Nuclear family

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A nuclear family is a family comprising father, mother and children living together, but no other relatives or boarders. By contrast an extended family includes other persons living in the household, such as grandparents or non-related people.

During the past four decades, historians and historical demographers have argued that historical Northwest Europe and North America had a unique family system characterized by neolocal marriage and nuclear family structure. In other societies—such as Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa—powerful clans, senior patriarchs, and duties to and extended kinship networks were dominant factors in shaping extended families.

For both nuclear and extended families, marriages were usually arranged by parents before the 19th century. Starting in the 19th century the nuclear family was increasingly based on romantic love, allowing young people to choose their mates with less parental control. Some argue that the concept of the nuclear family is really not based on the Bible,[1] but on Northwest European culture that has been productive and prosperous.

African American families

Nuclear family structures are much less common among African-Americans, who have typically have families that are matriarchal (controlled by the mothers and grandmothers), with a passive role for the often-absent father. Among all Americans, African-Americans are the least likely to marry, when they marry, they do so later and spend less time married than other Americans, and they are the least likely to stay married. Causal factors include structural factors such as the disparity in sex ratios between African American males and females and employment instability among African American males. Cultural factors include changing cultural trends such as marriage not being a perquisite for sex, the independence of women, the shift from familism to individualism, cohabitation as an increasing option, and the promotion of the values of materialism through popular culture. Individual factors stem from an internalization of cultural values that affects people's perceptions of marriage and their expectations of potential mates, their willingness to commit to a relationship that can lead to marriage, and, once they marry, their willingness to sustain the marriage through the challenges it will face. Added to this is the fact that, until recent federal funding in 2006, there was little or no education to help couples sustain relationships to marriage or sustain the marriage after they are married.[2]

Popular culture

Leave It To Beaver was a popular situation comedy on American television, 1957-63.

It has become an icon of stable suburban family life and moral decision-making in a world of small human foibles and no great issues. Commentators note the happy era it depicted is long gone.

The plot revolved around the life of Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, a pre-adolescent boy living in an upscale, middle-class neighborhood in the innocent years of the 1950s.

In its "Golden Age," television served as a kind of social training film; sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best were all prime-time staples that taught Americans newly arrived in the suburbs from city tenements how to act middle-class.

Central to each Beaver episode was the interplay between big brother Wally and little Theodore. Their boyish attempts to navigate the social currents of school, girls, and adolescence were often tinged with frustration and loneliness. In one early episode, when Beaver is worried that his teacher will hit him over a minor mess-up, Wally corrects him: "Only the coach can hit you."

June Cleaver, a typical housewife and mother, remained calm amid household tumult, providing crucial guidance to her sons while shielding them from nefarious outside influences with a matronly force of will. Her protection was frequently needed against the pernicious intrigues of Eddie Haskell. He engaged in impulsive, selfish, disruptive, and malevolent schemes, almost evil personified. For crafty Eddie, each day was one more step toward the twilight of the adults, which would herald his ascension to neighborhood ruler.

The father Ward Cleaver was a Solomon-like figure of quiet dignity who dispensed parental justice tempered with understanding. Perceptive viewers knew his furrowed brow and clenched jaw were hints of serious inner turmoil, reminiscent of the anger toward society and unfulfilled economic dreams that tormented Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman," the classic 1949 play about dysfunctional families.


A comparison of how children interact with their brothers and sisters on such 1950's situation comedy television programs as 'Leave It To Beaver' and 'Father Knows Best' with those on such 1980s programs as 'The Cosby Show' and 'Family Ties' found that children interacted more positively in the early period but were important and central - if more conflictual - to the main story action in the 1980s.[3]


Some radical feminists have attacked and ridiculed the nuclear family claiming it creates sharply bounded roles for women that are too narrow and powerless.

Feminist Alison Jaggar notes that "some feminists also criticized [nuclear] traditional family values because of their broader social implications. Radical feminists charged that the nuclear family promoted a norm of heterosexuality, regarded as indispensable for maintaining male dominance, whereas Marxist and socialist feminists argued that the nuclear family fulfilled a variety of vital economic functions for capitalist society."[4]

The line of attack caused a backlash among women, and is heard less often since the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s.

See also

Further reading

  • Bleser, Carol, ed. In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South. (1991). 330 pp.
  • Bradbury, Bettina, ed. Canadian Family History: Selected Readings. (1992).
  • Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Public Era, (1984), World War II; covers housewives, nurses, Wacs, war-workers
  • Degler, Carl. At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (1980).
  • Demos, John. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970) influential pioneering study
  • Elder, Jr., Glen H. "History and the Family: The Discovery of Complexity." Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Aug., 1981), pp. 489–519 in JSTOR
  • Gillis, John. For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (1985).
  • Gordon. Michael, ed. The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective (2nd ed. 1978), essays by scholars
  • Griswold, Robert L. Fatherhood in America: A History. (1993). 382 pp.
  • Hartog, Hendrik. Man and Wife in America: A History. (2000) 408 pp. , legal history.
  • Hawes, Joseph M,. and Elizabeth I Nybakken, eds. Family and Society in American History (2001), essays by scholars excerpt and text search
  • Hareven, Tamara K. "The Home and the Family in Historical Perspective." Social Research 1991 58(1): 253-285. Issn: 0037-783x in EBSCO
  • Hareven, Tamara K. "The History of the Family and the Complexity of Social Change. American Historical Review 1991 96(1): 95-124. Issn: 0002-8762 in Jstor
  • Hunter, Jean E. and Mason, Paul T., eds. The American Family: Historical Perspectives. (1991). 211 pp.
  • Laslett, Peter and Wall, Richard, eds. Household and Family in Past Time. (1972).
  • Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (1988), 316pp; the standard scholarly history excerpt and text search
  • Riley, Glenda. Building and Breaking Families in the American West. (1996). 204 pp.
  • Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977).
  • Sussman, Marvin B. "The Isolated Nuclear Family: Fact or Fiction," Social Problems, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Spring, 1959), pp. 333–340 in JSTOR, good starting point for 1950s
  • Watts, Jim and Davis, Allen F. Generations: Your Family in Modern American History. (1974). 210 pp.


  2. Patricia Dixon, "Marriage Among African Americans: What Does the Research Reveal?" Journal of African American Studies, (March 2009), Vol. 13 Issue 1, pp 29-46,
  3. Mary Strom Larson, "Sibling Interactions in 1950s Versus 1980s Sitcoms: A Comparison," Journalism Quarterly 1991 68(3): 381-387
  4. Alison M. Jaggar, ed. Living with Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics. (1994) p 382.