Americans' ideas about family are shifting dramatically.

American Ideas About Family Shift Dramatically

American Ideas About Family Shift Dramatically

by Bill High

Ideas about family in America are changing. Or, rather, they have changed, and dramatically. Attitudes toward marriage and children have shifted over the decades from former mainstream norms to a new range of realities.

Fewer people are marrying, and those who do marry are doing so later in life. Even then, having kids is not a given. All this reflects a changing set of values as generations grow up and make the big decisions of their lives.


No Dominant Family Form

The Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project published a major report in 2015 on “Parenting in America,” observing, “There is no longer one dominant family form in the U.S.”

What did they mean by this?

In 1960, there was certainly a dominant family form in the U.S. At that time, 73% of all children were living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. By 1980, that figure had dropped to 61%, and by 2015 the number had dropped to 46%.

“The declining share of children living in a ‘traditional’ family has been largely supplanted by the rising shares of children living with single or cohabiting parents.”

Their research noted that 4 out of 10 births occur to women who are single or living with a non-marital partner.

Further, not only are children being born into differing family structures but those structures are likely to change. Three in ten children younger than 6 years of age had experienced a major change in their family structure—whether through divorce, separation, marriage, cohabitation or death.


Just Skip the Kids?

Another recent article zeroes in on the younger generations’ attitudes to childbearing, another huge shift from past norms. Sian Cain wrote “Why a Generation is Choosing to Be Child-Free” for The Guardian with this lead: “The biggest contribution anyone can make to the climate crisis is not to have children. So why do we still treat parenthood as the default?”

If some still hold to the view that married people choosing not to have children is an expression of selfishness, the tables are rapidly turning. It appears that growing numbers of people believe that not having children is the most altruistic thing to do.

Cain begins her article by saying simply, “When I think it won’t hurt too much, I imagine the children I will not have.” Against her occasional longing for a child, she sets some of the numbers that confirm her decision to forego having children:

  • A child born today will be 10 years old when 25% of the world’s insects will be gone.
  • Also 10 years from now, 100 million children are expected to suffer extreme food scarcity.
  • In 23 years, 99% of the coral reefs are set to experience severe bleaching.
  • In 30 years, 200 million climate refugees will be roaming the world.

Cain writes extensively about the rationale, but the point is this: having fewer or no children—being “child-free” is, for many, becoming the responsible thing to do. To be fair, while Cain reports on why she and many others are choosing to be child-free, she refrains from condemning those who do choose to have children.

“But choosing to have children is neither inherently good nor selfish, and the same goes for being child-free. We must challenge the orthodoxy that says choosing to live one way is a criticism of another.”

Nonetheless, as the decision to be “child-free” becomes more mainstream, it’s not hard to imagine an increasingly widespread disapproval of those who are “so selfish” or “irresponsible” as to have multiple children. What a shift in cultural values!


Fewer Marriages, Delayed

Moving on from the rise of the child-free family, I read another recent article related to the shifting views on family in our nation, this one focused on the decline, or at least the delay, of marriage in younger generations.

A Christianity Today article reports that the number of younger people choosing to marry has dropped significantly in just a few years. In 2014, of those aged 20-39 years old, 56% of evangelicals and 42% of the general population were married. By 2018, the numbers had dropped to 51% of evangelicals and 40% for the same age group.


The Lost Stories

Here’s one implication of this trend: fewer opportunities for generations to deeply connect. For a good number of people still, as marriage is delayed, so typically is childbearing.

With children born later, their grandparents are older. Many of them are less available and frankly less energetic to participate in babysitting and child-raising activities. The truth of the matter is many will be less involved in serving as grandparents. Some of that will, of course, be driven by geography and family relationships, but older grandparents’ lower energy levels will factor in with grandkids coming later.

I know many friends of mine into their 60s and beyond who are still waiting on their first grandchildren.

What’s the impact? Children of today will grow up with fewer stories from their grandparents. The stories of where we’ve come from and what has shaped us provide a rich context to children. And they’ll miss some of that context.

Kids need to know that they come from story bigger than themselves. Hearing from their elders reminds them of that big story.

We need to remember how interdependent we truly are. The decisions we make today will affect our tomorrow, and that of future generations.



Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

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Published September 30, 2020

Topics: Culture Commentary | Family Legacy

American ValuesChildrenCulture CommentaryFamilyGrandchildrenGrandparents

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