Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 24 September 2011

Have families weakened? A sociological look at families today and 50 years ago

By Sünje Schwarz



Family life has changed a lot since the 1960’s. Not only have women become more independent but the perception of what is a family has changed as well. Families no longer have to consist of a man, a woman and children. Single-sex marriages are becoming more accepted and lawful. Men decide to stay at home and care for the children while the woman continues to work. The family structures have changed considerably but this does not necessarily mean that the institution “family” has weakened.

I. Introduction

Families are often considered to have weakened since the 1960’s. This means that families can no longer provide the social function of creating and developing new, virtuous and viable members of society. However, to look at this further, it has to be considered that the structure of family has changed.

II. Family Then And Now

The term family is largely a social construction that serves as an intermediary between an individual and society (Mustaeva, 2010). This construction strengthens society as a whole (Rodríguez-Sedano, Aguilera, & Costa-Paris, 2009). That said family is often defined through the relationship of a group of people based on their blood relation, marital status or adoption. Other relationships that require mutual agreement are also included (Macionis & Plummer, 2010).

When considering changes in the family structure since 1960, it is important to recognize that before the industrial revolution, women often contributed to a family’s income as well. This changed with the industrial revolution and in the 1830’s it became the role of men to be the main provider and for the women to stay at home and raise the family. This went so far that women were discouraged to seek work outside the home (Bernard, 1981). This all began to change again in the 1960’s when more and more women started entering the workforce, pursuing a professional career themselves and creating more double income families (Braiker, Kuchment, & Dy, 2007). However, women entering the workforce have not been the only change families have seen in the past 50 years.

People have also been waiting longer to get married; they now wait until their mid- to late-twenties, as opposed to the early twenties before 1960 (Braiker, Kuchment, & Dy, 2007) and children have become a financial liability instead of an asset (Rodríguez-Sedano, Aguilera, & Costa-Paris, 2009). At the same time, the decision to have children is now much more of a personal choice, and some people decide to stay child-free (Cahill, 2003). But especially for women, the decision is often not so much the personal freedom and the unwillingness to put in a second shift, but the careers they chose to pursue that won’t allow them to have children. The workplace is still very discriminatory when it comes to women and their pursuit of a career. Men usually won’t have to worry about their careers taking a downturn when they decide to be fathers but the same cannot be said about women. Therefore, many women will have to make a conscious decision to pursue their careers instead of having children (“The choices that”, 2002).

However, there has been a change in the perception of traditional parenting roles. Although men are still often perceived as the primary providers for a family, the number of stay-at-home dads has increased dramatically. This is connected to a shift of the perception of fatherhood. While fathers before 1960 still believed that hard work and the ability to pay the bills and provide for the family were still seen as outmost important (Bernard, 1981), more and more fathers are now concerned with the well-being of their children and keep their best interest in mind (Yarbrough, 2004). But even with this perception, economic reasons still often determine if a father will assume the role of stay-at-home dad (Braiker, Kuchment, & Dy, 2007). Not every family can afford for a parent to stay at home and in cases in which the father earns considerably more than the mother, it seems impractical for the father to stay at home (Krista, 2010). Yet, regardless of whether a parent stays at home with the children or whether both work outside the home, fathers spend increasingly more time with their children (Braiker, Kuchment, & Dy, 2007).

But stay-at-home dads are not the only novelty families have seen. Although they still face many legal obstacles and stigma, same-sex couples with children are also on the rise (Onderko, 2011). For same-sex couples, children often have a different significance than they do for heterosexual couples (Weber, 2011). This may be in part because same-sex couples generally have to work much harder for their children and the legal obstacles granting both parents equal parental rights are astoundingly high (Onderko, 2011). Until October 2010, same sex couples in Florida were not even allowed to adopt a child (“Florida gay adoption,” 2010). But even if one partner brings a child into the family, either by birth or through a previous relationship, most states and the federal government do not provide any legal rights to the other parent and that parent then must consider second-parent adoption, a costly process (Onderko, 2011).

III. Family and Social Issues

Some people may argue that the weakening of families can be seen especially in same-sex families, which some still consider immoral. Research proves them wrong, however. First of all, same-sex couples are not at all different from heterosexual couples when factors such as happiness and satisfaction in the relationship are considered (Weber, 2011). At the same time, children of same-sex couples often have fewer behavioral and social problems, as well as better school performance than their peers from heterosexual couples (Onderko, 2011).

As a result, the gender of the parents really does not seem to matter in the development of a child, and therefore the next generation of society.

Instead, the focus should be on the stability of the relationship the children grow up in. Children who grow up in stable relationships report overall fewer health and social issues, regardless of their parents’ sex (Weber, 2011). These children usually have a better understanding of their identity and experience a high level of closeness at home Additionally, parents provide essential support, information and opportunity to their children based on their own successes and failures (Rodríguez-Sedano, Aguilera,  & Costa-Paris, 2009).

In contrast, unstable relationships as well as broken marriages cannot provide this support and create important virtues that help children grow up to be valuable members of society. Instead, these situations can lead to substance abuse, depression or even suicide and damage society  Rodríguez-Sedano, Aguilera,  & Costa-Paris, 2009). This is especially true for African-American families, who not only have the lowest marriage rates, but also the highest divorce rates (Patterson, 2002).

Children of single mothers are also at risk for low educational performance. One reason can be seen in the economic resources (Hampden-Thompson, 2009). Single mothers will often have to work more than married mothers or those who are in a stable relationship to cover daycare costs as well as pay bills and provide for their children. It should, therefore, not be surprising that single mothers are more likely to experience poverty than their peers in stable relationships or marriages (Patterson, 2002). What is surprising, however, is that there is no indication of how well single fathers manage raising their children. Regardless, with single parent families, the extended family plays a much bigger role. Especially when daycare is not affordable, the extended family will have to take over the role of the nuclear parent at least some of the time and help raising the children or provide economic resources or both (Hampden-Thompson, 2009).

Daycare is another example often cited in the weakening of families. Spending time in daycare means time a child cannot spend with his or her parents or the extended family. Critics say that this time is critical for a child’s development. Research shows, however, that a child raised in daycare generally does not present more behavioral or social issues than when a child raised at home. It is important to note that much of this outcome depends on the quality of the daycare and the parents’ interaction with the daycare providers to take care of the child’s needs (Stamm, 2011).

IV. Considerations

In the end, it is the family structure that has changed and not so much that the families themselves have weakened. The economic success of two people often dictates if and how many children they will have (Mustaeva, 2010). In order to strengthen family ties again and change the outlook of how families are perceived, several steps need to be taken. One step is to provide more financial stability for parents, as this is an important factor for a lasting marriage (Shore & Shore, 2009). At the same time households, which contain both parents, generally have more resources, often as a result of double income. But this also means they are able to engage their kids more socially and culturally (Hampden-Thompson, 2009). The federal and statewide legislation of same-sex marriage would also further strengthen families and benefit the children involved (Weber, 2011).

Finally, legislation needs to recognize the fathers’ desire to stay at home and pay an essential role in raising their children by changing any maternity leave provision to a more-inclusive family leave provision, so that either parent or both parents can take time off from work to care for their newborn (Braiker, Kuchment, & Dy, 2007).

V. Conclusion

In summary, family as a social structure has undergone significant changes over the past 50 years. The man is no longer the provider and families have become more diverse. In adapting to these more diverse family structures, stigma needs to be removed and more economic equality needs to be created. Only with supporting legislative action, families in their new structure can be the powerful unity they seemed to be in the past.


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Stamm, M. (2011). Wie viel Mutter braucht das Kind? — Theoretische Befunde und empirische Fakten zur Frage der Nützlichkeit oder Schädlichkeit von früher familienexterner Betreuung. (German). Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung, 6(1), 17-29. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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Weber, S. (2011). Impacts of legal relationship recognition of same-sex parenting couples on family health and well-being. Journal of Nursing Law, 14(2), 39-48. doi:10.1891/1073-7472.14.2.39

Yarbrough, M. (2004). The Single Dad: Tackling Fatherhood On His Own. Jet, 105(25), 12. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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