What exactly is a ‘family’?
The family is the basic building block of societies across the globe. But what exactly is meant by the word? One might think the answer was obvious – a husband and wife or a mum, a dad and their kids – but these definitions would not cover all the different types of family which exist. There are nuclear families, extended families, one-parent families and families with adopted children.
Nuclear families are those which have a mother, a father and their children (biological or adopted). The phrase ‘extended family’ describes a larger network of relatives - grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In some cultures is it usual to find extended families living together under one roof whereas in other cultures the nuclear family household is the norm. One-parent families are those where one of the parents is no longer part of the family unit, possibly due to death or divorce, leaving the remaining parent with the unenviable task of bringing up the children and trying to earn a living at the same time.
What function does the family serve?
In sociological terms the traditional family unit serves many purposes and has proved comparatively successful over time. The extended family set-up is perhaps the most efficient from a sociological point of view as it can provide protection from danger. There is safety in numbers, after all! Traditionally the males of the family would provide shelter and food for the females and young. The females would prepare the food and take care of their babies. The older members of the group also benefited from the security of the arrangement; they were sheltered from the elements by living within the family home and could assist with caring for the children and preparing foodstuffs until they themselves needed to be cared for – a task which could, in turn, be carried out by the younger members of the group.
Nowadays, in developed countries, it is more and more common to find nuclear families living individually, sometimes great distances from other members of their family.
What alternatives are there to the traditional family unit?
The traditional family unit still thrives today in spite of the fast-changing world we live in. Although fewer people live with their extended families, transport has improved to such an extent that it is relatively easy for even young families to fly half way round the world to see relatives for important festivals such as Christmas.
When the extended family is not available people often find their friends taking on a more important role in their family life, perhaps acting as ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ figures in their children’s lives.
Single-parent families are becoming more and more common these days, partly due to the fact that the stigma of having children out of wedlock has largely been forgotten, and partly because divorcing an unsatisfactory partner has become both more acceptable socially and easier legally. The burden of caring for the children whilst working for a living is sometimes alleviated, at least in part, by government subsidies.
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. The phrase ‘extended family’ describes a larger __________ of relatives – grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
2. __________-parent families are those where one of the parents is no longer part of the family unit, possibly due to death or divorce.
3. In sociological terms the traditional family __________ serves many purposes.
4. The females would prepare the food and take __________ of their babies.
5. When the extended family is not available people often find their friends taking on a more __________ role in their family life.
6. __________-parent families are becoming more and more common these days.