Whenever I hear this question, I am reminded of how narrow-minded and culture-bound many of us are when we think about issues like family relationships, raising children, educational and religious practices, and so on. Americans in particular seem to get fixated on a single idealized image — whether it is of the perfect marriage, or the perfect family, or the perfect childhood — and then to fret over anything that does not fit this image.
But let’s face it, this idealized image of the “traditional family” is based on a very specific and very recent historical and cultural context — that of middle-class white America in the late fifties and early sixties — a context that has received more attention and hype (because of the technology of modern media and because of the economic dominance of our society) than any other social context in human history.
And what is our idealized image of the traditional family? Let’s be brutally honest and take a close look at our fantasy. Our ideal traditional family consists of two Euro-Americans — a heterosexual male and a heterosexual female — who are in perfect mental and physical health and who are in their young adulthood, who are of the middle class, who are married and financially stable and living in their own home, who form a happily monogamous and conflict-free couple, and who have created a nuclear family with two to three of their biological offspring, one where the father is the main breadwinner and the mother is the main nurturer and the happiness and satisfaction of the children is the main focus of family life.
Perhaps some families fit this fantasy, but I know many more who do not but who are nonetheless raising smart, strong, capable children. We must take a broader perspective and remember that throughout human history and across many different kinds of human societies, the late 20th century American picture of “the perfect family” is distinctly abnormal!
Most societies have raised their children in the context of the tribe and the extended family, not that of the solo heterosexual couple. Most societies, while loving and nurturing their children, have not placed them at center stage nor made them the be-all and end-all of every single aspect of family life. Most societies have expected their children to participate in the family’s livelihood. And if you read carefully the children’s stories of the late 1800s and the early 1900s, you realize that being orphaned and being sent away to live with relatives was not an uncommon experience. (The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Huckleberry Finn, are just a few examples.)
For me, this broader perspective means that there is no single “traditional” family model that is the “best” way to raise children. In fact, children probably flourish and thrive most fully when raised in the context of a loving and protective “tribe” or extended family, with multiple adults and multiple other children participating in their day-to-day life and upbringing. The specifics of which adults (biological parents, stepparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, adoptive parents) and the relationship they share (living together vs. living near each other, married in a church vs. married in city hall vs. gay marriage, biological family ties vs. ties of loving friendship) are not important. What is important is that the child can experience a sense of trust, support, shared values, safety, fun, and learning that occurs in the warm embrace of this extended family.