Focus on the nuclear family has caused more harm than good?

What if the 20th century focus on the nuclear family as the foundational unit of society caused more harm than good? What if it’s at the root of our increasingly fragmented and disconnected politics characterized by fear, anger, and an unwillingness on all sides to engage in constructive dialogue with the other?

I know. Maybe your head would explode. I’m here to suggest it shouldn’t.

The nuclear family, comfortably ensconced in its little house in the suburb with its picket fence and driveway, is isolated from other nuclear families around it. In a neighbourhood full of nuclear families, everyone lives in its own cocoon, away and apart from all the others except at agreed socializing times in controlled settings, such as church services, birthday parties or neighbourhood garage sales. Within its four walls each family house harbours secrets from the community, and shields vulnerable people from the view of those who might care enough to offer help. It enforces solitude outside the tight family unit and sometimes within it as well.

Yet the suburban nuclear family is a model of wholesome living so many conservatives today look back to with fondness, hoping we could somehow find a way to restore it as an ideal worth reaching back in time for.

I say that’s a mistake. The model of nuclear-family bliss conservatives seem to miss so much does nothing to foster open, diverse and tolerant societies where everyone feels welcome, valued, and cared for. Worse, the nuclear family model promotes just the opposite, by encouraging people to be isolated from their neighbours, and segregated from various segments of the larger population.

Today plenty of social conservatives, men and women with their hearts in the right place and all the good intentions in the world, speak of the necessity to bring back a renewed focus on the nuclear family to help society rid itself of a raft of problems they believe were caused by single parenting in an age of universal welfare programs. True, there are fewer of them than there used to be in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But they are no less strident.

These social conservatives see kids who grew up fatherless in social housing developments and worry about drug use, gang-related activities, and teenage pregnancy rates. They believe the disintegration of the nuclear family unit, especially in populations lower than them on the social-economic ladder, is responsible for a lot of the very real problems many of the kids who grew up without a stable father figure in the home have to deal with.

I don’t deny their hearts are in the right place. I also don’t deny that kids who grow up in stable families, by and large, fare better in school (and life) than kids who grow up in dysfunctional families. But let’s not mistake good intentions Or enviable outcomes among already privileged folks for useful universal solutions to every social ill. More importantly, let’s not advocate for more of what caused the problems in the first place.

Me, I blame those problems on our obsession, in the latter part of the 20th century, on the car and life in the car-centric suburbs.

Widespread social problems in disadvantaged inner-city neighbourhoods appeared after the car and suburban revolution, not before. True, there has always been dysfunction in society, but not on the scale we see today. That only happened in the second half of the 20th century. Social conservatives blame hippies and the sexual revolution for it. I think that’s wrong, and I point the finger at the car in the suburban driveway and the social isolation it created.

The suburb as we’ve come to know and loathe it (I speak for myself, obviously, but feel free to jump on my cranky bandwagon), is a mid-20th century invention. Before that, only farmers and wealthy people populated rural or picturesque areas outside cities.

Yes, I may be exaggerating. There may have been other folks who lived outside cities. But by an large, if an area was attractive enough to people who could afford country estates, it tended to attract people wealthy enough to own country estates. Arable lands were reserved for agriculture. The rest; the fields that weren’t worth farming or building a lovely country estate on, they just sat there unwanted, collecting weeds. They would have to wait many decades to see their first Walmart supercentre and get paved all over.

Normal people, neither farmers nor landed gentry, the kind you see today driving around shiny suburbs, used to live in or near the city centre before the second half of the 20th century. They owned townhomes, or rented apartments, ideally near enough their workplace so they could walk or take the tram. Individual car ownership was out of reach for most normal people back then. It only became widespread at around the same time as the first suburban developments went up.

Life in the city wasn’t all that great back then. It was crowded, dirty and smelly. There was a lot of pollution; that was before we realized ditching our trash anywhere we liked was a bad idea. I’m not blaming people for wanting a patch of grass their kids could play barefoot on, and cleaner air to breathe around a brand-new house fitted with the latest appliances. I would have wanted it, too.


What they left behind, life in a dense city where the street or lane is the backyard, had advantages too, and those were lost. True, laneways are not as pleasant underfoot as freshly mowed suburban grass. But on the other hand urban children get exposed to a whole slew of experiences and people they wouldn’t see if they played alone or in small groups in their fenced-in yards. Some of those experiences are desirable, such as larger and more diverse groups of friends, whereas some are less desirable, such as pollution and street gangs. But one undeniable benefit of growing up in a dense city is that children learn quickly how to navigate complex transportation systems and how to interact with a wide variety of people of all ages and social status.

It’s not just kids who benefit from dense cities. Streets are also a common space for adults, where they naturally congregate, chat, share news and play their part as members of a community. Sometimes that means bringing food to a grieving widow, or looking after kids when a mom gives birth to a new baby. The street becomes an extension of everyone’s living room, where complex relationships create a rich tapestry for any individual’s private life.

Dense city neighbourhoods encourage a sense of fellowship and community where keeping an eye on the welfare of your fellows isn’t seen as nosy. They make chronic isolation difficult.

In a dense city, people walk to work, or take transit, but whatever mode of transportation they choose no commuter is alone for very long. Everyone is forced to make eye contact every now and then with other commuters, if only to avoid bumping into them. Eye contact is a critical part of communal life; without it we become isolated pods who care for no one except ourselves. Like sullen hooded teenagers hunched over their phone.

In the suburbs of the nuclear family where the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays home to look after the family’s needs, every commuter is alone in his car for extended periods of time twice a day every day.

Yes, I know life in the suburbs in 2019 is different than the June Cleaver model. Now both parents tend to work, and share domestic chores better than people used to in the 1950s. This is all to the good. But it’s irrelevant to my point, which is that a focus on the nuclear family of the kind social conservatives are nostalgic for constitutes pining for the wrong solution to a very real problem.

The suburban, stable nuclear family life may seem like a fine dream. Privacy, green spaces, clean air, freedom from the smells and noises of neighbours (except in BBQ season, I suppose), the ability to watch your own TV shows on your own TV set while sunk in your own La-Z-boy bearing the imprint of your own personal derrière. A smiling mom serving fresh homemade food in a clean dining room, to smiling well-combed children wearing clothes that never seem to get dirty. Sigh.

A fine dream for some people. But not one most real-life parents today would see as attainable or even desirable. This may come as a surprise to many older male conservatives, but not every mother wishes to stay home to clean up after everyone else. Some do, and they should feel good about their choice like anyone else. It’s just that they are in a minority.

Regardless, the lovely squeaky-clean nuclear-family dream is one that came true for the privileged few at a very steep price – dependence on cars that affected everyone including those for whom car ownership is out of reach and which made us more and more isolated from one another to the point where we now have trouble knowing how to interact with strangers. You only have to spend three minutes on twitter to realize that.

It’s not just suburbanites who are victims of the car-centric lifestyle. It’s everyone. Once authorities started building roads, they didn’t just built them in the suburbs. They erased historic inner-city neighbourhoods, expropriated people who often had few means to find comparable lodgings elsewhere, to build expressways or parking spaces for the white-collar fellows driving in to work from the pleasant suburbs in their Oldsmobile.

When so much of our inftastructure is built for the car, it makes sense for everyone who can afford one to get a car, making our social isolation problems more acute with each passing year. Worse, we don’t teach kids to navigate the streets or the transit system by themselves anymore (too dangerous), which leaves them vulnerable to creeps and morons who drive without looking when they do get old enough to insist on going out on their own. We freak out at the thought of our precious babies alone in the world and drive them everywhere until they’re old enough to accept the new car we buy for them.

When the norm becomes a detached house on a green lot with a garage and at least one car, people who can’t afford that feel left out. They stay in the inner city where they’d always been, not by choice but out of necessity, except now instead of living among various folks of diverse socio-economic backgrounds like they used to, they are among people who can’t afford to move out to the suburbs.

The so-called white flight to suburbs and exhurbs has been well documented. It hollowed out city centres everywhere in North America and created numerous homogenous zones. Suburbs were filled with people who looked and lived just like their neighbours: mom, dad, kids, dog, car. Different suburbs attracted slightly different folks, mostly along income lines; the better neighbourhoods had bigger houses and lots, more expensive cars, all the right schools, and were filled with nuclear families whose incomes matched real estate prices. Slightly less desirable suburbs were for the middle-classes; white-collar workers and their families.

In the inner cities remained folks not wealthy enough to afford property, a vast proportion of whom were people of colour, recent immigrants, and single mothers. They got left behind, abandoned and ignored. They felt it, too.

Now we have a new problem facing many of those people of certain metropolitan centres: gentrification of the inner-city neighbourhoods that used to be the only thing they could afford.

Because it has become trendy again to live an urban lifestyle, especially for childless young professionals and comfortable retirees, older lodgings are being demolished to make room for condos, squeezing out vulnerable populations who have little choice but to move out to the now-unfashionable older suburbs that are far away from transit and cause massive commuting headaches for the working poor.

But back to the second half of the 20th century. Kids growing up in the suburbs rarely saw anyone who didn’t look or lived like them. Certainly I remember, in my white-collar suburb in the 1970s, not having friends at school who weren’t white and weren’t from white-collar two-parent families. We had one black kid in the entire school, and he’d been adopted. Almost nobody lived with a single parent, and everyone had enough money for proper clothes, extra-curricular activities, and vacations. We all had chubby cheeks. We didn’t know hunger.

By contrast, kids growing up in the inner city almost never saw kids like me, children of stable (if not necessarily happy) marriages who never wanted for anything material. Most kids around them were either poor, neglected, living in chaotic domestic situations, or a mixture of the three.

When suburban children became adults, they remained in their sociological silos, aiming for marriage, children, stable employment and a quiet house in the suburbs. As for the folks who’d grown up in the inner city, very few had these goals and even fewer of them had realistic expectations of achieving them even if they had such dreams.

Obviously there were exceptions. Kids who grew up privileged and ended up on skid row. Kids from social housing projects whose single mom sacrificed enough that they were able to attend college and find a well-paying job, a great spouse and all the rest. But by and large, people tend to stay in environments with which they are familiar, for better or worse.

Two or three generations down the road, those habits are now well entrenched. To the point where society is firmly segregated, not by law or edict but through force of habit. Almost as though you had two or three very distinct societies in the larger community, each distrusting the other, and none wishing to look the other in the eye.

Without wanting to diminish the importance of a stable family in the healthy development of children, I think it would be a mistake to see it as an effective remedy for what ails our society, the disconnect people feel from one another and the shrill divisiveness of our politics. It is not a proper building block for a healthy community. For it amounts to one group of people – the privileged few who did grow up among stable and materially secure families – trying to impose a sociological model of living on another group of people who wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it because it is so remote from their own experiences.

What we need is a return to dense, mixed neighbourhoods, where kids grow up with friends who come from different backgrounds and cultural habits than them. Instead of moving to a desirable suburb to ensure children go to a good school full of little children who look like them, parents should welcome the opportunity to see their children develop their personality among a diverse student body, including kids with behavioural issues, learning disabilities, chaotic domestic lives and so on. Nothing teaches empathy like having a friend who struggles with some of these difficulties, and nothing teaches the true meaning of friendship like being a privileged kid from a stable family genuinely asking help from her disadvantaged friend, getting it, and being grateful for it.

Yes of course it’s better to have a loving stable family than not. But the model of the nuclear family promoted by nostalgic conservatives is not the remedy they think it is. Quite the opposite: it tends to foster social isolation and de facto segregation instead of encouraging people to develop horizontal ties and friendships with folks from the widest possible range of diversity as can be found in a a truly diverse society.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Brigitte Pellerin

Brigitte Pellerin

Writer | Ottawa. Books include Épître aux tartempions, Le national-syndicalisme, Down the Road Never Travelled, Not Just for Kicks and Le livre Uber.