In the ‘Easy Platitudes’ thread about race, crime, and culture, Sharon Astyk, a white woman whose family fosters black children, made a thought-provoking observation:

In the end, you cannot substitute for home life. You just can’t. For most children, the lack of a viable home foundation is the deciding factor. So the question becomes whether there are social inputs that can be provided that could possibly make home vastly more functional for struggling families. As long as the nuclear family in isolation is the model that’s available to us, I don’t think you can – because functionally the insertion of an outsider, however benign, can’t cross that barrier.

In larger functional family units with less clear boundaries – big kin clans of literal or honorary kin, you might be able to do it if you can provide some functionally kinship relationships (Aunties and Uncles of the honorary sort, for example) that actually work like kin (they are around a lot of the time and have permeable boundaries and do things kin do for one another like take the kids when they are home sick or give you a ride to work). I’ve seen it work in a few church or other communities where people are committed to that kind of depth of relationship.

It is funny, we always mention the fatherlessness, the destruction of the black nuclear family – and that’s a huge issue and a huge factor. But we often forget that the constricting nature of nuclear families and the decreasing cultural emphasis on family – the idea that you buy resources like transportation, support, childcare, etc… may also have been just as destructive. The nuclear family is a tough model for even the most functional family under any kind of stress, it is a disaster for a family that isn’t highly functional.

I never thought of it that way. Our entire economy is built around the concept of the nuclear family, which is thought to be a mobile unit. We would not easily accept a family model that kept one of the parents permanently separated from the rest of the family, but we consider it normal when a nuclear family must be separated from one or both extended families.

This is not really a creation of capitalism, though. Last year, Frank Jacobs, writing in the NYTimes, discussed research into different family types in Europe. It turns out that the only places in Europe where the cultures practice the “absolute nuclear family” model — that is, children fully emancipated and living autonomously and independent from the parents — are the lands settled by Anglo-Saxon tribes, whence the dominant patterns in American culture. Look:

 According to Jacobs’s essay:

The researchers speculate that the origin of the areas might be medieval, or even older. For instance, the prevalence of stem families in Ireland, along the western coast of Britain, in Brittany and on the northern shore of the Iberian Peninsula coincides with areas where Celtic populations settled two millennia ago. The noticeable concentration of a communitarian area in central Italy resembles the area of Etruscan civilization at its pre-Roman height, over 2,500 years ago.

Notice that these patterns pre-date capitalism. Cultural patterns this deep do not change overnight. It’s interesting to see how the absolute nuclear family, which is so conducive to the development of advanced capitalism, given how it facilitates the relative mobility of workers, is historically such a rare thing among European cultures.

To be sure, I don’t see any of this as an argument for abandoning the nuclear family, nor do I think Sharon does. The lack of a nuclear family is what these poor kids suffer from. But I think Sharon raises some points worth considering about how vulnerable the nuclear family is in our culture.