What is a “Traditional” Family?

Funny, how these posts get started. I was working my way through a very different post, when I found myself using the phrase “traditional family.” And I laughed. I should know better.

Last fall, I assigned my students an essay by writer Barbara Kingsolver, in which she speaks about the meaning of “family.” I won’t go over the entire piece; my focus is on one of her key points. Using historical data, found in a number of sources, notably Stephanie Coontz’ fabulous The Way We Never Were, Kingsolver completely debunks the notion of the “traditional family,” as a conceptual term, because what that term means depends on what time and place you’re talking about.

Families in colonial and early America certainly do not resemble American families at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. And those families are not like ours today. So how do we describe what a traditional family is, if such a term can apply to so many different kinds of families in different times? Marriages lasted only ten or twelve years in early America, because human life spans were shorter; Victorian middle-class families would have had a great deal of paid servant help to raise children; antebellum southern families would have been supported by the free labor of slaves; immigrant families living in large cities would have lived in small tenement apartments with lots of relations: siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Which is “traditional”?

What we often think of as “traditional” – and what a lot of politicians, especially but not exclusively those characterized as “conservative,” like to talk about as “traditional” – refers to one set moment in history: the postwar fifties. That family was represented on TV by the Cleavers (Leave it to Beaver)and the Andersons (Father Knows Best) , among numerous others. They were suburban, middle-class, white. The father was the head of the household, had a white-collar job in the city (which was hardly ever seen – work was about “the office,” whatever that was), and mom stayed at home and worked. This did not apply to the vast majority of American families in that very era, but it became the image of the fifties family for generations – it may have been the “ideal” American family, but it was not the typical, or traditional.

So what does it mean when politicians and other civic leaders talk about family values and traditional families? It means they are clinging to an image of reality that had very little to do with reality itself. In that time, divorce was common enough not to be a mere statistical irrelevance. Alcoholism and depression were common and destroying families from within. Homosexuals were certainly more closeted then, but it’s not like homosexuality was invented in the sixties (any more than drug use). And of course, while Mom, Dad, Wally and the Beav were solving their minor heartaches, Americans were witnessing the hosing and beating of Civil Rights demonstrators in Alabama and Mississippi, showing us an entire race of people whose access to the “good life” that TV Suburbia showed was systematically shut down.

The “traditional” family of Dad-as-breadwinner, Mom-as-Domestic Engineer, 2.5 kids and one dog living in Suburbia, is one small part of the history of American families. It is not the only American family, and we should not talk about it as such.

Many of the contributors to this site, bloggers or not, come from family structures that do not fit that fifties model. And understanding that the “traditional family” model is neither traditional nor necessarily a model, we have to rethink how we teach our children about families.

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About T.B. White

lives in the New York City area with his wife and two daughters, 6 and 3. He is a college professor who has written essays about Media and the O.J. Simpson case, Woody Allen, and other areas of popular culture. He brings a unique perspective about parenting to families.com as the "fathers" blogger. Calling himself "Working Dad" is his way of turning a common phrase on its head. Most dads work, of course, but like many working moms, he finds himself constantly balancing his career and his family, oftentimes doing both on his couch.