Jim Denison on the Importance of the Family

Jim Denison is the founder and CEO of the Denison Forum, a nonprofit Christian media organization that comments on current issues through a biblical lens. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

David Brooks is one of the best-known public intellectuals in America. A longtime columnist for the New York Times and a contributing writer at the Atlantic, he is also the author of several best-selling books. I have found him gracious and humble in person and have followed his writing with appreciation over the years.

However, I was more than surprised by the headline of his latest Atlantic essay: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” His article is receiving so much attention this week that I’ve chosen to summarize it and then respond to it biblically. Given the significance of this issue, today’s Daily Article is a little longer than usual.


Brooks describes what he calls “the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

He notes that in the year 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers with large families living together. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than sixty-five lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families (a husband and wife living with their children) were surrounded by extended or corporate families.

Extended families, as Brooks notes, provide resilience when facing hardship and help raise children together. But when factories opened in big US cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “young men and women left their extended families to chase the American dream.” The families they started were nuclear. By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two married parents and apart from their extended family.


From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the nuclear family seemed to thrive. According to Brooks, “when we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal.”

However, only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family today. Brooks claims that the “1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.”

Brooks cites these statistics: from 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has fallen by half. Just 13 percent of households were single-person families in 1960; in 2018, that figure was 28 percent.

In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married; in 2017, nearly half were single. More than four-fifths of American adults in a 2019 survey said that getting married was not essential to living a fulfilling life. In 2004, 33 percent of Americans ages eighteen to thirty-four were living without a romantic partner; by 2018, that number was up to 51 percent.

Families have gotten smaller as well: the general American birth rate is half of what it was in 1960. Today, there are more American homes with pets than with kids.

Brooks also notes that “African Americans have suffered disproportionately in the era of the detached nuclear family.” Nearly half of black families are led by an unmarried single woman, compared with less than one-sixth of white families. Two-thirds of African American children lived in single-parent families in 2018, compared with a quarter of white children.

Children are especially affected by the breakdown of the nuclear family. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women; now about 40 percent are. In 1960, 11 percent of children lived apart from their fathers; in 2010, 27 percent did. Only about half of American children will spend their childhood with both biological parents.

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Source: Christian Headlines