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adrw // Andrew Alexander

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

Books, Author(David Brooks)6 min read

2020 | David Brooks

No, David Brooks' article is not "technically" a book. Yes, it was over 10,000 words. Call it a non-fiction novella. Either way, it left me with many thoughts, and I'd recommend the read.

The Article

The Atlantic March 2020

While not a book, this extensive Atlantic article details statistically and anecdotally the decay of the North American culture as a result of the transition from 1870 to 1920, and perfected from 1950-1965, of the married-parents-with-2.5-kids nuclear family.

In contrast to the "corporate families" of the past where households would not uncommonly have a dozen members, many involved with a family business, and with a primary benefit in the raising of children by many non-parent but extend family adults; nuclear families are isolated from extended families. Mothers bear the brunt of domestic and childrearing duties, and after 1970 a balance of work responsibilities. Everyone is encouraged towards a splintering off future where each individual follows their own dreams, and every child leaves the nest to start their own nuclear family.

The hyper-individualism most clearly seen in the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s began earlier with the shift from the extended family to the nuclear family, granting a primary benefit to the adults who, if wealthy or surrounded by a close-knit community of neighbours, could thrive in individualistic work environments and through their wealth shed their time consuming responsibilities to their children and extended families that now are filled by nannies, coaches, tutors, after-school programs, summer camps, elder care volunteers, and nursing homes.

The fragility of the nuclear family is striking in contrast to that of the extended family. A single divorce or strained relationship between parent and child is often enough to destroy entirely any resemblance of the family forever, while in an extended family many are present to provide support and step in when tensions are high or relationships falter.

The carnage on kids and single parents alike that has resulted from the single parenting that nuclear families have splintered into is well documented statistically. For example, in a recent year two-thirds of Black children in the US lived in single-parent homes, and 8-12% of children in the US have lived in at least 3 "parental partnerships" resulting from the traumatic moving in and out of their parent's old and new partner.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

Yet when it comes analysis or a path forward when faced with the above carnage caused by this modern North American experiment of the nuclear family, Brooks notes that neither conservatives or liberals have satisfactory responses.

Conservatives tend to cling to the 1955 nuclear family as the ideal to be aspired to, pointing to all the societal success metrics of that time (and not noting the economic, social, and cultural stars that aligned to make that possible for a short 15 year period). If Blacks and other minorities are in poverty, they often claim it is a result of not having a stable family home (true) and also that they should just stay married and raise children in a nuclear family (false; almost impossible in the mire of economic and societal circumstances in which the non-wealthy, non-educated live). In much of their commentary, many seem unwilling to yield an inch of individualistic freedom for the collective strengthened relationships and economic circumstances resulting from extended family living or kinship communities.

Liberals recognize some of the downsides of the nuclear family as it related to women's role in the home and other limitations on personal freedom; and thus suggest that any expression of family or freedom is better than the constrictions of traditional family structures. Yet, Brooks notes, certain family structures (ie. the extended "corporate family") work better, period; for kids, for parents, for elderly, for communities, for countries. Liberals do not have any guidance or path forward or even acknowledgement of what has been lost from the extended family pattern that has dominated human civilization (and still does in most non-Western parts of the world); but instead continue to play the broken record that started sounding loudly in the 1960s that freedom to form families and relationships without care to structure, tradition, responsibilities, children, religion, or what works is what will free society from the poverty and troubles of today (ignoring any of the statistics Brooks raises that prove precisely the opposite – the loss and fracture of families have devastated the United States and countries with similar cultures).

Both Liberals and Conservatives are trapped in the chains of ideological individualism, unable to see how it has torn away at the beneficial and resilient extended family structure until the new theoretically ideal nuclear family splintered into many broken homes and has been instrumental in the downfall and destruction of most aspects of North American economics, culture, and society.

I do find Brooks prescriptive suggestion of how to fix the nuclear family crisis a bit incomplete, suggesting that inventing new forms of kinship communities modelled over native bands is the path forward. Though it perhaps could work if every person in society was placed in one, the non-viral spread will limit how much of a solution it can be. For example, if one person decides to make more of an effort to move (or even live) with extended family and draw them all in to a closer familial community, that single person can change their entire family. Though Brooks' suggestion could work for an individual looking to find community, it doesn't begin to point to a broader solution that helps children, parents, or elderly extended family who are also looking for community but may not have the means to go and find one or who haven't read The Atlantic to learn about kinship communities.

The Podcast

Dads Building Teams Podcast May 14, 2020

I was introduced to the above riveting article by my favourite founders of the Family Teams movement, Jeff Bethke and Jeremy Pryor, on their Dad's Building Teams podcast.

I'd highly recommend listening to their commentary which agrees broadly with Brooks' accurate diagnosis, of which they have been warning for years the flaws and perilous results, of the nuclear family; yet presents a different solution than Brooks lands on.

Where Brooks points to a Native band inspired vision of non-biologically related people choosing to join together for periods of time in close extended-family-like kinship communities, Jeff & Jeremy continue to present a path forward to a new version of the extended family of old.

Though the process has taken Jeremy 15 years, he now has built a life where his parents, his family with 5 kids, and a sibling's family, all live on the same property. Iteratively building on the idea of aiming towards the "perfect week" (punctuated by Sabbath), where the relationships to be invested in are consistently nurtured and poured into, Jeremy has rotating 1:1 time with his kids, date night with his wife, leads a Bible study for other men with his father, and have raised his kids getting to spend extended time day to day and week to week with present grandparents providing care, stories, moral teaching, and character development.

When Jeff & his wife moved to Maui around 2013, her parents ended up selling their home and moving to live close to them. This decision to prioritize proximity and extended family has meant that similar to Jeremy, Jeff's three kids (all born since then) are growing up experiencing their grandparents, hearing their stories, beckoning them to play, and being nurtured by more moral adults than simply their parents.

Jeff & Jeremy point out that where the nuclear family stands on the fallacy that familial bonds will remain close out of the obligation of the small number of them, the 7-Day-Family-Team approach realistically sees that close relationships will not be built unless lifestyles are constructed to repeatedly foster them.

Trading individualistic freedom and pursuits for deeper, deliberate relationships with spouse, kids, and extended family is a core part to forming a lasting multi-generational Family Team; and in Jeff & Jeremy's case, well worth the "sacrifice" of a bit of each person's individual ambition.

I've seen personally and in so many lives around me the unmet potential of nuclear families and am striving and seeking to follow in Jeff & Jeremy's footsteps in building a multi-generational family team that will benefit my children and my children's children, and be part of the tide turning back towards extended families.

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