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March 3, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Last time I began discussing this article by NYT columnist David Brooks (The Atlantic, 3/2020).  It’s title – “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” - indicates both Brooks’ thesis and where it jumped the tracks.

As I said before, Brooks extols the extended family as having been the bedrock of human society for almost all of our history.  That’s true enough, but where he goes wrong is failing to acknowledge that the extended family only existed because of the nuclear one.  All those many aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. came together solely because of their relationships with Dad, Mom and their children.

That’s more than an incidental error on his part, because it leads to Brooks’ subsection entitled “The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family,” in which we find,

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy…

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

But the nuclear family didn’t begin in 1950 or end in 1965.  It far predated the former and survives fairly nicely today, despite our best efforts at its destruction.  Still, having set those parameters on the nuclear family, Brooks leaps to the conclusion that, for Mom, Dad and the kids, time is up.  And that in turn leads him to the final part of his article in which he attempts to imagine alternatives to the nuclear family that, one assumes, fit our Brave New World better.

The problems with all that are myriad, but most important is Brooks’ passive acceptance of mini-trends.  He writes as if the decline of the two-parent family is, for some ill-defined reason, inevitable.  And, given that highly dubious conclusion, Brooks exempts himself from examining policies that did so much to damage the nuclear family.  And, having done that, he can avoid suggesting policy alternatives that could reverse those trends.

In short, he hastens to his preferred topic – new modes of living – without adequately justifying the need for doing so.  What are his thoughts on the sexual revolution of the 60s?  The Pill?  No-fault divorce?  Radical feminism’s relentless denigration of all things masculine and its frank attacks on the family?  The domestic violence industry and its 45-year history of misrepresentations of family life?  The divorce industry?  The adoption industry?  Welfare policies?  Alimony?  Child support?

Some of that is hortatory, but much is a matter of established public policy and all of it tends in one direction – the break-up of the nuclear family.  If the nuclear family is in decline, it’s because we chose that path.  Indeed, we choose it every day, countless times a day. 

The simple fact is that much public policy that impacts the family is wrongheaded and needs to be changed.  Brooks failure to even mention the possibility of reform is deadly for his article.  The entire point of the piece is to convince readers that (a) the nuclear family was a mistake, (b) we didn’t need it anyway and (c) there are perfectly serviceable alternatives.  It’s impossible to make the case for those alternatives when the end of the nuclear family is anything but inevitable.

And of course Brooks nowhere mentions certain biological basics that strongly militate against his desired retreat from the nuclear family.  Nowhere does Brooks betray the least knowledge about how children attach to their parents and vice versa.  Having avoided that subject too, he’s also able to miss the stickiest wicket of all - the fact that no one takes better care of kids than do their biological parents. 

Brooks wants to cast aside the nuclear family and try something else, but no one with a knowledge of children’s welfare agrees.  What they want to do is strengthen the family, because the more we do that, the better are children’s outcomes and the stronger, healthier, happier and less dysfunctional society becomes.

Next time I’ll get into what Brooks imagines can replace that “mistake,” the nuclear family.

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