‘The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake’: My response to an article of seismic significance

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David Brooks is one of the best-known public intellectuals in America. A longtime columnist for the New York Times and a contributing writer at the Atlantic, he is also the author of several best-selling books. I have found him gracious and humble in person and have followed his writing with appreciation over the years.

However, I was more than surprised by the headline of his latest Atlantic essay: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” His article is receiving so much attention this week that I’ve chosen to summarize it and then respond to it biblically. Given the significance of this issue, today’s Daily Article is a little longer than usual. 

From farms to factories 

Brooks describes what he calls “the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.” 

He notes that in the year 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers with large families living together. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than sixty-five lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families (a husband and wife living with their children) were surrounded by extended or corporate families. 

Extended families, as Brooks notes, provide resilience when facing hardship and help raise children together. But when factories opened in big US cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “young men and women left their extended families to chase the American dream.” The families they started were nuclear. By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two married parents and apart from their extended…

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