Will the ‘Families We Choose’ Replace Nuclear Families?

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March 4, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

The final section of David Brooks’ piece in The Atlantic is painful to read (The Atlantic, 3/2020).  Almost every sentence made me want to scream and tear my hair.  For example, he recites that, during the earliest days of our country, when Europeans landed in what’s now New England, some of them went to live with Native American tribes, but essentially none of the indigenous peoples lived with the Europeans.  Brooks’ conclusion?

When you read such accounts, you can’t help but wonder whether our civilization has somehow made a gigantic mistake.

Well, Brooks may wonder that, but the rest of us who value things like Mozart and living beyond the age of 35 don’t wonder at all.  Does Brooks have any idea of how people in hunter-gatherer societies lived?  He should look it up sometime.  If he does, he’ll no longer engage in such nonsensical musings.

But the real point of his second section is to acquaint us with some of the things a few people are doing to attempt to replace the nuclear family.  These are people who, for whatever reason, have decided that they need some sort of community or surrogate family, usually because the one they had doesn’t provide for those needs.  And indeed, there are some interesting projects underway in which mostly unrelated individuals are coming together to forge new living arrangements.

Good for them.  I’m always impressed with human ingenuity, our amazing ability to respond to new circumstances in creative and sometimes very productive, healthy ways.  Maybe some of the ones Brooks mentions will bear the type of fruit they (and Brooks) hope for.

Or maybe not.  After all, none of the groups Brooks mentions has been around longer than a few years.  He eagerly disposes of the nuclear family despite the fact that it seems to be making a comeback and that more people live in nuclear families than not.  The nuclear family has been around in one version or another for millennia; the groups Brooks cites, a matter of a few years.  So what makes him think they’ll have any staying power?  He doesn’t let on.  What makes him think that kids raised in those groups will fare as well as kids raised by Mom and Dad?  Not a word.

That’s no surprise due to the simple fact that, whatever the good intentions of the people in those groups, no one can say whether they’ll last or even be worth the effort.  That Brooks cites these groups as, in some way, an alternative to nuclear families positively shouts that he’s grasping at straws.

Then there’s this:

Nations where a fifth of the people live alone, like Denmark and Finland, are a lot richer than nations where almost no one lives alone, like the ones in Latin America or Africa. Rich nations have smaller households than poor nations. The average German lives in a household with 2.7 people. The average Gambian lives in a household with 13.8 people.

We’ve know this for a long time.  Fertility rates drop as a society’s prosperity rises.  But Brooks doesn’t draw that simple, obvious conclusion.  No, for him

First, the market wants us to live alone or with just a few people. 

No, actually the “market” “wants” no such thing, or indeed anything at all.  That’s not what markets do.  And in any case, they have markets in Gambia too, just like we do here in the U.S.  If the “market” is what living arrangements are all about, why are they different in Gambia than here?  The obvious answer is that, by comparison to the U.S., Gambia is a poor country and poor people tend to live together so that the cost of living is spread among more individuals.  I shouldn’t have to explain this, but apparently I do.

Brooks points out that Africans who come to this country experience a wrenching sense of loneliness.  Gone are the extended families in which they lived, only to be replaced by single-family houses that are mostly empty during the day because the kids are in school and Mom and Dad are at work.  What he neglects to mention is the fact that the flow of people wanting permanent residence between Africa and the U.S. is one-way in this direction.  If our way of life is so alienating and alienated, why do so many people seek it out?

But the main problem with Brooks’ piece is its overarching sense that the decline of the nuclear family is somehow a natural phenomenon, much like the weather.  It’s not.  It’s a product partly of technological advances, but mostly of concrete decisions made to public policy.  Every day we don’t have shared parenting laws is a day we attack the nuclear family.  Every day we refuse to reform alimony and child support laws is a day we encourage divorce and encourage marriage.  Every day we maintain our adoption laws is a day we push fathers further from their children.  Every day we offer child protective agencies cash incentives for taking children from their parents, placing them in foster care and having them adopted is a day we damage families.

And every day that public figures from presidents to priests fail to force the public narrative to address the value of intact families is a day we miss an opportunity to make this society better.

Public policy isn’t the answer to everything that ails the American family, but it’s far more than anything else.  And whatever its contribution, there’s simply no excuse for doing nothing.  If we did everything we could to strengthen and improve families and some of them were still at risk, at least we could say we’d done what we could.  As things stand now, we can’t even pretend that we’re beginning to take on the single most important social problem of our time.

David Brooks passes for a conservative, at least at the New York Times.  There was a time when conservatives valued taking responsibility for one’s own actions.  So it’s remarkable that Brooks, in an article of over 8,000 words, expends not a single one of them on the many things policy makers have done to damage that bedrock of any healthy society – the nuclear family.

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