The nuclear family consists of a married couple and their children, either natural or adopted, who reside within the same household. Because the nuclear family is based on marriage, it is also called the “conjugal family.” Nuclear families form around marriage, a legal relationship that includes economic cooperation, sexual activity, and childbearing and childrearing, which people expect to last. Although many different types of family exist in North America, the nuclear family has long been considered the norm.
The origin of the nuclear family is connected to the economic and social changes of the industrial revolution. The nuclear family’s smaller size, in relation to the larger extended family, was considered better suited for moving closer to the occupational opportunities the industrial revolution created.
The traditional view of the nuclear family consisting of a husband and wife and their dependent children living within the same household is based on the ideal of the husband/father breadwinner and the wife/mother as the family caretaker. However, the male breadwinner/female caretaker nuclear family was only possible when men could earn enough to support their families. Throughout history, many nuclear families have had to rely on wages earned by women in order to remain economically stable.
With specific gender roles, the nuclear family becomes a distinctive group, whose function in society is to socialize the children and to provide emotional support, love, and affection for the family members. As the family members turn to each other for emotional gratification, the home is seen as a safe haven and private retreat from the larger community.
The prevailing view of the nuclear family coming about with the industrial revolution may be a myth. The examination of birth, death, and marriage records from 17th-century English and American households shows that the dominant family form was nuclear. Sociologists now believe that the concept of childhood, a period of time to train and prepare children to become adults, emerged during the 17th century. The increased importance given to the welfare of children necessitated the formation of close bonds among family members and the stability of the family unit.
The nuclear family is also seen as an isolated, independent unit that is self-reliant within society. This view assumes that the nuclear family’s association with relatives is distant and that the extended family does not play an important role in the nuclear family. However, many nuclear families do remain within the same geographic location as their relatives. Extended family members often provide services, such as child care and financial assistance. For families that are scattered across the United States, modern transportation and communication help families maintain their bonds.
Today, many feel that the stability of the nuclear family is being threatened by divorce, cohabitation, single parenthood, and gay and lesbian couples. It is feared that the breakdown of the nuclear family will lead to the breakdown of society. Despite these “threats” to the nuclear family, most people still want to be a part of this family structure. The nuclear family will likely remain a foundation of U.S. society for some time to come.
- Adams, Bert A. 1995. The Family: A Sociological Interpretation. 5th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
- Coontz, Stephanie. 2000. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books.
- Hutter, Mark. 1998. The Changing Family. 3rd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
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