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  • The nuclear family wasn't born after the Industrial Revolution--it predominated in England even in the 13th century. Tweet This
  • The nuclear family is more adaptable and more child-centered than the traditional extended family clan. Tweet This

Though much of the public seems unaware of it, family scholars believe that—generally speaking—children are best off growing up with their two married parents. These are the children most likely to get the education crucial for maintaining a middle-class life in an advanced economy, to remain stably employed, and to marry and raise their own children to go on and do the same.

But it is not well understood why the married couple—or nuclear family—works so well for kids. The most intriguing explanation I’ve seen can be found in a little-known 2002 book by the sociologist Brigitte Berger: The Family in the Modern Age. It recalls an old-fashioned era of sociology. There are no charts, regressions, or metrics; it is, rather, an exposition of economic, social, and demographic history. Yet it manages to anticipate and explain what today’s empirically grounded sociologists have repeatedly discovered about families and child wellbeing.

And so to Berger’s history: Not so long ago, family scholars labored under the assumption, half-Marxist, half-“functionalist,” that before the Industrial Revolution, the extended family was the norm in the Western world. There was more than a little romanticism associated with this view: extended families were imagined to have lived in warm, cohesive rural communities where men and women worked together on farms or in small cottage industries. That way of life, went the thinking, ended when industrialization wrenched rural folk away from their cottages and villages into the teeming, anonymous city, sent men into the factories, and consigned women to domestic drudgery. Worse, by upending the household economy, the Industrial Revolution seriously weakened the family. The nuclear family, it was believed, was evidence of family decline.

The nuclear family was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century.

But by the second half of the twentieth century, one by one these assumptions were overturned. First to go was the alleged prevalence of the extended family. Combing through English parish records and other demographic sources, historians like Peter Laslett and Alan MacFarlane discovered that the nuclear family—a mother, father and child(ren) in a “simple house,” as Laslett put it—was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century.

Rather than remaining in or marrying into the family home, as was the case in Southern Europe and many parts of Asia and the Middle East, young couples in England were expected to establish their own household. That meant that men and women married later than in other parts of the world, only after they had saved enough money to set up an independent home. By the time they were ready to tie the knot, their own parents were often deceased, making multi-generational households a relative rarity.

Far from being weaker than an extended family clan, Berger shows, the ordinary nuclear family was able to adapt superbly to changing economic and political realities. In fact, the family arrangement so common to England helps explain why it and other nations of northwest Europe were the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the launching ground for modern affluence. The young nuclear family had to be flexible and mobile as it searched for opportunity and property. Forced to rely on their own ingenuity, its members also needed to plan for the future and develop bourgeois habits of work and saving.

These habits were of little use to the idle, landed rich who were wedded to, and defined by, the ancestral property: think Downton Abbey. Similarly, in extended families, a newly married couple was required to move in with the larger maternal or paternal clan, and to work the family land or maintain the family trade. Under those circumstances, people, particularly women, married young, generally before 20. Between their youth and dependence, the couple was not capable of becoming effective strivers in a changing economy.

Another less appreciated advantage to the nuclear family: it was uniquely child-centered.

These observations are not unique to The Family in the Modern Age. But Berger finds another less appreciated advantage to the nuclear family: it was uniquely child-centered. In societies that rely on extended families, young women had plenty of time to have five or more children. The older brides of northwest Europe, on the other hand, had fewer fertile years ahead of them and smaller families, which enabled them to provide more focused attention on each child. Their children became part of a household already steeped in an ethos of hard work, future-mindedness, and ingenuity. This prepared them to take advantage of the new modes of labor introduced by the Industrial Revolution, which would eventually create an urbanized middle class.

Over time, with the increasing complexity of the labor market and the arrival of mass schooling, forward-thinking, child-centered parents were best equipped to organize themselves around what Berger calls “the family’s great educational mission.” Extended and clan families under the control of an older generation would be less adaptive since grandparents were more likely to bring up baby the old-fashioned way; larger families, meanwhile, tended to encourage older children to take charge of their younger siblings.

So how does all of this help us understand today’s debates about married couple vs. single-parent families? Researchers find that children growing up with two married parents are more likely to develop “soft skills” like self-control and perseverance that are more crucial than ever to school and labor-market success. Some of this could be chalked up to the logistical problems faced by a single parent.

But if we follow the logic of Berger’s history, another explanation presents itself: the children of married couples are internalizing their parents’ bourgeois aspirations and child-centeredness, both of which lie deep in the bones of the institution they have chosen to enter. Contemporary parents continue to marry late—at least those who do marry—and only after they are equipped to teach their kids the skills that they themselves have already learned. Their parenting style can be described as “concerted cultivation”: they devote great time and attention to developing their children’s skills. Single parents tend to be younger, less-educated, and more inclined to believe in the child’s “natural growth,” to use another of Annette Lareau’s terms.

Helicopter parents with their obsessive interest in their children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development are the latest, if occasionally absurd, personification of values with strong historical roots. But, as it has for centuries now, their child-centeredness and future-oriented planning appears to be paying off.