David Brooks: The nuclear family was a mistake
Yet the search for alternate forms of family has two major flaws. First, there’s evidence indicating that the nuclear family is, in fact, recovering. Second, a nuclear family headed by two loving married parents remains the most stable and safest environment for raising children.
There are, of course, still reasons for legitimate concern about the state of the American family. Marriage today is less likely to anchor family life in many poor and working-class communities. While a majority of college-educated men and women between 18 and 55 are married, that’s no longer true for the poor (only 26 percent are married) and the working class (39 percent). What’s more, children from these families are markedly less likely to live under the same roof as their biological parents than their peers from better-off backgrounds are.
But there is also ample good news—especially for kids.
Today, the divorce rate is down, having fallen by more than 30 percent since peaking around 1980, in the wake of the divorce revolution. And, since the Great Recession, out-of-wedlock births are now dipping as well. Less divorce and less nonmarital childbearing means that more children are being raised in stable, married families. Since 2014, the share of kids in intact families has begun to climb, reversing a decades-long trend in the opposite direction. And as Brooks noted—citing research that one of us conducted at the University of Virginia—the nuclear family headed by married parents remains a personal ideal even among men and women who harbor no moral objections to alternative family structures.
None of this suggests that scholars and social commentators are wrong to extol the role extended families can play in improving children’s lives. In her New York Times article raising questions about the importance of the two-parent home, Cross hypothesized that living closer to extended family may actually be helping protect black children “against some of the negative effects associated with parental absence from the home.” And, in Brooks’s evocative telling, the alternatives to the nuclear family hold enormous promise: “Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families,” arrangements that “allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms.”
Grandparents, for example, are sharing homes with children and grandchildren; single adults and single parents are forging novel alliances on websites like CoAbode, where, according to Brooks, “single mothers can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home.” These emerging arrangements not only afford people more freedom to choose their own ties that bind, but they also promise to fill the void left in the absence of a strong nuclear family.