- Describe why many children throughout history have not lived in a nuclear family.
- Understand the status of the nuclear family in the United States since the colonial period.
- Describe the major marriage and family arrangements in the United States today.
A family is a group of two or more people who are related by blood, marriage, adoption, or a mutual commitment and who care for one another. Defined in this way, the family is universal or nearly universal: Some form of the family has existed in every society, or nearly every society, that we know about (Starbuck, 2010). Yet it is also true that many types of families have existed, and the cross-cultural and historical record indicates that these different forms of the family can all “work”: They provide practical and emotional support for their members and they socialize their children.
It is important to keep this last statement in mind, because Americans until the last few decades thought of only one type of family, and that is the nuclear family: A married heterosexual couple and their young children living by themselves under one roof. The nuclear family has existed in most societies with which scholars are familiar. An extended family, which consists of parents, their children, and other relatives, has a nuclear family at its core and was quite common in prehistoric societies. Many one-parent families begin as (two-parent) nuclear families that dissolve upon divorce or separation or, more rarely, the death of one of the parents. In recent decades, one-parent families have become more common in the United States because of divorce and births out of wedlock, but they were actually very common throughout most of human history because many spouses died early in life and because many babies were born out of wedlock.