At The Atlantic David Brooks pronounces the nuclear family dead and, indeed, a terrible mistake:

“In my childhood,” Levinson told me, “you’d gather around the grandparents and they would tell the family stories … Now individuals sit around the TV, watching other families’ stories.” The main theme of Avalon, he said, is “the decentralization of the family. And that has continued even further today. Once, families at least gathered around the television. Now each person has their own screen.”

This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.

The problem with his article is that it is historically, anthropologically, and psychologically ignorant. Let’s start with the history. He claims that the absolute nuclear family only prevailed in the United States between 1950 and about 1965. That’s untrue.

Anthropologists have done quite a bit of analysis of family structures. It’s one of the central topics of the field. There are many, many different family structures around the world. In Europe four different family structures prevailed: the absolute nuclear family, the egalitarian nuclear family, the stem family, and the communitarian family. Here are their definitions:

Type Definition Where prevalent
Absolute nuclear Total emancipation of children in adulthood to form independent families made simply of a couple and their children. Division of inheritance among children by testament or will, usually to a single individual, often the son. Brothers and sisters are treated as independent individuals England, non-Highland Scotland, Netherlands, Denmark, parts of Sweden and Norway
Egalitarian nuclear Total emancipation of children in adulthood to form independent families made simply of a couple and their children. Equal division of inheritance among children. This system encourages the persistence of slightly stronger relations between parents and children until the inheritance is completely divided after the parents’ death Parts of France, Spain, parts of Italy
Stem family Extended families with several generations living under one roof. One child – generally, but not always, the eldest – marries and has children that remain in the household in order to preserve the lineage. The rest have the choice of remaining unmarried within the household or of marrying and leaving the home or becoming soldiers or priests. The house and the land are inherited by the son who stays at home. Others may receive some financial compensation. The inheriting son, who stays at home, remains under the formal authority of the father Germany, parts of Scandinavia, Switzerland
Communitarian Extended family in which all sons can get married and bring their wives to the family home. Equality among children in inheritance, with family wealth and estates divided after the death of parent (although a period of cohabitation between married brothers after the death of the parents is possible) Parts of Italy, parts of Russia

These can be organized along two axes like this:

  Egalitarian Non-egalitarian
Strong authority Communitarian Stem
Weak authority Egalitarian nuclear Absolute nuclear

There is evidence that these family structures have been in place throughout Europe for thousands of years and it has been suggested that differences in outcomes throughout Europe may be attributed to the types of family structures that prevailed in different places. Short version: the absolute nuclear family was emphatically not invented in 1950. Brooks is simply wrong.

I became interested in this subject through my family’s history. Although I was reared in an absolute nuclear family, I knew my father was not. I learned in my studies that he was reared in a variant of the communitarian family that prevailed where my ancestors in Switzerland originated. In that variant siblings could marry, all property belonged to the patriarch and was inherited by the eldest son. My great-grandfather Schuler attempted, unsuccessfully, to continue that in the United States.

I don’t know what family structure is best-suited to modern life in America. I’m pretty confident that grandparent-headed or single parent-headed families are not it. The one thing that should be kept in mind: places where the absolute nuclear family prevailed created liberal democracy and market economies. Our notions of individual freedoms arose from the soil of the absolute nuclear family. Whether they can survive the death of the absolute nuclear family is a gamble.

19 comments… add one
  • Jimbino Link

    I call BS. The nuclear family has always included child-free couples, by necessity. You have left us out, just as the gummint charges us taxes for support of kiddie mis-education while denying us tax deductions and tax credits. According to https://blog.turbotax.intuit.com/tax-deductions-and-credits-2/family/tax-benefits-for-having-dependents-12835/:

    “Child Tax Credit: You may be eligible for a tax credit, which is even better than a tax deduction because it reduces your taxes dollar-for-dollar. The Child Tax Credit is increased to a $2,000 credit under the new tax law (it was previously $1,000 for 2017) and is available if you have a dependent child under the age of 17. The income threshold at which you can claim the Child Tax Credit is raised to $400,000 for couples who are married filing jointly and $200,000 if you are single.

    If your dependent child is over 17 or you support a relative, you may still be able to claim the new Other Dependent Credit of $500.

    Child and Dependent Care Credit: Childcare is expensive, but Uncle Sam can help you out with the cost. If you are working or actively seeking work, and you pay childcare for your dependent who is under the age of 13 (no age limit if disabled), you can claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

    This credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your taxes, based on your childcare expenses, up to 35% of $3,000 ($1,050) for one child or $6,000 ($2,100) for two or more children. The credit ranges from 20% to 35% of your child-care expenses, depending on your income. Nursery school, private kindergarten, after-school programs, and daycare are all qualifying expenses.

    Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): There’s a special tax credit available if your wages or self-employment income are below a certain income level. The amount of credit you receive is based on your income, filing status, and how many qualifying kids you have.

    The refundable tax credit you can receive ranges from a maximum of $6,557 if you have three or more children, to $529 if you have no children for tax year 2019. Unlike other tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit is refundable, so if the credit is greater than the tax you owe, you can still receive the difference as a tax refund.

    The gross income limits for tax year 2019 (the taxes you file in 2020): if you have three or more children, you can earn up to $50,162 ($55,952 if you are married and filing jointly) and qualify. With just two children, that drops to up to $46,703 ($52,493 married filing jointly). If you only have one child, your earnings and adjusted gross income must be less than $41,094 ($46,884 married filing jointly).”

  • GreyShambler Link

    I think Jimbino has a point, childless couples are of course genealogically irrelevant, but as for tax incentives the aim seems to be to encourage poor, single women to have as many babies as they can. And welfare reform limiting the age of eligible dependents sends the message to just keep them coming.
    As to the larger topic, you need to distinguish your aim. Do you want to benefit society, (the State), or individual lineages?
    For the benefit of the latter, the Stem family appears to be the best choice. Don’t neglect the dimwits, but don’t put them in charge of the family fortune either.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Yeah, Brooks seems to be confusing nuclear family with extended family and perhaps assuming the poor immigrant experience of the New York tenements was the normal condition, and not necessarily the one the immigrants would have chosen.

    And would it be snarky to read Brooks meditating about the fragmentation of family as an expression of his feelings about divorcing his wife of twenty-some years. I think the divorce rate has dropped in the last thirty years significantly.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Jimbino, were you raised by a family or were you a self-starter?

  • PD, I think he’s also generalizing, incorrectly, from his own experiences.
    The reality is that the norm in the United States, as the England and Scotland from which most of the early settlers hailed, has been the absolute nuclear family.

    Not having been brought up in a New York tenement at the turn of the last century, I can only speculate what the family arrangements were but my speculation would be that, at least for the first generation, they attempted to reproduce what had been the norm in the Old Country before adopting the ways of their adopted homeland.

  • GreyShambler Link

    I think family structures adapt to conditions. In a wealthy country like this, with access to ADC, families are more accepting of out-of-wedlock birth and fragmented families. Probably to their regret.

  • AFDC doesn’t exist any more but your point is a good one. AFDC just about killed the black family. It’s the single most obvious factor.

  • Andy Link


    Society has chosen to try to protect its most vulnerable citizens, old people, and kids. That’s where the vast majority of spending goes. Maybe we should cut them both off and spend funds primarily on programs for the adult, non-retired population.

  • bob sykes Link

    hbd chick explained the history of the nuclear family in detail over several years. The site is quiet, but the essays are still available.

    Brooks is one of the NYT sock puppets, and a usefull idiot.

  • This stuff is well-known and not difficult to discover if you have an inclination to discover it which Mr. Brooks, apparently, does not possess.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Are we conflating two different things between the decline of marriage vs family structure?

    A single parent family processes the 2 key characteristics presented here — total emancipation of children upon adulthood and division of inheritance by testament or will.

    Another thing I was thinking about — before antibiotics and C-Section, what’s the percentage of families were composed of 2 married parents and only their full biological children. The mortality rate for adults was high enough that mixed family and single parenthood should have been common.

  • Greyshambler Link

    Topic is interesting, if we were Nazi’s, and our goal was world domination, we don’t need old people. And the only young we want are select. But then there is the time frame, conquer the world and then the conquerors grow old. And the thousand year Riech falters.

  • Jimbino Link

    Answer this: why would anyone interested in not annoying his neighbors and not increasing stress on the flora, fauna and existence of our planet ever consider breeding, if not for totally selfish reasons?

    Answer: tax and welfare benefits.

  • steve Link

    Just to look at numbers instead of feelings, link goes to birthrate by income. The lowest income group has about 20% more births than the median income group. The average household has about 1.93 kids so that poor family has about 2.3 kids, the same size as a 1970 family. If tax incentives are the key reason poor women are turning out “lots” of kids it isn’t working well, unless you think 2.3 is “lots”. Also, you must not know many poor families if you think taxes are driving pregnancies.


    “AFDC just about killed the black family”

    The family was already falling apart but the man-in-the -house rule might have been the coup-de-grace.

    ” The mortality rate for adults was high enough that mixed family and single parenthood should have been common.”

    There is some literature on this for England (cant vouch for quality), not so much for the US, and yes, the rate was probably higher then than now. Of course they didnt let unwed mothers keep babies back then if I recall correctly so comparisons are hard.


  • Guarneri Link

    “Answer: tax and welfare benefits.”

    C’mon, jimbino. That’s crap. But to your larger point, I pay taxes for food stamps I will not use, roads I will never see, welfare I will never need and on and on.

    You are cherry picking an issue. Give it a break. The world is more complicated.

  • The family was already falling apart

    AFDC had been around since 1935. We don’t have really great statistics but from what we do know black families were in pretty good shape before then.

    Answer: tax and welfare benefits.

    That has actually been studied. Answer: to bring meaning to their lives.

  • Andy Link

    “Answer: tax and welfare benefits.”

    As a father of three, let me assure you that kids are a net drain on wealth and income. Government benefits do not come remotely close to zeroing those costs.

  • CStanley Link

    Not having been brought up in a New York tenement at the turn of the last century, I can only speculate what the family arrangements were but my speculation would be that, at least for the first generation, they attempted to reproduce what had been the norm in the Old Country before adopting the ways of their adopted homeland.

    My great grandparents were of that cohort. Of the branches that I’ve been able to uncover the most data, it looks like the Stem family designation would fit their customs in the Old Country (Poland, though under Russian rule at that time.)

    I’ve recently connected with a fourth cousin in Poland who’s descended from an eldest brother who stayed behind while 7 of his siblings emigrated. The only other one who remained in Poland was a sister had some sort of disability.

    The ones who came to NY had nothing so I’m not sure there was any thought of recreating the customs they’d left behind. It looks to me that, with a few exceptions they took on American norms. The exceptions were a fair number of arranged marriages, and the expectation that the youngest daughter would not marry because she would care for her mother when she became widowed.

  • Andy Link


    Good news – the US birth rate just hit an all time low of 1.73.

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