The traditional definition of a nuclear family is a family unit that includes two married parents of opposite genders and their biological or adopted children living in the same residence. However, the term "nuclear family" can mean several different things in today's society. Understanding the classic roles in this type of family and how it is defined can help you understand the relationships in your own family, whether it's nuclear or not.
History of the Nuclear Family
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term "nuclear family" was first used in 1947, but the concept of a family that consists of just parents and children is much older. This basic unit of a family's structure has existed for millennia, but it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that the nuclear family became the majority situation. At that time, industrial economic booms and rising wages made it possible for young parents to afford their own homes without living with extended family members. At the same time, better healthcare contributed to the nuclear family, as elderly members became more self-sufficient and independent for decades after their children were grown.
Today, the era of the nuclear family is often glamorized, complete with mom in the kitchen, dad out earning the paychecks, and the kids building a tree house or hosting a stuffed animal tea party. In reality, there is no ideal type of family, and today's definition of a nuclear family can greatly differ from shat it was a few decades ago.
Who Is Part of a Nuclear Family
A nuclear family, also called a conjugal, elementary, or traditional family, typically consists of two married or legally-bound parents and their biological or adopted children all living in the same residence and sharing the values, duties, and responsibilities of the family unit. There can be any number of children in the family, and one or both parents may work outside the home.
There are pros and cons to the small, nuclear family.
- Family members develop greater self-sufficiency and independence
- Family members share the strongest bonds with their immediate relatives
- Less conflict of family values across different generations
- Less support emotionally or financially for individual family members
- Less contact with extended family members may result in lost traditions or poor communication
- Smaller families may be less resilient in emergencies due to a smaller support structure
Each family adapts according to its size and needs, and just because a family may be defined as nuclear does not mean there are no strong bonds with extended family members. How each family encourages family values and connections varies, and there is no right or wrong family style.
Changing Definition of Nuclear Families
The nuclear family today may be in the minority considering the increasing diversity of Western societies. While the classic definition of a nuclear family may only include two parents of opposite genders, today's definition often includes two-parent families with same sex parents raising the biological children of one parent or the children that both have adopted. Other types of families, such as single parents, non-married parents, foster families, blended families, and couples without children are on the rise, and the traditional nuclear family, while still strong, is increasingly in the minority.
The difference between the nuclear family and the extended family is that a nuclear family refers to a single basic family unit of parents and their children, whereas the extended family refers to their relatives, as well – such as grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, etc. In many cultures, and particularly indigenous societies, the extended family unit rather than the nuclear family unit is the most common basic form of social organization.
A nuclear family is limited, according to Kristy Jackson of Colorado State University, to one or two parents (e.g. a father and mother) and their own child, or children, living together in a single house or other dwelling. In anthropology, they only must be related in this fashion; there is no upper or lower limit on the number of children in a nuclear family.
The extended family is a much more nebulous term, but in essence refers to kin or relations not covered by the above definition. In historical Europe and Asia as well as in Middle Eastern, African, and American Aboriginal cultures, extended family groups were typically the most basic unit of social organization. The term can differ in specific cultural settings, but generally includes people related in age or by lineage. Anthropologically, the term “extended family” refers to such a group living together in a household, often with three generations living together (grandparents, parents, and children) and headed in patriarchal societies by the eldest man or by some other chosen leadership figure. However, in common parlance, the term “extended family” is often used by people simply to refer to their cousins, aunts, uncles, and so on, even though they are not living together in a single group.
Historically, most people in the world have lived in extended family groupings rather than in nuclear families. This was even true in Europe and in the early United States, where multiple generations often lived together for economic reasons. During the 20th century, average income rose high enough that living apart as nuclear families became a viable option for the vast majority of the American population. In contrast, many indigenous societies and residents of developing countries continue to have multiple generations living in the same household. The rise of the nuclear family in the modern West does not necessarily mean that family arrangements have stabilized, either. The rapid growth in single-parent households, for instance, also represents a substantial change to the traditional nuclear family. More couples are also choosing not to have children at all.