'Nuclear' families shouldn't shoulder sins of our society


We live in an age of polls, statistics, and surveys. Sociologists want to console their frequent lack of philosophical, historical, and theological perspective by calling attention to the latest trends revealed by census reports and population samplings.

And so, according to an announcement by Jason Fields reported by USA Today, "The traditional nuclear family, a married mom and dad living with their biological children, is making a comeback."

In what sense is the "nuclear" idea of mom, pop and the kids traditional? There is little wisdom in calling this nuclear family traditional if there is no long-standing tradition behind it. If there is no tradition that does what Tevye says in "Fiddler on the Roof:" "Because of our tradition, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

OK, OK! So let's leave out God for the moment. A tradition is a way of life. A traditional family would be one in which lives are lived by tradition. There aren't very many such cases today, nor are many sociologists interested in the likelihood.

But the report says that the traditional nuclear family is making a comeback. What the report should say is that there are those who want to try to rescue society by forcing the rescue on this nuclear family. A nuclear family, says the report, is "mom and dad living with their biological children."

Presumably there could be another type of family. But we are supposed to think that this nuclear family is the brightest and best, the way families used to be. Although the sociologists don't tell us much more than the results of their surveys, we are led to think that this nuclear family is the ideal one, the one that some Jews and Christians would tell us is the biblical model.

The nuclear family is, in fact, a relatively recent development. Before the 18th century, the "community" was more important than "mom, pop and the kids" in determining the nurture and place of the individual. The child belonged to the community. That, of course, is still the case among traditional societies such as native American societies. The child was cared for by uncles and aunts, by grandfathers and grandmothers who were not always what we would call blood relatives. Beginning with industrialization in the 18th century, the traditional community was torn asunder as men were removed from their homes in order to "take jobs." By the second half of the 20th century this traditional community had collapsed and the nuclear family was the remnant, expected to provide for the nurture of adults and children and to assure our moral stability.

It isn't likely to work no matter how many homiletical and political statements tell us it must. I, for one, would never have "made it" had it not been for a more traditional community and the close proximity of grandparents, uncles and aunts. Yet the destruction of that remnant of tradition was imminent. Industrialization, a corporate economy, and a technocratic society isolate the family as a romantic peninsula under assault by those who pretend to be its champions.

No amount of family counseling or sentimental and moralistic admonitions about the nuclear family are likely to make it do what is humanly necessary. We have already moved beyond it. Most of us can't care for our parents except by placing them in special "homes." (The title is ridiculous.) We discover that our children have "rights" instead of responsibilities to the community. We recommend that fathers become mothers and that mothers claim "rights" that encourage them to turn their backs on what they give lip service to.

It is a terrible burden to expect mom, pop and the kids to be the basis of a solution to the unavoidable disintegration of society. What is required is another model for the restoration of community and tradition. We may not be able to meet that requirement. We are already unconscious pawns of a techno-corporate dictatorship.

Richard E. Wentz is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and resides in Strawberry. He is the author of numerous books and articles and also is a professional storyteller. His column appears on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dr. Wentz welcomes comments and questions. Send them to the Payson Roundup at P.O. Box 2520, Payson, AZ 85547, c/o Richard E. Wentz.

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