The importance of family structure — was the nuclear family a mistake?

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

That is from David Brooks writing in The Atlantic, do read the whole thing, so far the best essay of the year with many fine and subtle points.


Mostly untrue as a historical matter. Note, by way of example, that neither the Ingallses nor the Alcotts live in any sort of extended family. I don't know much about other cultures, but Westerners have lived in extended families for centuries.

If you contend it's untrue, bother to TELL US WHY it's untrue, or you are a waste time type of person.

It's untrue because social historians have documented that Western Europeans and Americans have lived in nuclear families, not in extended families, for centuries. I could cite to various articles no one has read, or to realistic 19th-century novels that everyone has read. I did the latter.

Wonder what Italians would think about those realistic 19th century novels.

I don't know, because they are not Western Europeans.


Italy has been an acknowledged part of the West since the Romans tossed out Tarquin the Proud. You 'll find Cicero and Dante on many syllabi of Western Literature.

See below regarding the "Western European marriage pattern." Also, extended family structures were found in southern Italy, which is definitely not the home of either Cicero or Dante.

"Could cite" but don't?

The nuclear family option seems to be what people choose while the extended family option is mandated by a family leader. I would like the freedom to choose.

Yes, "Nuclear families" for NW Europeans (not the familial "clans" mentioned by Brooks) in the sense that households are neolocal - a man and woman move to a smaller separate household, rather than joining the bride joining the groom's family in a extended family in a large house (which the first son will tend to take over, or whatever).

But at the same time, a lot of those neolocal residences were still in the same village or neighbourhood. Children did not always, or often, move far from their relatives, and they did know their relatives.

I tend to suspect that old style neolocal residence where new nuclear families still tended to live fairly close to their parents, perhaps had more in practice in common with extended families where children stay living with parents after marriage, than they do with neolocal marriage where the couple moved hundreds of miles away.

Actually, people married and/or moved outside their native village quite a lot in early modern England and America. I'll post some citations tonight when I'm home if I remember.

Have a look for it. I'd doubt it's in very high %s or that it would necessarily be greater than in what we'd think of as "extended family residence" cultures.

Read Carl Bridenbaugh's Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642

Try Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680, esp. pp. 48-59. Money quotes:
"The surnames recorded in parish registers, for example, indicate a considerable degree of turnover of population. At Honiger in Suffolk, of the sixty-three family names recorded in the 1600-34 only two can still be found in the register for 1700-24. [more statistical examples follow]." And "[A]nalysis of the structure of households in English settlements, based upon surviving census-type listings, reveals that since the sixteenth century at least, the overwhelmingly predominant household form has been the simple 'nuclear family': households consisting of husband, wife and children, with or without servants. The large and complex households containing resident kin . . . are notable by their comparative rarity."

See also John Demos, A Little Commonwealth, Family Life in the Plymouth Colony, esp. pp. 61-81: "It is now apparent, however, that small and essentially nuclear families were standard from the very beginning of American history . . . ."

None of this is as incompatible with much less typical mobility over a lifetime. 63 names is a pretty small community. Immediate migration might be to neighbouring locations. The central issue is whether people remain in close, frequent, mutually supportive contact with kin or turn to 'strangers'.

It would be useful to see a comparative measure - at high scales, brief look indicates England exhibits quite as much surname regional structure as present in SW Europe (Italy, France, Spain).

As one reference on geographical stability / persistence of surnames at the per generational levels - "Clark -Was there ever a Ruling Class?" - -

"Interestingly while there is complete social mobility, there is more sign of geographic persistence. There were 54 English and Welsh counties in 1858. The chance of any two people being drawn from same county (at their 1851 populations) was 4.1%. In fact rare surnames were not drawn at random from counties. They were heavily concentrated in London and Surrey (31%), and infrequent in the north and in Wales. Given their distribution across counties the chance that any two at random would be drawn from the same county was 9% in 1858-79. In practice 40% of people with the same rare surname lived in the same county then. Over time the percentage of people with the same rare surname living in the same county declined.

But if we look at the distribution of rare surnames in 1996-2010 compared to 1858- 1879, we still find that for any surname the chances that earlier it was located in the same county was still 10%. Looking at the distribution of the names across counties in 1858-79 and 1996-2010, the chance that by random they would be in the same county is only 6%. Thus there is some geographic persistence of rare surnames, even after 140 years. Geographic mobility may indeed be less than social mobility. "

That seems to imply quite low per generation rates of long range mobility? If long range mobility rates were high, surnames would very quickly random walk out from their source.

What kind of mechanism can tie surnames together, geographically, apart from kin relationships?

In the early part of the 19th century the majority of the population were farmers or farm workers, and marriage records in many areas tend to show that the average distance between the birthplaces of such couples was no more than a few miles. Although for skilled and semi-skilled workers it was around double that, and for the higher social classes higher still. (Netherlands)

Here's a source for England which shows that 40%, 65%, 80% of grooms, and 50%, 70%, 80% of brides, were married within the same parish as their birthplace, within 4 miles, or within 11 miles, respectively, in some presumably typical parish for the period 1754 to 1859. (

That does not sound like traveling and moving "quite a lot".

The sources I could see (like "Patterns of Migration in the Late Middle Ages: The Evidence of English Place-Name Surnames" McClure 1979) seemed somewhat similar.

Then as now, many people married in their parents' home church. (Remember who pays for the wedding.) The question is whether they continued to live in the same village as their siblings.

A lot of younger sons without hope of inheritance would move to a city to seek their fortune- cities only endured because of in-migration from the country since urban death rates exceeded urban birthrates until well into the 19th century. Older sons would tend to stay put.

Suggest we not confuse extended families and stem families.

You can find a lot of people blaming old Catholic family policies for pushing Europe in the direction of having looser extended family ties.

The original paper was probably "The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation", published in Science 8 Nov 19 (see the link above). The argument is that the Council of Agde prohibited close cousin marriage which meant people had to look outside of their hamlet for a mate. Given the prevalence of cousin marriage in much of the world, even today, this was definitely something different in the world. (e.g. Saudi Arabia has a massive problem with genetic birth defects, but Saudi Arabia is merely extreme, not alone.)

Since this is David Brooks, I'll point out a simple counterexample. The 1950s and 1960s made the nuclear family a matter of public policy. If you weren't part of one, your patriotism and morals were suspect. There is no evidence that this was a particularly bad time to be working class or poor or a particularly good time to be rich. Unionization and what we now call socialism made much more of a difference. Brooks just wants to blame the victims.

Kaleberg +1
I think people are often conflating tribal intramarital families still seen in the Middle East and elsewhere with large often catholic “old world” familial structures seen in areas like Spain and Italy

He would. He nuked his nuclear family.

And founded another. He’s a Founder!

I have read the preface, and am now facing Part 1. I wonder how my own experience will shape it. After some small (normal late 20th century?) Thanksgivings, I'm with a partner who has a simple solution. She (an immigrant) invites literally everyone we know or bump into in the 2-3 months prior. We seem to end up with 24 or so. We cook two turkeys and have a great time.

So my first comment is don't lament, invite everyone. A workable number will actually show up.

Now on to Part 1, framed by that 21st century American experience ..

“ don't lament, invite everyone. A workable number will actually show up.”

And what if hundreds show up? “Workable”... so you’ll put them to work? How big is your kitchen anyway?

Most people have commitments. Maybe we collect the isolated nuclear families.

You’re a capital B Boomer so the obvious question...

But where do your kids and grandkids go ?

I'm not really a Boomer, and the kids are there, with no grandkids yet.

You’re definitely a Boomer.

I’m either sorry for your loss or the pertinent question is where is the mother? Thanksgiving with strangers....but the kids are at thanksgiving?

Okay, where’s the mother ?

This article is about children. Your experience with a partner who invites friends doesn't seem to address the welfare of children in a child-rearing context where extended family ties form crucial, emotional, familial bonds for those children.

To put it differently, your Thanksgiving party has no relevance to the question of what kind of family structure is best for growing children, and it's odd that you thought that it did.

Two thoughts come to mind:

1) If you want to look at what the destruction of family structure - much less any family of any type - does to social fabric you really should look at the black community in the USA.

2) Family units, in the myriad forms they take, through history and everywhere you look around the world form the basic building block of a political unit. In other words, N = 1 basic political unit. By 'atomizing' that basic political unit you can create additional political units to the extant that N ≠ family but N = 1 person (of age depending). This has been very useful in diluting the power of the family unit politically in the West. The attendant consequences are very clear and visible, if you choose to look.

The extended family is also the basic reproductive unit, via first-cousin marriage, as described by Robin Fox.

Some societies practice cousin marriage
Others do not. In Christendom such marriages were strongly disapproved of by the Church, although the elite could get dispendations.

#1 is a good point. And it's notable that it's not the nuclear family that brings most of the harm, but the single parent. But on the other hand the extended family provides protection if a parent leaves.

"But on the other hand the extended family provides protection if a parent leaves."

In my experience - especially as it relates in the last 10-15 years - the principal advantage of the extended family structure (specifically grandparents or in-laws) is economic cost. I cannot get over what median to high-quality childcare is costing in the USA. I have colleagues within my income bracket that are spending thousands/month for childcare, and some are higher than that for 'early child development' specialties.

The principal advantage, if you look elsewhere in the world, is that babysitting is practically free, within a network you trust, and with a provider that is by default experienced.

This is even worse compounded by families atomized by distance. I know one set of grandparents that has yet, after 5 years, to see their grand-daughter in person. This might strike you as an outlier, but it further reinforces the economic difficulties not just of the parents but the family as a whole.

I would love to find a high-quality micro economic analysis of the costs vs. offsets regarding childcare costs, specifically as to whether money saved keeping childcare within the extended family structure translates to additional investments in your children other families paying for the privilege can't afford.

It's not just child care. Owning a home comes with maintenance and upgrade costs--which are massively reduced by having family help. Take, for example, replacing shingles on a roof. Pretty easy job, all things considered. Hiring a professional is much more expensive than buying pizza and a case of beer and having your family help out. Yard care is another area where extended family helps mitigate costs--you have a larger labor pool (though you get pulled in to help others), which means you can handle projects that would otherwise require professionals.

My family once designed and built an extension that double the size of the house of one family member--to code, because the engineers in the family did the design phase. That's a bit extreme, but even if your family can't tell a screwdriver from a hammer drill they often help in a myriad of other ways, while a husband and wife on their own either pay with their time or money to get that same job done.

Babysitting is not "free” in that system; it takes someone out of the workforce.

Not necessarily. If you have a retired grandparent they may well be out of the workforce already. Likewise, it is not uncommon for people to work different days/hours so you can end up with cousins who get watched by a collection of parents who are a firefighter (24 on, 48 off), a nurse (2nd shift), a business secretary (8-4), and a plumber (irregular).

What we do know is that is that many grandparents will sink four or even five figures into travelling to babysit their grandkids for a couple of weeks a year. The hyper "efficient" mobile workforce comes with very real costs where extended family bonding eats up a bunch of vacation time, requires multiple flights, and basically becomes a deadknock loss.

But if the person is a retired elder relative not on the workforce to begin with?

My wife is a good example, as is a good friend. Both of us have Khmer wifes who have no children. Both of our wife's provide daily child care for 4-8 children from family and neighbors. It's a pain in the ass at times because we have children crawling all over us day and night and we can't go out without have 3-4 children come along. This is the norm. Each family is in a struct sense nuclear but relatives are most often within a loud shout away in adjoining buildings, but grand parents and childless aunts do the bulk of the childcare while the parents are out working. And I might add, that this is in a normal part of the largest city in the country. These are urbanites.

My father grew up on a New England farm that was the perfect example of a corporate farm. Seven children, grandparents, 3-4 hired hands and because the farm was prosperous the town gave it the responsibility of providing a room for the town teacher who taught at a classic one-room classroom. The farm was founded in the 1660's and shut down in the mid 1870's. From the way my father and aunts and uncles describe it, this was a very different way of living from the way things are here at home.

The state finds it much easier to deal with the atomized individual than an extended family or, god forbid, a clan. It doesn't want anything to dilute the allegiance which it demands. In the case of the Yankees, the state encourages politically meaningless and controllable entities like professional sports teams and their followers. They're not worried about the fans of the Arizona Cardinals rising up in rebellion. They are concerned about the likes of the Branch Davidians.

The state? Or the modern workplace?

"On some southern farms, of course, enslaved African Americans were also an integral part of production and work life."

True, but there was slavery in the north of course. It's odd that we white wash history and pretend that slavery was just a part of the Confederate states. Notably that when Lincoln gave the Emanicipation proclamation:

"The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states."

There were slaves in Delaware and New Jersey also. They aren't exactly border states.

Slavery was much rarer in the North, often involved only a single domestic servant, and disappeared much earlier than in the South .

The statement that slavery was untouched in the loyal border states is quite simply untrue. At the conclusion of the article cited: regarding Delaware, possibly the last non-secessionist state to have slaves present," . . .Technically, the 13th Amendment is what ended slavery in Delaware . . .". And, in conclusion: "Many slaves were freed individually during or after the Revolutionary War, and there was certainly an increased discussion about issues of slavery and race in the North. However, it is clear that only in New England did slavery die quickly. In the rest of the northern states, the process was very slow and slavery still had a presence up until the Civil War. While the North started to build their Free Soil Ideology and argue with the South over issues of slavery, the institution was still present there (albeit a shadow of slavery in the South). Clearly the line between “free” and “slave” in antebellum America was not as solid as sometimes presented."

And, as for MY conclusion, I don't know of anyone who tries to whitewash slavery as only existing in the southern states. Frankly, I find the article much ado about nothing. It does, however, accurately recite the history of slavery and its abolition in the northern states.

Reading David Brooks is incredibly painful...waiting and waiting and waiting for the punchline/takeaway that’s never there

He's certainly well qualified to be the rambling, boring grampa in his own extended family

Northerners do it all the time, as part of the Southerners-are-uniquely-backward routine.

Slavery was banned in the old Northwest Territories even before the Constitution was drafted. There was never any significant slave population in Ohio, Michigan etc.

You left out Maryland, and Delaware borders both Maryland and Virginia.

The Delmarva is for crabby lovers looking to incorporate.

"We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children." - This statement of his makes sense in the overall paragraph but this sentence in isolation is wrong. Children today are shuttled from one enrichment activity to another and their schedules dictate those of their parents.

The children you describe are limited to privileged families - upper-middle class and better. Such a life would be questionably available in a lower-middle class family, and not true at all for families in poverty or near poverty.

Is shuttling the children from one enrichment activity to another better for the children, or worse, but required because the kids are involved in a college admissions arms race?

Surely the kids would be better off with less soccer, less french horn, less volunteering? The trouble is, to implement that and have elite schools credibly stay meritocracies would require more emphasis on academics and test scores than they'd prefer for their intended class composition.

Growing up in the college admissions arms race of the late 90s & early 00s, the experience was much more stressful and much less enriching. National Honor Society, leadership conferences, SAT Prep classes, in retrospect I can confirm what we all suspected at the time: it was a load of nonsense. Parents and teachers actively discouraged us from pursuing our passions, if our passions weren't offered in an AP class. Taking anything lower than AP would lower my GPA, even if I got an A+; which is what kept me from taking the programming and film classes that I wanted to take. No opportunity for advantage could be passed up, no misstep was to small to avoid being chastised "colleges are going to look at all of this".

At the height of my stress, I got a C+ in AP English, which as far as my parents were concerned, might as well have been a warrant out for my arrest.

It's not like those things have gone away and kids today don't worry about there SAT scores, it's just that we've added a requirement that they also stand out in one or two meaningless extracurriculars. Those kids aren't following their passions (and if there was ever a concept that belongs in history's trash heap, it's "follow your passion"), they're signalling commitment by potlatching a bunch of time and money.

I didn't mean that my experience was more stressful than students today. I meant that the whole experience tended more heavily towards stress than it tended towards enrichment. I'm sure the situation is terrible for students today.

My question is: when did we start raising children to maximize their lifetime earning potential, and stop raising them to be wholesome people?

I understand now, thanks.

Yeah kids today have it much better than in the past. They have way more entertainment options and actually the time to enjoy them. School culture is much more tolerant with less bullying than it used to be. If offered the chance to do childhood over today instead of 30+ years ago, I would definitely be take it.

Yes and no. My kids aren’t bullied (and girls’ bullying is more subtle). But they are reading less and building fewer treeforts.

Then why has the young adult suicide rate increased 50% over the last 20 years?

The suicide rate in a group bears little to no relation to how the group as a whole is doing because people who commit suicide are severe outliers. Just look at the list of suicide rate by country; if anything countries that are doing better have the higher suicide rates: I believe it was Durkheim who observed that higher suicide rates are sometimes found among better-off groups because the outliers who are miserable in that group are more likely to feel that their misery is permanent and abnormal.

Your statement is true IFF the distribution of misery is not a bell curve. For most "outlier" processes, a giant tick up in the outliers (three standard deviatons above the reference mean) is much more likely to come from a shift in the mean than from an increase in the standard deviation. Out near outlier territory the slope of the normal function is brutally steep. You would need massive increases the variance of misery or a small increase in the mean.

I would further submit that in the successful, meritocratic countries, misery is more likely to be permanent. Suppose a high schooler does something dumb, like post racists things online while being an edgy teen with frontal lobes that are not fully developed. Once found out, they lose their acceptance to a top tier college. Employers will Google them and not call back to avoid any lingering PR issues. Meeting a spouse gets harder too when people can Google your mistakes for all eternity. And less we forget, being a meritocracy, it is much harder for such a young adult to use connections to get a position. Even maintaining friends is hard these days if you have anything remotely grave in your records.

In contrast, in less developed states you can make mistakes. Your fortune is much more defined by family connections than educational socialization. You can find good, respected work without running through giant HR gamuts.

To the degree that "things" cause people to commit suicide, the ones I see among my patients tend to be "things" that are much more permanent. Job loss. Drug addiction. Family disintegration. Social ostracization. None of these have become less permanent in the last few decades.

When viewed from the bottom, it really does look like the modern economy gooses GDP by immiserating the most vulnerable members of society.

Dude, you're crazy. Modern style kids entertainment is really kind of sanitized and lame, and it's not like kids in the '80s-'90s era had too *little* options as it was. Any positives are more than balanced out by the Basilisk lameness of social media. Only advantage of magically having a do over of childhood today would be being x years younger in future. Having a childhood in this era? Pull the other one.

Once kids get online 'sanitized' doesn't really describe the experience.

Kids online activity tends to be monitored, at least in early stages, by families.

For most kids, by the time they are allowed online unsupervised, their preferences for bland crap tend to be formed by parental supervision, or at least, much of what you could actually call their childhood is done.

If you were born in 70s-80s, you'd be able to experience a lot more unusual content online as Boomer-early Xer parents were probably less effective and aware at monitoring. Plus the full scale Disneyfication of the media was pretty incipient, so you probably had better taste in stuff.

Hmm. Part 1 is okay, but it suffers from an idea that families have to be in the same house to be supportive, involved, etc. Obviously it helps to be in the same city, but if they are close and have cars and healthy relationships, they can make it work. My widowed mother likes having her own house, thank you very much, and she spends a couple days a week at my sister's house.

So .. too much on houses not enough on healthy relationships.

Ah well, I feel like Part 2 almost got there but not quite. He describes supportive people with healthy relationships, but keeps trying to hammer them into a hole marked "family."

Relax. Be excellent to each other.

Literally the last third of the piece is what you’re referring to.

Maybe read it through .....

As I say he comes close, but he keeps returning to everyone in one house as a solution:

"a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms"

In contrast, my friend picked up her niece and nephew everyday after school kindergarten through 6th grade and bought them to her house and kept them until they're two working parents came home. Then they went to that house. That was not a one house multi-generational family, it was just a family with good relationships and commitment. Possibly an Asian level of commitment.

Keep reading, he specifically addresses this in a positive light.

Also obvious question: what about your kids and grandkids?

Do you pick them up from school?

Great. Brooks always provides quality food for thought. Still, I am weary of any thesis that fetishizes living in the past and/or the developing world. Yes, we've lost a lot. But there's been so much progress on so many of the metrics we care about. Would we really want to trade places?

We can have a diversity of family styles. People who like extended families can have those, people who like nuclear families can have those, and people who want to be single can be single. Extended family is a mixed bag in my opinion. They do provide valuable help when raising kids, but they also provide a lot of unwanted interference. I like the nuclear family and being away from extended family for me (I have certain extended family members who I would consider bad influences on my kids) but other people might like extended families and that’s fine too.

This is also why the often-repeated argument that “while progressive elites say that all family structures are fine, their own behavior suggests that they believe otherwise” is silly. Different models work for different people—*as the author himself concedes by saying that the nuclear family works better for upper-class people*. Saying “I prefer to live in nuclear family but I think other people should be allowed to freely choose from a variety of different family models” is not hypocritical any more than saying “I prefer Indian food but I think other people should be allowed to freely choose from a variety of different food options.”

Saying “I prefer to live in nuclear family but I think other people should be allowed to freely choose from a variety of different family models” is not hypocritical any more than saying “I wouldn't eat those poisonous mushrooms, but if other people want to...”

Well, I support legalizing drugs such as psychedelic mushrooms too. Lots of people do unhealthy things that they enjoy, including me. I don’t want other people restricting my hobbies for my own good, so I’m never going to advocate restricting other people’s hobbies for their own good, as long as they know and understand the risks.

Exactly right. My life is mine--you get no more say in it than I offer to you. And your life is yours--I have no more say in it than you offer to me. If you want to have three wives and a dozen mistresses, as long as everyone involve is consenting adults and agrees to the relationship, I have NO right to step in and say "This is wrong, you can't do this."

This means some people will make stupid choices. Maybe a lot of people will make stupid choices. It's not your right, or mine, to tell them that they're living their lives wrong, until or unless they specifically ask for our advice or are legally obligated to fall under our authority (rare, but it happens).

I don't like telling other people how they should live their lives either. But, would you feel the same way if other people's bad choices had a negative impact on you or society in general?

Step into a court room and be regaled by the excuses for crimes -- often blamed on an absentee father, single working mother, or dysfunctional family life of some sort.

If a person's bad choices has an objective negative impact on me, that wouldn't very well be "you live your life and I'll live mine", would it?

As for "or society in general", I treat that phrase with extreme trepidation. It's slippery and poisonous. Look at how many contradictory things are being touted as "for the good of society" and you'll see what I mean. "For the good of society" isn't an argument or a criteria, it's a place holder, one that the arguer is hoping no one looks too closely into--because 99 times out of 100, the arguer doesn't have anything to fill that space.

Further, who gets to decide what's "the good of society"? You? Me? A politician (widely hailed as the biggest liars and frauds, and the most deplorable of humanity, for at least 300 years)? Once you've decided that we need to do something for the good of society you've in fact decided that someone gets to choose what that is--and few people even consider that question, much less the implications.

And where do you stop? Remember, Soviet-style Communism was "for the good of society". Historically speaking, there are NO limits to what "for the good of society" can justify.

Oklahoma was settled, in part, by former slaves who went Galt. They said "Screw society, we're out". When they were left to their own devices, to live as they would, they did remarkably well. The best thing we can do for society is LEAVE ADULTS ALONE.

I hope that clarifies my position.

As for courtrooms, the fact that someone makes an argument in no way demands that I agree with them. That some lowlife thug tries to weasel his way out of paying for his crimes by blaming someone else doesn't mean we have to take him seriously.

The best thing we can do for society is LEAVE ADULTS ALONE.

There's the rub. If only we had a society that was comprised of adults...

Extended family is a mixed bag in my opinion. They do provide valuable help when raising kids, but they also provide a lot of unwanted interference.

Yes. I came here to say this. It's nice to have a large support system of fun aunts, uncles, and cousins everywhere, so long as everyone is having fun. Problem is, it often becomes an enmeshed situation where no one person is allowed to rise above where the family sees itself, without the others attempting to drag that person down. Family roles start to become stultifying (he's the "funny one," she's the "smart one," that one over there is the "athletic one," and so on).

Which is not to say that being in a small, nuclear family doesn't have its own set of drawbacks and emotional problems.

I grock this. My mother grew up in a large extended family in NY. I grew up as a single parent child in Miami with no family around. The greatest difference I see between our two lives is support. Not financial or physical but emotional. One brother was a lawyer, one a teacher, another a builder, etc. If she needed help she could call them and find information from a trusted source. That's not to say they couldn't or didn't ever provide physical help but that all came out in the wash over the years as they each helped each other out. Having grown up so far from the rest of my cousins, I am not in the click so to say. But I see on facebook how they support eachother and involve eachother in things. I now live near them but those familial bonds cannot be rebuilt after so many years.

In a way the economy is supposed to be our family. Which is a shame because everything you see, hear, and read is mostly designed to separate you from your money. So it's like being in a greedy, psychopathic family.

Exactly, but how does that ever show up in econ stats? And so the eggheads deny what's staring them in the face

As always, it looks like Brooks identifies the problem correctly but his explanation is cumbersome and weird. We did not "decide" to eliminate extended families. We also did not have those for all times eternal (same thing for 2.5 kids, etc.). The crucial part here is about marriage itself. The contract between 2 people, to stay together, raise kids, and (at least try) to be monogamous. That is what has changed. You can easily see when (starts in the 60s) and how (feminism, abortion, government subsidies towards single moms, etc.). It is not that complicated of a history to explain. Now for solutions, that is the kicker. Also as usual, Brooks is not great in any proposals.

Is this even relevant except for women who need subsidies to raise their children alone? With all abortion and feminism, most people adhere to the nuclear family model. Even the Clintons and Kennedys can be put in the "contract between 2 people, to stay together, raise kids, and (at least try) to be monogamous box." At least, for some values of "at least try". Some people, like Reagan, Gingrich, Netanyahu, Trump, etc. have had more than one wife. Still, they raise their kids, are supposed to be faithful to the current partner, etc. It is hard to see exactly conservatives expect to see or what they want to snap in America's soul.

I think it's relevant. Not only for the adults involved but mostly for the kids. Yes, we still have a version of this "social contract" in place, where people do aspire to get married (or at least live together) but it is a mich weaker contract. Conservatives no doubt adhere to this new version many times, especially very successful males. It's actually interesting to see how this new "normal" is very much a return to the very old (and usually unsuccessful) model of polygamy where very successful males hoard many females, and not so successful ones get nothing. It's actually a hyper feminist version of this model. Successful males continue to get many, but unsuccessful women (the ones that can't get the alpha males) now go alone instead of settling down with a less successful male. It is a recipe for disaster.

It is kind of a modern American(*), and possibly dysfunctional, idea that a marriage is between two individuals. In other cultures(*) it is very much a joining of families. I think relationships, all the intertwined relationships, are stronger for it.

As the essay says, everyone is stronger with people they can count on. But, they don't need to be in the same house, and they may not be family at all.

* - I generalize. Some American families do jump on welcoming new members, as they should. Some American families do it right. Some others do it wrong.

Lame, even by your standards. How do the kids fare from single parenthood hedonism. Remember, you’re supposed to champion data and reality.

Did your kids grow up in a biological two parent household? Where are they now?

I think you are having trouble following my meaning.

If we want to stop the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons, we've first got to stop them from getting nuclear families who can create nuclear weapons under the second amendment.

I’m not sure we can assess this argument without knowing the rates of intrafamily child sexual abuse in earlier centuries. Anecdotally the upper bound on that rate seems very high.

Define "sexual abuse". This isn't a constant through time. In Greece, for example, the relationship between student and teacher was often erotic. And it's not fair to judge the past by our standards, because society can mitigate or exacerbate harms caused by this sort of thing--if it's seen as shameful it hurts people more, while if it's viewed as normal it may be no big thing. We see that with other aspects of child-rearing, physical and mental, and this is further evidenced by the fact that Greece wasn't (as modern psychology would suggest should be the case) universally insane.

To pick a less extreme version: Child marriages. In our culture it'd be horrific to consider marrying off your 13 year old daughter. In cultures where it's the norm, it would be....well, normal. NOT being married by that age may be considered problematic, at least to the spinster. Even the concept of marriage can be adjusted--consummation may not play as significant a role as it does in European/USA concepts of marriage.

To be clear: I AM NOT condoning this sort of thing. I'm merely pointing out that some of this (and we don't have a good handle on it) is culturally dependent. And any analysis of this issue has to treat this issue very, very delicately.

I don't know, that sounds a bit like where people say that mental health issues and PTSD are developed country diseases but when you dig down into developing countries you find those issues are insanely prevalent and just go undiagnosed. I doubt that the psychological impacts of war, torture or slavery are mitigated by the cultural acceptance or valorization of these phenomena. I would say the same thing goes for being coerced into sexual activity by an adult member of your extended family (plus, to the extent that it is normalized in the primary sources available to us, we can't forget that those texts are less likely to come from the lower-status individuals being abused). Many of Freud's patients were women who came forward with stories of being abused by parents, grandparents, uncles - the sheer number of these stories was so staggering that he refused to believe them, and instead came up with theories for why women imagined having sex with their father, etc. (and of course those theories held more water than the original accounts). Rates of severe childhood sexual abuse are about 52% among contemporary Inuit. I wouldn't be surprised if 50% of women in the 19th century had been raped as children. In a cushier era we've forgotten what was truly meant by "nasty, brutish and short."

I'm certainly not saying that abuse doesn't happen; however, I think culture has an affect. You mention rape. I'll agree that rape is a horrific and traumatic event, in any era--but I would argue that things that necessarily are rape now would not have been in the past. Take the Greek teacher/student situation. Today, it would require horrific abuse to get to the point where the male teacher could have relations with a male student. In the past it was an acceptable and in fact expected practice, so the event would not include the trauma. Since it was accepted there would be no shame associated with it, nor any social stigma--which today tends to exacerbate the events.

I would also argue that the psychological impact of slavery would in fact be mitigated by social norms. We in the USA tend to think of "slavery" as being specifically Southern antebellum slavery; the reality is that slavery in the past was much more complex. It was an accepted part of war, for example--POWs were sold as slaves. Some slaves were only slaves temporarily, and others were slaves in name only--they had property, legal rights, and a bunch of other advantages we typically think of as being antithetical to slavery. All gladiators in Rome were technically slaves, but you can bet that the good ones were treated well! On a smaller scale, many artisans and technical folks were slaves in Rome, but they were treated as well as anyone else (economically it was better to treat them well, because you could keep using them that way).

I'm not saying that slavery is fun, or was fun. What I'm saying is that applying our modern, distinctly American idea of slavery to slaves in the past gives a very distorted view of the reality of ancient slavery.

My larger point still stands, though: The past cannot be judged by modern standards. That gives a very distorted view of the past. Some things are objectively traumatic--you can't get a sharp spear through the chest and walk it off!--but other things were just....part of life. Humans are remarkably adaptable, and demonstrably can tolerate much more than us modern Westerners think is possible. What's normal in the past isn't what's normal now, and this matters in terms of psychological response.

I get your general point (and agree re: being a talented slave in Rome), but I think you're not giving enough weight to the possibility that something can be a normal and common part of life and still produce what would by today's standards be a bunch of very negative psychological externalities. Just because people are miserable, anxious, depressed, suicidal, etc. doesn't mean they can't farm their land or be a cartwright or produce art or what have you. I think the general experience of feeling powerless over how one's own body is used has immensely negative psychological impacts, no matter the time period, although those negative impacts don't mean you spend the rest of your life curled up in a ball, shivering (it might, however, make you more likely to pass your own suffering on to others - c.f. #s of rapists who were abused as children). My assumption re: families is that the power that the adults had over the children, which was much more absolute in earlier centuries - whether due to norms, reliance on family for survival, weakness of competing institutions, logistics, etc. - is that this led to widespread use of children to satisfy adult sexual desire, and that this, no matter how common it was, produced psychological effects that should make us hesitant in our nostalgia for the pre-nuclear family.

"I think the general experience of feeling powerless over how one's own body is used...."

Compared to what, though? The idea of autonomy is very modern way of looking at the world; in the past, only nobles and some craftsmen (masons, for example) were autonomous, and everyone else accepted that they were inferior. They thought it was right and just to BE inferior.

And it can't be ignored that we're talking about a world in which literally everyone you know has experienced these things. It's like having your wisdom teeth removed--strictly speaking it's a trauma, but it's an ubiquitous one and the sheer normality of it would tend to make it less horrifying.

The first time you're almost killed, it's horrific. The 20th time, it's...not routine, but just another Thursday. I say this as someone who's stopped counting the number of times I've stayed alive by sheer luck or bad aim on the part of the attacker. Hell, last time I was almost killed I was joking about it while it was happening and flat-out forgot to tell my wife for three days. After a while you can get used to nearly anything.

I think you're wrong about your assumption. We know it happened, and in some cases was considered part of normal society (the definition of "adult" itself is a moving target). But I've seen enough works on child care, and letters from loving parents and children, to doubt that it was more widespread than today. Obviously it would ebb and flow, but I just don't think that the past was one in which children were routinely subjected to sexual abuse (again, outside of situations that are considered abusive today, but normal for that culture).

What about the suffocating mental inertia of the extended family? The pressure to conform. A cage, not even golden,

Speaking with Marx, whose Manifesto is the greatest paean to capitalism ever written, capitalism has saved us from the idiocy of the extended family.

HA! I guess at the end of the day we need to choose whether we want to be subjected to the depravities of people we know or the depravities of a system we know.

I wanted this article to be better than it was. Disappointed.

Sorry this happened. Over time the word "Frum" will become a useful caution.

Western individualism is a double edged sword, sure, but it is thanks to it capitalism and the scientific revolution came about. In a conformist society ruled by extender families, studying science is generally seen as frivolous and economic freedom is seen as socially disruptive.

A double edged sword aimed right for the testicles of unmarried men.

Wait, I thought these poor people were suppose to move to where the jobs are? How do they do that and stay within their extended family? By the very nature of mobility, the nuclear family is increment.

And, of course, going back to familial and tribal means throwing off modernity and the evil capitalism that reduced the dependence on cousin in favor of the individual in the market.

I think this is a core trade-off that has been missing from the economics literature in recent decades. Many Chicago-school types insist that Americans are not mobile enough, that they aren't changing jobs enough. But it takes only a moment's thought to realize that moving for a new job means abandoning family and friends. How much of a wage increase do you need in order to leave your parents? If all we value is gross domestic product, we're going to massively undervalue human well-being.

"How much of a wage increase do you need in order to leave your parents?"

The answer to that question might very well be how we can decide when the extended family is superior and when the nuclear family is superior. Even Brooks recognizes that the nuclear family with its greater locational mobility gives "the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options".

This starts when you finish high school. Are you going to leave your parents to travel 3,000 miles away to attend an elite college? Or just go to the local one? Or not go to college at all (in which case there's even less incentive to move 3,000 miles away).

And if you do well in college, where do you go for graduate school, or med school, or law school, etc.? Do you go to Harvard's PhD program or stick close to home at Fairleigh Dickinson University?

And after you get your graduate degree, do you apply for jobs only close to home or do you say yes when Stanford or Chicago makes you an offer?

If you're unwilling to make major moves, you're putting severe restrictions on your ability to become a CEO of a major corporation, a professor, a politician of an entity larger than a county or city, or even an officer in the military.

Brooks raises a good point that if you're not in those elite groups you might be better off benefiting from the support of your extended family.

The hard question is where is the dividing line? When is society better off with high geographic mobility (and for whom) versus low mobility and more family support? There were plenty of non-elite families that benefited by moving away from their parents to migrate to the US, or if in the US to hit the Oregon Trail, or move to fast-industrializing Chicago or LA, etc.

But OTOH the benefits of extended families are very real.

And I think well-recognized. As some other commenters have said, isn't the best policy likely to be that we should let individual families decide if they want to move or stay put?

How much of a wage increase do you need to leave your parents? You need to eat, and in most societies you don't eat if you don't work. So my ancestors in the late 1800s got on a boat and traveled across the ocean from Ukraine (in the case of three grandparents) and Austria (one grandparent) and went to New York. They never saw their parents again, but they saw their many children and grandchildren, including me.

This exactly. Just because something is hard to quantify doesn't mean it isn't terribly important.

Leave it to David Frum to think that he knows something is true because he saw it in a movie once. (And by the way, he has met the filmmaker!!! He only mentions this four times!!!)

>so far the best essay of the year

Hear me on this: You really need to read more.

David Frum and David Brooks are different people.

Wouldn't it be so much more convenient if Frum, Friedman, and Brooks were simply seen as facets of the same glittering mirage?

The real best quote of the article:
"In other words, while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental."

A poor man's Becker masquerading as folk sociology but not even respectable *as far as that goes* -- and that's pretty hard to do. But given Brooks' personal life, he is living his truth, in a way.

I concur with International Pants Apparatus -- please read more, even on your, erm, idiosyncratic understanding of what it means to read.

I read the article this morning in The Atlantic. It's interesting. I seem to recall a similar discussion here. I recall commenting that my mother's childhood was in an extended family, my mother's grandfather and aunt helping make it possible for my mother's mother (my grandmother) to have a full-time medical practice. My mother's father died when my mother was a small child. Ross Douthat has been promoting a similar idea to Brooks's. What both of them want is to have the family rather than society take responsibility for family members who can't take care of themselves. I believe it's unrealistic. If one looks at aging societies without a safety net for seniors, what one observes is poverty and loneliness among seniors. The horse is out of the barn. Even in societies with a traditional extended family structure, the younger generations aren't interested in living with and taking care of seniors.

I call "bullshit."

In his book The Lost City, the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt describes life in mid-century Chicago and its suburbs:

To be a young homeowner in a suburb like Elmhurst in the 1950s was to participate in a communal enterprise that only the most determined loner could escape: barbecues, coffee klatches, volleyball games, baby-sitting co-ops and constant bartering of household goods, child rearing by the nearest parents who happened to be around, neighbors wandering through the door at any hour without knocking—all these were devices by which young adults who had been set down in a wilderness of tract homes made a community. It was a life lived in public.

I, who grew up on Chicago's Far South Side in the 50s and in suburban Elmhurst in the 60s, don't remember any barbecues, coffee klatches, volleyball bames, baby-sitting co-ops, constant bartering of household goods, child rearing by the nearest parents or neighbors wandering through the door at any hour. I remember that we were free-range kids and that neighboring adults did provide some help, control and parenting to the mass of kids. Most significant to me was that we all had the opportunity to relate freely with adults and kids throughout the neighborhood with no "stranger danger" threats recognized. We only feared and hated Mayor Daley's cops. More so in 1950's Chicago than in 1960's Elmhurst. There also weren't any tract houses anywhere around in either, unless you consider Pullman neighborhood "tract housing."

David Brooks fails to note that a mere couple, married or not, is also a "family." As such, they pay infinitely more in taxes per natural child than do their breeding neighbors with 2.5 children. And all their taxes go to support of the children of others, who didn't and don't today mind satisfying their urge to pollute the world with ever more children with the support of Other People's Money.

Big props to Chicago. The communities are interwoven by design: urban planning efforts and public health interventions are top-notch.

I grew up in a part of the Bronx in the 1950's and '60's that was so isolated, it qualified as a suburb. Everything JImbino describes I saw too. What deeply sticks with me was being a "free-range kid, [with] no stranger danger".

And all their taxes go to support of the children of others, who didn't and don't today mind satisfying their urge to pollute the world with ever more children with the support of Other People's Money.

So children are the "pollution of the world"? And their presence is to require no economic responsibility of the rest of society? What a sad little man you are. Have you considered personal euthanasia?

Can anything be said of the selection pressure that economic responsibility creates, or is it simply too inhumane?

Ok, you "triggered" me with that "infinitely more in taxes." As a onetime physics and math student the misuse of "infinite" for "some big number I don't want to name" is a major pet peeve.

Sadly, America also exported the Nuclear Family. After WWII, Japan looked to mimic the victors and built huge housing projects with floor layouts for nuclear only families, not the traditional multi-generational family Japanese houses. They were huge status symbols. Now those families are 70+ year old retirees who often lay dead in their units for weeks before anyone knows.

Land became less important, so hanging around Pop to get the farm was less an issue.

Interesting history of how the family unit has changed over time, and while I wanted to argue with David's glossing over the economic reasons for the changes, in the end, that wasn't really his point. In the last part he's built up an argument that the circumstances have changed and that we need a different way of creating the support structure that has been lost. I wish he had discussed that aspect more, and with more supporting data, but overall it was an interesting read.

Working class Americans formed classic mom/dad/kids nuclear families until the sexual liberation/women's movements of the 1960s, both middle and upper class driven movements.

Sex was now available without marriage. Boom! Decline in working class family formation, slow at first and more and more rapid. Men and women could have the milk without buying the cow with predictable results.

Single mother households and absent fathers smashed the working class, not lack of extended families. Throw in drugs and increase in welfare programs for good measure.

What puzzles me is that a new technology of birth control could lead to out-of-wedlock births. This can't be the story.

Well, it is the same phenomena that drives "single mothers by choice". People don't really like this new arrangement so much as they want to. Random sex is great until it isn't. I know several young people who complain about the lack of relationships. I also hear that unprotected sex is a proxy for seriousness in relationships. Of course, many times this will result in mixed signals and the woman gets pregnant and the guy leaves town. Other times, you will hear guys complaining about women not wanting anything but sex. We have transformed a simple equation (have sex / marry) into a complex one, where the incentives are not very clear and often get mismatched.

One hell of a proxy!

Pre-marital sex is a gateway to economic freedom for certain females, a monthly addition to an account without the bother of a swinish man to feed and pick up after. Instead of being classified as whores, as they once were, they're now heroic single moms.

Tell it like it is brother!
"Certain" females"!? Ignore the voice behind the curtain whispering the "R" word.

It's not 1980 any more. Welfare usually comes with work requirements these days- which contributes to the disemployment of low income men since low income mothers have been forced into the job market.

Ehh, birth control leading to out-of-wedlock births is a pretty easy one. In the bad old days neither men nor women could have sex and avoid (most of) the risk of pregnancy. When a woman got pregnant, it was assumed that whatever poor choices were made, both parties were equally responsible and society was quite happy to enforce that with the whole shotgun wedding.

Once birth control enters the picture a man could argue that no he was being perfectly responsible, she just lied. The fact that this argument is sexist, unlikely to be true, and has the obvious condom problem does not change the fact that the guy has a nice face saving mechanism that allows him out of a less than desired marriage.

Similarly with abortion, women are viewed as having more responsibility for childrens' births as they could have taken steps to prevent them. As such men feel less social pressure to take responsibility and hence feel less social pressure to marry prior to sex or at least during pregnancy.

Sex has been available without marriage, for men, since the first prostitute perfected her "Come hither" look. And they call that the world's oldest profession.

It's called church...

Much of what he says extended families are for can also be provided by other social organizations. Participation in these organization is decreasing, however, so nuclear families in low-social capital societies could be problematic. But then again, see southern Italy for a failing society with very strong extended family ties.

See also Brazil for a failing society with strong extended family ties. At least they're trending toward a reasonable European fertility rate of 1.2.

Brooks is half right half wrong here. The nuclear family was especially empowered in the post-war era through the New Deal apparatus, the GI Bill, and all the concomitant reforms of the era. However, the nuclear family had existed long before that, especially among the middle class and upwards.

But he's wrong that the nuclear family has caused these problems. Poor people tend to rely on extended family and neighborhood networks, not necessarily because they want to. My poor Irish ancestors working in mills on my mom's side were quite clannish through the 1930s; listening to my now-dead grandmother talk about her youth, a great deal of it revolved around aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. This is the same way many of the current children of immigrants talk about their experience growing up in America: relying on extended family and informal religious or ethnic connections.

And this is where Brooks is wrong: we de-emphasized the extended family and greatly privileged the nuclear family, but over the past 30 years have followed an economic policy that is aimed squarely at making extended networks necessary while in terms of social policy doing everything to make them impossible.

While Brooks (and Douthat) want families to stay together, our host wants productive family members to move to where the jobs are. I assume, therefore, that our host opposes the Brooks and Douthat plan. Brooks's and Douthat's plan may work for the little countries, but not for a huge country like America.

Doesn't work in little countries either. Brothels surrounding mancamps is a pattern seen everywhere there are resources to be extracted from the ground.

The problem is that Brooks sees extended families as the solution to our social ills as opposed to the state. Like most conservatives, he is ahistorical and will say anything that lets the rich and powerful off the hook. For example, ue blames women for deciding to have children on their own while ignoring the collapse in most men's earning capacity. He complains that women are having too few children while ignoring that having even one or two involves a lot of money and compromises.

Is he blaming anti-union legislation and corporate action? Is he blaming our immoral medical care system? Is he blaming our inflationary economic policies that have been driving up the cost of housing, education and medical care? Of course he isn't. The people profiting from that are his people, and he will make any argument to cast the blame elsewhere.

Ever since the Roman era, Europeans have considered the nuclear family the basic legal unit. This was cemented by Christianity which started by offering marriage even to slaves. If Brooks has a beef with it, he has to deal with a couple of thousand years of our history. Our social ills come and go, but our family structures stay the same. The rest of us should learn something from that.

It's fair to say that Mr Brooks would not know what an extended family looks like if it hit him square in the face.

Especially if its polygamous, extended family relations are often quite bitter, and the call to take sides a mental burden on the children. Extrapolating from my own experiences in a country where extended families still exist. When a young or rich person dies, poison is usually suspected, guess who the primary suspects are?

Does Brooks reference HBD Chick, who has done so much to advance our understanding of these questions?

Anglo-Saxons have been highly nuclear family oriented for 800 or more years.

Could it be the case that Anglo-Saxons (statistically) have stronger "fiber" to live with less outside support? Or some cultural paradigm that inculcates strength and independence in children from a young age?

My friend from India comes from a family in which her entire extended family lives in the same apartment block! Older relatives do childcare and cooking, while younger ones study and work to support the family financially.

With a collapsing birth rate why do we still need affirmative action for women?

As Steve Sailer and y81 noted, there is respectable evidence of a long tradition of nuclear families in Western Europe minus southern Italy, Iberia, and Ireland). The originator of this idea, according to Wikipedia, is John Hajnal but I first learned about it from reading Gregory Clark's work. See the article on "Western European marriage pattern":

Interesting but why do these trends for some people imply that we need to reduce or at least not increase support for the victims of these trends: less access to subsidized health insurance, no increase in child tax credits or earned income tax credit, no family leave, cuts to SNAP?

Because people should be taking responsibility for their own actions.

Were the three ghosts busy this Christmas Mr. Scrooge?

Have you ever actually met these people? When you do, the answer to your question will be self-evident.

Given that the matrilocal extended families of working class African Americans don’t seem to be ideal for children, I am guessing that the whole patriarchy thing is necessary to make extended families work well.

If I'm not mistaken, sociologists of family life have demonstrated that blacks are, if anything, less likely to have social contact with collateral relatives than are whites. The social unit in black America is the mother with her children, supplemented now and again with other parties - a man with varying degrees of transiency, her own mother, an aunt perhaps.

I'm disappointed to see Tyler's uncritical reaction to Brooks' article, which is historically inaccurate on a number of counts. I wrote a response to the piece here:

It's easy to look upon the nostalgic past with rosetinted lenses. But I'm not sure if a life bound to my extended family would be all that great. Sure, I'd have a ready made community I could rely upon, but I wouldn't be free to find my tribe, or explore the world physically and intellectually.

Perhaps the exchange was worthwhile. Personal autonomy and the ability to pursue meaning into adulthood is hugely valuable. And even if children are worse off, we spend much more of our lives as adults than as children.

We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families,

We haven't. Have a gander at Census registers from 1850. People lived in nuclear families, with the occasional appended relation, just as they do now. You can argue people are in more frequent touch with their cousins and their shirt-tails and that extended family members are more likely to indemnify each other contra the vicissitudes of life. Keep in mind, though, that as the country was being settled 200 years ago you often had astonishing population turnover and people pulling up stakes and moving out west far away from their nearest relations.

"We’ve made life freer for individuals"

This complaint is at the core of everything that David Brooks has ever thought. From there, he romanticizes those things that make individuals less free.

I'd suggest that the complexity of family ties goes beyond what Brooks describes. Here's an extended anthropological take from the left:

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