Nontraditional families in America have seen a remarkable increase in numbers over the past twenty years. The traditional family unit depicted in sitcoms on television and spoken about in the literature still dominates the social scene but in actual numbers it exists in only about twenty-five percent of the nation's households. Strangely, discussions regarding this magical unit still occupy the thoughts and arguments of politicians, preachers and conservative activists as they talk about the merits of "family values." Yet, what truly is the impact of the nontraditional family on today's society? How do children raised in such families fare in the social make-up such as school performance and their social interaction and, finally, why are the remaining prejudices against such families not logically justified?
The rapid increase in the number of nontraditional family is a social phenomenon. Such families, few in number, existed in near anonymity until the past twenty years. Today, most people know someone who is gay or lesbian and the recognition that such individuals want the same things -- safe, loving environments -- is becoming more widely accepted. With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that homosexuality could not be outlawed, the impetus for same sex marriage and adoption by said couples has intensified (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003)
Homosexuality is not the only discriminating factor that characterizes the nontraditional family. The nontraditional family can consist of non-married couples living together, families headed by a divorced mother or father, or grandparents raising their grandchildren. There is no specific pattern. By definition, the nontraditional family is essentially any family that does not fit the traditional mold.
If it ever truly existed, the traditional family has been defined as consisting of two parents, a mother and a father, living together in a patriarchal household with at least one child. Families were very public about their lives and were active in their communities. This pattern changed substantially beginning in the late sixties and continued through the seventies and eighties. Increased rates of divorce, poor economic conditions, and increased acceptance of the homosexual and other alternative life styles all played an important part in the declining rate of homes fitting the traditional family mold.
Statistical data for the periods available reveal the in hard numbers the changes that have been occurring in the increase of nontraditional families. For example, the difference in percentage of traditional to nontraditional families in 1960(74% traditional) as compared to the percentage for 1986 (57% traditional) indicates the rapid increase of the nontraditional family (Howe, 1988). This trend has escalated into the twenty-first century with the current estimate being that the percentage of traditional families is now only 25% of the family units in America.
One of the leading criticisms of the nontraditional family life style was its impact on the children forced to live in such circumstances. Proponents of the traditional family argued strenuously that children prospered in the traditional setting and that they far outperformed children of nontraditional families in nearly every area (Wilson, 1996).Statistically, however, it would appear that this is not the case.
Although studies still support the fact that children raised by their biological parents still seem to enjoy a modest advantage in how they adjust perform in school and how they adjust to differing social situations but the same studies fail to explain why (Cherlin, 1999). Some of the explanation is undoubtedly due to the fact that the socioeconomic status of married couples is his higher and that this has a residual effect on how children perform and adjust but the findings are not definitive (Gennetian, 2005). What is more surprising is how well children from nontraditional families do in similar studies.
In a new study conducted by an Ohio State University researcher it was found that the stability of the parent and the home was more determinative of the general happiness of the child than the traditional nature of the family. In the study it was stability that was the most determinative factor. The study's data indicated that when a child's home life was stable there was no discernable difference in the levels of academic achievement, cognitive stimulation, emotional support or behavioral problems between children from single-parent and traditional homes. (Dush, 2009).
Although the Ohio State study did not measure the happiness factor in all nontraditional family types it did provided support for the argument that children from such family types could be as successful and children from traditional families. As the study indicates, it is the stability of the family and not the physical make-up that is determinative of happiness.
The professional journals and book shelves are full of studies detailing the problems that are generated by children being forced to live in unhappy and contentious traditional families. Organizations galore exist that deal with the after-effects of said life style and the fields of psychiatry and psychology have been generating millions of billable hours for years on the backs of adults who were raised in unhappy traditional families. (Palmer, 2007).
The problems associated with being raised in unhappy nontraditional families have not been as well researched. Time and opportunity have limited the preparation of these studies and the fact that defining what constitutes a nontraditional family is nearly impossible has complicated matters further. The studies that do exist tend to center on small sectors of the nontraditional family lifestyle such as same-sex families or single-working mothers, however, the studies that do exist tend to support the position that there is no significant disadvantage for children raised in nontraditional homes (Meezan, 2005).There are, however, scholars who have argued otherwise (Lerner, 2001).
The one consistency between studies centering their efforts on the comparison between traditional and nontraditional families is that there are factors outside the physical makeup of the family that are determinative of happiness. These studies indicate that factors such as stability, time spent with the children, socio-economic background, and the educational achievements of the parents or parents are more determinative of child's happiness and ultimate social adaptation than is the traditional or nontraditional nature of the family unit (Schneider, 1993).
A clear picture of the effects of being raised in nontraditional families is difficult to obtain. The different combinations of such family types are numerous and studies that do exist tend to center on one type or another and do not examine the issue as a whole. The census data are far from ideal and better data would certainly improve the validity of the studies, however, until such time as better data becomes available any analysis will have to based on the small sample sized studies that have been done.
Presently, the studies support the position that children raised in nontraditional families appear to have no inherent developmental disadvantage. These studies center their measurement on the progress made by children as they move through the school process. The literature still indicates that children from traditional families still seem to do better in academically, adjust more easily to social situations, and present fewer behavioral problems but the studies also indicate that this is due more to the fact that these children come from homes that are more economically prosperous, most likely to be white, and have parents that are the most legally advantaged. When one controls for these factors, however, children from nontraditional families cannot be distinguished from children from traditional families.
There remains, unfortunately, considerable prejudice against the nontraditional family lifestyle. The traditional family unit is still deemed the ideal and is favored in the literature and pop culture but there are signs that this bias is waning. The airwaves are filled with programming that represents the various forms of nontraditional families that now exist throughout our culture and presenting them as normative. The Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver era is over. Shows such as Parenthood and Modern Family…