Nuclear family

Nuclear family

The term nuclear family developed in the western world to distinguish the family group consisting of parents, most commonly a father and mother, and their children, from what is known as an extended family. Nuclear families can be any size, as long as the family can support itself and there are only parents and children (or the family is an extended family.) According to Merriam-Webster the term dates back to 1947 and is therefore relatively new, although nuclear family structures themselves date back thousands of years. The term "nuclear" was used because of its original Latin meaning, "kernel" or "nut". Today roughly one quarter of households in the United States, for example, are described as consisting of nuclear families, making them the third most common household arrangement in that nation.


After the Second World War the United States experienced a renewed interest in 'the home' and building family units. The family unit became a symbol of security and a return to traditional gender roles. Distinct from the wartime period in which women held jobs conventional for men, the postwar era encouraged the notion that men should be the primary wage earners and women should spend their time cultivating the home and exerting their energy towards raising children. According to a 1954 issue of McCall's magazine: "[t]he most impressive and the most heartening feature of this change is that men, women, children are achieving it together. They are creating this new and warmer way of life not as women alone or men alone, isolated from one another, but as a family sharing a common experience. Such optimism towards family togetherness served to create a sense of safety and strength at a time when the threat of nuclear war was on every American's mind. The nuclear family became a representation of shelter and refuge for America to the extent that it became impossible to separate the image of the nuclear family from that of bomb shelters and nuclear warfare. "Fallout can be fun" became the droll phrase used in advertisements at the time.

Varying usages of the term

In its most common usage, the term "nuclear family" refers to a household consisting of a father, a mother and their children all in one household dwelling (siblings). George Murdock also describes the term in this way:
The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.

Some also use the term to describe single-parent households and families in which the parents are an unmarried couple.

Extended family compared to nuclear family

Legislation promoting the nuclear family has been decried as eroding the traditional Hindu joint family. Hindu joint families consist of many people including the father, mother, children, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Changes to family formation

The popularity of the nuclear family in the West came about in the early 20th century, prompted in part by business practices of Henry Ford, such as the "8 hour day, $5 week", and later the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This enabled more and more families to be economically independent, and thus to own their own home.

Current information from United States Census Bureau shows that 70% of children in the US live in traditional two-parent families, with 60% living with their biological parents, and that "the figures suggest that the tumultuous shifts in family structure since the late 1960s have leveled off since 1990.".

Some sociologists studying families and their formation, attempting to detail the changes in fami* Increase in sole occupancy dwellings and smaller family sizes

  • Average age of marriage being older
  • Average number of children decreasing and first birth at later age
  • The historical pattern of fertility. From baby boom to baby bust (instability)
  • The aging population. The trend towards greater life expectancy.
  • Rising divorce rates and people who will never marry.

In the United States traditional nuclear families now appear to constitute a minority of households with rising prevalence of other family arrangement such as blended families, binuclear families (separated spouses marrying new spouses with children), and single-parent families. Today nuclear families with the original biological parents constitute roughly 24.1% of households, compared to 40.3% in 1970. Roughly 75% (or percent) of all children in the United States will spend at least some time in a single-parent household.

Single-parent households are now considered "nuclear families" as of August 2008.

"The nuclear family... is the idealized version of what most people think when they think of "family..." The old definition of what a family is... the nuclear family- no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today, according to many social scientists (Edwards 1991; Stacey 1996). Thus has arisen the term postmodern family, which is meant to describe the great variablity in family forms, including single-parent families and child-free couples."- Brian K. Williams, Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom

See also


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