A family is a domestic group of people, or a number of domestic groups, typically affiliated by birth or marriage, or by comparable legal relationships including adoption. There are a number of variations in the basic family structure. The nuclear family consists of husband and wife and their children, while the extended family includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Other family patterns include polygamous (usually patriarchal) and single-parent families.
Throughout history, families have been central to human society; a key indicator of a society's well-being is the health of its families. For this reason, as stated in Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."
The family is the basic social unit for the expression of love between man and woman and the creation and raising of children. The family tames the wilder impulses of men to the responsibilities of fatherhood, enables young women to blossom as mothers, and cultivates morality in children. Moral virtues, empathy, and good human relationships are learned in the family.
All religions recognize the importance of the family and have moral teachings that support it. Some religions regard the family as an institution created by God for people to perfect themselves, become like God and experience oneness with God.
The significance of the family
The family is universally formed to protect and nurture children. Although the term "dysfunctional" has often been applied to the family in modern times, in fact, the vast majorities of families produce viable, peaceable, and productive citizens. Children in average families outperform children in institutional settings according to numerous developmental measures, most importantly impulse control and pro-social behavior. The three- or four-generation extended family, including grandparents in addition to parents and children, provides a rich network for human relationships and great support for the raising of children and continuation of the lineage.
Fostering the human need for love and intimacy is an important purpose of the family. The family is generally viewed as a haven from the world, supplying "intimacy, love and trust where individuals may escape the competition of dehumanizing forces in modern society." The family protects individuals from the rough and tumble of the industrialized world. The family is where warmth, tenderness, and understanding can be expected from a loving mother and protection from the world can be expected from the father. These purposes have declined as income levels allow for economic security independent of family support and as individuals enjoy increased civil rights and opportunities to pursue happiness outside the family setting.
Nevertheless, the family remains irreplaceable as the primary locus of love and personal fulfillment. Martin Luther termed the family "the school of love." It is in the family that people can realize love in all its dimensions: children's love for parents, love among siblings, conjugal love, and parental love. As people's hearts are cultivated through their family relationships, they can find fulfillment in their lives beyond what they could attain as unattached individuals.
The family is also the primary school of virtue, where children learn manners, obedience to their parents, helpfulness to their siblings, care for their younger siblings, and so on. More lessons are learned in the school of marriage and still more in the school of parenthood. Anthropologist James Q. Wilson has called the family "a continuing locus of moral instruction…we learn to cope with the people of the world because we learn to cope with members of our family." The family provides the socialization and character education required of good citizens, who practice these same virtues in the larger contexts of society.
However, family life can also magnify people's shortcomings. Family dysfunction can cause such emotional damage that people will risk everything to escape their families. Some lose confidence in family life and choose the option of remaining single. Indeed, there has never been an ideal human family. Christianity explains that this ideal—represented by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—was lost at the Fall of Man. Marxism holds that the family is a structure of human domination. Nevertheless, utopian attempts to replace the family with collective social structures, viz the Kibbutz, have not had long-term success.
For better or worse, human beings seem to be programmed to live in families. Research indicates that most Americans (71 percent) still idealize the traditional family even as they grow more accepting of divorce (78 percent), cohabitation (49 percent), and single-parent families. Margaret Mead, based on her anthropological research, affirmed the centrality of the family in human society:
As far back as our knowledge takes us, human beings have lived in families. We know of no period where this was not so. We know of no people who have succeeded for long in dissolving the family or displacing it.… Again and again, in spite of proposals for change and actual experiments, human societies have reaffirmed their dependence on the family as the basic unit of human living—the family of father, mother and children.
Family relationships and personal growth
The family is the primary means through which most people cultivate their character and learn about love. The family of origin is the context for a child's lessons about love and virtue, as he or she relates to parents and siblings. The challenges of marriage and parenting bring further lessons. Precisely because of this crucial role in character development, family dysfunction is the origin of some of the deepest emotional and psychological scars. Experiences of childhood sexual abuse, parents' divorce, and so forth lead to serious problems later in life.
The family structure provides the basic context for human development, as its members take on successive roles as children, siblings, spouses, parents, and grandparents. As educator Gabriel Moran put it, "The family teaches by its form." These different roles in the family describe a developmental sequence, the later roles building upon the earlier ones. Each role provides opportunities to develop a particular type of love, and carries with it specific norms and duties.
The heart of a son or daughter develops from that of a very young child and matures through a lifetime—from the toddler who clings trustingly to his or her parents’ hand to the adult child who nurses his or her elderly parents in their last years of life. Yet the essence of the child's love for parents remains the same: a heart of attachment, veneration, appreciation, and love that deepens and becomes more conscious and responsible over time.
In the East, a child’s devotion toward his or her parents is called filial piety and is considered the root of all goodness and morality. Confucius taught that responsiveness to one’s parents is the root or fountainhead of rén (仁), empathy for human beings in general.
Attachment theory says that children form "inner working models" for all future relationships from the interactions they have with their first caretakers—usually their mothers. Empathy is learned from following and imitating the expressions and levels of emotions expressed by mothers as they play with their child, soothe their child, and respond to the infant's needs. The first developmental "crisis" of trust versus mistrust, as Erik Erikson put it, is resolved positively by a parent's caring responses to her child. This crisis can also have a negative outcome—leading to a lifetime of mistrust—when parents fail to care adequately, either because they are preoccupied with their own personal issues or are just plain self-centered.
As the child grows, he or she internalizes the parents' values. Out of love for them and desire for their approval, the child learns obedience, self-control, cleanliness, diligence in doing schoolwork, and respectful behavior towards people and property. The child's developing attitude towards his or her parents will profoundly influence later attitudes toward authority figures in society, and also, for believers, the mental image of God. Studies of altruism following World War II showed that there was but one common factor among the people in Europe who risked themselves to save Jews from Nazi horrors: each rescuer had a warm, strong bond with one or more parent.
Conversely, children who are neglected or abandoned by their parents suffer from general moral impairment. Studies of children who were raised for the early years of their lives in institutions found them to be inordinately cruel to one another and to animals and severely lacking in impulse control, especially of aggressive impulses. They were often "unable in later years to bind themselves to other people, to love deeply."
In average families there is ambivalence in the love between a child and his or her parents, especially as it develops into the adolescent years. Children are quick to pick up on any hypocrisy in their parents. Hence, there is need for parents to be exemplary in loving their children and demonstrating in their own lives the ideals that they would wish to pass on to them.
Child's love reaches a new stage of maturity when he or she becomes an adult. New comprehension and sympathy for the parents may come as the son or daughter becomes a spouse, a breadwinner, a parent, a middle-aged caretaker of others, and a responsible community member. The child recognizes his or her debt to the parents and begins to repay it with gratitude. Mature children's love may also involve taking up the parents' unfinished tasks and unrealized dreams, desiring to make the parents proud of them and leave them a legacy.
The dynamic of a family changes when a sibling arrives on the scene. The older child in a family is challenged to shed layers of self-centeredness to respond to and keep the approbation of the most significant others—the parents. His areas of self-love are further impinged upon by the presence of another on the scene. He must learn many of the most important lessons of sibling’s love—to share, to give, and to forgive. These lessons will be of major importance in later life, especially in marriage.
Parents can help an older child become more other-centered in the early days of having a sibling by including the older child in the baby’s care, thus activating altruism and its rewards in the child’s heart. Benjamin Spock explains, “One of the ways in which a young child tries to get over the pain of having a younger rival is to act as if he himself were no longer a child, competing in the same league as the baby, but as if he were a third parent." By encouraging the older child in this, "the parents can help a child to actually transform resentful feelings into cooperativeness and genuine altruism."
The natural inequalities and differences between siblings—of age, ability, and positions in a family—can be sources of friction or contexts for growth. The older sibling has had a head start on garnering the attention of the parents and has greater command of things in the home. Now he or she must learn to give a portion of these advantages to the younger one. A younger sibling, on the other hand, is born sharing. He or she necessarily becomes other-focused in order to form an affiliation with the more powerful older sibling(s). Siblings must learn to cope with disputes over the use of possessions, taking turns, physical and verbal aggression, and other moral issues.
Parents have a central role in ameliorating sibling rivalries by affirming each child’s value in a manner consistent with the naturally unequal positions of elder and younger. Yet, it may be challenging for parents to show equal regard for siblings of widely differing abilities or moral qualities.
In cultures that practice primogeniture, codifying the distinction between elder and younger siblings into the norms of family life, the eldest son receives more privileges, but he is also expected to bear greater responsibility for the family's welfare. Younger children are expected to show deference to their elder siblings, but they can expect guidance, care, and leadership from them. When there is a fight between elder and younger, the father will scold the younger, "Respect your elders!" but then in private he will punish the elder sibling, whom he holds most responsible for the incident.
A certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected, but whether it is channeled into constructive competition or destructive jealousy depends on how they are raised by their parents. When parents are negligent, a festering sibling rivalry can even result in fratricide, as in the Bible's story of Cain and Abel. Another biblical story, the parable of the Prodigal Son, contains a moment of parental intervention to diffuse a sibling rivalry when the father affirms his equal love for both sons, the faithful and the prodigal (Luke 15:25–32).
Sibling relationships are training for living in a world of diversity. Though born of the same parents, siblings often differ from one another widely in temperament, personality, tastes, preferences, talents, and even political leanings. Living amidst a large or extended family provides training in tolerance, charity, and acceptance of differences. It helps ingrain the lesson that although people differ, they are fundamentally related and may still treat one another with respect, appreciation, and love based on their common bonds.
Husband and wife
Marriage encourages and requires a high degree of other-centered love. No relationship prior to marriage has the same potential for human oneness, and thus no other relationship entails the same demands for surrender of the self. In this way, marriage promotes true love, which is to live for the sake of others.
The passion of romantic love in the early years of marriage is meant to foster the habit of self-surrender and care for one's spouse. Yet few marriages survive for long on passion alone. Commitment and effort by each partner are required to make a marriage last. Marital expert Judith Wallerstein said, “A marriage that commands loyalty…requires each partner to relinquish self-centeredness.” Catholic psychologist Marshall Fightlin asserts that it is the daily task of a husband to “mortify” the impulses to act like a single man and to concern himself with his other—his wife. Thus, marriage requires renunciation of all other romantic or sexual relationships in favor of the spouse; it also means renunciation of many aspects of one’s own habits and attitudes that interfere with a life shared with someone who is physically, emotionally, and mentally "other"—a member of the opposite sex.
Paradoxically, renunciation of the self in favor of the other enriches and enhances the self. Joy and excitement are increased. Theologian Karl Barth taught, “It is always in relationship to their opposite that man and woman are what they are in themselves.”
It stands to reason that virtue or good character is the bedrock of a happy marriage. This finding is backed up by research. According to Wallerstein, "Happiness in marriage meant feeling respected and cherished…based on integrity. A partner was admired and loved for his or her honesty, compassion, generosity of spirit, decency, loyalty to the family, and fairness…. The value these couples place on the partner’s moral qualities…helps explain why many divorcing people speak so vehemently of losing respect for their former partners." Marital therapist Blaine Fowers says, "As I have observed many different couples, I have become convinced that strong marriages are built on the virtues or character strengths of the spouses. In other words, the best way to have a good marriage is to be a good person."
Religious teachings hold that marriage also brings a couple closer to God. The rabbis taught that the union of a man and a woman into one person or one flesh is the only full representation of the image of God. Karl Barth discerned a theology of marriage in the Trinity: God exists in a community of three persons, so a solitary, isolated human being without a counterpart is necessarily incomplete. Many religious teachings advise couples to put God at the center of their marriage, to provide them the strength to persevere through the vicissitudes of life together. At times when one's spouse may seem like one’s worst enemy, faith can provide couples with the emotional resources to be patient and forgiving, and to continue steadfast throughout the years.
Parenthood makes sacrifice an ordinary part of life. A father takes an extra job to afford a house with a yard or save up for his child's college education; a mother who formerly spent hours on makeup and stylish dresses sits happily with tousled hair and a stained shirt while her toddlers clamber around a messy house. Parents sacrifice their interests, plans, and dreams to attend to their children's needs. As one child psychologist said, "If it is to be done well, childrearing requires, more than most activities of life, a good deal of de-centering from one’s own needs and perspectives."
Being a good parent requires patience and forbearance, as when answering their child's 50th question in a row while trying to prepare dinner. It requires firmness and fortitude, as when their defiant 15-year-old demands to know why he or she is not allowed to stay out late when all of his or her friends are doing it. The responsibility of caring for children bring out latent moral qualities in parents, presenting "opportunities to love when I would rather be alone, to be gentle when I would rather be efficient, and to surrender when I would rather be in control." The experience spurs on the parents' growth in heart.
Becoming a parent is a life-altering transition. Being totally accountable for the welfare of one's children gives parents a different outlook on life. Eldridge Cleaver, a former Black Panther who was trained as a communist in the former Soviet Union, experienced such a transformation when his daughter was born. Surely, he thought, this beautiful child, and the love he felt for her, were not products of economic forces. It reawakened Cleaver's belief in God. Parenthood likewise affects attitudes on social issues, which now must take into account how those matters will affect the lives of the next generation. One survey found that the most marked differences of attitudes on cultural issues are between those who have children and those who do not. These differences transcend economic, political, racial, and other demographic factors.
Good parenting requires harmony between husband and wife. A harmonious partnership allows the parents to integrate the complementary dimensions of parental love—the warm supportiveness of a mother's love and the firm and challenging qualities of a father's love. Research has shown that a balanced approach to parental authority pairs high levels of compassion and care with an equally high degree of firmness. Psychologist Diane Baumrind calls this “authoritative parenting.” She found that children of authoritative parents are the most well adjusted and well behaved.
Parental love is a definition of unconditional love. Parents give and give and forget what they have given, compelled by their love to give more. Parental love is fraught with risk, for there is always the possibility of loss. Fathers and mothers cannot anticipate how their children will turn out—as children have free will. In spite of it all, parents' continual caring is the surest lifeline for even the most incorrigible child.
Grandparents are an invaluable source of rootedness for a child. Children who have relationships with their grandparents are more trusting, calmer, and quieter than those who do not. Grandparents are the link to all that has gone before and they give a sense of continuity and reassurance. Grandparents help children to know what life was like long before they were born—where they have come from and the kind of people they have sprung from. They are the family's link to the chain of history.
Grandparents can provide a safe haven when their children and grandchildren are experiencing turbulence in their relationships. Certain of who they are, grandparents stand for verities of the human experience that go beyond current fashions.
The heart of grandparents has an innate need to give from their lifetime storehouse of knowledge and experience to nurture and enrich the younger generations. Erik Erikson and his colleagues have characterized the primary challenge in old age as one of "integrity versus despair," with the possibility of culminating in a profound awareness or higher sense of self. By giving to their grandchildren, they can experience their personhood as that which "transcends time-bound identities." Those who do not have grandchildren will often seek surrogates for the same reason. By sharing their stories, insights, and values with the young generation, grandparents receive affirmation and comfort that their legacy will live on.
Benefits of family life
Despite controversies over what the "family" is, there is considerable evidence about what the consequences of family life are for individuals.
Satisfaction for adults
Men and women who are in their first marriages, on average, enjoy significantly higher levels of physical and mental health than those who are either single, divorced, or living together. Social scientist James Q. Wilson explains:
Married people are happier than unmarried ones of the same age, not only in the United States, but in at least seventeen other countries where similar inquiries have been made. And there seems to be good reasons for that happiness. People who are married not only have higher incomes and enjoy greater emotional support, they tend to be healthier. Married people live longer than unmarried ones, not only in the United States but abroad.
Married people, whether men or women, enjoy higher levels of sexual pleasure and fulfillment than do single people.
Benefits for children
All things being equal, children with married parents consistently do better in every measure of well-being than their peers who have single, cohabiting, divorced, or step-parents. Being raised by a father and mother is a stronger indicator of well-being than race, economic, or educational status, or neighborhood. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, a child advocacy organization, "Most researchers now agree…studies support the notion that, on average, children do best when raised by their two married biological parents." Evidence points out that:
- Children from biological two-parent families have higher test scores and grade-point averages, they miss fewer school days, and have greater expectations of attending college than children living with one parent.
- Children from divorced homes are 70 percent more likely than those living with biological parents to be expelled or suspended from school. Those living with never-married mothers are twice as likely to be expelled or suspended.
- Children raised in divorced or single-parent families are far more likely to commit crimes. Family structure is a much stronger predictor of criminality than race or income level.
- Adolescents not living with a biological mother or father are 50 to 150 percent more likely to abuse illicit drugs and require drug abuse treatment compared to their peers living with both biological parents. This holds true regardless of gender, age, family income, race, or ethnicity.
- Teens living with only one biological parent, including those in stepfamilies, typically become sexually active at younger ages. Girls who grow up in single-parent homes are 111 percent more likely to bear children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a child out of marriage, and—if they do marry—their marriages are 92 percent more likely to dissolve compared to their counterparts with married parents; this holds for whites and blacks alike.
- Girls are seven times more likely to be molested by a stepfather than a biological father. Numerous studies concur that children living with unrelated adults are far more likely to suffer from sexual abuse and more likely to die from beatings by an abusive male.
- A stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty. Former Clinton domestic policy advisor Bill Galston explains that avoiding poverty requires three things: 1) finish high-school, 2) marry before having children, and 3) marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor, while 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor. Children from married homes are more likely to do all three of these things.
Marriage and family life have been shown in numerous studies to have a variety of health benefits for both adults and children:
- According to a CDC study, married adults are less likely than other adults to be in fair or poor health, and are less likely to suffer from chronic ailments such as headaches and serious psychological distress. Married adults are less likely be limited in various activities, including work and other activities of daily living; they are less likely to smoke, drink heavily, or be physically inactive. However, married men are more likely to be overweight or obese than other men.
- A married man with heart disease can be expected to live, on average, 1,400 days longer (nearly four years) than an unmarried man with a healthy heart. This longer life expectancy is even greater for a married man who has cancer or is 20 pounds overweight compared to his healthy, but unmarried, counterpart. The advantages for women are similar.
- A married man who smokes more than a pack a day can be expected to live as long as a divorced man who does not smoke.
- Married people are more likely to survive cancer, according to an analysis of 25,000 cases listed in the New Mexico Tumor Registry.
- Marriage is associated with lower rates of alcoholism. 70 percent of chronic problem drinkers were either divorced or separated, and only 15 percent were married. Single men are more than three times as likely to die of cirrhosis of the liver.
- Married women are significantly less likely to be victims of any kind of violence, either by the spouse or by a stranger.
- In Lewis Terman's famous longitudinal study of 521 gifted children in California, begun in 1921 with follow-ups every 5 or 10 years, it was found that those whose parents divorced faced a 33 percent greater risk of an earlier death (average age at death of 76 years) than those whose parents remained married until the children reached age 21 (average age at death of 80). There was no such mortality effect for children for whom one or both parents had died.
In traditional societies, the family was the primary economic unit. This persists for rural families, where every family member has a role in agricultural production. This role has diminished in modern industrialized societies; nevertheless it persists. Among immigrant families, the mom-and-pop business offers economies of labor. The contemporary trend towards dual-earner households, necessitated by the decline in real wages in the United States, reinforces the importance of the family for wealth creation.
Married people are wealthier than their unmarried peers. They earn more money and are more likely to invest some of what they earn. They make more reliable employees, and so get promoted to better positions.
Religion and the family
Strong families have long been grounded in religious values, for religion provides many buttresses to strengthen family bonds. In his letter to the Ephesians (5:25), Saint Paul likened the virtues of love in a Christian marriage to the love of Christ for the church. It is, first and foremost, a giving love, a sacrificial love that resembles the love of Jesus. Christian marital love has been characterized as “a love that seeks to give way to the other whenever possible.” Thus religion, by cultivating character virtues such as steadfastness, responsibility, and modesty, and by promoting the ethics of sacrifice, humility, and charity, provides valuable support for family members as they seek to maintain lasting love amidst the demands of family life.
The family's efficacy for personal growth is such that some religious traditions equate honorable and loving relationships in the family with a template for a person’s right relationship with God. In the Talmud, for instance, it is written, "When a man honors his father and mother, God says, 'I regard it as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored me'" (Kiddushin 30b). Confucius said, “Surely proper behavior toward parents and elder brothers is the trunk of goodness” (Analects 1.2). Jesus encouraged his disciples to relate to God as a loving father, calling him "Abba."
Furthermore, traditional religious teachings lift up the expectation that marriage should last a lifetime. They decry divorce as a moral failure. "I hate divorce," declares God through the prophet Malachi (2:16). When Muhammad was asked about divorce, he said it was "the lawful thing that God hates most" (Hadith of Abu Dawud). When Jesus was asked about divorce, he said that God only allowed it because of people’s hardness of heart, and that it was not His way "from the beginning," adding "What God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matthew 19:5–8). Religions likewise condemn sex outside the context of marriage and family, teaching that it violates the sanctity of marriage and creates difficult entanglements of soul and spirit that can interfere with a person's eventual marriage.
These normative teachings provide both resources and sanctions that predispose traditional believers to maintain and make the best of even a difficult marriage. Not surprisingly, religion and family tend to go hand in hand. A 2004 survey by the National Marriage Project (Rutgers University) found that married men are more religiously active than unmarried men. Nearly half of married men say that they go to religious services several times a month, versus less than a quarter of unmarried men. Compared to unmarried men, married men are also significantly more likely (75 percent versus 59 percent) to agree that "children should be raised in a religion." Also, unmarried men who attend religious services several times per month or more are more disposed to marry.
Nevertheless, it is not the case that religious belief is the main factor in maintaining strong families. Believing does not always translate into the morality of daily life. Religious affiliation ranks fourth among the factors that reduce the risk of divorce, as shown in the following U.S. statistics (the norm without any of these factors is a 50 percent divorce rate):
|Annual income over $50,000 (vs. under $25,000)||-30%|
|Having a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage)||-24%|
|Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18)||-24%|
|Own family of origin intact (vs. divorced parents)||-14%|
|Religious affiliation (vs. none)||-14%|
|Some college (vs. high-school dropout)||-13%|
Studies in the psychology of religion suggest that how one practices religion, or "what kind of religion," is more significant for the quality of family relationships than how strongly one believes in a religion, or "how much religion." Participants with rigid, literalistic or guilt-driven approaches to religion reported an increased emphasis on control, difficulties in communication, and lower levels of marital satisfaction. In contrast, participants who identified with and maintained an open approach to religious sentiment and tended to promote independence in their children, were more likely to have affectionate and warm relationships with their children, and experience increased marital satisfaction.
While religious faith leads some people to be less accepting of alternative family patterns, it can also promote compassion for people struggling in less than ideal family situations. In every faith, God offers forgiveness to sinners, especially those who sincerely wish to mend past mistakes. There is recognition that the ideal of the God-centered family runs up against the corruption of the human heart due to the Fall of Man, which caused widespread difficulties between men and women, parents and children ever since. Almost all the families in the Bible seem to be dysfunctional to one degree or another, and the protagonist is sometimes challenged to overcome a festering family problem—Jacob and Joseph are two notable examples. Therefore, the centering of marriage upon God and striving to practice true love—divine love—within marriage can be viewed as a redemptive act that opens the way to divine healing and personal growth. For believers who practice a life of faith, marriage and family can be a blessing, a restorative relationship to heal the most primal of human wounds and open the way to future hope.
Anthropology looks at family structures
According to sociology and anthropology, the primary function of the family is to reproduce society, biologically and socially. For children, the family plays a major role in their socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s), the family's purpose is to produce and socialize children within a culture. However, producing children is not the only function of the family. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife is necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In modern societies, marriage entails particular rights and privilege that encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.
The structure of families can be classified into four major types: consanguineal, conjugal, patrifocal, and matrifocal. (Note: these are ideal types. In all societies there are acceptable deviations from the norm, owing either to incidental circumstances such as the death of a family member, infertility, or personal preferences.)
- A consanguineal or extended family consists of a husband and wife, their children, and other members of either the husband's and/or wife's family. This kind of family is common in cultures where property is inherited. In patriarchal societies where important property is owned by men, extended families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their children, the husband's parents, and other members of the husband's family. In societies where fathers are absent and mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own, the consanguineal family may consist of a mother and her children, and members of the mother's family.
- A conjugal or nuclear family consists of a father, mother, and their children. This kind of family is common where families are relatively mobile, as in modern industrialized societies. Usually there is a division of labor requiring the participation of both men and women. Nuclear families vary in the degree to which they are independent or maintain close ties to the kindreds of the parents and to other families in general.
- A patrifocal family consists of a father and his children and is found in societies where men take multiple wives (polygamy or polygyny) and/or remain involved with each for a relatively short time. This type of family is rare from a worldwide perspective, but occurs in Islamic states with considerable frequency. The laws of some Arab nations encourage this structure by allowing a maximum of four wives per man at any given time, and automatic deflection of custody rights to the father in the case of a divorce. In these societies, a man will often take a wife and may conceive a child with her, but after a relatively short time put her out of his harem so he can take another woman without exceeding the quota of four. The man then keeps his child and thus a patrifocal structure emerges. Even without the expulsion of the mother, the structure may be patrifocal because the children (often as infants) are removed from the harem structure and placed into the father's family.
- A matrifocal family consists of a mother and her children. Generally, these children are her biological offspring, although adoption of children is a practice in nearly every society. This kind of family is common where women have the resources to rear their children by themselves, or where men are more mobile than women. Today's single-parent families can be classed in this category.
- Exogamy is the custom of marrying outside a specified group of people to which a person belongs. In addition to blood relatives, marriage to members of a specific clan(s) or other group(s) may be forbidden.
- Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a social group which may include close relatives such as cousins.
The family as the basis of society
French sociologists Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882) and Emmanuel Todd have studied the connection between family type and social values. Le Play developed a four-fold typology of the family, each which inculcated a certain set of values. These values are passed on as each generation unconsciously absorbs the values of their parents. Todd added some additional types and went on to demonstrate that a country's adoption of a particular political ideology—liberal democracy or communism or fascism—correlated with its family system; and he even hypothesized "the ideological system is everywhere the intellectual embodiment of family structure."
Thus, a people's love of liberty or acceptance of authority is determined by the relationship between fathers and sons in the family. If a grown child continues to live with his parents after marriage, forming a vertical relationship within the extended family, such a family is regarded as 'authoritarian'. Within the family and within the society respect for authority has a high premium. On the other hand if a grown child leaves his family, marries and sets up an independent household, this family model is regarded as 'liberal' as it, and the society composed of such families, puts a high premium on individual independence.
Furthermore, the relationship between brothers inculcates the ideal of equality or acceptance of inequality as the natural order of things. If inheritance is by custom the equal division of the parent's property among the sons, they form egalitarian relationships. If the inheritance is by custom weighted towards the eldest son, so that brothers naturally accept the inequality among them, the values of the society include an acceptance of inequality.
Todd found a surprising correspondence between Le Play's typology of family structures with the country or region's dominant social and political values and institutions:
- Liberal and inegalitarian—these values characterize the absolute nuclear family, the family type most prevalent in Anglo-Saxon countries such as England, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and also in Holland. In these countries adult children do not live at home and parents have little authority over them. Parents divide up their inheritance in any way they choose. In such countries individual freedom is highly prized and social inequality is accepted as normal. These societies have been politically very stable and easily adapted to industrialization and modernity. The normal system of government is liberal democracy, while fascist and communist parties and ideas have never been popular as their values did not resonate with the values passed on through the family. On the other hand these countries have recently seen a high degree of family breakdown and social disintegration as the love of freedom has degenerated into selfish individualism.
- Liberal and egalitarian—these values characterize the egalitarian nuclear family, the family type most prevalent in northern France, Latin America, northern Italy, Greece, Poland, Romania Ethiopia and much of Spain and Portugal. In these countries married children do not live with their parents but the equality of brothers is laid down by rules of inheritance. The societies are often unstable as they are based on the contradictory values of liberty and equality. The political systems of these countries are unstable and seem to oscillate between phases of liberalism and dictatorship. It is noteworthy that the European country that led the overthrow of communism was Poland.
- Authoritarian and inegalitarian—these values characterize the patriarchal three-generation family, the family type most prevalent in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, and Korea. This group also includes traditional Jews, Basques, Catalans, Walloons and Gypsies. In these countries rules of inheritance decree an unbroken patrimony to one son, usually the eldest. Often the married heir lives together with his parents. Parents have a lot of authority over their children even after they have grown up. At the same time the children are treated unequally and are raised to know their place in the pecking order. These countries have tended to be resistant to universalism and are often involved in ethnic conflicts to assert their independence and particularism. They may regard themselves as superior to others. They have a tendency to slide into authoritarian government such as fascism.
- Authoritarian and egalitarian—these values characterize the exogamous community family, the family type most prevalent in Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, China, Vietnam, Cuba, central Italy and north India. Married sons live together with their parents and the inheritance is divided up equally. Such families are quite unstable as it is difficult to maintain peace and harmony when all the children live together with an authoritarian father. Hence the tendency for the brothers, who are all equal, to gang up on their father. All the old world countries that produced spontaneous communist revolutions were all of this family type. This is because the values of communism - equality and authority - resonated with the family type of these countries. Communism in practice though has led to changes in family structure so that it destroyed its own anthropological base.
- Islamic family—the endogamous community family (an additional family type described by Todd) which is characterized by equality between brothers, cohabitation of married sons with their parents and frequently marriage between cousins (endogamy). This family type is found in the Arab world, North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia. All these countries are Muslim. The countries which historically resisted Islam - Armenia, Ethiopia and northern Spain had different family types. The Qur'an unlike the Bible does not outlaw the marriage of cousins. This makes this community family more stable than the exogamous community family where sons marry women who are not relatives and thus bring their own traditions into the family causing instability.
- African family—traditional African households are polygamous and unstable. To maintain demographic balance there is frequent remarriage as well as the inheritance of wives. In the African polygamous family the woman has her own hut with her children while the father is often absent. This results in a dilution of paternal authority. The strongest relationships are between brothers. The dominant political force in most African countries is the army, which replicates the family based on brothers.
These findings from anthropology seem to support the view that the family is the foundation of society and its values. Todd theorized that social and political arrangements such as are found in liberal democracies or in socialist states are, "a transposition into social relations of the fundamental values which govern elementary human relations" in the family.
Is there an ideal family structure?
Today, many people tend to idealize the two-parent nuclear family as the ideal family structure. The man typically is responsible for income and support, the woman for home and family matters. Social conservatives often express concern over a purported decay of the family and see this as a sign of the crumbling of contemporary society. They look with alarm at the dramatic increase in households headed by single mothers and by same-sex couples. Yet anthropologists point out that these are merely variations on family types that have existed in other societies.
Even when people bypass the traditional configuration of father, mother, and their biological children, they tend to follow its patterns anyway, showing the fundamental need they feel for its structure. Couples live together and raise children, even children from previous relationships. Same-sex couples assume masculine and feminine roles and demand legal recognition of their unions; many seek to adopt children. Homeless children tend to congregate in gangs that serve as surrogate families. On the other hand, as families universally are built around the marriage bond and the responsibilities for raising children, there would seem to be some rationality to giving preference to the two-parent nuclear family—particularly over family structures headed by only one parent. As James Q. Wilson has stated:
In virtually every society in which historians or anthropologists have inquired, one finds people living together on the basis of kinship ties and having responsibility for raising children. The kinship ties invariably imply restrictions on who has sexual access to whom; the child-care responsibilities invariably imply both economic and non-economic obligations. And in virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman.
In other words, while single-parent and matrifocal families form a recognizable type, they are not the first choice where there is the possibility of forming stable two-parent families. However, where men are not strongly bound to the family unit, i.e., where a culture does not support lasting marriage or where economic hardships cause men to be apart from their wives for long periods of time, this family type becomes prevalent.
By the same token, societies where patrifocal families are the norm are vulnerable to movements for women's rights and human rights that attack marriage arrangements that do not give wives equal status with their husbands. This may lead, in the long run, to the decline of polygamy.
In many cultures, the need to be self-supporting is hard to meet, particularly where rents and property values are very high, and the foundation of a new household can be an obstacle to nuclear family formation. In these cases, extended families form. People remain single and live with their parents for a long period of time. Generally, the trend to shift from extended to nuclear family structures has been supported by increasing mobility and modernization.
Still, some argue that the extended family, or at least the three-generational family including grandparents, provides a broader and deeper foundation for raising children as well as support for the new parents. In particular, the role of grandparents has been recognized as an important aspect of the family dynamic. Having experienced the challenges of creating a family themselves, they offer wisdom and encouragement to the young parents and become a reassuring presence in the lives of their grandchildren. Abraham Maslow described the love of grandparents as "the purest love for the being of the other."
The emotional pull of these intergenerational encounters remains strong even for those who have split off to form nuclear families. Individuals who leave the village and their extended families for the economic benefits of life in the city may feel a sense of isolation and a longing for the thick relationships and warm love of the extended family of their origin. This suggests that, economic issues aside, people are happiest living in extended families, or in nuclear families that treasure close bonds with their kinfolk.
A strong nuclear or extended family provides a haven of love and intimacy. It offers maximum opportunities for personal growth through its matrix of relationships—with spouse, parents, grandparents, siblings, and children. A strong family provides a social support network that its members are able to rely on in times of stress. The rise of single-parent households due to the absence of husbands represents reversion to a different family structure, one that is prone to isolation and provides weaker social support.
The two-parent family is important in the development of children and beneficial to their mental and emotional health. A strong conjugal bond between the parents provides the child security and a model for conjugal love to which he or she can aspire. The father's steady and responsible provision for the family provides a positive male role model for boys and a model of an ideal husband for young girls. Thus from an early age, children gain a positive sense of self-worth, sexual identity, and confidence about their future. Divorce or the chronic absence of one parent teaches the opposite lesson: that life is insecure, that the child is not lovable, that the child cannot hope for a successful marriage, that men are irresponsible and unsuitable as marriage partners, and so on. Statistically, children of single-parent families have a higher incidence of criminality, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and depression.
The extended family provides a superior alternative to the nuclear family in many cultures, expanding the family dynamic intergenerationally. Grandparents offer a unique form of support to the family, both to the parents and to the children. When a newly married couple moves far away from their parents, establishing their own nuclear family, isolation from their extended family may prove stressful. Families in which three generations interact in close harmony provide the greatest support for successfully raising children, connecting them to their family traditions and giving value to their lineage.
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved May 27, 2021.
- National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (NHMRC) – NHMRC is a national resource and clearinghouse for information and research relating to healthy marriages.
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- Focus on the Family
- Family and Marriage - The Anscombe Society
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