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  • Writer's pictureKarla Palmer

What Happened to the Nuclear Family?

Someone once asked if "nuclear family" refers to what happens during the holidays when families get together and have a meltdown after a few too many cups of punch. No. That isn't the idea at all. In fact, according to Merriam Webster:

Nuclear family dates to the 1920s, when the academic fields of anthropology and sociology were both still young. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Bronisław Malinowski, considered a founder of social anthropology, as the coiner of the term.

The phrase "nuclear family" is usually used to refer to immediate family members. Parents and their children are the traditional model of this concept. The idea didn't include parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and of the generations of children that sometimes get together frequently for gatherings and to support one another. The sociological concept was used to study the impact of things like the death of a natural parent on the family unit. Keep in mind that in the 1920s, the term nuclear as we usually apply it today was not a thing. Here in Los Alamos, we tend to automatically associate the word "nuclear" with "atomic".

For a very long time in American culture, the nuclear family was the benchmark of the "normal" family unit. There are studies and articles aplenty discussing the importance of two parent households. When divorce became more socially accepted sometime in the eighties and nineties, sociologists referred to the decline of the nuclear family and the negative impact on child rearing.

But is that really true?

A two parent household with the traditional father, mother, and perhaps two kids, a dog and a cat might appear to be the gold standard. All you have to do is look around to see that this doesn't always produce well balanced, functional human beings. If both parents are unhappy with their career or their personal lives, they're less likely to be paying much attention to their children. Children might be just as "neglected" in a two parent household as they could be a a single parent household. Or, they could be overindulged. Overindulged or spoiled children are going to turn out badly no matter what sort of home they grow up in.

Maybe the more important concept is to have a healthy family no matter what that looks like from a numbers perspective. Parents should strive for life balance and it's vitally important to model that balance for your kids. It doesn't matter if you've got two dads, two moms, one mom and a couple of grandparents, a dad and a grandmother or grandfather, or two coparents and two stepparrents with ten children between them.

How is this healthy family accomplished? Boundaries. Lots and lots of boundaries. Make rules for yourself and rules for your kids. Talk about those rules. Be entirely united with your life partner. Some of our clients call it "being on the same page". Know each other intimately so your children can't play the divide and conquer game. Talk about topics that make you uncomfortable. Goals, financial limitations, time and resource allocation. All of these are critical pieces to a healthy family life.

Most importantly, never forget that the partner relationship between yourself and your "chosen person" is the most important relationship in your life. This is the person you'll wake up with everyday after the kids have moved on to start their own "nuclear families". Maintain that relationship as though it is the most important part of your day and you might be surprised just how improved your outlook becomes!

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