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Changes in American Families

  • Published: 2011-09-15 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-10) : Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Perceptions of family and ways services are provided to American families have been changing over time and like individuals every family is unique.

Quote: "While the nuclear family may remain the preferred culture presented in America, the proportion of households with nuclear families is smaller than it was in the past."

Main Document

The structures of families in America, as well as the numbers related to those families, have been in a state of flux for more than a century.

The perceptions of family and the ways services are provided to families have also been changing over time. The definitions applied to the structures of families; however, never seem to adequately describe them. It is important to remember that like individuals, every family is unique.

The, 'Nuclear Family'

Simply put the term, 'nuclear family,' can be defined as a mother, a father, and their children. Debate over how universal and necessary the nuclear family really is started in the very early part of the twentieth century. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski stated in the year 1913 that the nuclear family must be universal because it filled a basic biological need; the need to protect and care for infants and children. Mr. Malinowski believed that no culture could survive unless the birth of children was linked to both the father and the mother in a legally-based parenthood.

The symbolism of the nuclear family is deeply-rooted in Western culture. It is represented through family pictures, artwork, television and other forms of media. The family ideal of any specific culture; however, does not necessarily describe the social realities of family life. While the nuclear family may remain the preferred culture presented in America, the proportion of households with nuclear families is smaller than it was in the past.

The, 'Dysfunctional Family'

Remember the term, 'Dysfunctional Family' It was used to describe families that did not fit the nuclear family model and were not functioning according to perceived social norms. 'Family dysfunction,' may be any condition that interferes with the functioning of the family. The majority of families have times when functioning is impaired by stress, such as a serious illness or a death in the family. Families that are functional tend to return to their usual functioning once a crisis has passed. Dysfunctional families tend to have problems that are chronic, with children whose needs are consistently not met. Negative patterns of parental behavior are often dominant in the lives of dysfunctional families.

The, 'Healthy Family'

'Healthy Families,' are not perfect - there may be a certain amount of yelling, misunderstanding, bickering, hurt, anger, and tension; but not all the time. Healthy families both allow and accept emotional expression. Members of the family have the ability to freely ask for and give attention. The rules associated with the family are often clear and consistent, with a level of flexibility in order to adapt to the needs of the individual and specific situations. Healthy families encourage individuality and the pursuit of each person's own interests. The boundaries of each family member are honored.

Children in healthy families are treated with respect and have no fear of verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. The parents in these families can be counted on to care for their children. Children are given appropriate responsibilities for their age and are not expected to fill adult responsibilities. Mistakes are allowed in healthy families, where it is understood that perfection is something that is not attainable, is unrealistic, and can be rather sterile and dull.

The, 'Non-traditional Family'

A 'non-traditional family,' might best be defined by what it is not. It is a relationship between two or more persons that is not recognized by the state and federal governments as a marital relationship. Non-traditional families might include same gender partners, opposite sex couples, domestic partnerships, and parents, siblings, and adult children or grandparents and grandchildren. People involved in a non-traditional family are in a long-term, loving, and economically interdependent relationship that includes a desire to provide economic benefit to the survivor of the relationship.

From this definition it is plain that greater than just same-sex marriage is involved. These families include sisters and brothers living together, dependent on their combined incomes and care, unmarried partners, or a single or surviving parent with a minor or adult child. In the past, the people in non-traditional families were not accepted by the majority of other people in America because they were not viewed as being representative of the majority. Today, all of the people in these types of families have become far more the mainstream, instead of families perceived as being unacceptable.

Families with Disabilities

As with many forms of families in America, families with members who experience disabilities have experienced the same process of non-acceptance by others and then growing acceptance over time. In the year 1990 there were an estimated 20.3 million families who had at least one member with a disability. The family disability rate was 28.5 percent among partnered families and 32.1 percent among single-householder families. Of the families in America at that time, 3.8 million had more than one family member with a disability.

The year 2009 found the number of adults in America with a hearing impairment to be 34.5 million people, while 19.4 million adults experienced vision impairment. There were 35.6 million adults with a physical disability. All of these Americans lived in society, had neighbors, and presumably - a great many of them had family members as well. The same year found 71.4 million adults with activity limitations. There are millions of children in America today who experience forms of disabilities.

Children from families that do not fit the shrinking population of nuclear family model members do indeed grow up to become adults. The population of children who have grown to adulthood from, 'dysfunctional,' 'non-traditional,' and families of parents with disabilities, have perspectives on acceptability that were not present in say, the 1950's.

Modern America has become far more accepting of people with disabilities as a whole due to the changing perspectives of vast populations of people who have grown to adulthood through non-nuclear families. Due to the changes in perspectives towards people with disabilities, rights concerning us have been pursued with more fervor. The Americans with Disabilities Act was a large move forward towards the integration of people with disabilities.

America has now signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the enormous potential for true inclusion and equal participation in American society for people with disabilities now presents itself. It is essential to us that America ratifies the Convention and its protocols and pursues them with every good intention. People with Disabilities are now America's largest minority population and we simply cannot be ignored anymore.

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