NATIONAL PARENTS' DAY FORUM: The Alternatives to Marriage Project asks, are “traditional” families a myth?

July 23, 2009 posted by Hunter McCord*

When we close our eyes and think of a family, most of us will assign to it the image of a different-sex married couple and their children. But when we open our eyes, we immediately notice that families vary in numerous ways—by income, marital status, number/presence of children or partners, etc. Recent studies confirm the diversity of families in the United States (US). Almost 40% of children today are born to unmarried mothers, and nearly 40% of different-sex unmarried households include children. Furthermore, fewer than half of all households in the US are headed by a married couple. It is time to broaden our consideration of what constitutes a family today.

The truth is, many of us think of the traditional family form because it is promoted as superior to other existing forms. The foundation of our belief in its superiority, however, is hollow, if not thoroughly rotten. Proponents of the traditional family form claim that family diversity is detrimental to children’s well-being, severely limiting their life-chances.  These values are even politicized, as marriage-promotion programs siphon welfare funds intended for poverty relief. While many studies show a difference in children’s well-being between married and unmarried families, more serious researchers conclude that characteristics other than marital status account for the majority of this difference. For example, William Aquilino (1996) notes, “up to 50% of the effects of family structure on education outcomes can be accounted for by changing economic conditions in the family,” while Gregory Acs and Sandi Nelson (2002) write, “as a greater proportion of children live in cohabiting parent families (i.e., with their two unmarried parents), the proportion who are poor is not only declining but declining at a faster rate than that for children in other living arrangements.”

Marriage and the traditional family form are not essential ingredients; they are life choices often made by those who already have the resources available to raise a child in a healthy, stable environment. Keeping this in mind, let us celebrate the diversity of all families and turn our attention toward providing them with the resources to care for both the current and future generations.

*Hunter McCord is a research intern with the Alternatives to Marriage Project, Inc., a Brooklyn-based organization advocating for the rights of unmarried people.

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