What is Family?

Family is a group of people joined by consanguinity (birth), affinity (marriage), or co-residence (based on the etymology of the English word “family”), and/or shared consumption (nurtured kinship).

In many societies around the world, family is the primary framework for the production and reproduction of people biologically and/or socially. As such, families are many times classified as matrifocal (mother and her children), conjugal (husband, wife, and children), avuncular (e.g. a grandparent, a brother, his sister, and her children), or extended (parents and children co-reside with other members of a parent’s family). In other contexts, the term “family” can also be used in reference to a community, nation, or global village.

Key components of building the family unit include sharing resources (for example, food and water), the providing of care and nurture, and fostering moral and emotional connections. Although for many centuries around the world, marriages were arranged for economic, social, or political reasons.

However, there is much historical data that points to the idea that the human family is more of an institution rather than just biological relationships. Even though the concept of “blood” relationships is at the center of many families, anthropologists also assert that the concept of “blood” can be metaphoric and many civilizations view family through other constructs besides biological connection. 

Many early academics asserted that Darwin’s biological theory of evolution was a key component in the evolution of families. Further, Friedrich Engels posited that economic factors led humans to the creation of families (and societies in general) from the primitive communities that previously existed. This theory was prevalent until about the 1980s when other theories such as “structural functionalism” took hold. Structural functionalism is a theory that views society as a complex system composed of parts that work together in thepromotion of solidarity and stability

The modern Western definition of family has been greatly influenced by cultural and religious values as promulgated by religions such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism. Further, with the modern acceptance of divorce, there are many more so-called “blended families” which consist of families with mixed parents: one or both parents re-marry and bring their children into the new marriage.

The issue of whether or not the concept of family is “declining” in modern times relies heavily on one’s definition of “family.” For example, less half of American households center on a married family, and one-fifth of households are following the traditional method of a married couple raising a family together. However, it must be noted that there has been a modern societal shift toward emotional fulfillment and love being the driving factor behind marriage and family. That is, people primarily seek to get married and start a family because of love. That being the case, it could be argued that the overall concept of family is necessarily weakened since it is now considered more socially acceptable for parents to divorce and form new families based on emotional needs. 

What is stepfamily?

A “stepfamily” or “blended family” is a family in which one or both parents have children from a prior relationship that are not genetically related to the other parent. 

When a stepparent adopts their partner’s child, he or she becomes that child’s legal parent. In the United States, adoption of a stepchild is the most common type of adoption. Prior to the adoption, the stepparent is a so-called “legal stranger” and has no legal rights or responsibilities regarding the minor child. For example, a stepparent cannot legally consent to a medical treatment for a stepchild if the stepparent hasn’t adopted that that child.

A so-called “simple” stepfamily is a situation in which only one parent has a child or children from a previous relationship and the couple has not yet had more children. The more traditional definition of a stepfamily is a marriage in which in which one or both members of the couple have children from previous relationships who live with them. When both parents have children from a previous relationship, those children are called “stepbrothers” and “stepsisters” to each other. Moving forward, any new children born to the parents will be known as “half-siblings” to the preexisting children. In order to foster a more inclusive environment, a stepparent will sometimes decide to no longer use the “step” prefix and instead refer to the child as a son or daughter. This attitude has evolved over time since using the prefix “step” (or “steop”) has roots that date back to an 8th-century Latin-Old English definition which meant “orphan.” Historically, this prefix was used to describe a familial connection created as a result of the remarriage of a widowed parent.

Three common challenges associated with forming a stepfamily are: 1) resolving feelings with respect to the prior marriage, 2) dealing with parenting changes, and 3) living and financial arrangements. For example, sometimes children will feel that the remarriage of one of their parents signals that the previous marriage is truly over and there is no chance for reconciliation. Further, stepparents can face obstacles forming bonds with new stepchildren since the stepparent can be seen as seeking to “replace” the biological parent. Regarding living and financial arrangements, the couple must decide where the family will live and whether to combine finances. Generally, couples that combine finances experience greater family satisfaction and moving into a new home is oftentimes successful since the family as a whole sees the new dwelling as “their home.”

The U.S. Census Bureau does not provide current statistics regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage and, therefore, the only data available is from the 1990 census and prior. According to those statistics: 1) the most prevalent form of a blended family is a mother and stepfather due to the fact that mothers usually retain custody of their children, 2) one-third of children who become part of blended families were born to an unmarried mother, while the remaining two-thirds were associated with divorce or the death of one parent, 3) with respect to the 60 million children under 13 years old, 50% lived with one biological parent and their current partner, and 4) the census taken in 1990 predicted that there would be more blended families than original families by the year 2000.