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A Multigenerational Family
An American family composed of the mother, father, children, and extended family.

The American family structure is considered a traditional family support system involving two married individuals providing care and stability for their biological offspring. However, this two-parent, nuclear family has become less prevalent, and alternative family forms have become more common.[1] The family is created at birth and establishes ties across generations.[2] Those generations, the extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, can hold significant emotional and economic roles for the nuclear family.

Over time, the traditional structure has had to adapt to very influential changes, including divorce and the introduction of single-parent families, teenage pregnancy and unwed mothers, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and increased interest in adoption. Social movements such as the feminist movement and the stay-at-home dad have contributed to the creation of alternative family forms, generating new controversy and concern for the American family.


Family at a glance

Nuclear family

The nuclear family is considered the "traditional" family. The nuclear family consists of a mother, father, and the children. The two-parent, nuclear family has become less prevalent, and alternative family forms have become more common.[1] These include homosexual relationships, single-parent households, and adopting individuals. The nuclear family is also choosing to have less children then in the past.[3] The percentage of married-couple households with children under 18 has declined to 23.5 percent of all households in 2000 from 25.6 percent in 1990, and from 45 percent in 1960.[3]


A single-parent (also termed lone parent or sole parent) is a parent who cares for one or more children without the assistance of the other biological parent. Single-parent homes are increasing more and more as married couples divorce, or as unexpected pre-marital pregnancies occur.[4] The percentage of single-parent households has doubled in the last three decades, but that percentage tripled between 1900 and 1950.[5] The sense of marriage as a "permanent" institution has been weakened, allowing individuals to consider leaving marriages more readily then they may have in the past.[6]

Extended family

The extended family consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In some circumstances, the extended family comes to live either with or in place of a member of the nuclear family. An example includes elderly parents who move in with their children due to old age. This places large demands on the caregivers, particularly the female relatives who choose to perform these duties for their extended family.[7]

Roles and relationships

Married partners

A married couple is defined as a "husband and wife enumerated as members of the same household" by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.[8] Since the 1940s, the United States marriage rate has decreased, whereas rates of divorce have increased.[9]

Unwed partners

Living as unwed partners is also known as cohabitation. The number of heterosexual unmarried couples in the United States has increased tenfold, from about 0.4 million in 1960 to more than five million in 2005.[10] This number would increase by at least another 594,000 if same sex partners were included.[10] Of all unmarried couples, about 1 in 9 (11 percent of all unmarried-partner households) are gay men or lesbians.[10] The cohabitation lifestyle is becoming more popular in today's generation.[11] It is more convenient for couples not to get married because it can be cheaper and simpler. As divorce rates rise in society, the desire to get married is less attractive for couples uncertain of their long-term plans.[10]


Parents can be either the biological mother or biological father, or the legal guardian for adopted children. Traditionally, mothers were responsible for raising the kids while the father was out providing financially for the family. The age group for parents ranges from teenage parents to grandparents who have decided to raise their grandchildren, with teenage pregnancies fluctuating based on race and culture.[12] Older parents are financially established and generally have less problems raising children compared to their teenage counterparts.[13]


A housewife is a married woman who does not work outside of the home for income but stays and takes care of the house and kids. This includes doing the cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. The roles of women working within the house has changed drastically as more women start to pursue careers. The amount of time women spend doing housework declined from 27 hours per week in 1965 to less than 16 hours in 1995, but it is still substantially more housework then their male partners.[14 ]


A breadwinner is the main financial provider in the family. Historically the husband has been the breadwinner; that trend is changing as wives start to take advantage of the women's movement to gain financial independence for themselves. According to the New York Times, "In 2001, wives earned more than their spouses in almost a third of married households where the wife worked."[15] Yet, even within nuclear families in which both spouses are employed outside of the home, many men are still responsible for a substantially smaller share of household duties.[16]

Stay-at-home dads

Stay-at-home dads are fathers that are unemployed and raise their children—the male equivalent to housewives. Stay-at-home dads are not as popular in American society.[17] According to US Census Bureau, "There are an estimated 105,000 'stay-at-home' dads. These are married fathers with children under 15 who are not in the labor force primarily so they can care for family members while their wives work outside the home. Stay-at-home dads care for 189,000 children."[18]


Only child families

An only child is one without any biological or adopted brothers or sisters. Only children are stereotypically spoiled, self-centered, and selfish. Despite this, only children often excel more in school and in their careers than children with siblings.[14 ] Famous only children include Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, and Jean-Paul Sartre.[14 ]

Adopted children

Adopted children are kids that were given up at birth, abandoned or were unable to be cared for by their biological parents. They may have been put into foster care before finding their permanent residence. It is particularly hard for adopted children to get adopted from foster care: only 50,000 children were adopted from in 2001.[19] The average age of these children was 7 years old, which shows that fewer older kids were adopted.[19]


Same-sex marriage, adoption, and child rearing

Same-sex parents are gay or lesbian couples that choose to raise children. Nationally, 33 percent of female same-sex couples and 22 percent of male same-sex couples live with children under 18 years old.[17] Children with same-sex parents usually deal with discrimination by their peers and there is always the potential for gender confusion as they mature.[20] In the 2000 census, there were 594,000 households that claimed to be headed by same-sex couples, with 27 percent of those having children.[21] In July 2004, the American Psychological Association concluded that "Overall results of research suggests that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents."[22]

Single-parent households

Single-parent homes in America are starting to become more common in today's society. With more children being born to unmarried couples and to couples whose marriages subsequently dissolve, children increasingly live with only one parent. The proportion of children living with a never-married parent has also grown, from 4 percent in 1960 to 42 percent in 2001.[23] Of all one parent families, 83 percent are mother-child families.[23]

Adoption requirements

The adoption requirements and policies for adopting children have made it harder for foster families and potential adoptive families to adopt kids. Before a family can adopt they must go through state, county, and agency criteria. Adoption agencies' criteria express the importance of age of the adoptive parents, as well as the agency's desire for married couples over single adopters.[24] Adoptive parents also have to deal with criteria that is given by the birth parents of the adoptive child. The different criteria for adoptive children makes it harder for couples to adopt children in need.[24] However, it can be good to place strict requirements to help protect the foster children from unqualified couples.[24] Currently 1.5 million children are adopted, making the percentage of all U.S. children adopted at 2%. There are several different types of adoption, the first being embryo adoption which is when a couple is having trouble conceiving a child and instead choose to have their sperm and egg conjoined outside the womb. Another type of adoption is international adoption which is simply the adopted children that come from foreign countries. Last is private adoption within the states, this being the most commonly recognized form of adoption. In private adoption, families adopt children via licensed agencies or with direct contact through the parents.

Male/Female role pressures

The traditional "father" and "mother" roles of the nuclear family have become blurred over time. Because of the women's movement towards greater individuality and economic stability, and as women choose to sacrifice their child-bearing years to establish their careers, the traditional roles of fathers as the "breadwinners" and mothers as the "caretakers" have come into question.[25]

African American family structure

The family structure of African Americans has been a matter of national public policy interest.[26] The 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known as the The Moynihan Report, examined the link between black poverty and family structure.[27] It hypothesized that the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure would hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.[28]

Television portrayals

The television industry initially helped create a stereotype of the American nuclear family. During the era of the baby boomers, families became a popular social topic, especially on television.[29] Family shows such as "The Cosby Show," "Married with Children," "The Jeffersons," and "Good Times" have portrayed different social classes of families growing up in America. Those "perfect" nuclear families have changed as the years passed and have become more realistic, showing single-parent and divorced families, as well as older singles.[4] Television shows that show single-parent families include "Half & Half," "One on One," "Murphy Brown," and "Gilmore Girls". Television shows that are becoming increasingly popular tend to focus more on single life. For example, "Sex and the City" illustrates the relationship between a group of female friends and their romantic endeavors.

See also


  1. ^ a b Edwards, H.N. (1987). Changing family structure and youthful well-being. Journal of Family Issues 8, 355-372
  2. ^ Beutler, Burr, Bahr, and Herrin (1989) p.806; cited by Fine, Mark A. in Families in the United States: Their Current Status and Future Prospects Copyright 1992
  3. ^ a b "For First Time, Nuclear Families Drop Below 25% of Households". 2001-05-15. Retrieved 2009-07-27.  
  4. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 7. 6th edition, 2007
  5. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 18. 6th edition, 2007
  6. ^ Glenn, N. D. (1987). Continuity versus change, sanguineness versus concern: Views of the American family in the late 1980s. Journal of Family Issues 8, 348-354
  7. ^ Brubaker, T.H. (1990). Continuity and change in later life families: Grandparenthood, couple relationships and family caregiving. Gerentology Review 3, 24-40
  8. ^ Teachman, Tedrow, Crowder. The Changing Demography of America's Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 62 (Nov 2000) pp. 1234
  9. ^ Teachman, Tedrow, Crowder. The Changing Demography of America's Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 62 (Nov 2000) pp. 1235
  10. ^ a b c d Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 271. 6th edition, 2007
  11. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 275. 6th edition, 2007
  12. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 326. 6th edition, 2007
  13. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 328-329. 6th edition, 2007
  14. ^ a b c Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 367. 6th edition, 2007
  15. ^ Gardner, Ralph (2003-11-10). "Alpha Women, Beta Men - When wives are the family breadwinners". Retrieved 2009-07-27.  
  16. ^ Furstenberg, Jr. F. F. (1988). Good dads-bad dads: Two faces of fatherhood. In A. J. Cherlin, The changing American family and public policy (pp. 193-218). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press
  17. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 328. 6th edition, 2007
  18. ^ "US Census Press Releases". Retrieved 2009-07-27.  
  19. ^ a b "Child's Finalization Age (Grouped)". Retrieved 2009-07-28.  
  20. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 372. 6th edition, 2007
  21. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households:2000 (February 2003)
  22. ^ Meezan, William and Rauch, Jonathan. Gay Marriage, Same-sex Parenting, and America's Children. The Future of Children Vol.15 No.2 Marriage and Child Wellbeing (Autumn 2005) p.102
  23. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 20-21. 6th edition, 2007
  24. ^ a b c "Review of Qualification Requirements for Prospective Adoptive Parents - Agencies, Agency, Alcohol, A". Retrieved 2009-07-28.  
  25. ^ Fine, Mark A. Families in the United States: Their Current Status and Future Prospects. Family Relations vol. 41 (Oct 1992) p.431
  26. ^ Moynihan's War on Poverty report
  27. ^ Moynihan's War on Poverty report
  28. ^ Moynihan's War on Poverty report
  29. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 7-8. 6th edition, 2007

Further reading

External links

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