Jump to content

Nuclear family

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A man, woman, and two children smiling outside of a house
An American nuclear family composed of the mother, father, and their children, c. 1955

A nuclear family (also known as an elementary family, atomic family, cereal packet family[1] or conjugal family) is a family group consisting of parents and their children (one or more), typically living in one home residence. It is in contrast to a single-parent family, a larger extended family, or a family with more than two parents. Nuclear families typically center on a married couple which may have any number of children. There are differences in definition among observers. Some definitions allow only biological children who are full-blood siblings and consider adopted or half- and step-siblings a part of the immediate family, but others allow for a step-parent and any mix of dependent children, including stepchildren and adopted children. Some sociologists and anthropologists consider the extended family structure to be the most common family structure in most cultures and at most times, rather than the nuclear family.[2]

The term nuclear family was popularized in the 20th century. Since that time, the number of North American nuclear families is gradually decreasing, while the number of alternative family formations has increased.[3]


The term nuclear family first appeared in the early 20th century. Merriam-Webster dates the term back to 1924,[4] while the Oxford English Dictionary has a reference to the term from 1925; thus it is relatively new. The phrase is taken from the general use of the noun nucleus, itself originating in the Latin nux, meaning "nut", i.e. the core of something.[a]

In its most common usage, the term nuclear family refers to a household consisting of a father, a mother, and their children,[5] all in one household dwelling.[4] George Murdock, an observer of families, offered an early description:

The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.[6]

Many individuals are part of two nuclear families in their lives: the family of origin in which they are offspring, and the family of procreation in which they are a parent.[7]

Alternative definitions have evolved to include family units with same-sex parents,[8] adoption, and perhaps additional adult relatives who take on a cohabiting parental role.[9]


DNA extracted from bones and teeth discovered at a 4,600-year-old Stone Age burial site in Germany has provided the earliest evidence for the social recognition of a family consisting of two parents with multiple children.[10]

Historians Alan Macfarlane and Peter Laslett, among other European researchers, say that nuclear families have been a primary arrangement in England since the 13th century.[11] This primary arrangement was different from the normal arrangements in Southern Europe, in parts of Asia, and the Middle East, where it was common for young adults to remain in or marry into the family home. In England, multi-generational households were uncommon[when?] because young adults would save enough money to move out, into their own household once they married. Sociologist Brigitte Berger argued, "the young nuclear family had to be flexible and mobile as it searched for opportunity and property. Forced to rely on their own ingenuity, its members also needed to plan for the future and develop bourgeois habits of work and saving."[12] Berger also mentions that this could be one of the reasons that the Industrial Revolution began in England and other Northwest European countries. However, the historicity of the nuclear family in England has been challenged by Cord Oestmann.[13]

Family structures of a married couple and their children were present in Western Europe and New England in the 17th century, influenced by church and theocratic governments.[14] With the emergence of proto-industrialization and early capitalism, the nuclear family became a financially viable social unit.[15]

Compared with extended family[edit]

P. E. Svinhufvud, the President of Finland (in the middle), with his family on his 75th birthday in 1936

An extended group consists of non-nuclear (or "non-immediate") family members considered together with nuclear (or "immediate") family members. When extended family is involved they also influence children's development just as much as the parents would on their own.[16] In an extended family resources are usually shared among those involved, adding more of a community aspect to the family unit. This is not limited to the sharing of objects and money, but includes sharing time. For example, extended family members such as grandparents are able to watch over grandchildren, allowing parents to continue and pursue careers, and allows the parents to reduce stress levels.[16] Extended families also contribute to children’s mental health due to increased resources in terms of adult support.[16]

Changes to family formation[edit]

Between 1960 to 2017, the nuclear family lost its dominant position in American society to other household arrangements.

In 2005, information from the United States Census Bureau showed that 70% of children in the US live in two-parent families,[17] with 66% of those living with parents who were married, and 60% living with their biological parents. Furthermore, "the figures suggest that the tumultuous shifts in family structure since the late 1960s have leveled off since 1990."[18] The Pew Research Center's analysis of data from the American Community Survey and the Decennial Census revealed that the number of children living outside of the traditional ideal of parents marrying young and staying together till death has risen precipitously between the mid-to-late 20th century and the early 21st century. In 2013, only 43% of children lived with married parents in their first marriage, down from 73% in 1960. Meanwhile, the share of children living with a single parent was 34% in 2013, up from 9% in 1960.[19]

When considered separately from couples without children, single-parent families, and unmarried couples with children, the United States nuclear families appear to constitute a minority of households – with a rising prevalence of other family arrangements. In 2000, nuclear families with the original biological parents constituted roughly 24.10% of American households, compared with 40.30% in 1970.[17] Roughly two-thirds of all children in the United States will spend at least some time in a single-parent household.[20] According to some sociologists, "[The nuclear family] no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today." (Edwards 1991; Stacey 1996). A new term has been introduced[by whom?], postmodern family, intended to describe the great variability in family forms, including single-parent families and couples without children."[17] Nuclear family households are now less common compared to household with couples without children, single-parent families, and unmarried couples with children.[21]

In the UK, the number of nuclear families fell from 39.0% of all households in 1968 to 28.0% in 1992. The decrease accompanied an equivalent increase in the number of single-parent households and in the number of adults living alone.[22]

Professor Wolfgang Haak of Adelaide University, detects traces of the nuclear family in prehistoric Central Europe. A 2005 archeological dig in Elau in Germany, analyzed by Haak, revealed genetic evidence suggesting that the 13 individuals found in a grave were closely related. Haak said, "By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe.... Their unity in death suggest[s] a unity in life."[23] This paper does not regard the nuclear family as "natural" or as the only model for human family life. "This does not establish the elemental family to be a universal model or the most ancient institution of human communities. For example, polygamous unions are prevalent in ethnographic data and models of household communities have apparently been involving a high degree of complexity from their origins."[23]

Lastly, large shifts in the financial landscape for families has made the historically middle class, traditional, nuclear family structure significantly more risky, expensive and unstable. The expenses associated with raising a family; notably housing, medical care and education, have all increased very rapidly, particularly since the 1950s. Since then middle class incomes have stagnated or even declined, whilst living costs have soared to the point where even two-income households are now unable to offer the same level of financial stability that was once possible under the single income nuclear family household of the 1950s.[24]

Effect on family size[edit]

As a fertility factor, single nuclear family households generally have a higher number of children than co-operative living arrangements according to studies from both the Western world[25] and India.[26]

There have been studies done that shows a difference in the number of children wanted per household according to where they live. Families that live in rural areas wanted to have more kids than families in urban areas. A study done in Japan between October 2011 and February 2012 further researched the effect of area of residence on mean desired number of children.[27] Researchers of the study came to the conclusion that the women living in rural areas with larger families were more likely to want more children, compared to women that lived in urban areas in Japan.

"Traditional" North American family[edit]

A Detroit factory worker and his family (1954)

For social conservatism in the United States and Canada, the idea that the nuclear family is traditional is a very important aspect, where family is seen as the primary unit of society. These movements oppose alternative family forms and social institutions that are seen by them to undermine parental authority. The number of nuclear families is slowly dwindling in the US as more women pursue higher education, develop professional lives, and delay having children until later in their life.[28] Children and marriage have become less appealing as many women continue to face societal, familial, and/or peer pressure to give up their education and career to focus on stabilizing the home.[28] As ethnic and cultural diversity continues to grow in the United States, it has become more difficult for the traditional nuclear family to remain the norm.[28] Data from 2014 also suggests that single parents and the likelihood of children living with one is correlated with race. The Pew Research Center projected that 54% of African Americans will be single parents compared to only 19% of European Americans.[28] Several factors account for the differences in family structure including economic and social class. Differences in education level also change the amount of single parents. In 2014, those with less than a high school education are 46% more likely to be a single parent compared to 12% who have graduated from college.[28]

Critics of the term "traditional family" point out that in most cultures and at most times, the extended family model has been most common, not the nuclear family,[29] though the nuclear family has had a longer tradition in England[30] than in other parts of Europe and Asia which contributed large numbers of immigrants to the Americas. The nuclear family became the most common form in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.[31]

The concept that narrowly defines a nuclear family as central to stability in modern society that has been promoted by familialists who are social conservatives in the United States, and has been challenged as historically and sociologically inadequate to describe the complexity of actual family relations.[32] In "Freudian Theories of Identification and Their Derivatives" Urie Bronfenbrenner states, "Very little is known about the extent variation in the behavior of fathers and mothers towards sons and daughters, and even less about the possible effects on such differential treatment." Little is known about how parental behavior and identification processes work, and how children interpret sex role learning. In his theory, he uses "identification" with the father in the sense that the son will follow the sex role provided by his father and then for the father to be able to identify the difference of the "cross sex" parent for his daughter.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Any similarity to the terminology of nuclear warfare, nuclear power, nuclear fission etc. is therefore coincidental, even in spite of its association with the early Atomic Age.


  1. ^ Browne, K. (2011). An Introduction to Sociology. Wiley. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-7456-5008-1. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  2. ^ Georgas, James (2004). "Family and Culture". Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. pp. 11–22. doi:10.1016/B0-12-657410-3/00412-8. ISBN 978-0-12-657410-4.
  3. ^ Aragão, Carolina; Parker, Kim; Greenwood, Shannon; Baronavski, Chris; Mandapat, John Carlo (14 September 2023). "The Modern American Family". Pew Research Center. Archived from the original on 3 October 2023.
  4. ^ a b "nuclear family". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved October 5, 2020. First Known Use of nuclear family
    1924, in the meaning defined above
  5. ^ "Nuclear family - Definition and pronunciation". Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary. Retrieved 2021-03-05.
  6. ^ Murdock, George Peter (1965) [1949]. Social Structure. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-922290-4.
  7. ^ Collins, Donald; Jordan, Catheleen; Coleman, Heather (2009). An Introduction to Family Social Work (3 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-495-60188-3.
  8. ^ "Nuclear family". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-24.
  9. ^ "Strictly, a nuclear or elementary or conjugal family consists merely of parents and children, though it often includes one or two other relatives as well, for example, a widowed parent or unmarried sibling of one or other spouse."
    Sloan Work and Family Research Network, citing Parkin, R. (1997). Kinship: An introduction to basic concepts. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  10. ^ "World's Earliest Nuclear Family Found". ScienceDaily (Press release). University of Bristol. 18 November 2008.
  11. ^ Berger, Brigitte (2017). "The Family: The Primary Institution of Individual and Social Life". The Family in the Modern Age. pp. 69–98. doi:10.4324/9781315132006-3. ISBN 978-1-315-13200-6.
  12. ^ "The Real Roots of the Nuclear Family". Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved 2017-03-28.
  13. ^ Cord Oestmann (1994). Lordship and Community: The Lestrange Family and the Village of Hunstanton, Norfolk, in the First Half of the Sixteenth Century. Boydell Press. pp. 53–. ISBN 978-0-85115-351-3.
  14. ^ Volo, James M.; Volo, Dorothy Denneen (2006). Family life in 17th- and 18th-century America. Greenwood. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-313-33199-2.
  15. ^ Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008).
  16. ^ a b c LaFave, Daniel; Thomas, Duncan (2016). "Farms, Families, and Markets: New Evidence on Completeness of Markets in Agricultural Settings". Econometrica. 84 (5): 1917–1960. doi:10.3982/ECTA12987. PMID 27688430.
  17. ^ a b c Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer; Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 978-0-205-36674-3.
  18. ^ Roberts, Sam (February 25, 2008). "Most Children Still Live in Two-Parent Homes, Census Bureau Reports". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-05.
  19. ^ Livingston, Gretchen (December 22, 2014). "Fewer than half of U.S. kids today live in a 'traditional' family". Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  20. ^ "Focus on Michigan's Future: Changing Family and Household". July 3, 2007. Archived from the original on July 3, 2007.
  21. ^ Brooks, David. "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake". The Atlantic. ISSN 1072-7825. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
  22. ^ Pothan, Peter (September 1992). "Nuclear family nonsense". Third Way. 15 (7): 25–28.
  23. ^ a b Haak, Wolfgang; Brandt, Guido; Jong, Hylke N. de; Meyer, Christian; Ganslmeier, Robert; Heyd, Volker; Hawkesworth, Chris; Pike, Alistair W. G.; Meller, Harald; Alt, Kurt W. (25 November 2008). "Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (47): 18226–18231. Bibcode:2008PNAS..10518226H. doi:10.1073/pnas.0807592105. PMC 2587582. PMID 19015520.
  24. ^ Warren, Elizabeth (2006). "The middle class on the precipice" (PDF). Harvard Magazine. Vol. 108, no. 3. pp. 28–31.
  25. ^ Nicoletta Balbo; Francesco C. Billari; Melinda Mills (2013). "Fertility in Advanced Societies: A Review of Research". European Journal of Population. 29 (1): 1–38. doi:10.1007/s10680-012-9277-y. PMC 3576563. PMID 23440941.
  26. ^ Gandotra MM, Pandey D (1982). "Differences in fertility and family planning practices by type of family". Journal of Family Welfare. 29 (1): 29–40. Archived from the original on 2016-10-18. Retrieved 2016-02-27.
  27. ^ Matsumoto, Yasuyo; Yamabe, Shingo (2013-01-30). "Family size preference and factors affecting the fertility rate in Hyogo, Japan". Reproductive Health. 10: 6. doi:10.1186/1742-4755-10-6. ISSN 1742-4755. PMC 3563619. PMID 23363875.
  28. ^ a b c d e "1. The American family today". Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. 2015-12-17. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  29. ^ "Parenting Myths And Facts". NPR.org.
  30. ^ see History of the family § Evolution of household
  31. ^ "History of Nuclear Families". bebusinessed.com. January 3, 2017.
  32. ^ Johnson, Miriam M. (1 January 1963). "Sex Role Learning in the Nuclear Family". Child Development. 34 (2): 319–333. doi:10.2307/1126730. JSTOR 1126730. PMID 13957857.

External links[edit]