The Nuclear Family Was No Mistake: A Response to David Brooks

We're growing more disconnected, but the nuclear familly isn't at fault.

Posted Feb 27, 2020

By Kelly-Sikkema via Upslash, used with permission
Source: By Kelly-Sikkema via Upslash, used with permission

In a thought-provoking article covering an array of societal challenges, David Brooks declares that “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” I share many of the concerns he articulates about social fragmentation, but I believe he errs by implying that—in a maelstrom of change and growing disconnection—the nuclear family is the villain in our story.

From the standpoint of biology, sociology, psychology, or of different faiths, it is widely accepted that little humans have advantages if they are looked after by two adults sharing a bond. Although scholars can argue the reasons why, and there are plenty of exceptions to the general case, a strong commitment between two parents is a fundamental good. That will often take the form of a nuclear family, which may or may not be further connected in a community. Further, I believe there is substantial evidence that the nuclear family has been around a lot longer than implied in Brook’s piece (e.g., see this brief overview by European historian, Peter Laslett). The nuclear family is one of the fundamental building blocks of family, extended families, and communities.

Brooks acknowledges the benefits of two-parent families and of marriage, refining his focus from the sweeping accusation of the title to detached nuclear families. Disconnection and isolation are his real targets, and those are deeply important problems. But, in his article, the nuclear family seems like a passenger along for the ride in a car leaving the scene of the crimes Brooks describes—when the car is driven by us. By us, I mean most all of us, motivated by our desires for autonomy and freedom.

In fact, Brooks states, “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families.” That is a profound truth, and it describes what gets too little attention from Brooks. He says the market wants us to live in greater isolation, but maybe it’s us doing the wanting. He is especially disturbed that autonomy and separated living is so clearly displayed in countries with the most concentrated wealth. A lot of the problems we see may be caused by what most people want—even if those things also have downsides for individuals and society.

I remember being in a room of scholars 20 or more years ago when family historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued that much of the increase in family fragmentation then observed was driven by growing affluence. She was not referring to wealth inequality but to the growing affluence across America that gave wings to autonomy.

Brooks gives the example of how many fewer elderly Americans now live with kin than in the past. An unasked question is, how many elderly Americans want to have less autonomy and live with their kin? Many elderly adults in America are isolated and at increased risk. More than a few want increased connection with family and a growing number simply have no kin. But many others cling to their autonomy and will fight to keep it until reality forces them to do otherwise. In the past, few people had the option to preserve autonomy in this way. Some forms of living that Brooks extols as better in the past were quite likely, and largely, driven by poverty, fear, and necessity.

I am not arguing that there is virtue in isolation and atomization. I do think we are losing, or letting go of, common spaces for connection in our lives. Many of us want what may not actually be best for us or those around us. Paul Amato and colleagues wrote an insightful book on the growing trend for couples to isolate and be Alone Together. It’s Bowling Alone for two. This trend toward isolation has many causes, and, as Brooks notes, the consequences are different for those with and without means. As Sarah Halpern-Meekin has written, those in poverty are not merely suffering from economic poverty but also from Social Poverty. She suggests this is a growing problem for all, with particular challenges for those struggling with economic hardship.

What do people seem to want? You can infer the most about what people truly desire when they have more options and fewer constraints. As a group, those with higher education and incomes—those with the most options—are now over-represented among those with stable marriages and nuclear families. Although it might have changed since they first wrote on the subject, Katherine Edin and Maria Kefalas found that the desire to marry exists among the poor despite barriers in reaching that goal. People have preferences, the expression of which is affected by their quality of opportunity.

Not only are those with more education choosing marriage, they are increasingly sorting into two-parent families with the best odds for a stable family life. Many scholars, including Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang, have remarked on the resulting chasm between the haves and have nots. Not everyone wants marriage, and fewer adults than ever before desire to be parents, but those with the best options seem to be the most likely to choose a marriage-based, nuclear family. As Cherlin suggests and Brooks implies, this fact is becoming a multiplier of income and wealth inequality, but I do not think having fewer nuclear families is going to lead to having more extended families with connections. Brooks errs in making the nuclear family the fall guy for very real and complex problems in family inequality and individual opportunity.

I strongly agree with Brooks that isolation is winning out over community. Along with detailing various types of government efforts that he believes may help in the broader context, he brings his essay home by focusing on ways we can work toward creating more social connection, partly by forged families. This is, in part, the province of commitment on a personal level, where we can choose to connect and share our lives with others. While we naturally eschew constraints in favor of freedom, commitment is making a choice to give up some choices—it is choosing to be constrained for something better. There is more than one way to forge connectedness rooted in commitment.  

Note: This essay is adapted slightly from one that was published as part of a series of article organized by the Institute of Family Studies in reaction to the article by Brooks.