Culture Friday – Is the traditional family model overrated?

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 21st of February, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: Culture Friday.

BASHAM: Last week, best-selling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks published a cover story in the Atlantic that sparked a lot of conversation among Christian leaders. In it, he called the nuclear family—that is, a married mom and dad living with their kids—a mistake. 

Brooks’ argued that the ideal of the nuclear family was the product of what he called a freakish and isolated time of prosperity and stability. Roughly 1950 to 1965. 

He said this ideal has become a luxury good that has created a culture of isolation. And it’s time to scrap it for the more modern idea of “forged families.” By that he means forming family-like arrangements with groups you choose rather than groups you’re born into. 

He also advocated living with extended family as a replacement for the nuclear family.

Here’s a bit of Brooks explaining his premise:

BROOKS: People who have been cast adrift by the breakdown of the nuclear family, they’ve lost touch with one or both parents and they’re sort of floating. And they come together and say, you know, we’ll be a family together.

John Stonestreet joins me now for Culture Friday. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


BASHAM: Now, John, lots of people are positively responding to Brooks’ idea of more communal living. But to me they’re sidestepping what seemed to be his main thesis: rejecting the traditional family model. He basically called it an inequality issue, saying, “For those who are not privileged, the era of the isolated nuclear family has been a catastrophe.”

I even heard one Christian author say the traditional family concept isn’t really Biblical. And I’ll admit, that took me aback. Because isn’t a man and his wife leaving and cleaving and having children exactly how family is described in Scripture?

Mona Charen wrote a rebuttal for the Institute for Family Studies. In it she said, “[That’s] a little like saying For those who didn’t get the vaccine, the era of small pox eradication has been a catastrophe.” 

So, is the mom-dad-kids unit the best Biblical practice for families, so to speak? And would you call the nuclear family the cause of social isolation, as Brooks suggests, or is the breakdown of the nuclear family the cause?

STONESTREET: Well, I’m not sure that that’s exactly what Brooks said, honestly, having read the article. And I found it extremely helpful. I thought the title was dreadful. It seemed to put the blame on nuclear family. But when you actually read the article itself, he’s talking about the thing that changed in that kind of golden period of the nuclear family. The collapse, the thing that went wrong, the thing that is the problem is the isolated nuclear family. And this goes back to industrialization when the family and the extended family wasn’t the basic orientation of society. People started to leave the family farm and be disassociated with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in large scale numbers, right? So the day of large Thanksgiving gatherings is long gone. You go to other developed nations, for example Japan, and they don’t even have things like aunts and uncles and cousins that they know.

The thing is historically—and this includes in the Bible—yes, the traditional understanding of family—mom, dad, and children—that’s irreplaceable. But it was never understood as being isolated. Look at the number of times in scripture that there is this generation to generation to generation look at how discipleship happens, how society is oriented can and so on. You have Paul talking to Timothy and commending both his mom and his grandmother, right? You have, certainly, this multi-generational look of the family that we see throughout the nation of Israel and the centrality of the family unit. Maybe Brooks didn’t say this as clearly as he could have or maybe should have, and I think it led people to think he was actually critiquing the nuclear family. But what he was saying is we’re not a society anymore that gives space for extended families to be beyond. You can’t replace what we call the essential nuclear family or the traditional family. That’s irreplaceable.

And I think it just boils down to this: there’s no substitute for marriage to raise kids. The data is clear on that. But marriage is really hard. Marriage is really hard if you don’t have faith. Marriage is really hard if you don’t have in-laws and strong communities, if you don’t have people looking at you and saying you’re acting like an idiot—whether it’s your wise old grandpa or a strong discipleship leader in a community group. I think that’s the fundamental point. We used to be a society that could sustain not only the nuclear family but the extended family around the nuclear family. The nuclear family becomes really vulnerable. 

Now, let me say just one more thing. And that is when he talks about how the nuclear family now is an item of privilege. The data kind of bears that out. I mean, the liberal elites that have kind of hammered away at marriage for being this chauvinistic institution and advancing causes like same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting where kids don’t need a mom and a dad. They themselves don’t live up to that. As I think Brad Wilcox says, they don’t preach what they practice. What they practice is a really strong nuclear situation. They stay married, they don’t get divorced. You go into lower classes where the financial pressure is greater, the social cohesion is less, there’s not the support network, and so on. And marriage rates collapse. There used to be another layer of support for the nuclear family. Now there’s not.

BASHAM: You know, a few days after the Atlantic published Brooks’ article, they ran an interview with a progressive sociologist who used his argument for forged families exactly the way I would have expected. 

She said, “maybe two friends both want to have kids, but they don’t want to be single parents, so they commit to raising children together, in the same house or not…we can create something entirely new.” 

On the flip side, another sociologist, Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project, responded negatively to Brooks’ model of adults living with extended family to help raise the kids.

I’ll just quote Wilcox here. He says, “According to our analysis of the data…men and women are most likely to live with and rely upon their own parents when they are divorced or have never married. And, contrary to the more optimistic gloss Brooks puts on such multi-generational arrangements, adults who live with extended families are not necessarily happier.” 

And of course there’s overwhelming research showing that outcomes are worse for children raised without married parents. 

There just seems to me a disconnect in laying out all the suffering kids experience from not having traditional families, then arguing against promoting it as something people should aspire to.

Am I missing something?

STONESTREET: Well, no, not exactly. I just think a couple things here could be true at the same time. For example, I think an extended family or a dense network of social cohesion and connection can be a wonderful support system and even, in terms of long-term sustainability on a cultural level necessary support system without you actually moving in with them or without you breaking— Listen, there’s no replacement for moms. There’s no replacement for dads. There’s no other arrangement that comes close to producing the outcomes of a child being raised in a home with a married mom and a dad. That research is so crystal clear, it’s unmistakable. What I’m asking is what is the best way to keep married mom and a dad in the home with their kids? And it has to do with that support network. In the past, that’s been parents and grandparents. That doesn’t mean you live in the same house. I mean, we’ve got a whole different problem, which I call perpetual adolescence where adolescents who never grow up move back in with mom and a dad—sometimes with their own kid. Sometimes it’s because of all kinds of social situations. In other words, that’s not what we’re saying is the ideal at all. Again, I don’t want to speak for David Brooks. I’m just trying to say that industrialization disrupted our social cohesion in ways that we don’t always imagine. It brought along a level of prosperity. It also disconnected marriage and family in a way. 

So, look, two single moms living together to raise their kids, is that going to be as good as a mom and a dad? No! I mean, the data there is clear. Overall, there’s no replacement for mom. There’s no replacement for dad. And there’s no replacement for marriage. So, the question is, what are the things we can bring alongside that that best holds those things together?

BASHAM: Turning now to another story about the changing face of family. Last week HGTV, a network I watch a lot of, especially when it’s playing Fixer Upper marathons, featured a “throuple.”

On the popular series House Hunters, a man, his wife, and another woman were looking for a house to buy together right in your hometown, John, Colorado Springs.

Here’s an excerpt from the show.

AUDIO: I am a lifestyle coach. I am a legal videographer. I work in sports marketing. We’re a throuple. A throuple is three people in a relationship. Lori and I got married in 2002. And we have two kids, Jake and Isla, 10 and 12.

What really disturbed me was how casually they referred to the young children who are living with them. 

Now Brooks wasn’t necessarily advocating sexual communal families, but he did highlight the model of the LGBT community as creating “chosen” families. And he did so in a positive way.

So it was ironic that both these stories hit only a few days apart, because this seemed to me the natural conclusion of a lot of what Brooks advocated.

If we discard the traditional family standard, is there any logical way to stand against marriage of groups of adults instead of just two?

STONESTREET: Oh, no absolutely not. I mean, that was inevitable the day we divorced marriage from procreation by legalizing same-sex marriage. The legalization of same-sex marriage made the legalization of polyamory inevitable. And the reason is that because when marriage is not about what’s best for kids and it’s about adult happiness, then it’s divorced from procreation. A fundamental connection of marriage to procreation is the only thing that limits the participants in marriage to two, right? If it’s not about having kids, then why does it have to be two? Why can’t it be a throuple or a quadruple or quintuple or whatever? No, that made this inevitable. And we’ve seen the same march, too, and this is what’s really important. Whereas Brooks might talk favorably about these arranged families, again, my point is that there’s no substitute for mom and dad and kids. But mom and dad and kids need a support network so that on a societal level we keep that structure going forward. 

Polyamory now is advancing along the same lines of same-sex marriage, which is the first thing is making you feel guilty for thinking it’s wrong by saying you probably just think that because of religious reasons. And then we have a series of things arguing—we’ve already seen this—that maybe we could learn a thing or two about polyamory because, hey, they’re really trusting or they’re really this or that or the other. And that follows the script. And then there’s a reality tv series. And once that happens, a law is inevitable. So I think we’ve already passed—that’s “Stonestreet’s Four Steps to Changing Marriage” and we’re already passed number three headed to number four.

BASHAM: Well, John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Megan.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Culture Friday – Is the traditional family model overrated?

  1. Brian Mann says:

    It appears one thing that Stonestreet is missing is the insinuation that Brooks makes towards the idea of privilege.

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