Nuclear family

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A nuclear family or elementary family is a family group consisting of a pair of adults and their children.[1] This is in contrast to a single-parent family, to the larger extended family, and to a family with more than two parents. Nuclear families typically centre on a married couple;[1] the nuclear family may have any number of children. There are differences in definition among observers; some definitions allow only biological children that are full-blood siblings,[2] while others allow for a stepparent and any mix of dependent children including stepchildren and adopted children.[3][4]

Family structures of one married couple and their children were present in Western Europe and New England in the 17th century, influenced by church and theocratic governments.[5] With the emergence of proto-industrialization and early capitalism, the nuclear family became a financially viable social unit.[6] The term nuclear family first appeared in the early twentieth century. Alternative definitions have evolved to include family units headed by same-sex parents,[1] and perhaps additional adult relatives who take on a cohabiting parental role;[7] in this latter case it also receives the name of conjugal family.[1]

The concept that a narrowly defined nuclear family is central to stability in modern society 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.[8]

Usage of the term[edit]

A man, woman, and two children smiling outside of a house
An American nuclear family composed of the mother, father, and children circa 1955

Merriam-Webster dates the term back to 1947,[9] while the Oxford English Dictionary has a reference to the term from 1925; thus it is relatively new, although nuclear family structures themselves date back thousands of years.[10][11] The term nuclear is used in its general meaning referring to a central entity or "nucleus" around which others collect.

In its most common usage, the term nuclear family refers to a household consisting of a father, a mother and their children[12] all in one household dwelling.[9] 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 sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.[13]

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.[14]

Compared to extended family[edit]

Main article: Extended family

An extended family group consists of non-nuclear (or "non-immediate") family members considered together with nuclear (or "immediate") family members.

Nuclear family, feminism, and the women's movement[edit]

Participants of the women's movements and feminist thinkers have demonstrated that family forms are socially and historically constructed, not monolithic universals that exist across time and space. Nor are family arrangements a normal result of biological differences between women and men.[15] Feminist writers, activists and thinkers challenge current forms of the nuclear family as in a family's interest. According to Shulamith Firestone, the nuclear family is just one variation of the biological family, which she defines as an inherently unequal power distribution within the basic reproductive unit of male/female/infant that results from the mother and child being dependent on the adult male figure, especially during the woman's pregnancy and the infant's first few years.[16]

The National Women's Conference[edit]

During the National Women's Conference of 1977, the women of the conference presented numerous policy changes, including the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the National Plan of Action. If these two proposals had been passed, there would have been changes to the American family structures.

The Equal Rights Amendment[edit]

The ERA in particular was greatly combated during the 1970s primarily because of the changes it may introduce to the form of the American family. Opponents included Anti-ERA activists who believed that the ERA would destroy the family and morality.[17] One of the most visible and vocal opponents of the ERA was Phyllis Schlafly, who started the STOP ERA campaign. Schlafly argued that the ERA would take away gender specific privileges currently enjoyed by women, including "dependent wife" benefits under Social Security and the exemption from Selective Service registration.[18] In response to Schlafly and other anti-ERA activists, the women of the National Women's Conference argued that "the ERA will not change or weaken family structure... ERA will strengthen families by implicitly giving value to each spouse's contribution to and support of the other."[17] Schlafly and her supporters succeeded in preventing the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s by convincing 14 states to vote against the ratification and since then the ERA has yet to be ratified by the necessary minimum of 39 states.

The National Plan Of Action[edit]

The National Plan of Action's Plank 5 and Plank 13 would have also changed the dynamic of the American family structure if they had been brought into legislation. Plank 5 focused on childcare and Plank 13 focused on homemakers.

Plank 5: childcare[edit]

Plank 5 focused on issues of childcare and supported the installation of a comprehensive federal childcare program that would make family structures that differ from the nuclear family more feasible for Americans. "The Federal Government should assume a major role in directing and providing comprehensive, voluntary, flexible-hour, bias-free, non-sexist, quality child care and developmental programs, including child care facilities for Federal employees, and should request and support adequate legislation and funding for these programs."[19] This plank highlighted the large number of families with working mothers who did not have guaranteed access to affordable childcare. In 1976, more than 28 million children had mothers working outside of the home, and 4.5 million children lived in households where single mothers were the head of the household.[19] As of January 2015, there is still no comprehensive federal childcare program, but President Obama did outline a plan for more inclusive childcare services in his State of Union Address on January 20, 2015. Obama said, "In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have – it's a must-have. So it's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us."[20]

Plank 13: homemakers[edit]

Plank 13 focused on increasing the social and economic value of homemakers in American society. In this plank it was argued that the contributions made by both spouses should be considered of equal worth regardless of whether or not both spouses worked outside the home. "The low value that our society places on the homemaker's role is reflected in support laws, property laws, divorce laws, and inheritance laws. If our children, sons as well as daughters, cannot expect that work in the home will be recognized as of equal value and as deserving equal dignity with work done outside the home, the institution of the family and society itself will suffer. When a man and a woman enter into a marriage, they often believe that they are entering a cooperative partnership, but the legal realities of a marriage contract degrade and demean the wife's role."[21] If the National Plan of Action was incorporated into American law, the dynamic of the nuclear family would have very likely been redefined. With the installment of policies that worked to achieve the goals of Plank 13 the economic dependency a wife and child had on the husband/father figure would be altered assuming that by making the roles of homemakers of equal status to spouses who work outside the home, that homemakers would be financially compensated for their work.

Changes to family formation[edit]

From 1970 to 2000, family arrangements in the US became more diverse with no particular household arrangement prevalent enough to be identified as the "average"

In 2005, information from the United States Census Bureau showed that 70% of children in the US live in traditional two-parent families,[22] with 66% of those living with parents who were married, and 60% living with their biological parents, and that "the figures suggest that the tumultuous shifts in family structure since the late 1960s have leveled off since 1990".[23]

If considered separately from couples without children, single-parent families, and unmarried couples with children, in the United States traditional 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 24.1% of American households, compared to 40.3% in 1970.[22] Roughly two-thirds of all children in the United States will spend at least some time in a single-parent household.[24]

In the UK, the number of nuclear families fell from 39% of all households in 1968 to 28% in 1992. The decrease accompanied an equivalent increase in the number of single-parent households and in the number of adults living alone.[25]

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."[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."[26] 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."[26] In this study evidence suggests that the nuclear family was embedded with an extended family. The remains of three children (probably siblings based on DNA evidence) were found buried with a woman who was not their mother but may have been an "aunt or a step-mother".[27]

North American conservatism[edit]

Main article: Familialism

For social conservatism in the United States and in Canada, the idea that the nuclear family is traditional is an 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, like day care centers and sex education.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Nuclear family". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  2. ^ Living Arrangements of Children
  3. ^ Haviland, William A.; Prins, Harald E. L.; Walrath, Dana (2007). Cultural anthropology: the human challenge (12 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 219. ISBN 0-495-09561-3. 
  4. ^ Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007
  5. ^ Volo, James M.; Volo, Dorothy Denneen (2006). Family life in 17th- and 18th-century America. Greenwood. p. 42. ISBN 0-313-33199-5. 
  6. ^ Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008).
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ DePaulo, B. and Milardo, R. (2011). "Interview: Beyond the Nuclear Family".
  9. ^ a b Merriam-Webster Online. "Definition of nuclear family".
  10. ^ Grief, Avner (2005). "Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origin and Implications of Western Corporatism".
  11. ^ Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (2006). "Types of marriages in the Bible, and today".
  12. ^ "Nuclear family - Definition and pronunciation". Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-04-18. 
  13. ^ Murdock, George Peter (1965) [1949]. Social Structure. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-922290-7. 
  14. ^ Collins, Donald; Jordan, Catheleen; Coleman, Heather (2009). An Introduction to Family Social Work (3 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 27. ISBN 0-495-60188-8. 
  15. ^ Zinn, Maxine Baca (2000-09-01). "Feminism and Family Studies for a New Century". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 571: 42–56. 
  16. ^ Firestone, Shulamith (1970). The Dialectic of Sex. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. p. 9. ISBN 0688123597. 
  17. ^ a b Bird, Caroline (1978). The Spirit Of Houston. Washington D.C.: National Commission on Observance of International Women's Year. pp. 49–51. 
  18. ^ Kolbert, Elizabeth (November 7, 2005). "Firebound Phyllis Schlafly and the Conservative Revolution". The New Yorker. 
  19. ^ a b Kish Sklar, Kathryn. "Document 32: "Plank 5: Child Care," from National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, The Spirit of Houston: The First National Women's Conference (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978), pp. 27-29.". Women and Social Movements in the Untied States, 1600-2000. Alexander Street Press. Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  20. ^ "FACT SHEET: Helping All Working Families with Young Children Afford Child Care". Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  21. ^ Kish Sklar, Kathryn. "Document 40: "Plank 13: Homemakers," from National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, The Spirit of Houston: The First National Women's Conference (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978), pp. 57-59.". Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. Alexander Street Press. Retrieved 2015-11-20. 
  22. ^ a b c Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer; Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-36674-0. 
  23. ^ Roberts, Sam (February 25, 2008). "Most Children Still Live in Two-Parent Homes, Census Bureau Reports". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-05. 
  24. ^ Focus on Michigan's Future: Changing Family and Household Patterns
  25. ^ Pothan, Peter (September 1992). "Nuclear family nonsense". Third Way (Hymns Ancient & Modern) 15 (7): 25–28. 
  26. ^ a b Haak, Wolfgang; Brandt, Herman; de Jong, Hylke N.; Meyer, C; Ganslmeier, R; Heyd, V; Hawkesworth, C; Pike, AW; et al. (2008). "Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age". PNAS 105 (47): 18226–18231. doi:10.1073/pnas.0807592105. PMC 2587582. PMID 19015520. 
  27. ^ Balter, M. (2008) Prehistoric Family Values, ScienceNow Daily News, Nov. 17.
  28. ^ Zastrow, Charles (2009). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People (10 ed.). Cengage Learning. ISBN 0495809527. 

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