Understand The Nuclear Family And Its Place In Modern Society

Updated August 25, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

It's possible that you may have heard of the term "nuclear family" in the past. This term is essentially something that sociologists and anthropologists have used to help define traditional families in society. A typical family unit is often thought of as having a mother, a father, and however many children a couple happens to have. This is the original and basic idea behind what a nuclear family is supposed to be.

Nuclear Family Definition

What is a nuclear family? Well, the traditional definition is pretty simple to understand. As mentioned above, a nuclear family is made up of two parents and their children. This is the most basic understanding of the nuclear family model. You would traditionally have a father, mother, and several children making up a traditional nuclear family.

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Originally, people would think of the mother and father in the nuclear family model as being a married couple. This married couple would typically have two or more children and would form a close-knit family unit. The relationship of the people in this nuclear family is all about the dynamics between parents and their children. It is about those raising the children and the children that are being raised.

Things have changed drastically in the world since the first ideas of the nuclear family model came to fruition. People don't adhere to the same social standards that they did when the traditional nuclear family was the norm. Although many people do see the ideal nuclear family as being the most common, that isn't necessarily the case in all areas. Many family units in modern times are split into two, and some feature homosexual parents.

What does this all mean for the idea of the nuclear family? Does the nuclear family model even have a place in modern society? This is all very much open to debate. It partially depends on your feelings about the subject, but it is still worth digging into the facts about the nuclear family and how everything has changed in the world.

Broken Homes

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that divorce has become quite commonplace in modern society. When the term nuclear family was first introduced into sociology circles, divorce was a fairly uncommon occurrence. People used to stay together no matter what, and this trend has completely changed over time. Although it is regrettable that many marriages end up in divorce, it is a good thing that people don't feel obligated to stay in loveless marriages.

Whereas in the past many women would stay in abusive marriages despite the dangers to their well-being, now they will simply leave and start a new life. There are still many problems with domestic violence, abuse, and other terrible things in the world. It is simply less difficult for people to get a divorce when they know marriage isn't going to work out. Sometimes two people make a mistake and get married when they aren't truly compatible.

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Divorces happen for some different reasons. Sometimes a divorce will occur due to infidelity, but it may also occur due to a couple simply falling out of love. Getting divorced from your partner can be very taxing, but sometimes divorces can go smoothly too. There are cases where people realize that they aren't very compatible and they simply agree to divorce but remain friends for the sake of their children.

Children being involved in a marriage does make divorce more complicated. Even when the marriage was ended under good circumstances, there are a lot of things to consider. Issues such as child support, custody, and even who is going to stay in the family home can be emotional. As difficult as these problems are on you, they will be even tougher on your children. Children may wind up feeling like their whole world is falling apart during a divorce unless their parents are careful to reassure them that everything will be okay.

So what does a broken home mean for the nuclear family model? Essentially, it means that the home is split into two. Two separate family units are created as branches off of the main model. Children raised in homes where the parents have been divorced can be just as loved and successful as any others. It all depends on how the parents decide to go about things and the choices that they make about working together for the benefit of their children.

Single Mothers And Single Fathers

There are many single mothers and fathers popping up in modern society as well. Sometimes, one of the parents in a relationship will simply leave the family. They may not be capable of raising children as well as they originally thought or they may have never been serious about the family, to begin with. Some of these families start out as normal nuclear families and then wind up having only one parent present. Others may have been that way from the very beginning, as sometimes fathers will leave their pregnant wife or girlfriend before the children are born.

A single mother or a single father doesn't fit into the nuclear family model very neatly. The dynamic of two parents doesn't exist in this type of a household, and there is only one authority figure that is present. Sometimes the single mother or father will remarry or find another partner to date. This can wind up having someone new to assume the mantle of father or mother, but this doesn't always occur. You will see some families that will only have a single parent present for the duration of a child's adolescence.

This doesn't even necessarily have to be about one of the parents leaving. Some people simply choose to have children completely by themselves. A man or a woman could choose to adopt a child if they have a strong urge to become a parent but do not have a romantic partner. Also, a woman could choose to seek fertilization options and have a child while remaining single.

It isn't necessary in modern times for two people to have a child together. Two people making a child together is still the most common situation, but there are other options that people can consider. In some ways, not having to worry about another person makes things easier. This entire situation has completely changed the ways that sociologists have to look at family structures.

The nuclear family model is certainly a bit outdated in many regards. It is hard to deny that the nuclear family ideal was a product of its time. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have its place or that it isn't significant. You just have to acknowledge that there are many other non-traditional family structures out there that are becoming more commonplace.

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As an example, single mothers have become incredibly common in western society. There are a lot of women who work full-time and raise their children all alone. This is very admirable, and many strong people have been raised in these types of households. Single fathers exist as well, and they have done a great job of performing the functions of both a mother and a father, in many cases.

Same-Sex Marriages

Same-sex marriages have thrown another monkey wrench into the identity of the traditional nuclear family. Same-sex couples are far more common in modern times than they were several decades ago. Due to persecution, many homosexuals had to hide their sexuality for fear of being shunned or worse. Presently, same-sex marriage is completely legal in the United States of America and Canada, which completely changes the idea of the nuclear family.

The entire idea of the nuclear family consisting of a mother and a father is thrown on its head by same-sex marriage. Households exist with two fathers and several children. You can have a family unit that features two mothers and one child. The possibilities are much more complex and nuanced than anything that people used to consider.

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Saying that these families aren't normal comes across as very disrespectful. Many people in society have grown beyond the point of persecuting others based on their sexual preferences. It is true that families with same-sex couples aren't as common, but they are still very important. Their dynamic is completely different from that of a traditional nuclear family, in many cases, but it can be just as nurturing and supportive.

The fact that gender roles and gender identity is changing in society should also be briefly touched upon. In the past, people thought of the concept of gender as being a simple matter. The topic is much more debated today. Transgender individuals also form family units, and these non-traditional families need to be respected. The idea of an ideal family is something that is going to continue to change over time.

Adopted Children

Despite being briefly mentioned earlier, it is really important to speak about how adopted children fit into the family model. Generally, adopted children don't present a problem to the original nuclear family definition. Two parents can adopt children, and the family could function just as they would with the couple's biological children. There are differences that need to be taken into account for modern times, though.

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For instance, single people can adopt children. Gay couples are capable of adopting children as well. Neither of these will fit into the traditional model, but this is becoming a more common practice as the years go by. You also see many people adopting children that belong to a different race than their own.

The dynamics of multi-racial households can be unique in some ways as well. There is a lot to consider, and this topic could go on for a long time. The most important thing to take away is that there are children out there who will be adopted into non-traditional families. These families can be beautiful and will provide loving environments where the children can grow.

There are so many children in need of adoption that many traditional couples are choosing to adopt rather than to have biological children of their own. When you recognize that there are kids who are looking for steady homes and an opportunity to be loved, it is easy to see where these couples are coming from. Adoption is a great thing, and it can alter the nuclear family dynamic. It shouldn't bother you if you don't have a traditional family unit because the definition of what is typical is completely changing all the time.

Coping With Non-Traditional Family Problems

Many people have problems coping with non-traditional family problems. Even though families that don't fit into the nuclear family model can be very loving, some people don't grow up in good environments. Even those who did have a loving family and household can suffer from certain issues. Growing up without a father can lead to abandonment issues in some people, and this can create nagging problems that stick with you into adulthood.

If you had a tough family life growing up, then it can be beneficial to talk to someone about your struggles. Even if you have dealt with something as severe as abuse in your life, you will be able to get help to work through those problems. Seeking out professional therapists and counselors can make a big difference. You need to be able to speak about things that are bothering you to overcome them.

People who are the heads of non-traditional families often face discrimination too. It is less common now than it was decades ago, but bigotry does still exist. If you are facing persecution due to being a homosexual or if you are transgender, then it might be tough to face some of the difficulties thrown at you by society. Getting professional help by talking to caring therapists can allow you to feel better. It just depends on if you feel like you need the help and want to decide to reach out.

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You can sign up over at https://www.betterhelp.com/start/ to get started. Being able to talk about certain problems in your life can be helpful. Sometimes you may even just want advice about raising children and how to cope with changes in your family. There is a lot to consider and having someone that you can rely on will feel nice. Consider reaching out if you feel like you could use a strong ally.

Does The Nuclear Family Have A Place In Modern Society?

It is tough to say whether or not the nuclear family has a place in modern society. The fact is that traditional family roles aren't going to stay the same forever. Society evolves, and the definition of what people find to be normal will necessarily change as well. It is highly likely that family units consisting of a mother, father, and their children will remain common in the future. This doesn't mean that this is the definition of the ideal family.

The word family should always be associated with love. Love takes many forms and families are arranged in many different ways. What the future will hold for the definition of the nuclear family remains to be seen. You can count on sociologists to continue to update their models as they examine the ways that people interact with one another.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why do they call it a nuclear family?

The term "nuclear families" is a metaphor that comes from a concept used in biology and physics – nucleus. According to the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary, the nucleus is the "central part of most cells that contains genetic material and is enclosed in a membrane." Or, in physics, it is "the central part of an atom." This is the same sense of the word you might recognize from terms like "nuclear fission" or "nuclear energy." In general, a nucleus is "a central or most important part of something."

The term "nuclear families" fits this image very well. That's because the definition of nuclear family is, according to the same Merriam-Webster English dictionary, "the part of a family that includes only the father, mother, and children." Nuclear families are where the genetic material is passed on or shared. And the nuclear family is the most central and intimate part of the family. Some have even called nuclear families, "the building blocks of society."

This definition of nuclear family can be contrasted with the term "extended family." The extended family includes family members other than the parents and children, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and more. How significant a role the extended family plays in the life of nuclear families depends on many factors, including the culture, the strength of those bonds, and how close the extended family members live to the nuclear family group.

Another thing to remember about the definition of nuclear family is that it usually refers to people who are living together. That isn't always true, though. For example, even though a parent might be away from the other parent and children because they are traveling for their job or in the military, they are still an integral part of the nuclear family. However, once the children leave home, the family changes. The grown children may form nuclear families of their own. When the parents become the grandparents to their children's children, they become extended family and are no longer the central part of the nuclear family.

What is an example of a nuclear family?

The classic example of a nuclear family is one mother, one father, and their children, living together in one residence. This example follows the traditional definition of nuclear family quite strictly. At the same time, nuclear families are often quite different. For same-sex couples, there may be two fathers or two mothers. In a single-parent household, the family group only has one parent to fulfill the roles of both mother and father.

What is the opposite of a nuclear family?

You might say that the extended family is the opposite of the nuclear family. After all, the nuclear family is the central and most important part of the family, while the extended family is more spread out and less important to the raising of the children, right? Or is it?

Actually, the extended family is not so much the opposite of the definition of nuclear family. Instead, it is an addition to that group. It is a bonus if you will. And in some families, the grandparents and even aunts, uncles, and cousins, may live together as one single family unit. Even then, though, the genes are passed on through the parents to the children. Also, the biological or adoptive parents typically have the ultimate responsibility for raising their children.

What are the functions of a nuclear family?

The nuclear family has several functions in society. Although the extended family members may play a part in each of these functions, the primary responsibility and interaction is within the nuclear family.

  • Increasing the family by having or adopting children
  • Socializing children
  • Taking physical care of children
  • Providing a loving and nurturing environment
  • Managing children's behavior

Does nuclear family include grandparents?

No, usually not. Grandparents are most often thought of as members of the extended family. There are exceptions, though. For example, a grandparent who adopts or becomes the legal guardian of their grandchild fulfills the role traditionally given to the parents. A grandparent who moves in with their children and grandchildren may become as important and central a part of the nuclear family as anyone else.

What is a family of choice?

"Family of choice" refers to the people you voluntarily choose to be a part of your family. Also called "kith and kin," this family can include not only your parents and siblings, but also extended family members and friends.

In a world where so many people are in single-person households, where so many extended family members live far away, modern-day challenges can make life too difficult to manage alone. The family of choice provides a support system to those who might otherwise have none.

Your family of choice might include close and extended family members, friends, and acquaintances. It could include members of a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or a support group for people with a disease such as cancer or bipolar disorder. It could include members of a specific community, such as the LBTQ+ community or the African American community.

Even though you may not have grown up with or ever lived with your family of choice, you can form strong bonds of trust and love with them.  

Is the nuclear family still the most common?

By the traditional definition of nuclear family – two parents and their children living in a household – this type of family unit is declining in popularity. In 1960, 87% of families fit this description. In 2000, only 73% did. In 2019, only 69% of families were this type of nuclear family. However, even today, the rate is still at over 50%. It is hard to say what will happen in the future. Yet, with the need for a support system to carry on the functions of the family, there's no doubt that there will continue to be some form of strong family unit.


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