It takes some reminding that the nuclear family is not a universal family structure that applies to all human societies. America is obsessed with the nuclear family, with each family consisting of parents and children, separated and independent from the rest, as the only standard for family structure. America is finding itself in such economic and social straits that the nuclear ideal is proving to be problematic, if not impossible and unworkable.
The nuclear family idea, taken too far, has led to the practical neglect of financially self sufficient, but physically and mentally declining elderly parents . Instead of the multi generational household, where the elderly are cared for in residence by their children, many elderly are in a “twilight” and very vulnerable state where they are not ready for care or assisted living facilities, but who are having problems with living alone. This indicates that the nuclear family construct, taken too far, creates a form of selfish interest and distance between extended family members.
But many in America, as throughout the world, have different constructs for “family”, where the term “family” is inclusive of many more relatives. The larger group of relatives are not considered to be “distant” relations, but are as close to each other and who share authority, teaching, role model responsibilities, and protective authority over children as the parents and adult siblings do.
Without the isolation, separation, demand for ultimate authority and privacy in conduct and behavior, and control that the nuclear family demands, the extended family will serve to take in children for childcare, to step in in cases of abuse or family dysfunction, and to help or be helped when needed.
When the extended family provides the childcare and foster care, the generational indigenous knowledge and wisdom about nature, morals, values, history, role modeling, socializing with others, and connection to a larger family is retained. Traditions are passed on and created, but those traditions are shared between more people in the extended family, giving more feelings of community.
When the extended family is there to help when there are troubles, it is help that comes with the benefit of some privacy and love. But there is also the personal burden of repaying on time, behaving responsibly, or of behaving better than with an impersonal or institutional source of help. There is a well maintained connection with a group that is reinforced through regular shared meals, parties and celebrations of major milestones.
With housing, many are experiencing situations where they cannot afford to maintain a separate home, but are finding that several can share a large and sprawling home with sufficient privacy for everyone to have a roof over their head and food on the table. But the nuclear family’s isolation, social disparity and separation can cause enough emotional and physical distance to make it difficult for extended family members to move in together and share resources.
Even in medical and legal issues, the extended family can speak to the medical history of the extended clan and ancestors far more effectively than an isolated individual can do. The extended family can describe the character of a person, can identify serious problems, and can take action more effectively than complete strangers who have no knowledge of the person can do.
In terms of protection, no one wants to go up against a well bonded and closely formed extended family, no matter what the ethnicity, economic standing. legal standing or culture. Thus, the most well known protections that a natural extended family provides are available to all who are in good standing with the family.
This dysjunction between the nuclear family and the more natural and functional communal or extended family is becoming an interesting conflict in American life, where the wise ones are better able to survive when they can tolerate, live together with, and get along with more of their extended family to survive and to share resources during hard economic times.
Finally, with children, instead of using strangers or going into any number of directions in the children’s upbringing, formal education, moral education and traditional education, the extended family can play the role of educators, role models and historians to pass on essential knowledge, values and traditions, and to give children shared life experiences with their more “distant” relatives.