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Think. Discuss. Act. Family

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Review: What Is A Family Anyway?

W. Sayres. (1989, September). “What is a family anyway?” The World and I, pp. 146-153.


“The more one looks at the family, the more it isn’t there.” This is author Hope Jensen Leichter’s contention, in William Sayres review of the changing American family. Sayres argues that the family is the oldest and most basic social unit; at the same time, he claims that the forms of the family have varied so much over the years that the family now defies definition. From many perspectives, “there is no such thing as the family.”

The White House Conference on the Family (which became, of necessity, the White House Conference on Families) finally decided that it was “impossible to arrive at even rudimentary consensus on what ‘the American family’ was supposed to be.”

Clearly, the days of Ozzie and Harriet are over. Our families must be classified as nuclear, extended, step, single parent, foster, adoptive, communal, or group. Each of the forms of the family unit comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages.

The extended family, consisting of parents, children, and other adult relatives living in the same house, has historically been the most common living arrangement, although it has become less prevalent in the U.S. in the past generation. This type of family dates to a time when many hands were needed for economic viability (economics means, literally, “household management”). The main advantage of the extended family is shared help in household responsibilities and child care; yet, the dilution of parental authority and influence is a distinct disadvantage.

The nuclear family emphasizes the conjugal bond between husband and wife (and their children), maximizing the American ideal of individualism within the family structure. Its greatest advantages, autonomy and freedom, also become great disadvantages that loosen the bonds of marriage. The United States has the world’s highest divorce rate, almost twice that of second-ranked Sweden. About one half of today’s U.S. marriages are expected to end in divorce.

The number of single parent families has increased exponentially over the past generation. As many as 60% of all American children born today will live in single parent households before reaching adulthood. These may be the result of divorce or births to unmarried women, notably teenagers. Almost one fourth of all American children born will be born out of wedlock, with figures in urban minority groups perhaps twice that high. While single parent families may end marital (and family) strife, there are distinct social, economic, and psychological disadvantages.

Variant family forces are numerous; the most common of these is the stepfamily, or blended family. “Currently there are more than 35 million stepparents in the United States, and it is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be more children in stepfamilies than in other two-parent families.” Foster and adoptive families are not without their own unique problems; foster parents are not encouraged to develop deep ties to their foster children, and have few legal rights. Recent estimates show that 500,000 American children live in foster homes. Adoptive parents, while having the distinct advantage of “choosing” parenthood, are faced with the potential problems of identity as the child accommodates to its adoptive status. Finally, the Western counterculture provides for group and communal families. While the opportunity for multiple personal relationships exists, the social stigma attached to such arrangements can be deleterious to children’s growth.

In conclusion, little can be said about “the” American family structure. However, clearly the family concept is strong, and “whatever form it may take…speaks most persuasively to our need to bond with others.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What was your own experience of the family like? How did you feel about your family? Was it a “safe” place for you?
  2. List all of the different types of family units with which you are in contact. How do those arrangements affect the members of the families, particularly the children and teenagers?
  3. Is a healthy family unit important to a youth’s developing self-identity? How?
  4. Are there ways in which a youth worker can complement or counteract the socialization process going on in an adolescent’s family?
  5. What pro-active steps can one take to strengthen the families with which one is involved?


  1. Despite the decline of the influence of the family unit, it remains one of the primary shapers of an adolescent’s identity.
  2. We cannot continue to assume that “family” means the Ozzie and Harriet model of working husband, stay-at-home wife, and 2.2 kids. Teenagers will increasingly come from a variety of good and bad home situations, no two of which will look alike.
  3. Many teenagers with whom we are involved will not understand what it means to be a part of a family. How can we help them understand what it means to be a part of a family or community?
  4. Providing a “family” for kids (perhaps for the first time) may drive a wedge between them and their families of origin. As workers toward reconciliation, we need to reconcile kids to their families. While separation from family is necessary to establish adolescents’ identities, we need to help them go back to their families as agents of reconciliation.

Emily J. Anderson
© 2018 CYS

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