Adaptation is the Most Traditional American Family Value

by ParentCo. November 29, 2023

Do you enjoy holidays with your family? I don't mean your mom and dad family, but your uncle and aunt and cousin family? Personally, I do. There are several reasons for this. First, I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other. Second, the fights are always the same. - Stephen Chbosky The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Queue an alcohol-fueled racist rant shouted by a deaf grandfather, a disgruntled sister trying and failing to make a point, a sensitive Aunt who can’t take minor criticism on her culinary skills from above-mentioned curmudgeonly grandfather, while having to pee outside after too much alcohol and a shortage of bathrooms to accommodate the extended family. Meanwhile, dad’s rooted in the arm chair, up to his eyeballs, just about tolerating each and every torturous, slowly passing minute.

Perhaps this isn’t exactly your experience, but I’m guessing there’s a chance it resonates in some way.

With the holiday season upon us, family time becomes seemingly inevitable in some form and we might find ourselves wondering whether families have always been a little crazy.

As we peruse the annals of American heritage, what emerges from this history – from our founding to present day – is an American family that is constantly evolving in reaction to the previous decades of family ideology in addition to economic, social, and cultural realities, and thus has likely never been immune to dysfunction.

Colonial Family Life

Early American family life was largely dictated by the economic needs of the time. To sustain an agrarian society, a woman might have had 10 to 12 children, especially as only an approximate 50% made it to adulthood in colonial Jamestown. Children were integral to the future labor supply and demand was high in a labor-intensive, agriculturally driven society.

Moreover, children were regarded as adults at a very early age – think elementary school-aged “adults” – and therefore, were incorporated into the workforce and society as such, attending events such as hangings on Friday nights with their folks.

Though predominantly patriarchal in nature, women held an essential position in family life.

The Noah Ogle cabin in the woods with a split-rail fence in front. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, TN, USA. The Noah Ogle cabin in the woods with a split-rail fence in front. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, TN, USA.

Since the American family structure largely incorporated the traditional English primogeniture notion of inheritance, the woman of the house took on responsibility of the household in the absence of her husband until the eldest son was of age.

Plus, women provided an important source of economic value. Fathers were also the primary educators and disciplinarians of their children. Divorce had yet to be legalized and therefore, essentially only death of one’s spouse provided an out to a bad marriage.

Though the early conception of the American family might have indicated a strict understanding of the family consisting only of mother, father, and biological children, a more nuanced picture emerges. Families might take in strangers as boarders or servants or apprentices. Often pre-teens were sent to live with other families to learn a trade.

The early conception of the American family might indicate a strict understanding of the family consisting only of mother, father, and biological children, but in reality a more nuanced picture emerges.

Furthermore, the idea of “blended” families is not a modern one.

Short life expectancies and harsh living conditions categorized the early colonial period. Given that ¼ of babies born per year died before their 1st birthday and that 50% of marriages didn’t last longer than 7 years as the result of one partner’s death, many children were raised in extended family structures.

Parents often raised children in single-parent homes or remarried. By the time a child was just 9 years old, it was likely that one parent had passed.

On the other hand, New England colonial counterparts fared much better. In New England, life expectancy reached near-modern day years as more and more children made it to adulthood, which facilitated the establishment of patriarchal and stable family structures.

Overall, family life through the 1700s enjoyed an egalitarian balance between male and female gender roles and children proved an essential economic asset.

Though aspects of this iconic history are certainly disputed, Pocahontas’s marriage to John Rolfe taps into the modern idea of a "crazy family." Pocahontas was still married to a member of her tribe when she was taken prisoner and subsequently, fell in love with the Englishman. Oral history disputes whether her inter-racial child, Thomas, was born out of wedlock.

Industrial Revolution – Family Evolution

Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving from Jallandier & Laplante : 1873 Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving from Jallandier & Laplante : 1873

The industrialization of society in the early 1800s extending into the 20th century had a profound effect on the family. As more and more American flocked to urban areas in search of new economic opportunities, familial relations shifted to accommodate opportunities for social and economic mobility unavailable in the colonial era.

A new wave of medical advancement increased the average lifespan and lowered infant morality rates. By the end of the 1800s, women were only giving birth to an average of 3 children. Plus, the US experienced a high influx of immigrants following the annexation of Mexico after the 1848 Mexican-American War and 1898 Spanish-American War – with over 38 million immigrating during this period.

In this era, family life gradually became a separate entity as a distinction between the public and private sphere emerged. Towards the end of the industrial period, children were considered as such until the age of 16, no longer viewed as economical necessary for their contributions to agrarian productivity.

Furthermore, as a consequence of longer lifespans and the entry of women into the work force, people began to choose partners based more so on mutual interests and romance rather than the pragmatic approach of the previous centuries.

The notion of family as the source of emotional life and happiness emerged in the 1900s.

According to social historian Stephanie Coontz, “marriage as an institution lost much of its power over our lives, but marriage as a relationship became more powerful than ever.” Interestingly, the divorce rate swelled.

20th Century Families and Beyond

Increasing industrialization, an unprecedented economic downturn, and two World Wars precipitated great change in the 20th century. American family life turned inward in response to the instability of the outside world and a pseudo-utopian, idealized version of family life materialized in the 1950s.

The notion of family as the source of emotional life and happiness emerged in the 1900s, along with the idea that families should be stable units unlike 19th century families who may have incorporated relative strangers or extended family into their homes.

Yet, the Great Depression had a profound impact. The ideal of a private family unit disintegrated as economic realities forced families to combine housing with others, and put off marriage and having children. Though the divorce rate declined during the economic downtown, 1.5 million married couples had separated by 1940 as many could not afford a legal divorce. In addition, the Great Depression precipitated a decline in births.

While post-WWII notably heralded in a revived conception of the American family unit, the 1940s severely strained the American family as men went to war, women began working in war industries, and divorce became more prevalent.

Family Of Four Family Of Four

The notion of a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mom dominated the 1950s. Family became the principal source of stability in an uncertain world. In reaction to the Great Depression, in which both partners had to work to sustain the family, the 1950s valued a male breadwinner to provide for the whole family as a validation of success and stability as American families re-adopted a patriarchal structure.

The 1960s and 70s countered the utopian ideals of the 50s and family structure continued to be heavily influenced by economics.

The oil crisis of the 1970s precipitated a decline in the fertility rate to a low of 1.7. However, this figured recovered in the 1970s though the downward trend in births has continued. Pew Research Center indicates that the totally fertility rate in the United States has declined from an average 2.48 from 1965-1970 to 1.89 from 2010-2015.

The American Family Keeps Evolving


From founding to present day, family life has always been a little crazy. Today, the notion of a nuclear family appears almost obsolete in light of developing familial norms, including in the increasing prevalence of single-parents and gay couples becoming parents in addition to overall declining and delayed childbirth. These modern trends in declining birth and marriages rates tend to coincide with economic downturns since the 1980s.

The very definition of family is also in flux. No longer is family predominantly characterized by marriage. Rather, a Pew Research Center survey combined with demographic and economic data from the US Census Bureau, 86% indicate that a single-parent and child are a family, 80% unmarried couple with children, 63% gay or lesbian. Children remain central to the constitution of family though public opinion considers a married couple without children as a family.

Composition of the American family has rapidly changed as well. The Williams Institute reported that the percentage of same-sex couples raising children doubled between 2000 and 2009, from 10% to 19%. In addition, between 1944 and 2008, the adoption rate has skyrocketed 172%.

Americans are also challenging traditional family living arrangements. Between 1996 and 2012, the number of couples cohabitating has increased dramatically from 2.9 million to 7.8 million. Marriage rates are also dropping. 41% of babies are now born out of wedlock and unmarried women accounted for approximately 41% of births in 2008 in stark contrast to the 10% of unmarried women in 1960.

In addition, American’s perceptions of what constitutes an “ideal marriage” has considerably adapted to evolving norms. A survey conducted in 2010 reveals that the percentage of Americans who envision an ideal marriage – one in which both partners work and share responsibility for the household and childcare – has increased to 62%, up from just 48% in 1977. 40% of women are now the breadwinner of the family, up from a mere 10% in the 1960s. Gender roles have evolved – in 1960, women accounted for 33% of the labor force whereas in 2009, women comprised 47%.

By way of conclusion…

Amidst the changing norms of the modern era, ultimately the American family has proven itself an adaptive organism, encountering a plethora of social, economic, and cultural pressures throughout the centuries. Luckily, we can look back fondly on our predecessors and rest assured that yes, American family life has always been crazy, having many ups and downs and accommodating complicated family structures.



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