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The Insanity of 'Traditional' Families

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Families are changing -- and that's not all bad news. I have a theory that rising divorce rates, declining marriage rates and the growing acceptance of variations on the family model (single parents, grandparent guardians, gay parents, etc.) are really quite normal -- at least, normal in the sense that a shift away from the traditional nuclear family, with its rigid gender roles that place an undue burden on women, is the beginning of a march toward better outcomes for more children.


If you are still captivated by the belief that a "traditional" nuclear family -- that is, one that has one father, one mother and children who are biologically related to those two -- is the very best thing for humans to be raised in, you are not alone. I was once convinced of that myself. And I still believe children would be much better off living with two parents who hold a biological interest in their welfare than a single parent who does not have a good economic base and an elaborate support system of family and friends.

But there's something even better for kids, and it has little to do with a family model that looks like an episode of "Leave It to Beaver." The idea that a woman should be left alone in a tract house in the suburbs for fifty hours a week with a screaming bunch of small, hungry children is insanity. No wonder the news is chock-full of stories of mothers abusing or murdering their children, and that postpartum depression is the darling diagnosis of our generation.

To understand what's "natural" for our species, here's what you need to know: 

1) Human babies take a LONG time to mature. The trade-off for walking upright is that homo sapiens give birth to extremely immature offspring. Most animals are up on all fours and running with the herd just hours after birth. Humans take three to five years of close protection to keep them safe -- a huge burden to mothers.

2) Mothers can't always count on fathers. Humans have the widest range of paternal investment of any primate. A father's investment in his own offspring ranges from a single deposit of sperm to a doting "Mrs. Doubtfire," the Robin Williams character who got a job as his children's nanny just to take care of his kids.

3) Hunter/gatherer mothers worked outside the home. Of course, their workplace (the savannah) was a baby-friendly environment, because they wore their babies to work. Once her little bundle became ambulatory, mom would leave the toddler in the encampment with sisters, older siblings, cousins, uncles and grannies. And she worked only about 20 hours a week.

4) We have the grandmother gene. Aside from orcas and pilot whales, we are the only species whose females go through menopause, leaving us with up to 50 percent of our lifespan in which to be active, healthy, wise and nurturing.

5) We immediately hand our babies to others. We are the only primates who will hand our babies to a stranger minutes after birth. Try wrestling a baby chimp from his mother, and you'll lose an arm! She holds and baby clings for at least nine months, with no one being allowed to touch. Humans are quick to share their burden.

6) One in five women do not bear children themselves. Currently, 20 percent of American women in their 40s are not biological mothers.

Get the picture? If Dad couldn't always be counted on, Mom needed to earn a living and neighbors, relatives and grandmothers were available, how do you think families looked? No way did they consist of two adults in a hut with their children.

In fact, according to my favorite anthropologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, it was this cooperative parenting that helped our brains, emotions and social structures become so advanced. In her book "Mothers and Others," she blows the lid off any notion that a nuclear family is anything but a recent invention inspired by farming and industrialization. 

Hrdy also makes the case that early exposure to CONSISTENT multiple attachments is the best thing for children. (I put the word "consistent" in caps because attachment injuries and separation anxiety are very damaging to children, and emotional stress prevents brains from developing to their fullest capacity.) The wider the variety of consistent faces an infant has to decode and communicate with nonverbally, the smarter the baby. 

next: David Arquette Spills about Marriage
16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous October 14, 2010, 8:36 AM

Why do we have to attack two-parent families and call them insane? As you say, they are much better than the alternative that so many children are growing up in now.

There are advantages to living in extended family communities, but there are also disadvantages. Most of choose not to live in communities because we don’t really want to deal with the down side (less freedom, social pressure to conform, gossip, people who get stuck in the role of bad guy).

Kara October 14, 2010, 9:14 AM

Both my great grandmother (who lived until I was in my late 20s) and my grandmother insist the whole dad, non-working mom, 2 kids is a myth made up by early television. Both my great gran and gram ALWAYS worked outside the home as did most of their friends. Many of these women didn’t have husbands - either men simply left or divorced them and SHOCK there were even many women who just had a child but never married the dad.

Things aren’t that different now, it’s just that it used to be taboo to talk about.

KS October 14, 2010, 9:40 AM

I find sociology fascinating to say the least. I also find it amusing that it takes attacking one persons way of life for other people to think they have it right. There is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way to raise an intelligent well rounded secure adult. “leaving” mom to tend to her own children is one of those ways.

You didn’t touch on the fact that many of us come from abusive homes where our family unit is not conducive to raising healthy children. So we strike out to find our own sort of hodge podge family. Homosexuals would feel this too because many of them are actually cast out of their family units.

Children thrive in all aspects when they are raised responsible and respectfully with parents who have a basic grasp of childhood development. If you understand that this too shall pass and you need to give your child certain skills in order for them to get through every phase, they will beautifully. Even in a traditional nuclear family.

Paula October 14, 2010, 12:11 PM

I think it’s great that there is finally some improvement in how “non-traditional” families are regarded and hope it continues. But, I don’t see why families with two parents need to be denigrated to do this. I am very disappointed in the choice of headline for this article. Yes, there are traditional families that are dysfunctional and not the best environment for the children, but that’s the same for plenty of non-traditional families as well.

be fair October 14, 2010, 1:34 PM

I happen to have one of those “insane traditional family” and I resent your attack on it. Yes, families come in many varities now days and that’s fine but if I wrote a blog say about the same thing and reversed “traditional with gay” people would be calling me narrow minded, bigot and a lot of other names. Acceptance should be all around for all types of family. Jez, I hate how in order to make a point these days, people seem to always feel that have to attack someone else first.

Carol October 14, 2010, 5:31 PM

I agree with the first poster.
And even we are to respect all families shouldn’t that include
traditional” familes as well?
Would it be okay to write a piece on how insane a family headed by lesibans is?
Or insane how bi-racial familys are?
Didn’t think so.

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