NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Here’s World commentator Janie B. Cheaney on the family.
JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: The March issue of The Atlantic carried a long article by David Brooks provocatively titled, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The headline was a mistake: Brooks’ point is not that dad, mom, and two-and-a-half kids was a bad idea. It’s just unsustainable in today’s culture. Before the 1950s, “family” meant community—either extended relations or tight-knit neighborhoods. According to Brooks, the nuclear family is a one-off product of American postwar prosperity.
I think he exaggerates that uniqueness. From the beginning, a man was expected to leave his parents and bond with his wife. In the United States the nuclear family was the anchor of the Republic and the spearhead of its growth, pushing West to plant farms and build towns.
But Brooks is correct that families don’t thrive in isolation. TV and air conditioning drove them inside, where they left post-it notes to each other before rushing to the next appointment. The disappearance of the front porch and neighborhood sandlot underscored the breakdown of local ties.
Ironically, March was the month that transformed single-family homes into fortresses against infection. Radical feminist Sophie Lewis predicted disaster: “The coronavirus shows it’s time to abolish the nuclear family.” Dysfunctional families would become more dysfunctional without the outlet of social interaction and public school. We may never know how many kids would suffer hunger or abuse.
There’s a brighter side. Later in the lockdown, New York Post columnist Miranda Devine reported—quote—“[A]necdotal evidence is that children are happier, and a lot of families are getting along better than ever. Enforced isolation has brought a newfound appreciation for family life that is the silver lining to this wretched pandemic.” End quote.
A boom in flour, board games, and jigsaw puzzles indicated there was a lot of baking and game-nighting out there in shutdown land. Certainly preferable to the domestic bloodbath some experts predicted.
That heartening news underscores what we all know: that home is not a place to touch base before piano lessons or soccer practice. Home is where you learn to belong. The functional family is the most effective and natural way to civilize young humans.
David Brooks would probably agree with that. Here’s where we can agree with him: our individualistic culture has put economic, emotional, and spiritual strain on nuclear families. Brooks advocates people coming together in so-called “chosen families” to share support and resources. He doesn’t mention the local church, but isn’t that the prototype of a chosen family?
Chosen by God, that is, who “sets the solitary in a home and leads out the prisoners to prosperity” (Psalm 68:6). We’ll probably learn that the pandemic has exposed both strengths and weaknesses in the nuclear family. Hopefully, those who fared well have learned to enjoy just being together. But can we offer hope to the abused and neglected, whose four walls constitute a prison rather than a refuge?
I’m Janie B. Cheaney.