustworthiness of marriage. The extended families that Brooks lauds are only possible, or so it seems to me, when they extend organically from the root of a two-parent core.

Family is based upon human nature, specifically on the unique bond that ties parents and children. As the mother of an adopted son, I would never question the capacity of human love to extend beyond biology. All kinds of human attachments are possible – and the altruistic and cooperative groups Brooks cites are inspiring. Still, the basic human attachment is mother and child. Fathers, too, are attached to their children, but that bond is not quite as solid. Fathers’ attachments to their children can, and too often do, become attenuated when the relationship with the mother suffers. The work of civilization over centuries has been to tie men to their wives and children for life. Marriage, for all its flaws, accomplishes that better than any alternative.

In his more than 8000 word essay, Brooks fails to grapple with marriage. Without solid marriages to form the bedrock of families, it is hard to see how the extended families or family alternatives Brooks envisions can flourish. If fathers who separate from their wives tend to allow relationships with their children to decay – and they do – what makes us believe that “forged families,” which are based on nothing so much as hope and goodwill, will fare better when relationships run into rough patches, as inevitably, they will. Will a father figure who forms an attachment to a young boy in a “forged family” be more likely than a divorced or never married father to maintain that bond when he is no longer involved with the boy’s mother? Sometimes, sure, but reliably, when he is not the father, and not even the step-father?

Fathers are crucial to the healthy development of children, particularly sons. If there is one great wrong feminism must be held to account for, it is the devaluation of men’s role in the family. In their quest for self-actualization, the second-wave feminists scorned men and fathers, insisting that women were fine on their own.

To be sure, men should be held to high standards. Men who fail to honor and respect women deserve obloquy. But by defaming men as a class and dismissing the importance of fathers in children’s lives, feminists committed a grave error. Social science research confirms what ancient wisdom teaches – from roughhousing with sons to offering their daughters unconditional admiration, fathers play a crucial role in children’s lives. Girls who grow up without dads have lower self-esteem, more eating disorders, and lower grades, among other things, than girls who have fathers in their lives. Boys who grow up without fathers do even worse. They are less likely to finish high school, attend college, or be employed as adults than even their sisters who also grew up without fathers. Ironically, one consequence of feminism’s triumph is that more women are raising sons without fathers, and those sons are less likely to grow into the kind of men women want to marry than those raised by two parents.

Other experiments with alternatives to the nuclear family have foundered on the rocks of human nature: the utopian communities of 19th century America, the kibbutz movement in Israel, the communes of the 1960s.

The forged families Brooks envisions would doubtless have many advantages, but even assuming the best, why would they not also suffer from the problems of blended families? During the heyday of divorce enthusiasm in the 1970s, family “reformers” imagined that changing partners in marriage would exchange good matches for bad, and everyone would be happier. In fact, blended families – and particularly live-in boyfriend situations – present serious problems for adults and children. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children raised in households with unrelated adults were 50 times more likely to die from inflicted injuries than those living with their biological parents. And children living with their mother and a boyfriend were 11 times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused than those living with their married biological parents.

The 1950s are not coming back. But the nuclear family, far from being discredited, has been vindicated by the decay that surrounds us now. The great task going forward is to revive the marriage norm among the non-college educated. Charles Murray said it well: elites need to preach what they practice.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.