For centuries, the family has been an important unit in culture and society. In fact, according to many institutions and belief systems, the family is the most important unit. One of the reasons the family is so important is that it is the unit in which the human race is perpetuated. Unlike most animals, people require years of care and instruction in order to develop into functioning members of society. These needs are both psychological and physiological. The care of dedicated adults has proven an effective and important setting for instruction and development. The family is also seen as a source of love, learning, and identity for most individuals.

Shifting Meaning

The ways in which the idea of family has influenced individuals and society have changed dramatically over time, as well as the definition of the word “family” itself. Eric Widmer explores the ways in which definitions of the word vary. Some seem clear-cut and non-negotiable, such as the one found in the Oxford English Dictionary: “a group of people living as a household, traditionally consisting of parents and their children; any household consisting of people who have long-term commitments to each other and are (usually) raising children.” When asked what a family is, most people would probably say something similar.

However, Widmer challenges attempts to create a clear definition: “The usual assumption of family research is that significant family units are obvious. They are defined either as including members of a single household or individuals linked by marriage or biological parenthood. On the contrary…no institutional criteria are comprehensive enough to define families that matter.”[1] Widmer’s research reveals how individuals have different sets of criteria for what constitutes a family. His research addresses families in an untraditional way, referring to them as “interdependencies.” He surveyed different individuals, asking them questions about who they would go to to discuss personal matters, who influences them, and with whom they conflict. Respondents’ answers were inconsistent, revealing how impossible it is to generalize not only who is included in these “interdependencies,” but also the roles that those individuals play.

Historical Context

How can one reconcile these varied defining lines? A natural starting point is considering the roles this “fundamental” unit is expected to play. Then, in accordance with the modern notion that allows even those who are not actually related into the family circle, one might say that any individual who fulfills these roles is “family.”

Just a few centuries ago, the role of a family was very different from that of today. The idea of loving families as an emotional support system and a key factor in personal identity (as opposed to socio-economic) is relatively new. As Stephanie Coontz points out: “we have to recognize that for most of history, marriage was not primarily about the individual needs and desires of a man and woman and the children they produced. Marriage had as much to do with getting good in-laws and increasing one’s family labor force as it did with finding a lifetime companion and raising a beloved child.”[2] Then, as “civilizations became more complex and stratified,” the concept of a typical marriage and family changed. By the nineteenth century, most Americans and Europeans had adopted the view of a nuclear family, with father as breadwinner, mother as nurturing homemaker, and the clichéd 2.5 children and a dog. These changes “gave people unprecedented opportunities to get more personal satisfaction”[3] in the family. They were also partially responsible for the idea that people who are not related could fill the roles that a family should.

“Family” Defined Today

As the dynamic of family life changed, the roles that families played and the connotations associated with the word changed as well. “Family” became more about fulfilling personal and emotional needs, rather than chiefly physical and economic ones. In this modern view, the family is associated with love, respect, and closeness, and family members are expected to be supportive and understanding while providing a sense of belonging. Of course this also means that the family no longer plays many of the roles it had previously played. As Coontz states: “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” For example, families are no longer solely responsible for educating children or providing the economic basis for creation of products. With this new view on family life, the roles that families played for individuals could no longer be filled exclusively by family members, as defined in the OED. Many different relationships, be they cousins, boy/girlfriends, neighbors, classmates, etc. could now fill those roles, and provide the “personal satisfaction” expected from families. In fact, the roles have changed so dramatically that relatives themselves often fail to fill them.

Along with the shifting roles of families, the family unit itself now has so many variations that we would hardly know what to call it. Susan M. Ross explains that “American families today are noted for their wide variety of guises. Among the mix are single-parent families, childless-by-choice marriages, nuclear families, multi-generational families, and same-sex couples.”[4] As the family unit changes and becomes harder and harder to define, the flexibility of the term “family” increases, and many people find the emotional benefits of family in relationships and structures that, even one hundred years ago, would not have been considered family at all.

In The Context of Young Adult Literature

No group of people is perhaps more affected by the idea of family than young adults. They are in the process of developing a sense of personal identity while still relying on others (often adults) to provide basic needs, trying to figure out who they are as defined both within and against their family. This is most evident in young adult literature, which plays with and twists the idea of family in almost every book, even those in which family is not central to the plot, and often portrays family units as broken. This possibly began with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, where the family dynamic is made up of a gang of teenagers who are largely unrelated, and whose parents are either dead or deadbeats. While many would say that this is not a family at all, it is clear that, for the characters, it is. Similarly, much of young adult literature creates family units out of unrelated characters, often leaving adults out entirely or casting them as somewhat villainous, or emphasizes a brokenness in the provided biological unit. This is a popular tool, and clearly resonates with young adults on some level. It is important that literature for teenagers reflects the idea that family can have multiple meanings and take multiple forms, otherwise those without a traditional family structure may feel that they lack a family at all. Family, no longer about ensuring an heir to take over your land or having enough hands to work your fields, has come to represent belonging, loyalty, and protection from the harshness of life, and it is important that teens can find, through their literature, that whatever family structure they find themselves part of can provide that.

Works Cited

  1. Jump up Widmer, Eric. Family Configurations: A Structural Approach to Family Diversity. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Web.
  2. Jump up Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Web.
  3. Jump up Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Web.
  4. Jump up Ross, Susan M. American Families Past and Present: Social Perspectives on Transformations. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Web.