David Brooks Says The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake. Is He Right?

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Mr. and Mrs. Paul, and their children Belinda and Cliff, say grace before starting their meal. (Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images)
Mr. and Mrs. Paul, and their children Belinda and Cliff, say grace before starting their meal. (Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images)

David Brooks wants Americans to ditch the idea of the nuclear family. In his latest piece for The Atlantic, Brooks declares the end of the era of mom, dad and two and a half kids. We'll hear why.


David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Author of "The Road to Character." (@nytdavidbrooks)

Dr. Andrea Hunter, professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (@UNCG_HDFS)

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The Atlantic: "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake" — "The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. 'It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,' says one, remembering his first day in America. 'There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.'

"The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. 'It was cold that day,' one says about some faraway memory. 'What are you talking about? It was May, late May,' says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.

"After the meal, there are piles of plates in the sink, squads of children conspiring mischievously in the basement. Groups of young parents huddle in a hallway, making plans. The old men nap on couches, waiting for dessert. It’s the extended family in all its tangled, loving, exhausting glory.

"This particular family is the one depicted in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon, based on his own childhood in Baltimore. Five brothers came to America from Eastern Europe around the time of World War I and built a wallpaper business. For a while they did everything together, like in the old country. But as the movie goes along, the extended family begins to split apart. Some members move to the suburbs for more privacy and space. One leaves for a job in a different state. The big blowup comes over something that seems trivial but isn’t: The eldest of the brothers arrives late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun the meal without him."

The Atlantic: "If the Nuclear Family Has Failed, What Comes Next?" — "In the cover story of The Atlantic’s March issue, David Brooks charts the rise of the nuclear family as the idealized American household unit. He analyzes the shift over the past century from 'big, interconnected, and extended families' to 'smaller, detached nuclear families,' arguing that the latter has left many Americans lonelier, with fewer role models, and with a weaker support network to help them in times of need.

"Brooks explores the question of what family structures might serve people better, proposing that the answer might resemble the extended families and kinship networks that were more common in earlier eras. Many Americans, he notes, are already a part of such expansive households—two examples being multigenerational homes (with children, parents, and/or grandparents) and 'co-housing' arrangements (which combine private quarters and communal spaces).

"For decades, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist, has been studying these and other conceptualizations of family and community, and what draws people to them. Her 2015 book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, was the product of years of interviews with Americans living in nonnuclear ways, and she has since written another book about how single people are unfairly stigmatized."

This program aired on February 20, 2020.


Wes Martin Freelance Producer
Wes Martin is a freelance producer for On Point.


Robert Siegel Guest Host
Robert Siegel was co-host of NPR's All Things Considered from 1987 until his retirement in January 2018.



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