This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference.
I remember being taught about the “nuclear family” sometime in middle school, although I don’t remember the context at all. As near as I can tell (some Googling, a little memory, and this Quora article), the etymology of the word is the same as the “nuclear” in “nuclear fusion” or “nuclear reactor”:
‘nuclear family’ = father+mother+children
The adjective nuclear in this phrase is actually one and the same as the one used in ‘nuclear fission’ or ‘nuclear reactor’. It is derived from the latin word nucleus, a [diminutive] form of the original word, nux.
Nux literally means ‘a nut’, but was also figuratively used to signify ‘the core of something’.
nux = nut, core
nucleus = a small nut, a small core
nuclear = pertaining to a small core
I know that there are sociologists and anthropologists and historians who could go into a lot more detail than I’m about to, but there’s a central point that I think it’s important for Latter-day Saints to make: and this is that there is a problem with the “nuclear family”. It’s not the preferred family unit for Latter-day Saints. It’s only a part of it.
In this session, Elder Richard. J. Clarke spoke about that directly, advocating for a slightly different family arrangement he called “kindred family”:
In earliest biblical culture, the family was more than a parent and child unit. It included all who were related by blood and marriage. This kindred family, as I prefer to call it, was strongly linked by natural affection and the patriarchal priesthood. The elderly were venerated for their experience and wisdom. There were strength and safety in numbers, and, through love and support, members established solidarity and continuity.
Clarke’s “kindred family” corresponds to what we generally refer to as the “extended family“. In one sense, the kindred/extended family isn’t an alternative or competitor to the nuclear family, but rather a partner / addition to it. (It’s right in the name: an extended family is an extension of the nuclear family).
But there is a sense in which the two models are in competition. The nuclear family rose to prominence in the United States in the 1950s, which was a period of huge social mobility and economic opportunity (at least, for white Americans). Starting at that point and continuing to today, Americans are in the habit of migrating around for work, and they don’t do it in extended family units anymore (as they might have when heading for the frontier) but in nuclear families. Mom and dad get married, move to a new city for a job, and the kids come with them. Grandma, grandpa, and cousins are left behind or scattered to their own cities.
In this sense, the nuclear family is a competing model to the extended / kindred family. And in this sense, it makes sense to criticize the nuclear family as a kind of dirty compromise with consumerist society.
All societies compete for status, and all variants of this competition are sinful. (Elder Maxwell briefly touched on this in his own talk from this session.) In the West in general and the United States in particular, consumerism is the kind of status-seeking that we’re infected with. It revolves around not only amassing and acquiring physical goods (which, again, is a universal part of all human societies) but the particular ways in which we’ve ritualized consumption. This might all sound a little abstract, so just picture the hordes of people who might wait in line for days to get the newest iPhone and you might see what I’m getting at it. All societies want to collect more stuff, but consumerist societies have brands (as another example).
Well, the nuclear family is a lot more mobile than extended families, and that serves the interests of corporations who want to be able to move their workforce fairly rapidly in response to changing legal and economic considerations. The “single-family home”, the suburbs, all of it is good in the sense in which having a mother and father stay with their children is vital and the nuclear family really is the core of the extended / kindred family. But it’s bad in the sense that it separates nuclear families from each other so that cousins don’t grow up knowing and playing with each other and adult children are not more able to benefit from the guidance of their elders and in turn support infirm parents in the last years of their lives. That’s sort of the darkest side of all of this: since sons and daughters move far away from their parents, they have to outsource their care to specialized facilities.
So some critiques of the nuclear family are compatible with and even inspired by the Gospel. The nuclear family should not be allowed to become an enemy to kindred families. To tribes and clans.
But of course most criticisms of the nuclear family come from a different direction. Instead of embracing the blood bonds typified by parents and children and then extended to cousins and grandchildren and grandparents, they look for alternatives that invalidate kindred bonds entirely. It’s a staple of modern entertainment that family isn’t the blood relations you’re born with, but rather the eclectic bunch of people you really like and choose for yourself. And of course all extreme political ideologies view the family as a threat, since loyalty to kindred is a competitor for loyalty to the state.
Criticisms of the nuclear family that denigrate or replace parent-child bonds are destructive and wrong. Criticisms of the nuclear family that laud and augment parent-child bonds are constructive and, in at least some cases, correct.
As in so many things, it’s really a question of balance. There are nuclear families, extended families, nations and ethnicities (extended extended families) and, ultimately, one entire human family. In the Gospel, all of these levels of family work together, from the nuclear family to the human family. We should beware of alternatives that work to exaggerate particular levels of this hierarchy in ways that turn God’s children against each other. The consumerist advocacy of nuclear families against extended families is a subtle example of perverting the concept of family. The racist advocacy of extended extended families (ethnicities) against a universal human family is an obvious example.
I wrote this piece because I know Latter-day Saints have a reflexive defensiveness whenever anyone critiques the nuclear family, and I wanted to put that defensiveness (which is usually well-founded, since the most common attacks undermine rather than build up kin relationships) in context.
Although I’m not an expert, talks like this help guide me through some of the complexities of modern life. There are an awful lot of voices saying an awful lot of things, and it’s easy to become distracted or dismayed. We are at risk of letting go of true principles because we are tricked by an imitation good, and we’re also at risk of holding on too tightly to principles that aren’t quite right because we’re afraid of any change from what is familiar.
The only way through the tangled mess is to focus on the fundamentals–scripture study and prayer, in particular–and also to pay very, very close attention to the teachings of our leaders. Heavenly Father could lead us all individually, but His plan involves groups like families and churches because the journey back to Him is not one that we can complete alone. We have to do it together. As communities. As families. That’s one reason we have leaders, and–as long as we have them–we sure better pay attention to them.
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