- One of the purposes of my Atlantic essay was to take a subject that is usually the province of conservatives—family breakdown—and frame it in a way that resonates with progressives. Tweet This
- By isolating the nuclear family, you may end up creating a disfiguring vortex that ends up destroying it. Tweet This
- America is going through a psychic and emotional crisis I don’t understand, but family issues and family trauma are clearly a big part of it. Tweet This
I want to thank all the scholars for contributing so thoughtfully to the recent IFS symposium on my Atlantic essay, "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake," but I especially want to thank Brad Wilcox. It’s got to be annoying for an academic who has spent decades carefully studying a field to have a journalist swoop in making all sorts of assertions. I’ve put hundreds of scholars in this position over my career, and I’ve never had one respond as generously and graciously as Brad—both during the process of researching the article and in the weeks since its publication.
I acknowledge Brad and Hal Boyd’s point that there has recently been good news on the family front—declining divorce rates and such. But I begin from a spot of greater alarm. This is, in part, because of the many horrifying statistics out there, many of which I’ve learned from Kay Hymowitz and the other contributors to this symposium. But mostly, it’s part of my lived experience over the past four years. I’ve spent those years pretty much constantly on the road—often in three states a week—and I have seen the effects of family disruption at almost every stop in the most gritty and brutal ways.
These effects are evident in the surge of depression in mental health issues, the share of kids with three or more adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs), the exploding suicide rates, surging opioid addiction, the widening opportunity gaps and on and on. America is going through a psychic and emotional crisis I don’t understand, but family issues and family trauma are clearly a big part of it.
For example, I spent part of last week in Compton and Watts in South Central LA. Those neighborhoods are making progress, but they are full of young men who say they hate their dad because he’s never around, and who join gangs to have some family. Of the 15 people I interviewed, 6 had lost an immediate family member to gang violence.
Family disruption happens as much in red America as in blue, and family hardship happens everywhere. I’ve been startled since the article came out by how many middle-class moms have contacted me to say how hard and isolating it is to raise kids all on their own.
We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to live in a country in which the parts with intact families are way ahead of the other parts and are pulling farther ahead at ever accelerating rates. One of the purposes of the Atlantic essay was to take a subject that is usually the province of conservatives—family breakdown—and frame it in a way that resonates with progressives. Progressives need to talk more about family. Conservatives need to talk more about social and economic inequality. The two are part of one story.
The question is what is to be done? How do we get from here—a place of unformed or fragile families—to there—an America in which more and more children grow up with loving and stable foundations?
I am skeptical that we are going to return by holding up the ideal of the two-parent nuclear family—four people in a house in the suburbs surrounded by grass. I think we’ve tried that, and I don’t think we’re going back. We can’t exhort people to go back to that form when so many of the support structures have been torn away. We can’t exhort people to go back to a family form that is so fragile without those supports. Instead, we need to frame and see the issue in a new way.
A fundamental reframing is all about assumptions, ideals, and norms. What picture do we have in our heads when we think, “family?” What do we aspire to when we think, “happy family?”
Since at least the dawn of suburbia, we’ve let the detached nuclear family become the answer to those questions. The nest family. A small group of people surrounded by physical and relational open space. In this mental atmosphere, the relations we have within the home are very different from the relations we have outside that home. In this mental atmosphere, family and non-family are very different categories.
In this mental atmosphere we ask, how can we shore up the family? Our natural response is to work on the stuff inside the home. Family is what happens inside a home.
The essence of my argument is that “How can we shore up the family?” is the wrong question to ask and inside the home is the wrong place to focus attention. The essence of my argument is that the crucial ground is the ecology around the family.
If you only have one family and no other families, then you’ve made a cult of the family and you’re on very dangerous ground. You may be asking of this family more than it can deliver.
Here is a sentence from the Wilcox and Boyd response that I should frame and put on the wall: “It turns out that the relationship between nuclear families and larger communities is more symbiotic than substitutionary, more interdependent than interchangeable.”
This is the crucial truth I suspect we all agree on.
Nuclear families are never going away. I was careful in the piece (but probably not in the headline) to distinguish between the detached nuclear families, which are fragile, and the embedded nuclear families, which are more binding but also more resilient.
The characters in the early scenes of “Avalon” all lived in nuclear families, in that they lived in separate homes. But each of their families was deeply enmeshed in extended family and wider, resilient networks of relationships. It’s the pattern of relationships that matter most, especially those that extend across the boundary that separates the nuclear family and the world immediately around.
Not surprisingly, Richard Reeves makes my argument better than I did:
Scholars working in this field usually start with a social structure like ‘the family’ and then study the relationships within them. Marriages and parent-child relationships are the most obvious examples here. Brooks turns this approach on its head. He starts with the relationships and examines the circumstances in which they form and flourish. By assessing the history of the family through a relational rather than a structural lens, he breaks free of some of the fetters that cramp many contemporary debates on families.
When I read Richard’s description of what I was doing in the article I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d thought of it so clearly.”
I’m grateful to Andrew Cherlin for pointing to the complex kinship networks that have already been created by those outside the American mainstream. There’s a lot the rest of us can learn from those flexible and expansive forms.
I appreciated Rod Dreher’s point that the cultural ecology matters as much as the relational ecology. And I was moved by Andrew T. Walker’s description of his old church in Nashville. He beautifully describes how his family was enmeshed in that congregation:
Our church relationships drove us closer to one another and more attached to our church. There were a number of years where it was common for us to be with people from our church family three to four nights a week.
The practical upshot is this. When we talk to high school kids about family, of course we should talk to them about the nuclear families they hope to form and what that commitment entails. But we should never talk about just that. We should also remind them that you’re also going to have a second family, maybe at church or synagogue or mosque, and those people are going to feel very precious to you. And then you’re going to have a third family—maybe one made up of people you served in the military with or in a community organization. And then you are going to have a fourth family—maybe of childhood friends you see a few times a year. And the people in all these and other groups will feel like family to greater or lesser degrees, in that the bonds that connect you are not transactional and do not exist in any cost-benefit logic. They are the people you show up for. They all have a piece of your heart.
The second through fourth families won’t feel as intense as the first, and your heart will not be as deeply enmeshed. The nuclear family comes first. But they will be part of an archipelago of warm places that reinforce and make the first family viable.
And when you look at your life, you won’t see a stark division: family or non-family. You will see a continuum of affections. You will realize that the skills you need to make the nuclear family work are often learned in your non-biological families. You will realize that if you only have one family and no other families, then you’ve made a cult of the family and you’re on very dangerous ground. You may be asking of this family more than it can deliver. You may be shrinking the number of strong loving relationships you have. By isolating the nuclear family, you may end up creating a disfiguring vortex that ends up destroying it.
And if you ever find yourself at a stage in your life where you don’t have several families, you should look around and say, where’s another family we can stick ourselves into?
The odd thing about the heart is that it expands. As the songwriters say, the more people you have to love the more love you have to give. The more people you have to love, the better you are at the skill of loving well. If we multiply our families, maybe we’ll end up strengthening the nuclear family along the way.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, and a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of several books, including, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.