A “conventional” family is often thought of as the typical father, mother and one or more children, where the father works and the mother stays at home. While many families in the past may have followed this structure, families are becoming more varied these days. It has become commonplace for women to work the same jobs as men, creating some households where the men are the ones who stay at home and the women are the breadwinners. Yet other families are headed by gay or lesbian couples, foster parents, step-parents or single parents, some of whom have never been married. In more than two-thirds of American families today, both parents work jobs away from home.
The conventional norm has shifted so much that even in “normal” families, children will sooner or later find out about peers with different family structures, which will raise questions regarding what exactly constitutes an ordinary family. Well, the definition of “family” depends on who you ask. Some will say that a family has to be blood-related to one another, while others believe that any two people in a relationship and their children can be called a family. Yet others think that anyone can live together and call themselves a family. Some people may live in a household with three or more generations within – the children, their parents and grandparents. Or two single parents may decide to live together and share a home with their children for practical reasons – be it saving on expenses, providing their children with more playmates, protecting each other, or something else. Best friends and their children may think of themselves as a large extended family. Even in brotherhoods and fraternities, the members often considered themselves to be a family. In the end, whichever structure a family takes on, the most important factor is that its members share their lives with one another and mutually take on the responsibilities of family life.
In spite of the wide variations in family structures, many people still have the concept of a nuclear family – the poster conventional family, consisting of one father, one mother and their children. Those hailing from different households may be regarded as an anomaly. Although most people think that this family structure is the most common and universal, it is actually only a recent development. The nuclear family is in fact the prevailing family structure in the United States today – with 69 per cent of children living in these families as of 2016 – but it was not always so. Centuries ago, people typically lived with multiple generations in one household. It was common for grandparents to live with their children and relatives to live close by, usually on the same farm or village. Nomadic tribes would live in tents, with each clan occupying one tent. As civilization and urbanization developed, more people left the suburban and rural areas to live in the city. Some of them moved without their parents and grandparents, while others may have purchased a separate home for their elders due to space constraints. Eventually, the nuclear family structure developed. It became common for young adults to move out from under their parents’ roofs the moment they came of age. Instead of living together as one large community, families were split up and spread all over different regions.
Single parenting has been on the rise of late. While proponents of traditional nuclear families might argue that children need both parents to develop well, there are numerous stories of single parenthood that have turned out wonderfully, as well as numerous stories where it did not work out so well. Undeniably, single parenting is no easy task, although it can be very rewarding if done right. Single parents often struggle with making enough income to support their children, especially if they have multiple young children. They are often depicted as stressed individuals without enough time in the day to take care of their children and go to work. Despite the challenges, many single parents still manage to raise their children as well as any nuclear family, resulting in very close bonds between all the family members.
Yet other children are being raised by their grandparents. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 4.5 million children in the United States are being raised by 2.4 million grandparents. While people may hardly expect grandparents to do the double duty of first raising their children followed by their grandchildren, this may occur if the parents are unable to care for their children. For instance, the parents may both be incarcerated, deceased, too young, abusive, addicts or otherwise unable to provide a safe environment for their children. To prevent the children from ending up in foster homes, some grandparents step up to care for them. This can be difficult both financially and physically, as the grandparents are unlikely to still be earning a regular income. They could also be dealing with health issues, making it difficult and tiring for them to raise young children. However, grandparent-headed families can also blossom, allowing the children to bond with the grandparents as any other child would bond with their parents in a nuclear family.
Has the development of children changed together with family structure? Perhaps so. When most children were living with generations of elders, they may have grown up in a more tradition-oriented household and may have been more in tune with their heritage. Today, children come from all sorts of homes. Some do not know their biological families, while others have never returned to the place of their birth. It is true that there have been shifts in the population’s overall health, but it is difficult to pinpoint whether these changes have been due to changes in family structure or other external factors. As society continues to progress and family structures change even further, almost everybody on the street will know someone from an unconventional family – if not themselves.
The nuclear family structure did prevail for a reason – it was seen as the most ideal and stable for raising children. However, it is not the only means to bring up healthy children. Just as children with single parents, extended families, grandparents, foster families or step-families could develop both ways, the same goes for children in nuclear families. Some families work out, while others fall into disrepair and eventually split up. Consider President Barack Obama, who was raised in an unconventional family, yet still rose to the seat of highest political power in the nation.
In summary, there is no such thing as a conventional or an unconventional family. The success rates of each family type do not appear to favour any particular direction. As long as the children feel that they belong to their household and can share their lives with their parents, siblings and other people they live with, there is certainly no obstacle preventing them from developing healthily.