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March 2, 2020 by Robert Franklin,JD, Member, National Board of Directors

This article by New York Times columnist David Brooks is well worth reading (The Atlantic, March, 2020).  It provides a huge amount of information and a point of view that demands attention.  At the same time, Brooks misses a lot.

His thesis is the family or, more precisely, its decline.  Brooks sketches (very lightly) the history of the family and finds that the typical living arrangement for most people during most times has been that of the extended family.  That of course is generally true.  For countless reasons, extended families – mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews, cousins – lived together.  That provided a certain security for all involved.  If one person got sick, there was someone with the time to care for him.  If one person became disabled and couldn’t work, others took up the slack.

Plus, as the social capital theory of child well-being has it, all those relatives made different perspectives on the world, different skills (Uncle John makes really good shoes!) and different resources available to kids and in fact to everyone.

The extended family proved over many centuries to be a pretty stable and competent way of living.

But…

Brooks sets up the extended family and the nuclear family in opposition to each other, as if the one had nothing to do with the other, as if we can have one or the other but not both.  I doubt he actually believes that, but he writes as if he does.  Indeed the title to his piece is “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”  The simple truth is that, for all times, the nuclear family was, well, the nucleus of the extended family.  Where did all those aunts, uncles and grandparents come from, after all?  They were present because of one thing – their relationship to Mom, Dad and the kids who made up the nuclear family.

More importantly, Brooks nowhere seems to grasp that the nuclear family, of which he’s more than a little dismissive, now exists apart from the extended family because of our great success as an economy, culture and society.  The clear and simple fact is that extended families existed for so long because everything around them was too fragile and dangerous for them not to.  Up until well into the Industrial Revolution, there was too little surplus value to go around.  People generally were poor in ways that we now have difficulty imagining.  People died far earlier than they do today.  The average age at death in England in 1800 was 40 years; today it’s almost twice that.  The prospect of early death strongly militated in favor of extended families whose very size cushioned the blow.

And of course there was the need for labor.  Up until very recently, most people lived on farms.  In fact, it was one of the signal results of the Great Depression in this country that, for the first time in our history, more people lived in cities than did not.  And up until very recently, farming was very little mechanized.  That meant that it was hard physical labor.  And that in turn meant that the more people you had to do it, the better that labor got done.  Ergo, extended families.

The point being that essentially none of those conditions that urged people to live in extended families now exist.  We in the U.S. live in a society that, by historical standards is almost unimaginably prosperous.  Labor-saving technology means that there’s comparatively little “heavy lifting” to do.  Medical science prolongs life to previously unheard-of lengths.

In short, the decline of the extended family precisely mirrors our success in essentially all the ways in which people have always wanted to succeed.

To his credit, Brooks isn’t calling for a return to living in extended families.  He understands that that’s not going to happen.  What he is concerned about is what we do next.  He’s right to do so.

If people have always lived in extended families with the nuclear family at the core, and if our many advances have knocked the props out from under that tradition, what’s to be done?  It’s a good question and one that needs an answer.  Unfortunately, Brooks isn’t equal to the task.

I’ll have more to say about that next time, but for now I’ll only address two points.

First, Brooks dispenses far too easily with the nuclear family.  As I noted earlier, he begins by failing to notice that, in every extended family, there’s a nuclear one.  From there he goes on to point out that nuclear families are more vulnerable than extended ones.  Dad, Mom and two kids living in a detached, single-family house is a fundamentally less secure arrangement than that nuclear family plus 20 relatives.  That is true.

But Brooks goes on to conclude that, because nuclear families aren’t as stable as extended ones, then they’re doomed to extinction, or at least are nothing to count on in the future.  It’s an illogical leap and very likely a wrong one.

He overlooks a lot in that discussion, about which I’ll have more to say later.  But for now I can only note one astonishing gap in his narrative – the role of family courts in destroying the nuclear family.  About that, Brooks says not one word.  The fact that, against the enormous weight of science and common sense, public policy in every way militates against the survival of the nuclear family, escapes Brooks entirely.  Yes, the nuclear family is more fragile than were extended families, so why make it even more so as a matter of intentional policy? 

Brooks doesn’t ask the question.  It’s an unacceptable oversight and one that’s well-nigh fatal to his overall theme.

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