Families in the 21st Century
“Families…At their best they make a profound contribution to the health of society and its individuals; preserving culture, values, ethics, and wealth; defending the weak; carrying out the great unpaid work of the world. At their worst, they resist change, restrict individual freedom, and indulge in prejudices that can lead to conflict. Their power to form and reshape human minds is forever being rediscovered. Good or ill, we cannot do without them, they are the building blocks of our world.”
—Jo Boyden (1993, p. 20)
“Insight, I believe, refers to that depth of understanding that comes by setting experiences, yours and mine, familiar and exotic, new and old, side by side, learning by letting them speak to one another.”
—Mary Catherine Bateson (1994, p. 14)
A hallmark of the American family is diversity. Families are not unitary, nor can they be narrowly defined. Across the nation, in every community—and within the heart, mind, and experience of each individual—family is personal. Our families help to define who we are and who we are not, how we view the world, how we live, and how we share our lives with others. Like the individuals within them, families change over time. In the United States and elsewhere throughout the world, families share many characteristics but differ dramatically in others. This chapter provides an overview of the dimensions of family diversity and the implications of that diversity for individuals who work with children and families.
What is a family? Each reader of this chapter has his or her own definition, and those definitions likely differ from individual to individual. The word family
is typically associated with specific mental pictures or images. The first picture that comes to mind is often one's own family—perhaps a mother, father, and little girl in a small Midwestern town; a grandmother and grandson living together in a city apartment; or a bustling houseful of brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other kin. Many people will see only themselves and their partners, whereas others may see a series of foster parents or a father, stepmother, and stepbrothers and stepsisters from previous marriages. A few images may resemble the classically depicted nuclear family with a mother, father, and two children; some people may see the faces of men and women
in their military unit. Personal images of family may come from the family with whom an individual grew up or the family one has created. For more than 10% of people, their families will include at least one person with a disability; increasingly, families will include parents and siblings of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The image may look more like a kaleidoscope that changes, blends, and is redefined as parents, partners, brothers, sisters, and other relatives change through marriage, divorce, remarriage, or death. With this ever-expanding album of different family pictures, it is no wonder that defining families is not an easy task.
A review of the historical and contemporary definitions of family suggests that the definition—like families themselves—has changed over time. The definition also differs between various systems and societal institutions. For example, the legal definition of family may not be the same as the definition used in the local school, hospital, or social service agency. From studies of families, it is evident that researchers and theoreticians often disagree when they describe families. According to Gelles (1995, p. 2), “No other social institution is as poorly understood as the family.”
How, then, have families been viewed and described in the past? In 1926, Burgess defined family as “a unity of interacting personalities each with its own history” (as cited by Gelles, 1995, p. 10). A much more restrictive definition was used by Christensen (1964), who defined family as married couples with children. A series of studies conducted between 2003 and 2006 found that Americans’ views on what constitutes a family are broadening. Although the predominant view of family was still a married heterosexual couple with children (99.8%), other configurations were also considered to be a family, including a husband and wife with no children (92%), unmarried couples living together with children (83%), and same-sex couples with children (64%; Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, & Steelman, 2010). In these studies, the presence of children was critical to many of the respondents’ views of family. The same relationships without children were far less likely to be viewed as families. For example, when there were no children, only 39.6% of respondents viewed a cohabitating unmarried couple as a family and only 33% thought that a cohabitating same-sex couple constituted a family. However, 60% of respondents indicated that if a group of individuals considers themselves to be a family, then they are a family.
There are many other ways to define families, such as extended families and broad kinship networks that include multiple generations often scattered around the world. A family may also be a group of individuals who live together to share companionship, care, and common interests. Each definition creates a different lens through which to view families, and the picture that emerges shapes both policy and practice. For services to be optimal, society must recognize the remarkable diversity of families and the many variations that exist across and within families. The definition of family used throughout this book has been developed as part of our work. In an earlier publication, we defined family as “any unit that defines itself as a family, including individuals who are related by blood or marriage as well as those who have made a commitment to share their lives” (Hanson & Lynch, 1992, p. 285). Inclusivity is the most important aspect of this definition. It allows for a wide range of family configurations, from nuclear families to extended kinship networks to same-sex partners to a group of older adults who have chosen to live together. Gender is not part of the definition, nor is the presence or absence of children. Instead, “the key elements are that the members of the unit see themselves as a family, are affiliated with one another, and are committed to caring for one another” (Hanson & Lynch, 1992, p. 285).
FAMILY STRUCTURE, MEMBERSHIP, AND DIVERSITY
Families are multidimensional and differ in almost every imaginable way, including size; membership; sociocultural and socioeconomic status; language; cultural, racial, and ethnic identification; and beliefs, values, and traditions. Families also differ in the way in which they organize to accomplish the day-to-day routines and requirements of life. In recent years, the diversity of families within the United States has increased, and this diversity is being acknowledged by all and celebrated by many. This section highlights some of the changes that have broadened the understanding of families.
Smaller Families, Longer Lives
Large families with extensive kinship networks were common in the United States for centuries, but they typically received less attention than the smaller nuclear families that were glorified in the 1950s and 1960s. Although much has been written about changes in family composition, it is difficult to precisely determine the numbers and size of families because of the differences in definitions and ways of counting. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau (2009b) estimated that the average household size for the period from 2005 to 2009 was 2.6 people, but their estimate for average family size during the same period was 3.19. The difference in numbers is based on the difference in definitions: The U.S. Census Bureau (2009a) defined a family as “a group of two or more people who reside together and who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption,” whereas “a household includes all the people who occupy a housing unit as their usual place of residence” without regard to relationship. Even though the numbers differ, they confirm that families now are smaller (Fischer, 2011).
Although families are smaller, family members are living longer. More than 40 million people in the United States are 65 years of age or older, and those numbers are projected to rise rapidly in the coming decades (Jacobsen, Mather, Lee, & Kent, 2011). With the growing number of older adults, more studies have focused on family gerontology, with an emphasis on the aging family and aging family systems (Price & Humble, 2010). As a result of increased life expectancy, the amount of time spent child rearing has changed. In the early part of the 20th century, child rearing was a task that continued through most of an individual's adult life. People—especially women—tended to marry younger, start a family sooner, continue to have children over many years, and die younger than they typically do today. As a result, direct parenting continued for many years. For most adults, this is no longer true. Americans spend an average of 35% of the years between the ages of 20 and 70 in direct parenting roles (Riche, 2000), although this figure varies considerably based on sex, race, and socioeconomic status. Because women are more likely to retain custody of children after divorce or separation, slightly more of their years are devoted to parenting when compared with men. Men, however, are more likely than women to remarry, with many of these remarriages including responsibilities related to the new spouse's children. As a result, men may spend twice as much time parenting nonbiological children; these parenting years are often concurrent with the parenting that they continue to provide for children from a previous marriage (King, 1999; Riche, 2000).
Increased life expectancy also has contributed to changes in family composition. Because people are living longer but having fewer children, families span more generations but have smaller numbers in each generation. According to Riche (2000, p. 22), “Today's living family tree is taller than it used to be but its branches are shorter.” These
taller family trees give rise to more opportunities for intergenerational contact and involvement in everything from recreation and education to various types of support. Many grandparents provide daily care for grandchildren, and some provide financial support for adult children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. These opportunities are made increasingly possible as Americans experience more active, healthy years before the end of life.
Under Whose Roof?
As families have changed, so have living arrangements. In 2010, there were 74.2 million children (birth through 17 years) in the United States, making up 24% of the population. Of those, 66% of children lived with two married parents (compared with 77% in 1980), 3% lived with their own unmarried but cohabiting parents, 23% lived with only their mothers, 3% lived with only their fathers, and 4% lived with neither parent. Of the 3 million children who did not live with a parent, 54% lived with grandparents, 21% lived with other relatives, and 24% lived with nonrelatives (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011). These numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Many children and teens spend evenings, weekends, or time during school breaks and holidays shuttling between homes. Some children live with their mother during the week but spend weekends with their father. School vacations may be spent with grandparents, a noncustodial parent, or other relatives; holidays may be split between two homes. For these children and families, there are multiple residences—each with neighbors, friends, and rules associated with it.
Not all children are born into their family. Every year, between 118,000 and 127,000 children join U.S. families through adoption (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2004). In 2000 and 2001, 40% of adoptions were through publicly funded adoption agencies, 15% were adoptions that brought orphaned children from other countries into U.S. families, and another 20% were kinship or tribal adoptions made through private adoption agencies. Some of these children have lived with one or a
series of foster families prior to adoption, in orphanages outside the United States before adoption, or with a family member prior to their formal adoption by that family member. Some adopted children maintain contact with their birth parents and their country of birth, whereas others do not. Whatever the circumstances of adoption, adopted children become a part of the adoptive family.
In 2009, there were approximately 423,773 children living in foster families in the United States (DHHS, 2010). The length of stay in foster care varies from less than 1 year to 20 years, averaging just over 2 years. For nearly half of the children residing with foster families, the goal is reunification with their parents or principal caretaker. Some children in foster families are being fostered by a relative or a preadoptive family, but far more of these children reside in the homes of nonrelatives, group homes, or institutions.
Your family may be the one you are born into, one that you have joined through adoption, or one that serves as family through the foster care system. The next section describes the range of parental possibilities that are part of 21st-century families.
Divorce, Blended Families, and Single Parenting
The commonly cited divorce rate for the United States is approximately 50% (Copen, Daniels, Vespa, & Mosher, 2012; Gelles, 1995). This marriage-to-divorce ratio suggests that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Such a ratio, however, is both inaccurate and invalid because it compares the number of divorces among all married people to the number of marriages in just a single year. The crude divorce rate is the number of divorced individuals per 1,000 people in the population. In 2008, the crude divorce rate was estimated to be 3.5 (Hughes, 2010). Although this statistical approach improves the marriage-to-divorce ratio, it is also inaccurate because children are included in the number of unmarried people. The refined divorce rate calculates the annual number of divorces per 1,000 people, using only married individuals older than 15 years as members of the population (Gelles, 1995). The refined divorce rate is estimated to be 20.9, much lower than the 50% often cited (Hughes, 2010). A further complication in determining the actual rate of divorce is the lack of data. A number of states, including California, Indiana, and Louisiana, ceased collecting divorce data in the 1980s; the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting data on divorce in 1996. States that still gather data on divorce often use different methods of data collection, which makes comparisons across states complex to impossible. Although a precise number is elusive, all divorces affect those involved—the couple dissolving their marriage, children, other family members, and friends.
Many divorces are followed by remarriage. It is estimated, however, that 67% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages also end in divorce (Averbach, 2012). Remarriages often result in blended families that may include stepparents, stepchildren, stepbrothers, and stepsisters. Approximately 20% of children younger than 18 years live in households with a stepparent (Portrie & Hill, 2005) and 25%–33% of U.S. children will spend some part of their lives in blended families (Ahrons & Rodgers, as cited in Seibert & Willets, 2000). The complexities of blended families are not difficult to imagine: threats to emotional security imposed by new siblings and parents, changes in family rules and power structure, changes in available resources, multiple sets of relatives with whom to interact, moves back and forth from one home to another, and the residual issues related to the divorce. Although
many families demonstrate on a daily basis that these complexities can be managed effectively, blended families face an array of potential obstacles.
Single parenting often occurs for at least some period of time following a divorce, primarily for parents who do not remarry, cohabit, or rely on members of an extended family or kinship network for coparenting. Census data from 2008 indicated that single parents maintained 29.5% of family households with children younger than 18 years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Using this data, the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated that 34% of U.S. children lived in single-parent families in 2009 (National Kids Count Program, 2010). Although there have been increases in the number of single-father families in recent years, relatively little research on these families has been conducted. However, demographic data suggest that single fathers have less education and considerably fewer financial resources than their married counterparts (Brown, 2010). Most single-parent families are headed by single mothers (Mather, 2010). It is estimated that 23% of children live only with a mother compared with 3% who live only with a father (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011). This disproportion between heads-of-household single fathers and single mothers may be partially attributed to custody laws, which tend to favor women in some states; in addition, fewer women than men remarry after a divorce (Teachman, Tedrow, & Crowder, 2000). Single motherhood varies considerably across ethnic and racial groups, with approximately 16% of white children, 27% of Latino children, and 52% of African American children living in single-mother families (Mather, 2010).
Single parenting has been blamed ...