Going Nuclear in a Family Way

I grew up in a nuclear family—parents, kids and that was it—but I had the impression that practically everyone else in America lived in three-generation extended families. When grandparents grew old, I believed, their grown children automatically took them in, and everyone lived together like the Waltons on television. 

Then I spent some time digging around in American history for an SCF article on families and the way they’ve changed, and I learned that in the United States most older people prefer—and always have—to maintain their own households if they can afford to. And even though today many 20-somethings live with their parents for a time to save money, in general the younger generation would also rather live separately.

Is that a good thing? It’s hard to say because we all grow up with cultural blinders on, which create biases we’re not even aware of. Americans admire independence and rugged individualism—the early settlers wouldn’t have survived otherwise—but there are different values and family structures elsewhere in the world.

My husband, who was from India, grew up in a joint family and always felt that was the best kind. Joint families usually consist of grandparents, their sons and their sons’ wives and children, all living under the same roof (or sometimes just nearby). Daughters, when they marry, move in with their husband’s family.

The women often share cooking, cleaning and child care. There’s never a problem finding babysitters because relatives are always available—in today’s world, that makes it easier for some women to have jobs. Typically, the grandfather’s word is law.

In my experience, Indian kids who grow up in joint families are remarkably well behaved but don’t seem at all repressed. Everyone expects them to be obedient and respectful, and mostly they are.

India has only a rudimentary Social Security system, and most people in the workforce can’t count on any kind of pension. That means sons are the only security they have as they age.

The Indian joint family is gradually being replaced by the nuclear family. Urbanization and Western influences generally get the blame. Some Indians welcome the change but others feel something important is being lost. Whatever is happening, it has the feel of inevitability about it, and it seems to be the wave of the future all over the planet.

Since nuclear families predominate in the United States, in a sense we’re modeling the future for parts of the world accustomed to other types of families. As I said, values are involved. Are nuclear families a good thing or are they overrated? Is it better for three generations to live together?

I’d love to know what you think.