The nuclear family isn’t just a family exposed to heavy doses of radiation. Jokes aside, the nuclear family is an important concept to understand because the nuclear family is a vital component of every culture and civilization that has ever existed.
The best definition of nuclear family is the parents and children living in the same household. Nuclear families are named because it is the nucleus, or central structure, around which other members of the family may be anchored. An example of other relatives anchored to the nuclear family is the extended family, meaning aunts, grandparents, etc. The nuclear family, according to some thinkers, could include an adopted sibling, stepchildren, a stepmother, or stepfather. However, others limit nuclear families only to full blooded children with the biological mother and father.
The nuclear family as the primary family unit is a rather new concept. Before the nuclear families, the extended family was the norm (1). The extended family was largely necessary for financial and other support. This can be seen in ancient works such as the Bible, where families are spoken of in very broad terms. For example, the nuclear family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are mentioned in Luke traveling with a large enough group of relatives to accidentally leave Jesus behind in Jerusalem.
Once it became possible for the nuclear family to survive financially, the extended family fell out of favor in the USA. As the USA industrialized, children often traveled to cities to make money, leaving their extended families behind in the country. These facts account for the reality that many in nuclear families rarely even saw their relatives. However, in some European and most developing countries, the nuclear family is still closely connected to the extended family.
Although the unquestioned norm since the 1950s, the nuclear family is in danger of declining even in the United States through single motherhood and financial pressures. In many communities, more fathers leave than stay and take the nuclear family ideal with them. As unemployment and underemployment rise, especially for the father, the dominance of the nuclear family has given way to the extended family as impoverished family members integrate with grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. in other to survive.
Some religious thinkers have lamented the decline of the nuclear family, seeing a mom and a dad and a child as essential to Western and Anglo civilization (2). Other experts downplay the nuclear family, noting the extended family is a more traditional concept and think focusing on nuclear families sacrifices the wisdom of the community. For example, the rise of the nuclear family has also coincided with the coming of nursing homes. Before the nuclear family became the norm, family typically looked out for its older members.
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