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The American Family

Family Structures

What is the typical American family like? If Americans are asked to name the members of their families, family structure becomes clear. Married American adults will name their husband or wife and their children, if they have any, as their "immediate family." If they mention their father, mother, sisters, or brothers, they will define them as separate units, usually living in separate households. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents are considered "extended family."

The structure of the American family has undergone enormous changes since the 1950s. Traditionally the American family has been a nuclear family consisting of a husband, wife, and their children, living in a house or apartment. Grandparents rarely live in the same home with their married sons and daughters, and uncles and aunts almost never do.

In the 1950s, 70 percept of American households were the "classic" American family —a husband, wife, and two children. The father was the 'breadwinner" (the one who earned the money to support the family), the mother was a "homemaker" (the one who took care of the children and did not work outside the home), and they had two children under the age of 18. If you say the word "family" to Americans, this is probably the picture that comes to their minds.

Yet, in reality, in the I990s, only 8 percent of American households consist of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and two children under 18. An additional 18 percent of households consist of two parents who are both working and one or more children under the age of 18 living at home. That means that a total of only 26 percent of households in the United States consist of two parents and their children. The remaining households consist of the following: 30 percent are married couples without children; 8 percent are single parents and their children; 11 percent are unmarried couples and others living together: And, perhaps most startling, in 25 percent of the households, there is someone living alone.

What has happened to the traditional American family and why? Some of the explanation is demographic. In the 1950s, men who had fought in World War II had returned home, married, and were raising their families. There was a substantial increase (or "boom") in the birth rate, producing the "baby boomers." A second demographic factor is that today young people are marrying and having children later in life. Some couples now choose not to have children at all. A third factor is that people are living longer after their children are grown, and they often end up alone. And, of course, there is a fourth factor —the high rate of divorce. But numbers alone cannot account for the dramatic changes in the family. Understanding the values at work in the family will provide some important insights.

The Emphasis on Individual Freedom

Americans view the family as a group whose primary purpose is to advance the happiness of individual members. The result is that the needs of each individual take priority in the life of the family In contrast to that of many other cultures, the primary responsibility of the American family member is not to advance the family as a group, either socially or economically, nor is it to bring honor to the family name. This is partly because the United States is not an aristocratic society.

Family name and honor are less important than in aristocratic societies, since equality of opportunity regardless of birth is considered a basic American value. Moreover, there is less emphasis on the family as an economic unit because the American family is rarely self-supporting. Relatively few families maintain self-supporting family farms or businesses for more than one generation. A farmer's son, for example, is very likely to go on to college, leave the family farm, and take an entirely different job in a different location.

The American desire for freedom from outside control clearly extends to the family. Americans do not like to have controls placed on them by other family members. They want to make independent decisions and not be told what to do by grandparents or

uncles or aunts. For example, both American men and women expect to decide what job is best for them as individuals. Indeed, young Americans are encouraged by their families to make such independent career decisions. What would be best for the family is not considered to be as important as what would be best for the individual.

Marriage and Divorce

Marriages not "arranged" in the United States. Young people are expected to find a husband or wife on their own; their parents do not usually help them. In fact, parents are frequently not told of marriage plans until the couple has decided to many. This means that parents have little control, and generally not much influence, over whom their children marry. Americans believe that young people should fall in love and then decide to marry someone they can live happily with, again evidence of the importance of an individual's happiness. Of course, in reality this does not always happen, but it remains the ideal, and it shapes the views of courtship and marriage among young Americans.

Over the years, the value placed on marriage itself is determined largely by how happy the husband and wife make each other. Happiness is based primarily on companionship. The majority of American women value companionship as the most important part of marriage. Other values, such as having economic support and the opportunity to have children, although important, are seen by many as less important.

If the couple is not happy, the individuals may choose to get a divorce. A divorce is relatively easy to obtain in most parts of the United States. Most states have "no-fault" divorce. To obtain a no-fault divorce, a couple states that they can no longer live happily together that they have "irreconcilable differences," and that it is neither partners fault.

The divorce rate rose rapidly in the United States after the 1950s, but it had leveled off by the 1990s. Approximately one out of every two marriages now ends in divorce. Often children are involved. The great majority of adult Americans believe that unhappy couples should not stay married just because they have children at home, a significant change in attitude since the 1950s. Most people do not believe in sacrificing individual happiness for the sake of the children. They say that children actually may be better off living with one parent than with two who are constantly arguing. Divorce is now so common that it is no longer socially unacceptable, and children are not embarrassed to say that their parents are divorced. However, sociologists are still studying the long-term psychological consequences of divorce.

The Role of the Child

The American emphasis on the individual, rather than the group, affects children in a contradictory way. On the one hand, it may cause them to get more attention and even have more power than they should. On the other hand, because most children have mothers who are working outside the home, they may not get enough attention from either parent. Worse yet, parents who feel guilty for not having enough time with their children may give them more material things to compensate for the lack of attention. Studies show that both parents are now spending less time with their children, due to work habits and a busy lifestyle.

In general, American families tend to place more emphasis on the needs and desires of the child and less on the child's social and family responsibilities. In the years since World War II, so much stress has been placed on the psychological needs of children that the number of experts in this field has increased enormously. Child psychologists, counselors, and social workers are employed to help children with problems at school or in the family. Many books on how to raise children have become best sellers. Sometimes these books offer conflicting advice, but almost all of them share the American emphasis on the development of the individual as their primary goal.

Some Americans believe that the emphasis on the psychological needs of the individual child have been carried too far by parents and experts alike. Dr Benjamin Spock, the most famous of the child-rearing experts, finally concluded that "what is

making the parent's job most difficult is today's child-centered viewpoint." Many conscientious parents, said Spock, tend to "keep their eyes exclusively focused on their child, thinking about what he needs from them and from the community, instead of thinking about what the world, the neighborhood, the family will be needing from the child and then making sure that he will grow up to meet such obligations." Although Americans may not agree on how best to nurture and discipline their children, they still hold the basic belief that the major purpose of the family is the development and welfare of each of its members as individuals.

Along with the American emphasis on individual freedom, the belief in equality has had a strong effect on the family. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the connection clearly in the 1830s. He said that in aristocratic societies inequality extends into the family particularly to the father's relationship to his children. The father is accepted as ruler and master. The children's relations with him are very formal, and love for him is always combined with fear. In the United States, however, the democratic idea of equality destroys much of the father's status as ruler of the family and lessens the emotional distance between father and children. There is less formal respect for, and fear of, the father. But there is more affection expressed toward him. "The master and constituted [legal] ruler have vanished," said de Tocqueville; "the father remains."

What de Tocqueville said of American fathers and children almost two centuries ago applies to relations between parents and children in the United States today. There is much more social equality between parents and children than in most aristocratic societies or societies ruled by centuries of tradition. This can be witnessed in arguments between parents and their children, and in the considerable independence granted to teenagers. In fact, some Americans are worried that there is too much democracy in the home. Since the early 1960s, there has been a significant decline in parental authority and children's respect for their parents. This is particularly true of teenagers. Some parents seem to have little or no control over the behavior of their teenage children, particularly after they turn 16 and get their drivers' licenses.

On the other hand, Americans give their young people a lot of freedom because they want to teach their children to be independent and self-reliant. American children are expected to "leave the nest" at about age 18, after they graduate from high school. At that time they are expected to go on to college (many go to another city) or to get a job and support themselves. By their mid-20s, if children are still living with their parents, people will suspect that something is "wrong." Children are given a lot of freedom and equality. In the family so that they will grow up to be independent, self-reliant adults. Today, however, many young people are unable to find jobs that support the lifestyle they have grown up with, and they choose to move back in with their parents for a time. These young people are sometimes called "boomerang(回飞棒, 飞去来器) kids," because they have left the nest once but are now back again.

Four Stages of Marriage Relationships

The idea of equality also affects the relationships between husbands and wives. Women have witnessed steady progress toward equal status for themselves in the family and in society at large. According to Letha and John Scanzoni, two American sociologists, the institution of marriage in the United States has experienced four stages of development. In each new stage wives have increased the degree of equality with their husbands and have gained more power within the family.

Stage I: Wife as Servant to Husband During the 19th century, American wives were expected to be completely obedient to their husbands. As late as 1850, wife beating was legal in almost all the states of the United States. Although both husbands and wives had family duties, the wife had no power in family matters other than that which her husband allowed her. Her possessions and any of her earnings belonged to her husband. During the 19th century women were not allowed to vote, a restriction that in part reflected women's status as servant to the family.

Stage II: Husband-Head, Wife-Helper During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opportunities for women to work outside the household increased. More wives were now able to support themselves, if necessary, and therefore were less likely to accept the traditional idea that wives were servants who must obey their husbands. Even though the great majority of wives chose not to work outside the home, the fact that they might do so increased their power in the marriage. The husband could no longer make family decisions alone and demand that the wife follow them. The wife was freer to disagree with her husband and to insist that her views be taken into account in family decisions.

Even though the wife's power increased, the husband remained the head of the family. The wife became his full-time helper by taking care of his house and raising his children. She might strongly argue with him and sometimes convince him, but his decision on family matters was usually final.

This increase in equality of women in marriages reflected increased status for women in the society at large and led to women's gaining the right to vote in the early 20th century.

The husband-head, wife-helper marriage is still found in the United States. Economic conditions in the 20th century; however, have carried most marriages into different stages.

Stage III: Husband-Senior Partner; wife-Junior Partner During the 20th century, more and more wives have taken jobs outside the home. In 1940, for example, only 14 percent of married women in the United States held jobs outside the home. In the 1990s, more than 60 percent do. When married women take this step, according to Scanzoni, their power relative to that of their husbands increases still further. The wife's income becomes important in maintaining the family's standard of living. Her power to affect the outcome of family decisions is greater than when her duties were entirely in the home.

Although she has become a partner; however; the wife is still not an equal partner with her husband, since his job or career still provides more of the family income. He is, therefore, the senior partner and she is the junior partner of the family enterprise. Even though she has a job, it has a lower priority than her husband's. If, for example, the husband is asked to move to advance his career; she will give up her job and seek another in a new location.

In the United States today, many marriages are probably the senior-partner/ junior-partner type, since the majority of women have jobs outside the home. The main reason seems to be that it has become increasingly difficult for families to maintain their standard of living on just one income. It is also due to the desire of American women for greater economic opportunity.

Stage IV: Husband-Wife Equal Partner Since the late 1960s, a growing number of women have expressed a strong dissatisfaction with any marriage arrangement where the husband and his career are the primary considerations in the marriage. By the end of the 1970s, for example, considerably less than half of the women in the United States (38 percent) still believed that they should put their husbands and children ahead of their own careers. In the 1990s, most American women believe that they should be equal partners in their marriages and that their husbands should have equal responsibility for child care and household chores.

In an equal-partnership marriage, the wife pursues a full-time job or career that has equal importance to her husband's. The long-standing division of labor between husband and wife comes to an end. The husband is no longer the main provider of family income, and the wife no longer has the main responsibilities for household duties and raising children. Husband and wife share all these duties equally. Power over family decisions is also shared equally.

The reality of life in the United States is that although most American women now have an equal say in the decisions affecting the family, they generally earn less than men for the same work. Also, most women are still spending more time taking care of the

children, cooking, and cleaning house than their husbands are. Many women are resentful because they feel like they have two full-time job — the one at work and the one at home. In the 1980s, women were told they could "have it all" —fast-track career, husband, children, and a clean house. Now, some women are finding that lifestyle exhausting and unrewarding. Some young women are now choosing to stay at home until their children start school, but many others who would like to cannot afford to do so.

Juggling two careers and family responsibilities can be as difficult for men as it is for women, especially if there is truly an equal division of duties. American fathers are often seen dropping the kids off at the baby sitter's or taking a sick child to the doctor. Some businesses are recognizing the need to accommodate families where both parents work. They may open a day-care center in the office building, offer fathers "paternity leave" to stay home with their new babies, or have flexible working hours. Unfortunately, these benefits are still the exception. While young couples strive to achieve equality in their careers, their marriages, and their parenting, society at large still lacks many of the structures that are needed to support them.

The Role of the Family in Society

The American ideal of equality has affected not only marriage but also all forms of relationships between men and women. Americans gain a number of benefits by placing so much importance on achieving individual freedom and equality within the context of the family. The needs and desires of each member are given a great deal of attention and importance. However, a price is paid for these benefits. American families are less stable and lasting than those of most cultures. The high rate of divorce in American families is perhaps the most important indicator of this instability.

The American attitude toward the family contains many contradictions. For example, Americans will tolerate a good deal of instability in their families, including divorce, in order to protect such values as freedom and equality. On the other hand, they are strongly attached to the idea of the family as the best of all lifestyles. In fact, the great majority of persons who get divorces find a new partner and remarry. Studies show consistently that more than 90 percent of Americans believe that family life is an important value.

What is family life? We have seen that only 26 percent of the households are the "typical" American family — father, mother and children. Many of these are really "step families," or "blended families." Since most divorced people remarry, many children are living with a stepmother or stepfather In a "blended" family, the parents may each have children from a previous marriage, and then have one or more children together —producing "yours," "mine," and "ours. " Such families often result in very complicated and often stressful relationships. A child may have four sets of grandparents instead of two, for example. Blending families is not easy, and, sadly, many second marriages fail.

In addition to traditional families and blended families, there are a number of single parents, both mothers and fathers (more mothers), raising their children alone. Many of the single mothers are divorced, but some have never married. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, a startling one-third of all new babies were born to single mothers. Sometimes single parents and their children live with the grandparents for economic and emotional support. There are all sorts of arrangements. In recent years, some gay and lesbian couples have created family units, sometimes adopting children, and some have sought to have single-sex marriages recognized by law. The definition of "family" has become much broader in the '90s. The majority of Americans would now define it as "people who live together and love each other"

Sociologists and psychologists tell us that the family is the best place for children to learn moral values and a sense of responsibility. Beginning in the early 1990s, experts began to voice concern over what was happening to many children in America. Today, the state of the American family is frequently discussed, not only by experts but by the press, elected officials, and the general public. The majority of Americans believe that the institution of the family and "family values" are both in deep trouble, and they are asking the schools to provide more moral education than in the past. But if you ask Americans

how their own families are, most will tell you they are generally happy with their family life.

Family Values

In Values and Public Policy, Daniel Yankelovich reports on surveys done on family values. There are 11 points that a majority of Americans agree are "family values" Yankelovich classifies six of them as "clearly traditional".

? Respecting one's parents

? Being responsible for one's actions

? Having faith in God

? Respecting authority

? Married to the same person for life

? Leaving the world in better shape

The other five are "a blend of traditional and newer more expressive values"'

? Giving emotional support to other members of the family

? Respecting people for themselves

? Developing greater skill in communicating one's feelings

? Respecting one's children

? Living up to one's potential as an individual

The ideal of the American family is group cooperation to help achieve the fulfillment of each individual member, and shared affection to renew each member’s emotional strength. Families can be viewed as similar to churches in this regard. Both are seen by Americans as places where the human spirit can find refuge from the highly competitive world outside and renewed resources to continue the effort. Although in many cases churches and families do not succeed in the task of spiritual renewal, this remains the ideal of church and family in America.