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History Timeline of the Nuclear Family in Western Civilization

History Timeline of the Nuclear Family in Western Civilization

Defining the Nuclear Family

key“Shaped as we are by long human experience, we must be all the more careful not to lose what has required so much time and so much effort to accomplish. The modern nuclear family is a rare construct; we tamper with its essentials at our peril. As the long record of human experimentation attests, civilizations, even great civilizations, are more fragile and perishable than we think.” (Bennett, The Broken Hearth, 67, 70)

From The Broken Hearth

By William J. Bennett

family-traditional-nuclear3The modern nuclear family . . .did not appear spontaneously in the long-ago, but, rather, was built up gradually, shaped and molded by human experience. But if both marriage and family life have undergone change over the ages, as indeed they have, this hardly means that the 20th century family is an arbitrary construct.

Just as certain characteristics of the family have been malleable, adjusting to times and trends, other aspects, tethered as they are to deep human realities, have remained largely fixed and timeless. (42)

 

Five Periods in the history of the Western Civilization

 

I.  Old Testament times

JacobRachelThe Jewish people made marriage the sexual ideal. They also elevated the status of women by standing firmly for marriage and the family and firmly against infidelity and homosexuality. “Throughout their history, one of the Jews’ most distinguishing characteristics has been their commitment to family life,” writes Dennis Prager, social critic.

Jewish tradition also placed great emphasis on honoring one’s parents.

Much that was taken for granted about family life in ancient Israel is contrary to present-day belief and, for good reasons, unacceptable to us. But much—especially the very conception of the family as the seedbed of moral refinement and individual growth—is already there, not hidden away but right out in the open, waiting to be further developed. (Bennett, 44-48)

 

II. Early Christian Period

 

Jesus-bcome-disciple-lds-churchWestern civilization has been influenced beyond measure by Christianity, from the ethical teachings of Jesus to the doctrines of patristic and later authorities to the evolving institutional practices of the Church and the community of the faithful. Christianity’s impact on the family, and on our ideas about the family, has been incalculable.

Women were among Jesus’ close followers, playing a major role in his ministry and in the spreading of his gospel, and serving as positive models in his teachings. Jesus praised their faith, and graciously accepted their acts of love and hospitality. It was women who were the first eyewitnesses of his resurrection and who were then told to go and relate the news to the male disciples. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was specially favored by God.

Jesus held men and women alike to the same moral standards. . .and taught that all must follow the same path to salvation.

In sum, the relationship of religious faith to marriage and family life is complex and at times paradoxical. If that reminds us, as it should, of the difficulties in any effort to turn either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament into a straightforward brief for traditional “family values,” it should also remind us of how rich, how demanding, and how endlessly instructive is the moral and spiritual legacy we are heirs to. (Bennett, 48-52)

 

III.  Middle Ages

The Roman Catholic Church was influential in prohibiting incest and the marrying of close relatives, in punishing fornication and adultery.

The Church did champion the role of consent in marriage, marking a historic change from the earlier periods we have examined.

As for the attitude toward children, Lawrence Stone reminds us that during the Middle Ages, two or more living children were often given the same name because it was so common that at least one of them would die. This was particularly true during the Black Death, the epidemic that ravaged Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century, and that is estimated to have killed one-quarter of the populations of Europe, including, no doubt, a disproportionate number of children.

 

IV. 1500-mid-1700s

john-winthrop-quoteThis was the period that saw the rise of the first American families, which, with their roots in English Puritanism, soon came to be considered an American ideal.

Consider the relationship between John Winthrop, the seventeenth-century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his wife, Margaret.

Margaret states the reasons she loves him: “first because thou lovest God; and, secondly, because that thou lovest me.” Governor Winthrop held his wife in similar esteem.

triangle-marriage-jesus-man-womanDuring the seventeenth century, the position of women in marriage seems to have improved—if only to a point.

Take the attitude toward newborn children in seventeenth-century New England. Many Puritans, adopting the strict Calvinist perspective, considered them products of oritinal sin: inherently corrupt, naturally depraved.

By the late seventeenth century, Puritanism was beginning to decline in England. The English philosopher John Locke—whose ideas did so much to influence the American founding—played a crucial role in altering public attitudes toward children as well. To Locke (who was not alone in this belief), an infant was less a product of the Fall than a blank slate, a tabula rasa. This conception, . . .stimulated the display of parental love and affection.

 

A “silent revolution” had taken place, one that diminished parental control over children’s marriages, differentiated family patterns across social classes, and produced a new conception of childhood in which children were viewed not as embodiments of sin but as innocent and malleable creatures whose characters could be molded into any shape. (Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg)

By the end of the colonial period, then, currents were astir that would find their full realization by the early part of the next century. (Bennett, 58-61)

 

19th Century

By the 1830s, the free choice of spouse was seen as “a distinctive feature of American family life.”

happymarriagewordsWe contemporaries can also learn something useful from our ancestors. Too many people today believe that once a marriage goes flat—once the early love, affection, and intense attraction are gone—a marriage itself is irretrievably broken. In fact, there is plenty of evidence, from the past and from today, that people can fall in love again with their spouses. It may require time, effort, a conscious commitment of purpose, perhaps even outside counsel; but it can be done, and it is almost always worth the effort.

A woman was declared “God’s appointed agent of Morality, responsible for refining a man’s “human affections and elevating his moral feelings.” (Sarah J. Hale)

While Americans did not believe that “man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices,” they did show “an equal regard for both their respective parts. ~Alexis de Tocqueville

It would also appear that spouses were quite faithful: For American men, there was not gallantry to be found in a love affair, and women were expected to be chaste. One English visitor, remarking upon the “great charm which surrounds all family relations in the North,” made a point of recording that “compared with Europe, domestic scandals are unknown.”

The Industrial Revolution forced sweeping changes in every sphere, shifting people from agrarian to urban settings, crating smaller and more self-contained family units, and encouraging an unprecedented mobility. It took time, and a fair amount of disruptive agony, to adjust to these changes, and in doing so, people tended to draw closer within their families. Men in particular looked more and more to their wives and their homes for emotional support, nurturance, and affirmation.

Child-rearing ceased to be simply one of many activities and became the central concern—one is tempted to say the central obsession—of family life.” (Christopher Lasch)

family-history-victorian               This entire era—the Victorian era—has often been caricatured as sexually and emotionally repressed, patriarchal, tyrannical, and abusive. In fact, the hallmarks of family life included stability and faithfulness, emotional intimacy, and endurance. Things were not perfect by any means . . .But given the problems that plague contemporary family life—out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families, divorce and cohabitation, abortion on demand and the growing embrace of homosexual unions, to name just a few—a bit of humility, not to say appreciativeness, is surely called for.

The emerging attitudes I have been describing were not rooted in unenlightened, authoritarian, or misogynistic ideals. Rather, they were firmly anchored in the liberal political tradition. This was, after all, an America chiseled and shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, in particular by the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. (Bennett,62-66)

 

Modern Nuclear Family

“The bottom line is that not all family structures are equal, and not all variations are compatible with basic social and human needs.”

family-traditional-nuclear1“We desperately need to reestablish marriage as an exclusive arrangement between a man and a woman. Marriage, monogamous and freely chosen, must be the institution through which children are conceived and born, loved and disciplined, nurtured and raised. And marital permanence must once again become the ideal to which individuals commit themselves and which they strive to maintain.”

“Shaped as we are by long human experience, we must be all the more careful not to lose what has required so much time and so much effort to accomplish. The modern nuclear family is a rare construct; we tamper with its essentials at our peril. As the long record of human experimentation attests, civilizations, even great civilizations, are more fragile and perishable than we think.” (Bennett, The Broken Hearth, 67, 70)

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